Written by Alan Feuer for The New York Times
THERE are some who thought, prematurely, that 2010 was New York’s summer of the beer garden, what with the World Cup and the opening of a half-dozen outdoor, German-style drinking establishments. But not unlike some genetically altered superweed, these ale-and-oompah joints have continued even this year to crop up everywhere you look. They have grown so thick, so fast, that certain neighborhoods (Astoria in Queens and Williamsburg in Brooklyn come to mind) could, with the proper vantage and the help of several pilsners, be mistaken for Bavaria.
It would seem that last summer’s sprouting of beer gardens is about to turn into this summer’s beer garden jungle.
There are now no fewer than 54 beer gardens in the city, according to Beer Gardens NYC, a nine-month-old iPhone application dedicated to tracking the phenomenon, and that does not include some that have been announced but are not yet open.
There are classic beer gardens (Hallo Berlin), hipster beer gardens (Radegast Hall), beer gardens catering to frat boys (Studio Square) and a beer garden in a former Brooklyn auto-body shop (Mission Dolores). There are also temporary beer gardens, like the one that Colicchio & Sons plans to run this summer under the High Line in Chelsea, and another that will soon supplant the riverside bar at the South Street Seaport’s Water Taxi Beach.
Beer gardens have achieved such cultural ascendancy that even grand masters are getting into the act. Recently, Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali announced the opening of La Birreria, an outdoor Italian-style drinking establishment, on the roof of Eataly, their Italian food megamall on 23rd Street. The beer garden offers an Alps-influenced menu and craft beers seasoned with fresh thyme picked, by hand, from the hills outside Rome.
All of which demands a question: How many beer gardens can one city — even a fiercely pro-beer-garden city like New York — possibly have?
“Basically, this is too much,” said Larry Spacek, manager of the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria, the 100-year-old paterfamilias of the New York beer garden world. “Everybody sees our success and is copycatting us. I don’t know if it is progress, but probably we are reaching an era of beer gardens.”
According to Mr. Spacek — he pronounces his name SPAH-check (“I am not related to Sissy”) — a successful beer garden requires both the beer and the garden, and if there also happen to be bratwurst, schnitzels and enough communal tables to, as he put it, “sit around with 600 other fellows singing karaoke,” that’s all to the good. The problem, he suggested, resides with those beer gardens lacking foliage. It is true, he acknowledged, that some of these less-than-green newcomers have cut into the Bohemian Hall’s business.
“But sooner or later,” he said, “the fact that we are in a real park, with real trees, will bring people back. This is very important.”
Michael Momm, meanwhile, who helped open Zum Schneider on Avenue C in 2000 and now owns two Loreley beer gardens (one in Brooklyn, the other on the Lower East Side), claimed to be unbothered by the current beer-garden glut, competition being the natural outgrowth of capitalism. Mr. Momm said, somewhat shockingly, that in the recent past some of his rivals have spied on his establishments (“We’ve had people come in, talking to the staff, like where did you get your furniture and so forth”). But he chalked this up to the constant search for a tactical advantage in the dog-eat-dog beer garden trade.
“That’s how it goes,” he said. “I don’t necessarily see it as a threat.”
It is difficult to trace the precise genealogy of the city’s beer gardens — the first of which was said to be Castle Garden, which opened on July 3, 1824, in a former Army fort in Manhattan’s Battery Park. (It later preceded Ellis Island as New York’s primary immigrant processing center.) In the early 20th century, German sections of the city —Yorkville on the Upper East Side, for one — had several beer gardens, but they eventually suffered from anti-Teutonic sentiment during the two world wars.
Of the city’s extant beer gardens, the Bohemian Hall, owned and operated by the Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society of Astoria, stands in a class by itself. Under it are the middle-aged beer gardens: Hallo Berlin on 10th Avenue (“New York’s wurst restaurant”); Killmeyer’s on Arthur Kill Road in Staten Island (sauerbraten, 57 different bottles of German beer); and Zum Schneider (fake trees, pretzels, St. Pauli Girl waitresses). Then, of course, there are the arrivistes: places like Berry Park in Williamsburg, with its D.J. booth and Tuesday night poker games, and Studio Square in Astoria, with — Was ist das? — sushi and panko-crusted chicken schnitzel fingers!
There is no doubt, however, that Mr. Batali’s La Birreria — which, its brew master said, will be the first beer garden in America to employ firkins, nine-gallon, old-English-style carbonation casks — represents the epitome of an increasingly baroque, gourmetized trend. One of its ales will be bolstered by ground Italian chestnut powder. Talk of the establishment is said to have begun six years ago at a “slow food” conference in Turin.
“I hear beer garden and it connotes oompah bands and picnic tables,” said the brew master, Sam Calagione, the founder of the Dogfish Head brewery. “But La Birreria will be a place for super-rustic, unfiltered, naturally carbonated beers accompanied by super-rustic, fresh-ingredient, Alps-inspired food.” Not to mention, he added, “The view is just epic.”
How did this come to pass?
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that New York’s drinking zeitgeist has passed, in succession, from the Belle Epoque-ish wine bar to the pre-crash Jazz Age cocktail lounge, to the Weimar-flavored biergarten, with its whiffs of hyperinflation and the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. Of course, it is also true that people like beer and will tend to drink it in large amounts, while sitting outside at long, communal tables in the sun.
“It’s a recession-friendly outing,” said Hope Tarr, who runs Beer Gardens NYC with her partner, Raj Moorjani. “If you take a date out in Park Slope or Manhattan, even to a modest restaurant, it’s a not inconsequential amount of money. But at a beer garden, you can get good beer for two to three dollars and, once the season starts, most have a grill menu, too. There’s probably still room for the market to grow. I don’t think we’ve reached the saturation point.”
That may seem like a difficult draft to swallow when — aside from the 8,000 square feet La Birreria takes up and the 3,500 square feet occupied by Bierhaus NYC near Grand Central Terminal and the 6,000 square feet currently consumed by Spritzenhaus, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — there is Local West, another 6,000-square-footer, which will open next month at 1 Penn Plaza, near Madison Square Garden.
“People think that if they do this, they can get success,” Mr. Spacek said. “But they forget: It is not just about big wood benches and selling beer. It is about the environment you create — and how you feel.”