The Beer Babe

by Carla Jean Lauter
by Carla Jean Lauter

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

I am used to getting asked questions about the best breweries to visit in Portland, and where to track down the elusive New England-style IPAs that our region is known for. But lately I’ve fielded a few unexpected inquiries that had a common theme: “Where are the best family-friendly tap and tasting rooms?”

Bars and breweries generally don’t top any lists of family-friendly venues. For most of our adult lives they were considered dark, smoke-filled, loud establishments — certainly not a comfortable place for families with children.

Historically, however, the sight of kids at a brewery was not an odd occurrence. Bier “gardens” were similar to parks, and families could spend time there together while the adults enjoyed a few relatively low-strength beers. In Germany and other parts of Europe, it’s still common practice for adults to enjoy adult beverages while the whole family enjoys a meal at a pub. But America’s relationship with alcohol is tricky, and there are still some lingering fears dating back to when dens of liquor and drunkenness were certainly no place for youngsters. Thankfully, our new wave of breweries is helping to change that.

Brewery tasting rooms are becoming community gathering places, what social scientists call a “third space” apart from the home (the “first place”) and the workplace (“second place”). Cities that have an abundance of these third spaces have residents who are more civically engaged and more empathetic towards neighbors, as well as a host of other positive community attributes.

Breweries in Maine are using their tasting rooms for all kinds of activities beyond listening to bands and watching sporting events: political gatherings, history lectures, and even yoga are among the things happening in these beer halls these days.

New parents who’ve participated in the craft beer revolution are now seeking out family-friendly places and, by and large, Maine breweries are welcoming them. Erin Abraham, a new mom and craft beer fan living in Portland, has been happy to visit her favorite tasting rooms with her eight-month-old daughter Lily in tow. “Every tasting room I’ve gone to seems to be kid-friendly,” Abraham told me. “But also, I don’t really think of whether or not other people think it’s kid-friendly, or whether it’s ‘meant’ for kids.”

Several brewers I chatted with said they didn’t specifically promote or design their tasting rooms as being kid-friendly — families just fit in with the vibe that already existed. Tasting rooms tend to keep shorter hours, they’re open during the daytime, and many have communal or family-style seating, like picnic tables, so it’s easy to feel welcomed there. To attract more families, breweries could consider adding changing tables (to both men’s and women’s restrooms), and keeping a positive attitude about the tiny humans coming through their doors.

Coincidentally, many Maine brewery owners have also recently become parents. The folks at Foundation Brewing Company and Bissell Brothers have both begun to raise broods since opening their breweries and, unsurprisingly, they’ve created spaces where they feel comfortable bringing their own kids, while inviting others to do the same.

Tumbledown Brewing, in Farmington, has a tasting room that welcomes families. “I love having kiddos peek into the brewery and go ‘wow’ when they see all the shiny equipment,” said owner Matt Swan. Swan also sees an opportunity in the future to set an example for his son. “Just like we will teach our little boy to respect people and be kind to others, it is very important that he be brought into bars and tap rooms and be taught how to respect alcohol and understand proper consumption.”

Bars and restaurants that specialize in craft beer are also extending invitations to the whole clan. In Portland, Little Tap House regularly hosts “BYOB (Bring Your Own Baby)” events that encourage parents to bring their infants and toddlers with them for a parental happy hour that also features a photo booth for capturing some adorable portraits.

At The Thirsty Pig, in the Old Port, owner Allison Stevens says she sees positive family experiences in the restaurant “almost every week” even though the establishment doesn’t explicitly promote family-centric dining or events. “We had an eight-year-old girl enter our Oktoberfest sausage-eating contest against ten grown men, and she won!” Stevens said. “She then ordered a quesadilla after. I was so proud.”

So what’s the best way to find out if a brewery or bar in Maine is family-friendly? Stop by and say hello. More often than not, you’ll find what you need.