Big Apple Beer Gardens Making a Comeback

Let us consider the beer garden. For many of us, the lasting imagine of this outdoor suds-flowing extravaganza is one of older gentlemen showing great prowess in swinging one-liter steins of beer while lederhosen-clad musicians hammer out polka tunes on accordions. Sausages are consumed. Women in dirndls patrol the aisles, six or eight mugs of beer clasped between their fingers, plopping them in front of anyone who’s swinging an empty.

This was far from the scene at the beer garden where I was imbibing late last week. There wasn’t an accordion or gray head in sight. Instead, MGMT blared from the speakers and young men (and women) in ironic t-shirts and baseball caps (one guy wearing an ’80s-era Milwaukie Brewers cap, fittingly enough), were laughing and toasting and slamming their empty pint glasses down. Here is where one might be tempted to insert a cliché phrase about this not being your vater‘s biergarten; I’ll resist. I was actually in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hipster mecca, and home of a a few new beer gardens.

Which is rather significant when put in the context of the history of New York’s outdoor drinking spots (a history surely everyone knows, right? Right). For decades, New York City had only one beer garden. Bohemian Hall (known to most New Yorkers as “the beer garden in Astoria”) is of Czech provenance, and opened in 1911, a time when beer culture was at an acme in the United States (more on that later). In the last few years, however, there has been an overflow of beer gardens opening in New York, a welcome sign for a city that has long lacked adequate outdoor drinking venues. Big Apple beer gardens are making a comeback.

But why was this suddenly happening? How is it that in the last few years several beer gardens have been blooming in New York? Here’s the exhaustive list: the Cologne-accented Loreley, Radegast, Goods, and Berry Park all in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the Eataly-owned rooftop La Birreria, The Lot, the Standard Biergarten (the latter two bookend the new High Line Park), BeerParc (in the Eventi Hotel) and Bier International, all in Manhattan; plus there’s Studio Square in Long Island City, Queens and Mission Dolores in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

“The first reason,” says Michael Momm, who owns the Loreley beer garden on the Lower East Side and its new sibling of the same name in Williamsburg, “is the craft beer movement. When I came here 25 years ago, you could only get beers like Becks and Heineken in a bottle. There’s so much more availability and awareness and interest in beer now.”

At one time there were hundreds of beer gardens just in Queens. Brooklyn boasted almost fifty breweries. In 1873, there were 4,000 breweries in the United States. But anti-German sentiment during and after World War I and Prohibition pretty much killed off beer culture in America. As Burkhard Bilger wrote in a fascinating profile in the New Yorker of Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head brewery owner, “Beer went from barrel to bottle and from saloon to home refrigerator, and only the largest companies could afford to manufacture and distribute it.” In 1965, Bilger notes, America had one craft brewery — Anchor Steam, in San Francisco; today there are over 1500. Craft beer, experts predict, will accounts for 20 percent of the beer market in the next decade.

Raj Moorjani and Hope Tarr noticed the sudden handful of beer gardens popping up (or, rather, that there were suddenly cool outdoor places to drink they’d never heard of, like Goods in Williamsburg) and checked to see if there was an app for that. There wasn’t and BeerGardensNYC was born, a New York City beer garden locator, which launched in September 2010. They agree the craft beer movement has a lot to do with the spread of beer gardens, but also say the recent recession has played a large role. “A group of people can go hangout at a beer garden and have a good time for cheap,” says Moorjani.

Tarr, a romance novelist and travel writer, adds: “A few years ago there was a lot of attention on classic cocktails. But now you have the same attention being drawn to something else. And that is beer and beer gardens. You don’t have to go to Germany to drink a good Radesberger Pilsner anymore.”

And cheers to that. Momm takes it a step further saying it’s “capitalism in action.”

“People see what works. We’ve had people come into Loreley asking about who our food purveyors are and where we buy our furniture. This is just what happens in the restaurant business.”

What will be next? Will beer gardens continue to blossom all over New York and beyond? Momm is about ready to open a Loreley in Los Angeles.

But here’s what I think: sandwiched beween Berry Park and Lorely is the brand new Spritzenhaus, a massive Bavarian-style beer hall. I’d be willing to bet a beer or two someone has come into Spritzenhaus already asking where they got their furniture.