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The rise of babies in bars, explained

The rise of craft brewing and taprooms has made family-friendly drinking establishments more and more common.

3 Stars Brewing Company is one of many breweries that welcome children with games and coloring books.
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I take my son out for some beers.

He does not drink beer; he is 15 months old. This isn’t his first visit to a drinking establishment, and his stroller isn’t the only one parked on the sprawling grounds of Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas. Today there are kids playing in a sandpit with plastic shovels and buckets. There are toddlers toddling around a game of cornhole. A gaggle of elementary school–age girls want very much to pet every dog in attendance, please. Babies bounce in front carriers and on laps. There are too many kids here to count, in part because mine is one millisecond away from dipping his little fist into my friend’s tulip glass of barrel-aged sour ale.

It will come as no shock to most in my generation that breweries are increasingly popular spots to bring kids. “Jester King is a family friendly business,” reads the brewery’s website. “All ages are welcome!”

My dad, however, was aghast when I told him of our plans. “You’re bringing your baby to go drinking?” I suspect he was picturing a non-animated version of Moe’s Tavern on The Simpsons, where passed-out Barneys slump. Or maybe he pictured a “club,” somewhere lit only by strips of flashing neon lights. (If this isn’t what “clubs” look like anymore, please let me know. See: aforementioned 15-month-old.) He might even picture a classy cocktail bar with an expensive drink menu.

But people are not bringing their babies to these places (at least, not in droves). They’re bringing their babies to breweries, beer gardens, beer halls, and brewpubs, which are growing in popularity as craft beer culture expands. The goal isn’t necessarily to drink, though of course that’s a byproduct of the choice in locale; parents take their babies to breweries to be social.

The rise of the baby-permitting bar follows the rise of craft brewing

A Yelp fracas broke out in Park Slope a few years back. “As Beer Garden Welcomes the Juice-Box Set, Some Barflies Jeer,” read the 2012 New York Times headline on a story about a local, family-friendly bar embroiled in a contentious debate, one held almost entirely online. Kids hadn’t suddenly infiltrated the place; rather, it opened its doors to babies and strollers before it had even officially opened. Yet its launch immediately ignited ire. “People go to bars to escape kids,” one riled-up Yelp reviewer told the Times. “Bars are for adults, not children.”

The Times story epitomized the other debates then beginning to unfurl across the country’s burgeoning beer scene, and captured the zeitgeistiness of babies in bars. By the second decade of the new millennium, babies in bars had become a thing. Trend pieces on the rise of the baby-permitting brewery ensued — reaching perhaps peak baby-in-bar with the arrival of toddlers’ beer hall birthday parties — alongside oh-so-many regional guides and how-tos. (My favorite headline of the latter asks, “Can You Bring a Baby to a Bar?,” then answers itself, “Yes, If You Follow These Expert Tips,” which include not going to bars at night, not going to bars where babies aren’t wanted, and not driving drunk.) First-person columns on the needs of parents abound, decrying the myth that social lives end at labor and delivery. “As parents of toddlers, my wife and I can occasionally use a stiff drink,” reads a combo how-to/why-not in the Post and Courier. “And sometimes we like to leave the house.”

Maybe even more prevalent than the how-to and why-not coverage, however, is the ubiquity of the please-don’t. “[W]hen children start spreading like Gremlins and overrun a place that’s designed for me, an adult, I start to feel resentful,” reads a Forbes op-ed from last year, assuming a sort of reverse “ban childless millennials from Disney World” posture. “I mean, how would a five-year-old feel about me bringing a group of girlfriends to hootenanny at the bounce house during peak traffic hour?”

“People get super heated about this situation,” says Joshua M. Bernstein, author of the upcoming Drink Better Beer. Bernstein has covered the beer industry since the early 2000s, when what’s known as the “third wave” of beer production began in the US. He traces the influx of family-friendly bars to the rise of the taproom, itself part and parcel of the explosive growth of craft brewing.

Bringing kids to breweries has been a contentious topic among parents and bar-goers.
Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images

A response to the monolithic (and samey-sameness of) beer conglomerates Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors — makers of Budweiser and Miller Lite/Coors Light, respectively, among others — craft brewing emerged as a movement to create better beer, with a focus on smaller-batch production, inventive flavor profiles, and positive effects on the local economy. Between 2008 and 2016, the Atlantic reports, the number of US breweries “expanded by a factor of six.” The Brewers Association, a not-for-profit trade group, puts the number of craft breweries in 2008 at 1,500; 2018 saw over 7,000 breweries up and running, with 1,000 more set to open this year alone.

Taprooms are breweries’ on-site spaces for serving beer, transforming the brewery from merely a factory to a gathering place — and it’s the taproom that’s largely responsible for bringing kids to the bar. “Taprooms are evolving to be a pretty unique place in our society,” says Bernstein. Taprooms are family-friendly environments by nature. They’re typically open during daylight hours and close earlier than rowdy late-last-call spots, tend to be sunny, airy spots, and often offer ample outdoor space (even in crowded cities like Brooklyn).

Despite controversy surrounding the kid-friendly bar, there’s general consensus that after dark is when kids should be asleep, and pre-taproom, bar culture remained confined to nightlife. Now, however, recently passed laws regulating taprooms accommodate on-premise, direct-to-consumer imbibing; New York’s taproom laws, for instance, only changed five years ago, in 2014. Adds Bernstein, “Taprooms have really opened up the door to new consumers and new ways of gathering around a beer.”

Drinking in a taproom, with or without kids, offers a different, more contemplative experience. “I wouldn’t want to sound too much like a zealot when I say that flavor and quality over quantity certainly help with that,” says Jeremy Danner, a brand ambassador and on-premise specialist for the St. Louis-based 4 Hands Brewing Company. “The fact that craft beer has become about tasting and evaluating and thoughtful consumption, [it’s] different than, ‘Let’s just go out and get a drink.’”

Craft beer is a $27.6 billion industry. It’s the smart breweries and pubs, says Bernstein, that position themselves as welcoming to families. It’s good for business, adds Danner, bringing in crowds during hours that might not see a lot of traffic otherwise.

Brandie Ettinger engineered Hopworks Urban Brewery to be kid-friendly from the get-go. The Portland brewhouse, now with three pub locations in the Pacific Northwest, opened in 2008, when Ettinger’s kids were young. She and her husband, brewmaster Christian Ettinger, designated a portion of their first pub as a play area for toddlers. It was a hit, and local families quickly became loyal fans. “On occasion I’ll be talking to someone and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, my kids grew up at Hopworks,’” says Ettinger.

Today Hopworks does more than simply cordon off an area for kids. It partners with local toy stores to outfit each location’s play area with chalkboards, magnets, kitchen sets, toys designed to inspire imaginative play, and books. It also puts on Tot Tuesday events featuring story time and crafts, and it will kick off a reading program this month — all in an effort to make families comfortable, says Ettinger. “It enables the parents and caregivers and families to be able to enjoy their meal, and maybe even have a conversation on the side while their kids are playing,” she says with a laugh. “If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about.”

A brief history of babies in bars

Parents and babies swigging back their respective cold ones (beer, milk) in tandem may seem novel, especially here in the US. But children in pubs isn’t new, and in fact, bars weren’t “adults only” establishments in America until the 20th century.

Through pretty much every era in American history up until Prohibition, “there were a lot more kids to be found in bars,” says historian Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks Into a Bar. Ordinaries, the earliest taverns of colonial times, were “very family-friendly,” says Sismondo, and were popular places for all ages to gather for food, news, community meetings, and even trials. “Beer wasn’t necessarily considered a luxury, or an indulgence, or a really bad thing,” she adds of attitudes toward beer in the 1800s. Instead, many considered beer a meal substitute. “It wouldn’t have been that odd for a kid to have an ale.”

The 1800s also saw a mass exodus of European immigrants arrive in the US, including more than 5 million from Germany, bringing with them the template for the modern beer hall. “They were usually pretty bright, and they were usually pretty large,” says Sismondo, “and they were definitely full of families.” Most immigrants lived in tiny apartments, especially in cramped cities like New York, and “they needed to have some kind of public space where they could get together with their communities.”

“Scene in a tavern,” an 18th-century painting held in the Louvre, features children playing in a barroom.
Imagno/Getty Images

Prohibition, of course, shut everything down. After the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, states chose to go wet one by one, legislating the state-specific, sometimes strange drinking laws that persist to this day — like in Wisconsin, where state bylaws still allow people under 21 to drink in bars so long as they’re accompanied by parents, guardians, or spouses over 21. Each state mandated its own minimum drinking age, until President Reagan’s National Minimum Drinking Age Act made it 21 nationwide in 1984, older than the minimum marrying and Army enlistment ages, and widely debated for not particularly making sense.

American’s relationship with alcohol, as a result, is complicated. In Europe, where there was no Prohibition, the pub remains an institution. Its relevance in daily life didn’t experience the interruption that it did here, and European parents never stopped bringing their children along for a drink.

As World of Beer’s “Drink It Intern” in 2016, Alison Grasso traveled to breweries across the US and in Europe. In Belgium, for instance, she repeatedly heard stories about beer as a cornerstone of a Belgian upbringing. “People there told me they start drinking beer — low-alcohol kinds, anyway — super young,” she says. “It’s not treated as ‘taboo,’ and it’s a very normal and central part of life.”

It was a little familiar to Grasso — a commercial editor, content creator with a passion for beer, and my very dear friend (it was in her tulip glass of barrel-aged sour ale at Jester King that my 15-month-old attempted to soak his cuticles). She grew up outside of Baltimore and spent a lot of time in a bar between the ages of 8 and 13 while her family played Irish music — hardly weird outside of the States, but unusual for an American tween. “Can you imagine being an adult [here] and saying, ‘Let’s go down to the pub, there’s a kid playing uilleann pipes’?” she asks.

It’s that stark contrast that lies at the heart of the discord (read: internet comments) unleashed by the presence of babies in American bars (along with some cases of misplaced rage against babies in general, and/or their “breeders”). Reads one comment on a 2014 All About Beer Magazine trend piece, “[W]hat are we teaching these kids by bringing them to a place where the main activity is drinking?”

“We’re really not that far removed from Prohibition,” says 4 Hands Brewing’s Danner. “There’s still this weird stigma with drinking being viewed as a vice, or a sin. It’s more open, and part of the culture, and part of a meal” in Europe. Why, she asks, do some parents here tell their kids that they drink “mommy juice”? In doing so, she says, “[W]e teach them that alcohol isn’t something that we talk about, or something that we do. And then they don’t have any exposure to responsible consumption, and we wonder why kids go off to college and freak out and binge-drink — instead of realizing that it is possible for a responsible adult to have a couple beers and not have it be ‘drink to get drunk’ every time.”

Responsible parenting can include responsible drinking

Responsible parenting can absolutely include bringing your kid to a bar, say advocates. But, some brewery owners add, parents must recognize that they are just that: responsible.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say we always cringe a little bit when we get written up in [lists of] kid-friendly places,” says Josh Stylman, co-founder of Threes Brewing in Brooklyn. To appease the two demographics they serve — young families and child-free adults — Threes Brewery instituted a kids curfew from the word go. “Kids are welcome until 7pm,” reads its site, “though it is absolutely critical that all children are accompanied by a parent AT ALL TIMES. Any families with unattended or misbehaving children will be asked to leave the facility.” (Stylman says they haven’t had to remove anyone to date; a warning is typically “shame enough,” he adds.)

It’s not necessarily the kids that pose the issue; sometimes it’s the parents who don’t parent them. “Not everyone who shows up to a brewery realizes they’re still parents,” says Stylman. He’s seen kids tear through the brewery with no guardian in sight, and has on occasion asked toddlers to point out their parents to him. The brewery’s running joke, he says, is that they’ll give roaming kids a shot of tequila. (They haven’t had to do that either, “yet.”) He adds, “We want to enable people to have a day with their families, but it’s also not a day care.”

As long as parents are responsible for both their children and their drinking, bringing kids to breweries can be a bonding experience.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Bars aren’t day cares. They’re places of community, and most communities include kids. Sismondo suggests checking out George Orwell’s 1943 essay “The Moon Under Water,” which describes in detail his “favourite public-house,” a made-up bar where kids run amok:

Many as are the virtues of the Moon Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.

And though, strictly speaking, they are only allowed in the garden, the children tend to seep into the pub and even to fetch drinks for their parents. This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding children — and therefore, to some extent, women — from pubs that has turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be.

The place is fiction; but businesses like Hopworks and Jester King, and even the semi-reluctant Threes Brewery, have turned the fantasy into reality. No autonomy for parents lost, no decision between family time and adult conversation forced. It’s about more than just the grown-ups, too. In all the talk about whether parents deserve to preserve an aspect of their adulthoods and “do things,” there’s a crucial piece of the conversation missing: kids. Kids also like to do things.

“In the same way that adults with children want to get out and socialize and have a beer with other people, kids also want to hang out with each other,” says Danner. He loves to bring his 6-year-old son to taprooms, especially those that encourage kids to hang out with one another. “My son will always come back and go, ‘I made seven friends, Dad!’ I’m like, that’s awesome. That’s why we go out and socialize. It’s to talk to people.”

That’s why we go out to get a beer.

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