Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Summer of Beer Gardens

Growing up in Wisconsin, I was no stranger to beer gardens, even as a child. Every summer, at the Wisconsin State Fair, my family spent some time hunkered down in the Schlitz Beer Garden, one of the more popular permanent attractions at the fair. The beer was Schlitz, of course. The food was local bratwurst.

I did not know at the time that was basically a kitsch beer garden, a mock-up of the real al fresco brew taverns that dotted the Milwaukee landscape in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when it was a brewing capital, and the home of tens of thousands of Germans. Still, I liked the open, convivial atmosphere, and the sense of tradition.

Here in New York there had also been a great German population once. But their main outposts, the Lower East Side and Yorkville, are today shadows of what they were, betraying little of their German past. Certainly, there were no beer gardens left when I arrived in the city two decades ago. If you wanted that, you had to journey out to Astoria and enjoy the Czech survivor Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden.

That has changed dramatically. Today, you can choose from nearly a dozen new beer gardens. And more are on the way. You'll find them in the Meatpacking District, Lower East Side, Long Island City, Fort Greene and, mostly, Williamsburg. I credit the economy with their rise. Beer gardens are cheap and democratic. When times are tough, people need to know that they can get in and out of a bar for $10 if needs be, and they also don't wish to have their pride bruised by punishing entrance policies. Even in New York, no one's turned away from a beer garden.

Here's the beer garden round-up I wrote for the New York Times:

Beer Gardens Bloom Around the City
By Robert Simonson
 THERE is no drinking forum more compatible with summer than the beer garden. Until recently, New Yorkers wanting to raise a stein in dappled sunshine had one choice: Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens, which turns 100 this year.
But in the last year or so, beer gardens have sprouted across the city. This wave coincided roughly with the outbreak of modern speakeasies. Both of them appeal to a populace seeking authentic, backward-glancing drinking traditions. Otherwise the two trends couldn’t be more different. Speakeasies, small, dark coves hidden behind nameless doors, tell of exclusivity, while beer gardens are proudly populist bastions of communal seating. And with wallets being battered daily, ease of entry and easily met tabs give beer gardens the edge among the thirsty.
The most unlikely of the city’s new open-air taverns is theBiergarten at the Standard Hotel, 848 Washington Street. This must surely be the most democratic scene in the socially ruthless meatpacking district, a come-one-come-all antidote to this chi-chi hotel’s hard-to-penetrate penthouse aerie that’s called the Boom Boom Room.
A chunk of the High Line acts as a ceiling, and the atmosphere is cacophonous but friendly, with elements of the frat house, thanks to two purple table-tennis tables (people use them even when they’re littered with majestically tall beer glasses), as well as the fairground, owing to a ticket booth at the entrance where you buy $8 stubs, one for each draft beer or food item. And there’s this touch: the waitresses wear T-shirts silk-screened to look like St. Pauli Girl-style dirndls.
The Standard has the most paltry draft beer selection of the new gardens: only three. But among them are the sunny, fruity wheat beer Licher Weisse and the excellent, surprisingly light dark beer Köstritzer Schwarzbier.
The food menu is equally minimal, the standout attraction being the steering-wheel-size soft pretzels, sold by roaming pretzel girls. The doughy, salty knots come with two kinds of mustard and can easily satisfy four people, but would make better eating if they arrived warm. Otherwise, there’s a savory selection of Schaller & Weber wursts. Like the pretzels, they’re a bargain: one ticket buys you two links, sauerkraut and a crusty roll.
The Standard hardly has a monopoly on Schaller & Weber goods. The beer-garden boom has raised the visibility of this venerable Yorkville butcher. Its sausages are also found at Der Schwarze Kölner, Studio Square, the original Lower East Side location of Loreley, as well as its newly opened Brooklyn branch. The new Loreley is snugly tucked within undulating red brick walls on a bleak corner. The menu goes much further than sausages into traditional German territory, including a delicious plate of grilled Nürnberg-style mini-sausages ($10); a refreshing if unremarkable creamed herring plate ($7); and the Nachtschwärmerteller ($9), a sort of German antipasti featuring two landjäger sausages, rye bread, cheese, pickles, tomatoes and boiled egg. There are a dozen beers on draft and half as many in bottles ($3 to $9). Among the drafts are Loreley’s easy-drinking best seller, Gaffel Kölsch, a lightly perfumed, top-fermented beer from Cologne; and Hofbräu Summer, a refreshingly lemony and slightly chewy unfiltered lager. Drink a couple of these at the long blond-wood tables, gravel crunching under your feet, and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway rumbling overhead recedes into soothing background noise. Loreley arguably captures the 21st-century urban beer-garden idea best, finding the right gritty-city interpretation of the traditional format.
Der Schwarze Kölner is hampered by a stark interior, a handful of sidewalk tables indistinguishable from cafe seating. But it makes up for it with good prices (beers start at $4, and all food is under $10), an impressive 18 German beers on tap (including the delicious, slightly sweet and strongly alcoholic dopplebock Spaten Optimator) and another 40 in bottle (try the full, malty Reutberger Export Hell lager). The workers, many of whom are German-born, are knowledgeable. The owner, Randi Lockemann, is a native of Germany; his partner, Dale Hall, lived there for 17 years. This is one beer garden where you’ll find Germans in the crowd, too.
Studio Square is the largest of the new bars, and gets garden points for having trees. But it is really a big sports bar in beer-garden clothing, dominated by a huge TV. Bratwurst shares menu space with buffalo wings and sushi, and the few German beers, served in anonymous mugs, are outnumbered by Sam Adams and Blue Moon expressions, not to mention mojitos and sangria on tap. Authentic? No. But this is surely the only beer garden in town that plans tailgating parties for this fall.
The most unusual of the beer gardens is the Vietnamese-themed Bia Garden. Bia (it means beer in Vietnamese) was opened by Michael Huynh a year ago. Its beers ($4.50 to $6) are drawn from China, Japan, Thailand and elsewhere in East Asia, including dull and familiar names like Sapporo, Kirin and Singha, as well as 33, the popular Vietnamese brew that is a watery lager. Not exactly exciting drinking after sampling the best of Bavaria — although you can raise the novelty level by ordering beer in six packs, as many large groups do. But the brews are inoffensive accompaniment to the crisp, tart and toothsome green papaya salad($8) or the aromatic, flavorful clay pot pork ($11).
The tiny skyless garden is secreted behind an anonymous storefront. Accessed via a passage past the kitchen and up a few brick steps, it suggests a place where the beer garden and speakeasy meet — a hybrid possible only, perhaps, in New York.

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