It’s 88 degrees on a Saturday afternoon. The air is so thick it requires an exhausting amount of effort to transition from a seated to a standing position. Cold beer flows no more than a few steps away, but it seems totally unattainable. I can barely see the man in the tank top dispensing the overly foamy brews into plastic cups sponsored by some large brewery or another. The throbbing crowd is too dense. At a nearby table, a tower of generic brand Jenga blocks with vulgar truth or dare prompts collapses and crashes loudly, spilling a session IPA. A bean bag skids to a stop near my shoe as someone shouts “my bad.” I consider tossing it back, but instead let it linger there, because what is the point of anything any more?
This is the state of the modern beer garden. To drink there is self-inflicted torture, and as a heat wave grips large swaths of the country, it’s important to remember: We can avoid it.
It wasn’t always this way. Beer garden history stretches back hundreds of years to the German beer cradle of Bavaria. People gathered in biergartens under shady trees built over breweries’ cellars to drink cold beer and escape the summer sun. It sounds idyllic, but is a far cry from the concrete gardens of today.
Forced shoulder to shoulder with strangers at long picnic tables, spending time in what is often just a converted parking lot, doesn’t offer up whatever sense of community might have existed in 19th century Bavaria. People cram in, sometimes mounting benches side saddle because that’s as much space as they can carve out for themselves. Others circle the grid of upcycled tables for 15, 20, 30 minutes looking for a place to park themselves and their 10 closest friends, which seems like the minimum number required in a party to come in.
Even if you do manage to settle your own small corner of the garden, there is still the matter of getting something to drink. If you’re fortunate, you’ll find a line, a human centipede of grumpy drinkers, winding their way back toward the entrance, crawling forward like a late afternoon line at a Florida polling place.
If you aren’t so lucky, that semi-organized line becomes an out of control amoeba. An amorphous mob clambering to get to the bar before the keg kicks. Groups send up representatives to order six or eight drinks at a time. After securing their pitchers, these brave men and women scuttle back through the masses with the beer held high over their head so it stays clear of the inevitable jostling. And woe unto anyone who needs to go to the bathroom during their visit for what should be obvious reasons.
Now, there are beer gardens out there that do their best to combat all this inherent unpleasantness. Some have servers to alleviate the lines at the bar. Others try to manage the number of people inside at any given time. The most thoughtful ones even invest in those misters you’re more likely to see at high-end, poolside brunch spots. But despite all efforts, the modern beer garden can’t escape what it has become: a baseball game without the baseball, a music festival without the music, a spring break party for people who should have given them up years ago. Too many people too close together uncomfortably drinking quickly warming beverages while pretending it is the most fun anyone could ever have.
The next time you need to quench your thirst and the air is so heavy you worry the slightest move could result in heat exhaustion, remember: You don’t live in 1800s Germany. So there’s no reason to drink like you do.