The Rise and Fall of America's Beer Gardens


One of the best things about beer gardens is getting your brew in one of those giant mugs that seem tailored specifically for Vikings or professional wrestlers. These enormous old-fashioned steins hold enough beer to fuel an entire afternoon of relaxation and camaraderie—and if you use them often enough, your drinking arm will get noticeably bigger than your other arm.

In recent years, beer gardens inspired by their nineteenth-century predecessors have been returning to American cities. These places are often named with some variation of the classic German "biergarten," and are characterized by open spaces, big tables, and large crowds during Sunday afternoons. Alongside classic cocktail bars, the new beer gardens draw inspiration from the past to create a modern drinkscape drenched in nostalgia, and create a lens for understanding America's drinking past.

America's first beer gardens appeared in the nineteenth century, courtesy of a wave of German immigrants. America's gardens closely resembled their counterparts in the Old World, which were sprawling establishments conducive to lazy Sunday afternoons spent with family or striking up conversations with friendly strangers. Germany's beer gardens were originally created after brewing was banned during the summer months due to repeated brewery fires. Breweries responded to the ban by digging cellars near riverbanks to keep their beer cool until they needed it in summer and to give their lager-style beers the proper conditions to ferment properly. Breweries cooled these cellars further by scattering gravel on the ground and planting leafy shade trees.

Zürich : Beer garden on the "Bauschänzli", 1908. Wikimedia Commons

It wasn't long before tables and chairs showed up in these pleasant environs, and the beer gardens grew to host thousands of people who congregated to listen to music, discuss politics, play chess, or just lounge about in the sun. American beer gardens followed suit, offering a stark contrast to saloons and taverns that were often dark and dingy places designed for grouchy old men to take quick slugs of whiskey. American beer gardens helped German immigrants preserve part of their identity and heritage, but also introduced other Americans to a more relaxed form of drinking while offering a space to hold athletic events, as well as civic and religious functions.

The rise of beer gardens in America coincided with the opulent industrial and economic advances of the Gilded Age, and their style reflected that. The gardens built by brewing giants such as Frederick Pabst and Frederick Miller to promote their brands were the exact opposite of the dive bars where their brews are popular today. Schlitz Garden, built in 1879 by the Schlitz brewery in Milwaukee, featured a concert hall, dance pavilion, bowling alley, and a three-story pagoda that provided stunning views of the city, according to historian Maureen Ogle. The largest beer garden in New York was Atlantic Gardens, which was built indoors to guard against unpredictable weather, and featured giant frescoes, skylights, indoor gardens, and an orchestra.

Regardless of how civilized and pleasant these beer gardens sound to us today, they collided with the Temperance movement and an attitude among many Americans that alcohol was the Devil's potion and a social blight that needed to be eradicated from the nation. Temperance advocates believed that the gardens exposed young people to alcohol, and that the presence of young women proved an irresistible temptation to young men who all should have been spending their Sundays at church.

Other Temperance advocates were more ambivalent towards beer, focusing their efforts against hard liquor and treating beer and wine as something in its own category. Near the end of the nineteenth century, a group of sociologists called the Committee of Fifty investigated drinking places around Chicago in order to better understand America's "liquor problem," according to Andrew Barr's Drink: A Social History of America. Their report characterized beer gardens as pleasant and enchanting havens offering an escape from life's hectic rush, providing a stark contrast to a saloon culture that bred violence, domestic and otherwise. One woman on the committee described a beer garden by writing, "Isn't it beautiful? Can it be, is it possible, that after all our ideas are wrong and these people are right?"

Regardless, the forces of Temperance eventually hardened into a drive for outright Prohibition. Beer, which had grown in popularity throughout the nineteenth century, partly as a result of German immigrants and their beer gardens, was a target. As the nation sped toward the Volstead Act, which outlawed liquor in 1919, Prohibitionists took advantage of xenophobia surrounding beer-drinking German immigrants in the buildup to World War I to score points against alcohol. The lieutenant governor from Wisconsin, one of the states where beer gardens first took hold, attacked his fellow Americans of German descent personally, claiming that, "No Germans in the war are conspiring against the peace and happiness of the United States more than Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, Miller and others of their kind."

That claim, of course, was absurd. The threat those men posed was little more than offering Americans places to casually lounge around during their days off, playing checkers, catching up with friends, and napping. Regardless, the fear mongering worked, and it has taken nearly a century to begin reclaiming what was lost.