On Bars And Beer Gardens…

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A folding chair and a patch of dirt is all I need to be happy. Oh, and a can of beer of course. While 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 needn’t 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 core, 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 so perverting modern beer drinking falls away, revealing only the comfortable, essential core experience.

While ice house bars are a particularly Texas 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 where food must be served), 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 needn’t always 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 to bring use to vacant spaces or lots awaiting funds or permits for further development. Considered a placeholder until the construction of a permanent structure, 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 new spaces, 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 to Austin to Denver, have demonstrated that softening restrictions on beer and wine licenses has led to the responsible enjoyment of alcohol in respectful new spaces.

Divorced from community and public culture, drinking becomes less than it should be. When alcohol becomes socially acceptable to consume only when chaperoned by food, 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.

-Article appeared in Issue 62 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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