Growing up in St. Louis, the only Saturday activity I loved more than a Cardinals game was a trip to Anheuser-Busch. Visiting the mammoth brewery was about so much more than beer. It was about climbing the stairs to overlook the football field-sized bottling line, inspecting raw grains and hops, staring at decorative busts and oil portraits of the mustachioed brewers of yore, and catching a glimpse of the Clydesdales, with their strange, hairy feet and girlish eyelashes.
At the end, while the parents gulped their complimentary Buds, us kids got to run around the tasting room, gorging ourselves on warm housemade beer bread (my favorite) and as much soda as our little souvenir glasses could hold. It was paradise, and there was no place else like it.
That was the early ‘90s. Fast-forward to today and the explosion of craft brewing has brought small and urban breweries, with their sprawling taprooms and food truck-lined parking lots, to every corner of the country. These new iterations don’t even need on-site stables to attract a steady stream of parents, happily sipping IPAs while the kiddos suck down juice boxes, tossing branded bean bags or scrawling on chalkboard-covered walls.
The 21st-century brewery has come to occupy a sort of liminal space: a bar, but not quite a bar. A communal game room, maybe, with suds on tap. And from Portland to New York City, families of all shapes and sizes are lapping it up.
But why? Kids don’t drink beer, at least not legally, so what motivates alcohol producers to cater to the baby-toting demographic? Is there something inherent to beer culture, or even beer itself, that lends itself to an all-ages atmosphere?
“Beer is a more — I don’t want to say temperate, because a 9 percent double IPA ain’t temperate — but it’s not a rocket ship to drunkenness,” Joshua M. Bernstein, a Brooklyn-based journalist and dad, says. Bernstein has penned three books devoted to beer, including “Complete IPA” and “Complete Beer Course.” “There’s no two-for-one shot deals,” he says. “You’re just hanging out and enjoying relationships with other people, which really harkens back to what beer drinking used to be all about. I see the modern American taproom as more equivalent to the German biergartens that existed a century ago.”
Pre-Prohibition biergartens provided urban dwellers, especially those of European descent, respite from the daily toils of crowded tenement life. It was a chance to get out of the apartment, stretch your legs, and share a pint. The beer flowed freely, sure, but it wasn’t all about drinking. It was about catching up with Gertrude down the hall, trading German-language newspapers and word from back home. It was a space for laughing and snacking and giving kids room to run around and, in a world where poverty and surging industrialization often cut childhood short, simply be kids.
A biergarten was family-friendly decades before women were even legally allowed to set foot in traditional bars, let alone children. Beer’s relatively low alcohol content had a lot to do with that.
“Beer is something you can drink a couple of and not be in a state of inebriation,” Eric Steen, marketing manager of Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Oregon, says. “It could loosen you up a little bit, but you’re still able to have a great conversation with your friends or your family. The pub has been perfected over centuries as a gathering place for people, and kids have always been an important part of that. It’s built into our DNA.”
Hopworks is arguably one of the country’s kid-friendliest brewpubs. When I called Steen for this interview, he told me he was taking the call upstairs in one of the pub’s three dedicated play areas to get some inspiration.
“Twenty feet above the brewery is this large kids’ play area,” he says, describing the company’s main brewery and restaurant. (Hopworks also operates a nearby beer bar and another property in Vancouver.) “We make 13,500 barrels of beer a year, directly under my feet. There are about 20 seats and the walls are covered in chalkboards for kids to draw on, there’s all these magnets where they can spell out things or play with shapes, there’s books, there’s a kitchen for them … Just all sorts of little toys and stuff to throw around.”
Hopworks owners Christian and Brandy Ettinger are the brains behind the operation. Like almost all the others I spoke with, their reasons for kid-ification were obvious: They had kids, their friends had kids, and they didn’t want to create a workplace that they themselves couldn’t share and enjoy.
“One of the biggest motivators for us was fostering community, and you can’t do that unless you’re creating a space for people of all ages to have a good time,” says Blake Tomnitz, co-founder, Five Boroughs Brewing Co. The sun-drenched, Brooklyn-based microbrewery has an open plan, plethora of games, and designated stroller parking; naturally, it’s big with the post-soccer-practice crowd. “Plus, there are members of our team who have children of their own, which made it even more important for us to consider our space as a place to bring the whole family,” Tomnitz says.
“Shawn and I have three children, and we visit breweries with friends and their kids,” echoes Lindsay Johnson, co-owner and operations manager for Greenville, South Carolina’s up-and-coming Birds Fly South Ale Project. “We knew we wanted to offer a truly family-friendly space because of our own experiences and how much we’ve enjoyed our time at other kid-friendly breweries. We want the kids to have fun so their parents can relax as well.”
According to Bernstein, this mom-and-pop mentality is part and parcel of the industry, a marker of the craft beer boom’s inevitable evolution. “The beer world is so homegrown,” he says. “You start off as a 22-year-old homebrewer and then you end up being a 35-year-old and maybe you’re husband and wife and you decide to have a kid. It’s a natural that your business evolves with your family.”
Aside from lawn games and sidewalk chalk, one thing that sets these taprooms apart from other drinking dens is space. Because breweries are essentially factories, they’re generally airier and less cramped than other types of bars.
When I visited Birds Fly South, for example, kids were doing cartwheels on the lush green lawn encircling the brewery. Their parents watched through the gaping garage doors and downed tart, fruit-spiked saisons. Dogs were also a fixture, running alongside the kids or camped out beneath barstools. Nothing seemed off limits or particularly fragile. There was plenty of room to let loose and, for whatever reason, a real, pervasive lack of stuffiness.
“Taprooms tend to be a little more sparsely decorated too, so there are less things for your child to break,” Bernstein says. “That’s not saying you let your kid run Indy 500 laps around the space, but you know, tables aren’t jammed next to each other, you’re not worried so much about breaking this or that or a $500 whatever. You know that it’s going to be O.K. for your kid to act like a kid and not have to walk around on pins and needles. No one expects my daughter to just sit and stare at Daddy while he gets neck-deep in an imperial stout.”
“I’m trying to imagine a winery where they’ve got food carts and a playground for kids,” Steen says, drawing a distinction between brewery taprooms and their boozy counterparts. “I’ve never even heard of that. Beer is casual. We eat pizza and burgers.”
It’s also a timing thing. Brewers’ hours aren’t barkeeps’ hours. Even taprooms that don’t specifically target families might find themselves littered with the stay-at-home set simply due to the fact that they’re open during daylight hours, when most bars aren’t.
“No pun intended, but I think all these taprooms tapped into an unexpected revenue stream by opening their doors early,” Berstein says, fully intending the pun. “You know, my kid wakes up at 6 a.m. By the time noon hits, I’m ready for a drink some days. You go to taprooms early in the day and they’re filled with parents. These taprooms earn a significant part of their income before the 5 o’clock hour.”
“Going to a brewery can be an all-day activity where you can have a meal, play some games, take in a tour, and spend an afternoon out of the house,” Tomnitz says. “There tends to be a bit more for everyone at a taproom.”
But what about backlash? Surely there must be drinkers out there who aren’t exactly stoked to bend an elbow next to a fourth-grader. How can kid-approved spots keep all their clientele happy?
Hopworks addressed this issue head on by building an entirely separate, 200-seat bar reserved exclusively for grownups.
“When Hopworks first opened there was a lot of conversation on the beer blogs around, ‘Is this cool or not?’ It was a definitely a huge split,” Steen remembers. “One of the critiques was, ‘Oh man, there are little kids running around in between your legs while you’re trying to drink beer.’ And that’s true if you sit in one section. But then there’s the adults-only bar. Families maybe come through the wrong door sometimes but the kids don’t go running around and biting people. Depending on what you want and who you’re here with, you could choose either side.”
As a patron, Bernstein tries to be mindful of not interfering with his fellow drinkers’ experiences, especially as happy hour encroaches and the demographic inside starts to shift. “I bring toys, coloring paper, anything to occupy her,” he says of his young daughter. “And we’re always out by 5 or 6 o’clock. I mean, my kid should be in bed by 7 or 8 at night. There’s no reason she should be out at a bar or taproom then.”
Thanks to a mix of factors, including size, product potency, operating hours, staff ethos, and conscientious parents, modern breweries are very much reviving the German-style biergartens that once dominated much of America’s urban drinking cultures. (And, as it were, my childhood Saturdays.)
But fear not, childless or child-averse beer geeks — this is not to say your local brewpub is destined to become a veritable Chuck E. Cheese any time soon. No amount of storybooks and stuffed animals could ever outshine the true belle of the ball: the beer.
“Here’s the thing — this place is not built for kids,” Steen says. “It’s built for families who want to eat and drink. We don’t have flashing lights and video games and tokens and a bunny that jumps around and says ‘Hi!’ or anything like that. When it comes down to it, we’re interested in selling beer.”
Cheers to that.