After decades, beer gardens are back in vogue

Leinenkugel's in Power Plant Live leads the charge in Baltimore

  • Leinenkugel's Beer Garden is set for a soft opening Sept. 2 in Power Plant Live.
Leinenkugel's Beer Garden is set for a soft opening Sept.… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
August 28, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

A year ago, Hope Tarr found herself marveling at a new beer garden inBrooklyn.

Tarr, who co-created an iPhone app that tracks beer gardens in New York City, had grown up in Baltimore listening about these outdoor promised lands where German suds flowed freely and the oompa music never stopped.

Her dad used to talk about Blob's Park Bavarian Beer Garden in Jessup reverentially. "The promise was always, when you're old enough, I'll take you to Blob's," she said.

Now, in Brooklyn, she'd realized what the fuss was about. Here was a place that was outdoors, green, and cheap — a rare holy trinity in New York City.

In the last two years, it seems as though everyone else has caught up to her dad. Hugely popular before and during World War II, beer gardens are enjoying a renaissance in the Mid-Atlantic. In 2009, Pittsburgh got the Hofbrauhaus, a replica of a Bavarian beer hall, complete with beer garden. In Washington, the Biergarten Haus, which can accommodate as many as 600 people, opened last summer.

And Baltimore is getting its own new beer garden, Leinenkugel's, which has a soft opening Sept. 2, and a grand opening the following Friday in Power Plant Live.

A year ago, Tarr tracked 50 on the iPhone app she and a partner created, Beer Gardens NYC.

"This April, there were 54. And now there's 64," she said. "All of these have opened from Memorial Day weekend forward. It's truly an explosion."

Cordish Companies was paying attention to the trend, and they've bet that it will play out just as successfully in Baltimore. They've spent $1.6 million to build Leinenkugel's Beer Garden at Power Plant Live, the last piece of the complex's recent $10 million renovation.

Baltimore already has a couple of brew pubs and at least one "high-end beer hall," but when it opens, Leinenkugel's will be the city's first proper beer garden in generations, and a test of Baltimore's appetite for the new trend.

Beer gardens, which consist of family-style seating outdoors and usually serve German-style brews, have been in existence in the United States since the 1800s. They were especially popular in cities with heavy German immigrant populations like New York City and Baltimore.

The historic American Brewery on Gay Street had one as early as 1867, and the Mount Clare Mansion — Baltimore city's only surviving plantation — was also turned into a beer garden after the Civil War.

During and after World War II, the Deutsches Haus, formerly on the corner of Cathedral and Preston streets, was a popular hub for the city's burgeoning German residents and returning GIs.; crowds would gather there at lunch to listen to zither players and oompa music.

But beer gardens hadn't enjoyed that kind of popularity until this most recent boom. Tarr credits the economy with bringing them back in style.

"Beer gardens are very recession-friendly. You can have a good beer for anywhere between three dollars to seven or eight dollars," she said. "Particularly in New York, even a movie and a bite can get pricey. This is a good way to go out on the cheap and still have a good time."

Jake Leinenkugel, the CEO of Leinenkugel's, said consumers are getting pickier about how they spend their entertainment dollar.

"People are spending less money. They're looking for what I call 'better beer experiences,'" he said.

Another contributing factor to the concept's revival is the burgeoning interest in craft beer. People who might not be familiar or interested in German culture are flocking to the new beer gardens because their product comes from microbreweries and has a distinct taste.

"In general, people instead of buying expensive things are moving up on the quality of their beer," said Stephen Demczuk, president of Raven Beer.

In Maryland, there hasn't been a critical mass of German-inspired restaurants since at least 1972, when the Deutsches Haus closed officially. But Blob's Park in Jessup has stayed around, improbably, since 1933, and The Old Stein Inn had been open since 1983 until January, when a fire forced it to close temporarily. Last year, Alewife, which bills itself as a high-end beer hall, opened on the west side. Its owner, Daniel Lanigan, already has two others in Boston.

Demczuk himself is betting on the trend. Later in September, he'll start renovation of the old Haussner's at Eastern Avenue and Clinton Streets, where he'll move production of Raven beer and where he'll build a German-style restaurant and beer garden to be called The Raven Brewery and Pub. He's eyeing an opening date in 2013.

Leinenkugel said he got a visit from Jake Miller, Cordish's business partner, a year ago with a proposition: Cordish's Power Plant Live in Baltimore was expanding and they wanted to incorporate a beer garden to the mix.

"They wanted a connection with an obscure yet known brewery that had a fan base and had an interesting style of beer," Leinenkugel said.

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