Garage Drinking

Unfiltered by | Jul 2011 | Issue #54

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

I like drinking beer in garages. I’m not talking about sitting next to lawnmowers, beat-up Ford Escorts, and discarded tools in your buddy’s man-cave. I prefer brewery-garage outfits where the drinking environment is about as deconstructed and scaled down as you can imagine. In most cities around the United States, breweries exist in functional, if interchangeable, industrial buildings, often characterless warehouse spaces with ample drainage and vertical height. But in a handful of edgier locales, brewers turn old mechanic shops and garage storefronts into funky drinking experiences.

Now, brewing in garages is nothing new. Thousands of homebrewers do it every day and many commercial brewers turn to garages when other spaces prove too expensive. With the rigors and restrictions of modern zoning ordinances and the scornful, watching eyes of alcohol licensing bodies, few of these brewers can convert their ordinary repair shops into welcoming beer meccas. The key, my friends, is the brewery taproom.

For those beer geeks living in repressed towns and states, prepare yourselves for a shock: There are places in this country where you can visit a brewery, sit down, and have a pint or two instead of just a 2-ounce thimble sample. On a recent trip to Asheville, N.C., I visited brewery after brewery, each housed in converted garage spaces. I bought pints, sat in lawn chairs and picnic tables, and even heard live music, with guitarists and drummers banging away among pallets of grain and kegs.

As someone who has never lived in such a free society, I’m supremely jealous of these fortunate beer lovers. For them, a visit to the local brewery isn’t limited to a rote tour of ubiquitous industrial vats, followed by the requisite short pour of a beer or two. Instead, the brewery becomes a community meeting spot, fully integrating into neighborhoods and inviting consumers to become regulars.

The importance of being able to invite consumers into these breweries cannot be overstated. Otherwise kept at arms length, brewery patrons become more than consumers as they sip pints a few feet from bubbling fermenters and brewers working the kettle. A connection is built, and a sense of belonging and place develops, tying the brewery and consumer together.

To be sure, these garage breweries aren’t brewpubs in any traditional sense. You won’t find any food, beyond peanuts or popcorn, and the beer is usually sold off-site as well. And you’re always aware that the brewery hovers around you, not hidden away behind glass partitions. It’s like you’re part of a club whose membership privileges include sneaking into the brewhouse after hours.

Beyond the unique character garage breweries offer to visitors, brewery owners also derive several benefits from such operations. Beyond the obvious advantage of providing a much-valued source of income for folks operating within tight margins, garage breweries offer brewers and owners a level of direct contact with consumers that eludes more traditional industrial operations.

Sadly, most states preclude breweries from operating taprooms at all, let alone the ones where the line between brewery and taproom virtually disappears. Visit at the right time and you may be asked to help move a tank hose or add some late-boil hops to the kettle.

Returning to Asheville, it’s easy to see why the garage brewery model satisfies both beer lovers and brewers. Whether strolling through French Broad’s old-school fermenters with an inexpensive pint of Rye Hopper in your hand or leaning against the brew kettle at Craggie, sipping an Antebellum Ale and listening to a jazz combo band, the charm and vibe are infectious. You want more of it. You demand more of it. And then you remember that your town doesn’t have anything like it. And that’s why you travel.