By Will Callan: Writer, runner, and cold water swimmer, living in Oakland, California.
As we pass through midsummer, it’s worth taking note of a relatively new seasonal phenomenon: The rising popularity of community beer gardens. The trend is not restricted to America’s heartland, where this country’s brewing behemoths got their start; nor to the coasts, where craft beer’s popularity has led to some headline-worthy brewery acquisitions. No, these drinking spots, like wild yeast descending on a brewer’s coolship, are appearing everywhere.
Allagash microbiologist Zach Bodah (left) and Jason Perkins, head brewer (right), assess the aroma of a beer. Photographer: Andrea Shea
A good portion of the action in beer gardens has occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Anchor Brewing, founded in 1849, serves as the grand-daddy of the craft beer family. Still innovating, Anchor opened its beer garden in 2015. Across the bay, Berkeley’s Fieldwork Brewing opened one garden this summer, with one more on tap for August; and Oakland has added a dozen beer gardens since 2010, half of which opened in the last 18 months. An hour north, Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing Company—which many aficionados consider the Rolls Royce of craft breweries—has plans for a production facility and adjoining beer garden that should be complete next year. Way up north, in Portland, Oregon, Widmer Brothers, one of the craft beer giants, is staging a summer pop-up to highlight the small-batch, experimental portion of its operation.
In Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, city officials are deciding which public space would best accommodate seasonal beer gardens––the county parks, or the community center’s backyard? Pentridge Station, a pop-up beer garden in West Philadelphia, has become, unlike its competition, one of the most diverse gathering places in the city, drawing locals, young professionals, as well as families.
Pentridge Station, Philadelphia. Opening Day. Photographer: Ashenafe Tessema.
And that’s just a sampling. Given our focus this summer on food and drink, we decided to see what’s behind these new turns on the libation arts. And what different forms are they taking?
There seem to be a couple of explanations. First is craft beer’s popularity in general––a recent Nielsen survey found that craft beer is growing faster than any other market segment, and that more than half the population of 21-34 year olds prefer “local” when choosing their craft beer. This growing passion for homegrown beer is partly why, in 2016, we profiled Method Brewing, the experimental San Francisco outfit that aims to wrest control of beer innovation from the industry’s titans. With Method Brewing’s first pub set to open this summer, we re-published our profile, entitled “How Far Can Beer Science Go?”, in our Summer issue. Give it a read if you haven’t already (warning: it’s got a kick to it).
Method Brewing: Ryan, in his kitchen, uses a lab tool called a pipette boy to experiment with a jalapeño tincture. Photographer: Grace Rubenstein.
The second reason for the beer garden trend is simple business math. Brewery owners are finding that scattering some gravel and setting up picnic tables is way less capital-intensive than building and maintaining an indoor dining area. And by welcoming food trucks into their space, like Widmer does, or offering snacks sourced from nearby restaurants—an arrangement created by Roses’ Taproom in Oakland—proprietors can avoid operating a full kitchen.
Apparently, the simple act of collaboration yields benefits beyond the obvious. For starters, it gives community members a chance to showcase their unique crafts, whether it’s handmade beer mugs or a sausage that pairs nicely with that citrusy Kolsch. This points to what’s most exciting about these summer gardens: Through a shared space—a modern-day commons, if you will—the breweries foster a community, highlighting whatever makes that community special.
In North American beer gardens, says Franz Hofer, the outreach specialist at the Museen der Stadt Wien in Vienna who also runs a beer blog, “you’ll likely see an equal emphasis on beer, community, and space.” Hofer also suspects that the compatibility of warm weather and summer beer styles, like Gose, might also be stoking the gardens’ popularity.
While beer-garden organizers obviously take their beer seriously, it does seem like the gathering place is their primary focus. Alcohol is merely the lubrication. In that sense, maybe these beer gardens are a new twist on an old truth: unless you share it with others, you can’t fully appreciate a glass of good beer.