On sunny weekend days, light streams through the floor-to-ceiling paned windows at Rhein Haus, a 13,000-square-foot beer hall in downtown Denver, Colorado. Groups of friends chatter at the long picnic-style tables, idly sipping steins of golden-hued Kolsch. Nearby, the clatter of tossed bocce balls provides a steady tempo to their conversations. By nightfall, the massive Austrian chandeliers overhead and the nearby hand-carved mahogany fireplace, rescued from a Bavarian castle, will lend the moodiness one expects from a German drinking den. But for now, the brunch-time vibe is bright, airy, and decidedly chill. One is tempted to linger here for hours, beer in hand.
Is this casual incarnation of daytime drinking the latest evolutionary step in bar culture? Maybe so. But it also represents a return to the way things used to be, before the days of ever-higher-ABV craft beers and booze-forward cocktails. In the not-so-distant past, drinking during the day wasn’t an exercise in party-hardy hedonism, but a low-key social activity akin to grabbing a latte with friends. These days, more drinking establishments are waking up to this cultural shift — opening earlier in the day and serving up a more relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere with games and sessionable beers — and patrons are lapping it up.
But to fully understand this movement, one needs to look back more than a century. A major defining moment in American day drinking came in the 1800s with the arrival of more than a million German immigrants, who brought with them a predilection for light, quaffable lager. They also opened beer gardens and parlors that catered to family groups, who’d while away the day singing, gabbing, and listening to music as they downed beers over the course of several hours. This was downright blasphemy to the era’s mainstream culture, to which public drinking was an uncouth affair meant to be tucked away in gentlemen-only saloons.
Despite pushback, the German style of drinking caught on — because how could it not? By the 1870s, New York City, then the epicenter of German-American culture, was home to a whopping 75 breweries. It helped, too, that clean drinking water was a relatively new phenomenon; before the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842, beer was actually considered safer to drink than water. The opening of massive beer gardens in the 19th century like the Atlantic Garden, a 1,000-seat behemoth in the Lower East Side, helped to cement the movement’s overwhelming popularity.
Fast forward to 2019 and America’s drinking culture has changed several times over, from the cocktail-centric 1920s to the craft beer boom of the new millennium. Now, we seem to be in the midst of yet another great shift. Lower and non-alcoholic beers are on the rise thanks to a desire for more sessionable drinks — aka beers light enough that you can drink several of them over a long period of time. The trend may in part be the result of cues taken from Europe: According to Euromonitor International, German consumption of nonalcoholic beer grew 43 percent between 2011 to 2016. (Amazingly, overall beer consumption in Germany declined over the same time period.) Meanwhile, in Sweden, several notable craft brewers have wandered into the low-ABV space as a means of skirting the country’s infamously rigid alcohol laws, in the process creating flavorful beers that are hacking into this country’s mainstream drinking culture and craft beer scene. Here in the U.S., on the up and up are lighter, less booze-forward cocktails and beers better suited for lazy-summer-day picnics and days spent at the beach than darkened speakeasies or dive bars.
In short, refreshment and stamina are back on the menu, just as it was in the glory days of the 19th-century German drinking hall. And much like those German beer gardens, drinking isn’t the modern bar’s only draw. Bar and lawn games now increasingly play a role in modern bar hangout culture, which has helped to shift socially acceptable “bar time” ever earlier in the day. Spots across the country are taking note.
In Kansas City stands the massive entertainment complex Chicken N Pickle, combining indoor and outdoors pickleball courts, bar area, food trucks, and backyard ripe with lawn games. On Saturdays the bar hosts pickleball clinics and tournaments for the growing sport, but most bargoers are simply happy to play a match and enjoy a recreational ale, Boulevard’s Easy Sport, or a game-exclusive drink special. At the roomy Park & Rec, a massive party bar spanning several buildings in San Diego that opens at noon on weekends, the enormous open-air back patio is host to a plethora of gaming stations, including ping-pong, shuffleboard, darts, and corn hole. Meanwhile, the Chicago outpost of the international property Flight Club is all about darts, updated for the 21st century with digital leaderboards. It opens at noon most days. In Brooklyn and Chicago, the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club revolves around its namesake game, although patrons are likely to be several decades younger than the sport’s traditional retirement-age fan base. It, too, opens at noon on weekends. And of course, at Rhein Haus in Denver, bocce courts are constantly filled — no matter the hour.
Lest you think this is all a fluke, keep in mind that Google searches for lawn games like corn hole have been steadily rising since 2004. So, too, have terms like “axe throwing,” which, believe it or not, is another major bar trend. Axe throwing is all the rage at Chops + Hops in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Kick Axe Throwing, which has locations in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.; and Urban Axes, which boasts locations in Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Durham, and Philadelphia. At places like these, daytime drinking is encouraged because things never get out of hand — many bars have a one-drink-per-hour limit or don’t allow hard liquor on premises.
Taylor Ewing, the general manager of Chicken N Pickle, says there weren’t as many options for bargoers in search of a casual day drink (and a match of pickleball) 15, 10, or even five years ago as there are now. “It’s not that people haven’t always enjoyed the concept of day drinking,” he says. Day drinking was more for special occasions: There were “maybe a handful of days or places where it would make sense to truly make a day out of day drinking. [And] just sitting around a table or in front of a TV drinking for hours during the day just isn’t that fun.” Now, he says, the options are limitless for people people to play (she says she often hears that her bar is an “adult playground”) and to stay entertained while drinking.
And the word stay is crucial to restaurants and bars moving towards daytime hours and activities to boot. “From a business standpoint, the more you can provide your guests to keep them entertained, the longer they will stay and spend money,” Ewing says. Yard and lawn games in bars “promote a fun, social, and active environment, and I think that’s what the guest is looking for.”
Rich Fox, the owner and operator of Rhein Haus, believes that all-day concepts will only continue to pop up as time goes on. “Restaurants are trying to find ways to differentiate and generate other revenue streams because both competition and costs are at an all-time high,” he says. That means thinking outside the box — and sometimes, way outside the box. “If you were to tell me a couple of years ago that someone would open an axe-throwing bar, I would have thought you were out of your damn mind, and yet, here we are!”
The gig economy has also played a big role in the social acceptance of daytime drinking. At places like Berg’n, a 9,000-square-foot beer hall and event space in Brooklyn that opens its doors at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. most days, it’s not unusual to see freelancers camped out with laptops and pints of lager. And why not? Without traditional bosses looking over their shoulders or judgy coworkers, the freelance class is free to have a drink with lunch, helping to transform drinking dens like Berg’n into daytime workspaces. From midday to late afternoon, it’s also a popular place for families — kids run around while Mom and Dad chat over glasses of merlot — before turning into a primo date spot for 20- and 30-somethings in the evening.
Jen Watson, Berg’n’s general manager, says that developing this sort of morning-’til-night culture was the beer hall’s aim from its beginnings in 2014. “Like really trying to create a space that expands the hug to the entire community,” Watson says. “In a way, it’s like a beer hall in ye olde Europe, or like different kinds of bars in Mexico and Central and South America, where they’re community spaces [first]. That’s what the culture of day drinking at Berg’n is about.”
Watson hopes that the style of day drinking that’s proved so popular at Berg’n is a sign of things to come. “The idea of having [day drinking] be not only normal, but cool — like acceptable cool — should be viewed as so typical in my opinion,” she says. Given how far day drinking has already come, she may just get her wish.