This summer, Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing saw an upswing in the number of unsupervised children running around its new, expanded beer garden and brewery. Speaking up to parents and kids didn’t seem to curb the behavior, so last month, the brewery took to social media to announce a new policy: Children would no longer be allowed in the taproom after 6 p.m.
This was a somewhat innocuous policy change — “Adult Swim,” as Union dubs it, previously began at 8 p.m., and children are still welcome from noon to 6 p.m. — but the comment sections on the brewery’s Facebook and Instagram quickly exploded. Parents fumed that they no longer felt wanted and would take their business elsewhere. (Presumably childless) beer lovers, who feared their local taproom was turning into a Chuck E. Cheese, crowed. The online name-calling — mixed with self-righteous attitudes — got ugly and personal. “The way people were commenting back and forth, that disappointed us,” says Union co-founder Adam Benesch. “We weren’t trying to divide people.”
But it did, and the controversy shows how breweries are walking a fine line between trying to welcome everyone — including parents with children — while not alienating kid-free drinkers.
The truth is, many breweries want families to come. Julia Herz, the craft beer program coordinator for the Brewers Association, a national trade group, points out that 78 percent of adults now live within 10 miles of a brewery and that it makes sense for them to be welcoming to parents, because “kids will drive the decision” about which ones to visit. “If my kids don’t like it — ‘there’s nothing to do,’ ‘it’s not fun’ — that’s important,” she says. After taking her son fishing in Colorado this year, the duo stopped at Verboten Brewing in Loveland. “Mama needed a beer,” she jokes. “But he and I could play Jenga. That translates.”
Whether a brewery enforces adults-only hours, there are simple things families can do to make the experience good for everyone — child-free beer fans included.
Not every brewery is built for kids, so it’s worth making a preview visit sans children to get the lay of the land. As Herz says, “If they don’t want to have families, they’re not going to tailor the experience to that. If you see toys and games, it sends a message that ‘everyone is welcome here.’” This is done in different ways: Visitors to Peabody Heights in Baltimore, for example, pass a room with a toybox and shelves of children’s books before they ever see a tap handle.
At Northwest Washington’s 3 Stars, the Urban Farmhouse taproom was built with families in mind. Bathrooms have changing tables, and the bar is stocked with arcade games, cornhole sets, Jenga and coloring supplies. “I am completely cool with kids being in taprooms,” co-founder Dave Coleman says. “This is a community gathering space, and we encourage our local community to come here and hang out.” Kid-friendly snacks are on the menu, and teen and preteen bands from the School of Rock play at events.
The environment matters, too: If you’ve got an energetic toddler, they’re going to be happier at a place with room to explore, such as Waredaca, which is on a horse farm in Laytonsville, Md., or at Vanish, a Leesburg, Va., brewery that has an outdoor playground with a treehouse and slide, instead of a quasi-industrial facility where they need to stay seated.
Seems obvious, but it’s the source of much of the conflict over children at breweries. After Union Craft Brewing moved into the Union Collective space, a former warehouse with multiple vendors, including a pizzeria, an ice cream factory and a climbing gym, brewery employees began to notice that there were more unsupervised children — climbing on and jumping off furniture, going behind the bar and running around barefoot where there was a risk of broken glass. The staff was trained how to address this unsafe behavior, Benesch says, but it sometimes turned into a confrontation with the parents.
At Denizens in Silver Spring, Md., co-founder Emily Bruno says they’re happy to welcome all ages to their spacious beer garden until 8 p.m. on weekends. They host parents’ meetup groups, and the staff is usually fine with spill cleanups. “I understand parents with kids and their desire to get out of the house and have a social life,” Bruno says. Sometimes, she has to remind parents that their children aren’t at a playground. “Kids would be running around and we have servers walking through with trays of glasses. We have to ask parents to keep their kids close to their table. Most were cool with it,” she says, though some “felt like their kids were being restricted.”
For Kris Shirley, a partner at accounting firm EY, the bustling atmosphere at 3 Stars is why he’s comfortable bringing his two daughters, ages 3 ½ and 1. “Breweries are good for kids and adults, in part because they tend to be on the louder side,” he says. “It’s not an intimate setting.”
His kids alternate between running around, playing games and coloring, and although Shirley hasn’t had an encounter with anyone grumbling about them, “I understand both sides,” he says. “You don’t want kids interrupting your experience at any of these places. In reality, though, I think [the problem’s root is] the parents, not the children. Wherever I go, I have a responsibility for my children, whether it’s a brewery or anywhere else.”
Some parents travel with carloads of supplies: toys, snacks, diapers, spare clothes, you name it. All that stuff has to go somewhere, and frequently, it gets in the way of servers and other customers. Denizens asks parents to park large strollers outside, a policy Bruno says has spawned more parent complaints than the hours kids are allowed in the beer garden.
“Strollers are a major blockage in the entryway, at the front doors, in the beer garden,” she explains. “I understand [strollers are] expensive. You don’t want to leave it outside, you have personal stuff on it. But since we opened, I’ve seen more big strollers.”
More than anything else, know your child’s limits. That’s one of the reasons Union moved up its adults-only time. “We’re brewers — we don’t study kids. But we noticed that 6 p.m. is a time when kids started to act in different ways,” Benesch says. “Maybe they’d been there for a couple of hours and they were tired of it, but their parents weren’t.”
Steve Valm, a manager at the Big Hunt beer bar in the District and a regular at 3 Stars before and after the birth of his two daughters, has heard the argument that “if you wouldn’t take your kid to a bar, you shouldn’t take them to a brewery.” He disagrees: “I think it’s different than bars. I only bring my kid [to 3 Stars] during the day. Restaurants and bars are more nighttime activities.”
He doesn’t mind bringing his older daughter by on a Saturday afternoon — the arcade games and corn hole, he says, make it a fun place for her because they can play together. And, unlike at bars, Valm says, he’s not hanging out for extended periods of time: “I usually only stay for two beers — about an hour — and then the kids get antsy and I have to go.”