In Defense of Public Drinking

Unfiltered by | May 2019 | Issue #134
Illustration by Chi Yun Lau

There’s something about a beer garden. The communality and conviviality, the open air, the slowing of time to allow for a beer or two surrounded by good friends and laughs. A familiar sight in many countries around the world, from Europe to Asia, beer gardens have been slow to catch on in the United States. Despite our avowed love for their constituent parts—many Americans make a beeline for the Hofbräuhaus upon landing in Munich—there’s something encoded in our antiquated, Victorian DNA that disdains public acts of drinking.

Consuming a beer in public is usually illegal here, often resulting in a fine or even arrest. The few places in the US that have adopted public drinking are obvious outliers—think Bourbon Street or Las Vegas—anomalies that often serve to undermine the case that adults can be trusted to have a beer or two in public without acting the fool.

This has led us to hide our public drinking, whether in the obvious red Solo cup, a koozie barely covering the label, or the pour it into another container trick. Forced into surreptitious circumstances, we have long equated the consumption of alcohol in public with the very different state of being publicly intoxicated. Drinking a beer in public? You must be drunk or trying to get drunk. And you must be stopped.

Instead of embracing the beauty of public and outdoor drinking, Americans have largely relegated alcohol consumption to bars, implicitly marking them as dark dens of adult iniquity. And more recently, there has been a strong trend toward legally requiring imbibers to consume a meal if they want to enjoy a beer, further alienating the concept of drinking for its own sake.

We’re finally starting to see some pushback from these unfortunate environs for public drinking, largely led by the efforts of small breweries. As demonstrated by the advent of the taproom trend, people want new opportunities and locations in which to enjoy drinks with friends. In the case of taprooms, the drive was to connect with the place where beer is made. Similarly, beer gardens satisfy a long suppressed hunger for open-air forums of public fun. No longer hidden in back rooms away from the public eye, communal tables filled with cheery, friendly drinkers clinking glasses are changing the American perspective on public consumption.

Small breweries are leading this charge, more out of necessity than anything else. With nearly 7,000 breweries operating around the country, competition for shelf space and tap handles is beyond fierce, it’s near pointless. Any gains a brewery achieves one week will likely be lost the following to another upstart brewery. In light of such challenging circumstances—and recognizing the difficulties of benefiting from the three-tier system—small breweries decided not to play that game. Instead, they opened their own spaces, taprooms, which became wildly popular with consumers. Now these same brewers, unrestricted by the conventional wisdom of old, are breaking barriers and convincing their localities that people want to drink beer in public squares, parks, and even under-used parking lots.

As with the food truck movement, only tradition restricts our future enjoyment of beer in public spaces. We’re quickly learning that treating adults like adults can work and that Americans can responsibly drink alcohol in public spaces. Whether in the form of pop-up beer gardens or more permanent spaces, let’s hope that craft breweries continue to teach Americans that beer needn’t be banished to dark spaces but has a place in the public eye.