We get precious few of those moments—the ones when you realize you’re having a lot of fun, and you look around and realize this is what it’s all about.
I had a very clear one two summers ago in Upper Franconia, about 15 miles south of Bamberg, Germany. My family was at a country beer garden called Roppelt’s Keller. We munched on warm, crusty pretzels. My wife and I each drank a kellerbier while the kids sipped juice, whenever they could be bothered to visit the table. Mostly they frolicked in the impressive playground. There was a sand- box, a jungle gym and a zip line that swung through the trees.
Each of us was relaxed, having fun. We were all getting what we wanted.
That part of Germany’s brewing heart- land specializes in full-flavored lagers and shady beer gardens. Many have playgrounds. For the locals, kellerbier is not a specific style of beer. It’s just beer. They grew up around it.
Likewise, “family-friendly” is not a style of place there; it’s not a gimmick meant to attract a certain crowd at certain hours. Family-friendly is just life.
I mention this for a couple of reasons. The first is to empower American beer lovers who have kids to get out and see the world. You’re not outcasts.
The second is to make the point that we might be doing it wrong. Americans are weird about drinking around kids—downright schizophrenic, in fact. It’s not our fault. We inherit a mixed-strain culture—more tossed salad than melting pot—confused by our history and high school health classes, unsure whether beer is bread or poison.
I love my kids and I love drinking beer—both are best in moderation. I see no need to separate the two. Some do.
You know who I mean: the ones who give us dark looks when we have the audacity to bring our kids to a brewpub or beer garden for lunch. Later they’ll go online—such power, right?—and whine about how strollers are ruining their good time.
As if American families ought to be con-fined to churches and McDonald’s.
So what about American beer gardens?
I haven’t been to Greenwood Park in Brooklyn. But thanks to the New York Times, I know that it’s 13,000 square feet of beer, food and tables. It has 60 taps, a large beer garden and bocce courts. It is explicitly “family friendly”until 7 p.m., 21 and over after. Says so on the website. Sounds wonderful.
Unless you aren’t interested in being around wee ones.
“The whole appeal of the bar is to go there in the day and sit there in the sun and enjoy a beer,” a 31-year-old Malcolm Kates told the Times in 2012. “You almost feel like you’re the irresponsible one by showing up to drink around so many children.”
“People go to bars to escape kids,” another online complainer told a reporter. “Bars are for adults, not children.”
Some overly simplistic binary thinking may be at fault here. Drunk/sober, bar/ restaurant, adults/kids. Life is mostly nuance, though.
Yes, there are straight-up dirty boozers that are inappropriate for children, especially at night. And there are restaurants that happen to serve beer and wine and are perfectly OK for all ages, especially in the daytime. Most places and occasions fall somewhere in between.
True: Some kids misbehave in public. This is a nuisance. True: Some adults misbehave in public. Also a nuisance.
But the best way to teach kids how to behave in public is to take them out and show them. Then, in theory, they’ll grow into adults who know how to behave (sorry, no guarantees). Want them to grow up to become responsible drinkers? Same theory.
Some cultures are even more uptight than we are about kids in bars. In Central America, we noticed a definite drink-is-for- drunk vibe. A Costa Rican man once laughed in my face when I said I was taking my son to a bar—at noon, on the town’s main square—to watch soccer. My boy was four. He sat on a barstool and ate chicharrones and asked the staff all sorts of nosy questions (as he does). They laughed and brought him fruit drinks. It was more than fine.
Different countries have different attitudes. My friend Sophia, the well-traveled wife of a diplomat, is Bulgarian.
“In Bulgaria, there’s no taboo about drinking with our kids,” she told me. “You will see kids in cafés with drinking and smoking parents regularly.”
She said that by the age of 11 or 12, most Bulgarian kids have tried beer, wine and maybe even hard liquor like rakija. It wasn’t that weird for kids 12 or older to be sent to the store to buy alcohol, although “nowadays maybe laws are getting stricter on that.” It was also common to see young parents bringing small kids to beer gardens.
Going out at night was different, though. “Unless it is a family celebration or at some- one’s house, going out will be an adult thing,” she said. “Mostly because it involves sitting at a table eating and drinking for four, five hours. The kids don’t have patience for that and parents don’t want to be rushed and bothered.”
Context matters, wherever you are. Mostly it lies somewhere between Happy Meals and late-night boozers. It’s rarely clear-cut and it’s not always easy for parents—or those without kids—to work it out.
Nobody is perfect at this, not even the Germans—but it might help to go and experience their comfort level firsthand. Have you seen the exchange rate lately? In much of Franconia, a half-liter of full-flavored country lager will run you about $2.
And what did you pay for that last pint of IPA? And was it memorable?