The Great Massachusetts Beer Garden Backlash Has Arrived

Will the state legislature kill Boston's hottest trend in outdoor drinking?

night shift beer garden

The Night Shift Owl’s Nest on the Esplanade.

Everyone loves a good beer garden. When it comes to combining the trends in after-hours imbibing, they’re right in the sweet spot: sought-after brews, fresh air, food truck dining, and Instagram-friendly ambiance. When the Greenway began hosting one featuring the brewery Trillium in 2017, it became an instant hit, and was packed basically all summer with with young professional types eager to wait in line and hand over buckets of cash to drink juicy IPAs in the sun. Other beer gardens have since sprung up on the DCR’s Esplanade and Herter Park, and a beer garden is now part of the seasonal offerings on City Hall Plaza. All of a sudden, they are everywhere.

But according to a new report in the Boston Globe, their days may be numbered if a new restaurant industry-backed bill filed at the Massachusetts State House gains traction. The legislation, via state Sens. Ed Kennedy and Nick Collins, would set a new 14-day cap on the number of one-day licenses that can be awarded for outdoor drinking, closing loopholes that let beer gardens stay open for months at a time (technically, the state only gives out a maximum of 30 one-day licenses, but beer garden operators have figured out clever work-arounds).

If successful, such a bill could strike a serious blow to a trend that has done wonders for Boston’s less-than-stellar reputation as a no-fun town after dark, stymie an emerging business model for a rapidly growing beer industry, and cut off a serious source of revenue for Boston’s parks.

So why is this happening? If you own a brick-and-mortar bar or restaurant, this new al fresco drinking trend is a serious threat to your bottom line. And honestly, from a bar-owner’s perspective all of this does seem unfair. Traditional watering holes have all kinds of overhead costs that beer gardens don’t, including real plumbing and the ever-increasing cost of rent. Especially downtown where space is limited, restaurants and bars might only have a tiny area to offer outdoor dining, if they have any at all. On top of all that, they’re required by law to buy year-round licenses to pour beers, which thanks to long-standing policies limiting how many are available, are scarce and expensive. (It doesn’t help matters that these are especially difficult times for Boston restaurants.)

Many of those problems are nonexistent for breweries that get the green-light to pour outside. Beer gardens are relatively inexpensive, consisting of just some fencing, tables and chairs, some light decoration, and a place to tap kegs. They can also operate on lush, scenic space that is usually reserved for the public, without having to pay for what that kind of land might cost if placed on the open market. And they never have to worry about those pesky, outrageously expensive, licenses.

So it’s no surprise to the beer community that the backlash has finally arrived. Will state lawmakers deliver a death blow to beer gardens? Can some kind of compromise be struck that will keep the beer garden trend alive? We’ll have to wait and see.

Update: The discussion over the future of beer gardens continues. Sen. Collins on Wednesday asked Boston’s City Council to support new seasonal licenses, which would permit beer gardens to stay open for months at a time without having to rely on multiple “one-day” liquor licenses. In a letter to council Chair Michael Flaherty, Collins called for “fair fees, a transparent process, and appropriate guidelines” for beer gardens and other long-term pop-up spaces where alcohol is served. Such a move would give regulators and the public more say on where the pop-up spaces open and how they operate. “We want beer gardens to continue to flourish in our city on an even playing field with our local restaurants and businesses,” he wrote. He asked city officials to add his proposal to a Home Rule Petition, through which the city is asking state lawmakers to OK additional liquor licenses for Boston restaurants. Collins wrote on Twitter that there would be a public hearing on the bill, but said a date has not yet been set.