On Bars and Beer Gardens

Unfiltered by | Apr 2012 | Issue #63

Illustration by Chi -Yun Lau

A folding chair and a patch of dirt is all I need to be happy. Oh, and a can of beer, of course. As shiny new gastropubs and deluxe beer bars open from coast to coast, a few choice spots are celebrating a return to simpler times, when drinking didn’t need to be surrounded by trappings more befitting the QE2.

And so it was that I found myself sitting under a shady oak tree, in a dirt- and gravel-mixed yard, seeking refuge from the merciless Texas heat. Of all the great drinking moments I had in 2011, chilling at the aptly named Friendly Spot outside of downtown San Antonio was unparalleled. The open-air-style bar uses a converted ice house as its base, a throwback to an earlier era when such rudimentary refrigeration operations kept beer cold for customers to take away. Sitting in what one beer advocate called “a park with a bar” while enjoying a Ranger Creek Smoked Mesquite Porter is about as good as it gets. In this glorified backyard, with its laid-back, no frills charm, all of the pretense that perverts modern beer drinking falls away, revealing only the comfortable, essential, core experience.

While ice house bars are a particularly Texan invention, other cities around the country have their own dialed-back character. In my hometown of Chicago, neighborhood bars have long influenced the city’s unique personality. A place still replete with bars (as opposed to restaurant-pubs that must serve food), where you can stop by for a drink by yourself and not catch side-glances of disapproving judgment, is increasingly difficult to find. But even this history is now under attack, with local politicians and interloping yuppies less inclined to have a hundred-year-old public house mucking up the property values of their just-built condos. The loss of the engaging spirit of the neighborhood pub will leave Chicago a new achromatic, dispirited shade of itself.

Community drinking experiences don’t always have to start with long-standing, brick-and-mortar operations. As with many ideas that shift from West to East in the United States, San Francisco is engaging in a remarkably simple yet creative civic experiment: making use of vacant spaces that are awaiting funds or permits for further development. Until a permanent structure can be built,  the city’s Proxy project allows creative grassroots entrepreneurs to create temporary and pop-up communal gathering places, ranging from coffee stands to full-scale beer gardens.

Similar in concept to the wildly popular food truck movement, these low-cost operations allow proprietors to quickly open their spots without many of the start-up hassles that plague more established outfits. The concept is brilliant for its revitalization of unused parcels, such as vacant tracts and under-used parking lots, and for its ability to build a communal vitality otherwise absent from urban voids. In a time where temporary is the new permanent, as The Atlantic recently put it, such creative bureaucratic thinking also encourages hard-working entrepreneurs to engage the public in a host of new creative ways.

Moving beyond entrenched pubs and novel approaches to vacant lots, governments can help create more interesting communal spaces through a relaxation of alcohol licensing. Born of puritanical restraint following Prohibition, America’s liquor laws have long appeared peculiarly prudish to international audiences. Belying the continuing governmental hesitance to allow a relaxation of tight-fisted blue laws, some municipalities, from Asheville, N.C., to Austin, to Denver, have demonstrated that softening restrictions on beer and wine licenses has led to the responsible enjoyment and respect of alcohol in new spaces.

Drinking becomes less than it should be when divorced from community and public culture; when alcohol becomes socially acceptable to consume only when chaperoned by food, and going out becomes a near-entirely utilitarian experience, one that is goal driven, namely to eat, drink and then leave. There’s nothing wrong with sitting on a plastic chair in a shady yard, enjoying a beer, surrounded by other cheerful citizens. 

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