Baseball season is upon us, which means it’s time to check in with the largest draft beer account in the District of Columbia, the Washington Nationals. Nats Park buys more beer than anyone else in the city, which is good business for area breweries. Much like fans are concerned with what’s happening on the field, breweries are taking some issues with how the Nats District Drafts program and local breweries are being rolled out this year. There will be “a change in the overall program,” notes Valerie Todryk Krebs, the Washington Nationals Executive Director of Communications. This change will bring more cans and less kegs to the stadium, including the first of four dedicated Craft Corners on the 100 level in what was the pick up area for Ben’s Chili Bowl mobile orders, near Section 110.
There will be an additional three “Craft Beer Corner Grab-and-go Marketplaces” throughout the stadium, two more on the 100 level and another on the 200 level, and they arrive at the expense of some District Drafts stands. “We pulled out a few District Drafts locations, I think three or four,” says National Vice President, Experience and Hospitality, Jonathan Stahl. “I prefer draft, but we do what the fans want, and nobody is being taken away; all the local beers are still here.”
Craft Corner and the overall pivot to cans reflect data and consumer preference for cans over draft, says Krebs, who notes the flexibility the stadium concessions team will now have. Nats Park will have the ability to rotate beers and brands in Craft Corner, including seasonal releases like Red Bear’s cherry blossom ale Peak Bloom. The consumer benefits are apparent, too. Buying cans is quicker, translating into less time spent waiting in lines, and cans stay cold. Based on the team’s internal data, it’s what fans want. For the Nats part, the team can move both more people and more beer through a quick service canned beer area, with fewer draft lines to clean. Coming off a season in which some District Drafts carts were closed during games, this will provide some stability for local beer. Look for local cans at other concession stands as well.
Breweries, however, make more money off of keg sales than they do off cans, which means that area small businesses, already reeling from the pandemic, will take a hit. It’s easier for breweries to package beer in kegs, and the profit margins are higher than cans. “Draft beer is easier and there’s less quality control concerns with keg beer versus canned or bottled beers,” Atlas co-founder and CEO Justin Cox told the Washington City Paper earlier in the year.
The Nats are scaling back the District Drafts program by only carrying the top selling brands from last year consistently throughout the stadium, says one brewery representative, adding that this is a “significant pullback from supporting District craft beer.” The not-so-hypothetical scenario from last year: a brewery had three draft lines throughout the stadium, but one or two of the District Drafts carts carrying their beer were understaffed. Or had a point-of-service problem. Or were closed. Or changed locations. You can see how in theory this brewery had plenty of points of sales, but in practice there may only have been one, reducing the number of draft lines for the upcoming season due to lost sales last season.
In addition, District Drafts carts were supposed to be open during non-baseball events such as concerts, but often weren’t. Those lost sales of draft beer factored into the brewery’s position to sell draft beer–higher profit margins and all–at the reduced number of District Drafts stands this year. “Nats Stadium was ordering a lot of beer from us in the years prior to the pandemic, so that loss is also hard for us financially on top of already difficult times,” notes another area brewery representative.
“Some breweries’ offerings are going from draft to can, but none are being removed completely,” offers Krebs, who happens to be a fan of Port City’s Optimal Wit in her unofficial capacity as a beer aficionado. The breweries are aware of this change. City-State’s James Warner told us that his brewery is considering adding 19.2 oz stovepipe cans to be sold at the stadium, though they might not be ready for opening day. City-State is one of the breweries losing some draft lines at the stadium, though Warner notes his brewery is “grateful for any presence” there and is “happy and proud to support the Nats.” Other breweries are also pivoting to cans. Nats Park will see the first tallboys of Atlas’ Bullpen Pilsner and Denizens’ Born Bohemian Pilsner.
Less happy is Hellbender, which was a part of the draft landscape at Nats Park until last season. “We were on draft at District Drafts for 4 years in a row including the first year of the pandemic, but we were pulled from the lineup in the 2021-2022 season,” writes co-founder and CEO Ben Evans. “This was a surprise to me as I had understood that our distributor was maintaining that account, especially with everything that was going on during the pandemic with small businesses. I knew we had to reach out initially to the group in charge of the District Drafts, but I did not know that we had to sell ourselves to them for each season in order to maintain the line. I tried to get us back on draft this past year, but I was told that they had drastically reduced the number of craft beer carts and that there was no way that we could get a draft line. There was no explanation for the reduction, and there was no talk or promises of our beer returning to the stadium either. We’re all big Nats fans here at the brewery, so that was very disheartening news to us.” We reached out to the Nats about Hellbender’s position and have yet to hear back.
In 2016, Nationals then-Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer Valerie Camillo said AB InBev sponsorship wouldn’t have an impact “on our ability to serve craft beer or local beers.” Seven years later, this seems like a promise kept, particularly from a consumer standpoint. The loss of some draft sales will hurt area breweries, but if the team can put an exciting product on the field and outperform expectations both in the standings and in terms of beer buying attendance, then all three parties–the front office, fans, and breweries–will have something extra to cheer for.