Beer gardens, brewers take advantage of frothy NY market

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Instead of clinking wine glasses, New Yorkers are saying prost with beer mugs. Only the oompah band is missing.

Beer has captivated the city, spawning a boomlet of German-style beer gardens. Even a chef synonymous with Italian cuisine, Mario Batali, will unveil a massive rooftop brewery in about a month.

“Italy is not known for its beer, but it is growing,” said Adam Saper, a managing partner of Eataly market, where La Birreria is being built. “Here in New York City, there has been a huge explosion of beer aficionados.”

By June, at least three other beer gardens will be added to the ranks: Harlem Tavern on West 116th Street, an unnamed venue at the Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd Street, and a garden at the South Street Seaport, replacing Water Taxi Beach. Next year, restaurateur Peter Poulakakos will put his stamp on the trend when he completes a beer garden at Pier A, looking out on the harbor and the Statue of Liberty.

These locations will join a handful of existing beer gardens, from century-old Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens, to Biergarten, which opened last year at The Standard hotel, serving classic German cuisine and beer at communal tables under the High Line.

Suds are cheaper
Some New Yorkers may be drawn to suds over other drinks these days because of the recession. A pint costs about $7, compared with $10 or more for a glass of wine, or $12 and up for specialty cocktails.

Beer experts say the bigger reason for the growing popularity of the beverage, along with that of the European-style gardens that serve it, is the rise of craft beers. Last year, the nation’s craft brewers—defined as small breweries that are independently owned—sold 12% more beer to bars and restaurants. By contrast, the overall beer market in the U.S. in 2010 was flat, according to the Brewers Association, a craft brewers trade group.

In other words, while people are drinking less of the big commercial brands, like Budweiser and Miller, they are drinking more beers from craft breweries.

Brooklyn Brewery, for one, is experiencing explosive growth. Its revenues from sales in New York City grew 11% last year and more than 40% in the first quarter of this year.

“That is a very big number for us,” said Steve Hindy, co-founder and president, who attributes the increase to new beer-focused bars.

The addition of big beer gardens in the city will drive these numbers up even higher. But finding a Manhattan space large enough for an authentic beer garden is a big challenge, as Jon Bloostein, owner of Heartland Brewery, knows all too well. He has been looking for such a space for years and may open a garden in Washington, D.C., where he found a spot.

“Empty lots in New York that are big enough for a garden have air rights that are very expensive,” said Mr. Bloostein, who has ruled out the boroughs outside of Manhattan.

Tom Ryan also faced a problem finding a large location for his indoor beer hall, so he opted for a smaller second-floor space. He and his two business partners, who own five other bars in the city, opened Bierhaus last month at 712 Third Ave.

Bierhaus is a no-frills space with communal tables arranged under a large skylight. It serves only German beer and traditional cuisine. The partners expected it to “crawl in the beginning.” Instead, Mr. Ryan had to hire 10 additional servers—mostly women wearing dirndls—and three additional managers.

On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, it’s so packed that a line forms outside along Third Avenue. “We’ve been overwhelmed,” said Mr. Ryan.

The demand for specialty beers has been so great that S.K.I. Beer, a Brooklyn-based wholesaler and distributor, doubled its sales force over the past several years and stopped promoting Budweiser and Miller, according to owner Ralph Mauriello.

Brewers also see the potential. A new brewery in the Bronx is on track to start selling Bronx American Ale in August. Bronx Brewery’s owners just closed on their first round of funding and are close to signing a lease for the brewery in Mott Haven.

“We think the Bronx has a lot of brand potential,” said partner Damian Brown, who is also the brewmaster.

Bronx Brewery will join four others in the city, including Chelsea Brewing Co., which debuted in 1995, and Brooklyn Brewery, which opened a year later (its brand launched in 1987). Heartland Brewery moved its operations from its restaurants to a Brooklyn facility in 2002. And Sixpoint Brewery opened in Brooklyn in 2005.

“A century ago, there were hundreds of beer gardens and halls in the city and 48 breweries in Brooklyn alone,” said Brooklyn Brewery’s Mr. Hindy. “You see all of that coming back now.”