September 09, 2011

Leinenkugel's Leads the Charge to Reinvirgorate the Local Beer Garden Scene

A year ago, Hope Tarr found herself marveling at a new beer garden in Brooklyn, NY.

Tarr, who co-created an iPhone app that tracks beer gardens in New York City, had grown up in Baltimore listening about these outdoor promised lands where German suds flowed freely and the oompa music never stopped.

Her dad used to talk about Blob's Park Bavarian Beer Garden in Jessup reverentially. "The promise was always, when you're old enough, I'll take you to Blob's," she said.

Now, in Brooklyn, she'd realized what the fuss was about. Here was a place that was outdoors, green, and cheap — a rare holy trinity in New York City.

In the last two years, it seems as though everyone else has caught up to her dad. Hugely popular before and during World War II, beer gardens are enjoying a renaissance in the Mid-Atlantic. In 2009, Pittsburgh got the Hofbrauhaus, a replica of a Bavarian beer hall, complete with beer garden. In Washington, the Biergarten Haus, which can accommodate as many as 600 people, opened last summer.

And Baltimore is getting its own new beer garden, Leinenkugel's, which has a soft opening Sept. 2, and a grand opening the following Friday in Power Plant Live.

A year ago, Tarr tracked 50 on the iPhone app she and a partner created, Beer Gardens NYC.

"This April, there were 54. And now there's 64," she said. "All of these have opened from Memorial Day weekend forward. It's truly an explosion."

Cordish Companies was paying attention to the trend, and they've bet that it will play out just as successfully in Baltimore. They've spent $1.6 million to build Leinenkugel's Beer Garden at Power Plant Live, the last piece of the complex's recent $10 million renovation.

Baltimore already has a couple of brew pubs and at least one "high-end beer hall," but when it opens, Leinenkugel's will be the city's first proper beer garden in generations, and a test of Baltimore's appetite for the new trend.

Beer gardens, which consist of family-style seating outdoors and usually serve German-style brews, have been in existence in the United States since the 1800s. They were especially popular in cities with heavy German immigrant populations like New York City and Baltimore.

The historic American Brewery on Gay Street had one as early as 1867, and the Mount Clare Mansion — Baltimore city's only surviving plantation — was also turned into a beer garden after the Civil War.

During and after World War II, the Deutsches Haus, formerly on the corner of Cathedral and Preston streets, was a popular hub for the city's burgeoning German residents and returning GIs.; crowds would gather there at lunch to listen to zither players and oompa music.

But beer gardens hadn't enjoyed that kind of popularity until this most recent boom. Tarr credits the economy with bringing them back in style.

"Beer gardens are very recession-friendly. You can have a good beer for anywhere between three dollars to seven or eight dollars," she said. "Particularly in New York, even a movie and a bite can get pricey. This is a good way to go out on the cheap and still have a good time."

Jake Leinenkugel, the CEO of Leinenkugel's, said consumers are getting pickier about how they spend their entertainment dollar.

"People are spending less money. They're looking for what I call 'better beer experiences,'" he said.

Another contributing factor to the concept's revival is the burgeoning interest in craft beer. People who might not be familiar or interested in German culture are flocking to the new beer gardens because their product comes from microbreweries and has a distinct taste.

"In general, people instead of buying expensive things are moving up on the quality of their beer," said Stephen Demczuk, president of Raven Beer.

In Maryland, there hasn't been a critical mass of German-inspired restaurants since at least 1972, when the Deutsches Haus closed officially. But Blob's Park in Jessup has stayed around, improbably, since 1933, and The Old Stein Inn had been open since 1983 until January, when a fire forced it to close temporarily. Last year, Alewife, which bills itself as a high-end beer hall, opened on the west side. Its owner, Daniel Lanigan, already has two others in Boston.

Demczuk himself is betting on the trend. Later in September, he'll start renovation of the old Haussner's brewery at Eastern Avenue and Clinton Streets, where he'll move production of Raven beer and where he'll build a German-style restaurant and beer garden to be called The Raven Brewery and Pub. He's eyeing an opening date in 2013.

Leinenkugel said he got a visit from Jake Miller, Cordish's business partner, a year ago with a proposition: Cordish's Power Plant Live in Baltimore was expanding and they wanted to incorporate a beer garden to the mix.

"They wanted a connection with an obscure yet known brewery that had a fan base and had an interesting style of beer," Leinenkugel said.

Company vice president Reed Cordish, who had kept an eye the growing popularity of beer halls in New York, saw the concept as "ideal for the city and Power Plant Live."

"To do a true beer garden, you need as much outdoor space as you do indoor space," Cordish said. "It's hard to find much outdoor space in Baltimore city. There's very few restaurants that have significant outdoor patios."

With its all-glass interior, it looks like a pristine greenhouse. The walls can be rolled up depending on the weather, and the roof is also movable. At least 32 brands of beer will be on tap — many Leinenkugel's, but also regional brand names.

Overall, the restaurant will be able to accommodate 125 people indoors and outdoors. In the winter, heating lamps will warm the gravel-covered patio and the fireplace will be turned on.

Food at Leinenkugel's will range $6-$22, and beers will cost anywhere between $5 and $13. There will be premium options as well: the restaurant will have two mobile draft tables that will start at a minimum at $120, said general manager Jesse Ochs.

Leinenkugel was accustomed to tourists and curious gawkers coming to the 144-year-old brewery, which seems ripped from a Hallmark card. It sits on a river in Chippewa Falls, in the scenic north woods of Wisconsin.

Until now, they had never considered taking the name outside of Wisconsin. But the offer from Cordish intrigued him because it came with little risk — they're only licensing the brand name to Power Plant Live.

Already popular in the Midwest, Leinenkugel has tried to aggressively expand its footprint in the Mid-Atlantic in the past five years. It's now at 500 liquor stores and groceries in the region, and its opening the in-name-only Leinenkugel's will provide a new audience of customers.

"They took a lot of pressure off of us," he said. "I would hope it's a win-win. We look at it as a long-term build. What we want to be is one of the top five craft brewers in the Baltimore area."

For Cordish, the stakes are higher. As a brand new construction, it will also be an expensive project — $1.6 million, Cordish said. But the developer, who declined to give specific revenue or sale projections, is bullish on the project.

Baltimore beer experts have mixed feelings about the upcoming beer garden.

Dominic Cantalupo, one of the co-founders of Baltimore Beer Week, said the menu is not as adventurous as the one at Max's Taphouse in Fells Point or Mahaffey's in Canton. But he thinks it'll succeed.

"They have a decent bottle selection, enough to get the beer geeks to go there," he said. But even with competition from the savvier beer bars around, "they'll do well because of the sheer number of people at Power Plant."

Still, Cantalupo and Demczuk said if the trend catches on, it'll be slow.

"Just in our beer week, we had 300-plus events," Cantalupo said. "Philadelphia had over 1,100 events. There's a difference in population."

Tarr is also doubtful beer gardens can sustain their momentum. But she doesn't think they'll be as rare as they were before now.

"Beer gardens are going to be around for a while in a very real way," she said.

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