Let’s take a trip, back to 16th-century Germany, when regulations limited brewers to brewing only during the cool months of September through April. This law was passed to prevent fires from coals that were used to heat breweries and because cooler temperatures helped ferment purer beer. The government also encouraged breweries to increase the size of their existing beer cellars. To help cool these expansive spaces, brewers started planting broad-leafed chestnut trees above the cellars for shade. Eventually people started putting seating under the trees, and from these mandated constraints a new public space archetype was born: the biergarten. Five hundred years later, a renaissance of craft brewing has swept the nation and created the elusive outdoor and indoor “third space.” Boston is no exception.
Like most craft breweries across the country, Harpoon set up shop in what was once considered a forgotten neighborhood. In 1987, Harpoon opened its doors in an old warehouse and brought people into an area many Bostonians had never visited. This burgeoning neighborhood we now know as the South Boston Seaport still uses Harpoon to help transform underused spaces into a lively public realm. Multiple times a year, people enthusiastically march shoulder to shoulder past walls constructed of beer cans to emerge onto a transformed asphalt parking lot. The parking lot and streets come alive with music, food, people, and, of course, beer.
If Harpoon has helped transform South Boston, then a new food hall development, Bow Market, is about to do the same for Union Square in Somerville. Anchored by a brewery and located in the shell of an old storage building, the W-shaped development will house more than 30 small-scale storefronts and provide opportunities for local food vendors, retailers, and artists. Remnant Brewery will be the largest tenant of the market, augmented by two public spaces that serve as the vendors’ outdoor living room. This contemporary biergarten, currently under construction, promises to be the heart of “beer urbanism” in Somerville.
While larger craft breweries and food halls are revitalizing neighborhoods, smaller pop-up beer gardens are leveraging the energy they create to activate underused public spaces within the urban fabric. Sometimes all these spaces need is a little help with programming. Last summer, Trillium Brewery entered into a partnership with the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, and its 4,000-square-foot open-air beer garden drew an estimated 100,000 customers.
Then the brewers took this model to another Boston neighborhood, where the historic Roslindale Substation building hosted Trillium over the winter. The substation sat unoccupied for more than 40 years until 2017, when it welcomed the craft beer cellar on its lower level. According to the Trillium team, the Garden at the Substation is part of the brewery’s “growing initiative to cultivate temporary seasonal spaces in which to enjoy our beer.”
Just as the original biergarten created community through an unexpected design solution, the new craft brewery scene is bringing people together all across US cities. From a brewery that is now one of the largest in the country to pop-up beer gardens, the craft beer scene in Boston is injecting a new energy into forgotten neighborhoods and underused public spaces. ■