The blueprints for Lake Monster Brewing included a small stage for live music in the brewery and taproom in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. But when the acoustics in the former railroad warehouse proved challenging, the owners decided to think small.
They added a miniature table, tiny chairs and shelves of toys, turning the raised platform from a stage into a kids’ corner.
“It’s our intention to be a comfortable place where people can gather — with their kids,” said co-founder Matt Zanetti, 42, the father of a 3-year-old boy.
Zanetti’s move seems to be paying off. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the kids’ corner was as busy as the rest of the taproom.
Lisa Berg savored a Lake Monster beer and chatted with her husband and brother-in-law while her 2-year-old daughter stacked blocks and her nieces, ages 8 and 10, sipped root beer.
“It’s nice for us to get out together and go someplace that’s not always another playground,” said Berg, 33, a Minneapolis travel consultant.
But Berg admits that the babies-and-breweries concept is novel to her.
“My parents would have never taken me to a place like this,” she said. “Not that there were places like this when I was a kid.”
The number of craft breweries in the state has skyrocketed, jumping to 158 in 2017 from just 35 in 2001, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group for small and independent breweries. Many are tapping into the desire of parents who want to sample a fresh local brew without calling a babysitter.
Some of the most popular taprooms in the Twin Cities now offer a range of family-friendly accommodations: play areas, bar-height highchairs, lower tables to accommodate strollers and family bathrooms with changing tables. Some have toys, books and games and sell sodas and juice boxes. Meet Minneapolis, the city’s convention and visitors association, even offers a list of the 20 best family-friendly breweries in town (minneapolis.org/food-drink/breweries/family-pet-friendly-breweries).
While not everyone wants to sip suds next to a toddler, many brewery visitors say the all-ages welcome is appropriate for taprooms, which have a more casual, open vibe than bars. Others say it’s another sign that millennials are driving the craft brewery movement.
“This is the generation that puts their kid on the bike with them, travels around the world with them,” said Mary Meehan, consumer strategist and co-founder of Minneapolis-based Panoramix Global. “So it makes sense that they would bring their kids to the brewery.”
The craft breweries were just gaining a foothold as millennials were reaching drinking age. Today, 58 percent of craft beer drinkers are younger than 35, according to research from the marketing firm XenoPsi.
“The small and independent breweries are all about community,” said Jess Baker, editor at CraftBeer.com.
Across the country, state and local laws that had restricted children from taprooms have been rescinded, she said. And breweries have embraced families, sponsoring petting zoos, visits from Santa and Easter egg hunts. Baker’s friends even hosted a baby shower for her — at a brewery, of course.
“A big change is that these spaces aren’t smoky anymore,” said Baker. “That makes them more wholesome for kids.”
Three years ago, Ian Kushner became a dad about the same time as two of his buddies did. The three fathers began looking for a place to meet, catch up and enjoy a beer together, with babies in tow. Breweries quickly became their go-to spot.
“They’re affordable, laid back and a little kid noise is no big deal,” said Kushner, 34, of Minneapolis.
Another plus: “It’s easy to leave quickly if things go south,” he said. “It’s not like a restaurant where you’re stuck ’til the end of the meal.”
Broken Clock Brewing Cooperative in northeast Minneapolis is in the midst of a major expansion. As it more than quadruples in size, a waist-high wall will mark off the children’s area.
“We built this with input from parents,” said co-founder Jeremy Gharineh, 35, of Columbia Heights. “We asked them to dream the design with us and this came out of the feedback of what the community wanted.”
It’s also what Gharineh, the father of a 5-year-old girl, and his wife wanted. They often bring their daughter to the brewery after work.
“We have a busy schedule and it’s a lot of work to host friends, but it’s easy for us to go to the taproom, eat at the food truck,” said Gharineh. “The kids play and we catch up with friends.”
Under the co-op structure, Broken Clock has members rather than customers; about 400 of them own a share of the brewery. Gharineh says members are motivated to join the neighborhood-like camaraderie.
“It’s intentional that we know each other’s names. We’re living life together, going through the milestones,” he said.
Not everyone is on board with the bring-the-whole-family approach, however.
Jordan Hansen, a clinician at Hazelden Betty Ford, sees the potential for trouble when children regularly spend time in an environment that revolves around intoxicating beverages.
“Not to say we need to revisit Prohibition, but we ought to think harder about how much we want to continue normalizing drinking as a family activity,” said Hansen, who is in recovery.
Calling alcohol an accessible, affordable and socially acceptable drug, Hansen said he’s concerned that the acceptability of breweries as family hangouts is a problem for the small percentage of adults who are susceptible to addiction.
“Most people at breweries could have fun if the taps weren’t working,” he said. “But for those of us who lack the ability to engage safely, the fantasy is: ‘Look how nice this is. I can’t have a substance use disorder. I drink good beer, and I’m with friends.’ The sense of community and the classy environment can mask alcohol use problems.”
And some brewery patrons are less than enthusiastic — and very vocal — about children in taprooms.
In July, the question of whether kids belong in breweries snagged the attention of #beertwitter. Plenty of people tweeted that they didn’t like the idea. (“I’m opposed to getting the side eye from parents who judge the content of my conversation while I’m on my fourth beer.” “Let it be known that I am 100% okay with kids in taprooms as long as they are neither seen nor heard.”)
But an equal number chimed in with support for the presence of the younger set. (“Kids should absolutely be able to associate responsible consumption of alcohol by parents in a social setting.” “There have been kids at every tasting room I’ve visited today and it feels completely normal. #whyisthisaproblem.”)
Family-friendly operators say they’ve been dissed online by patrons who complain about kids’ areas and omnipresent strollers.
But Lake Monster’s Zanetti has little patience for the “get off my lawn” attitude.
He suggests that beer lovers who want to drink in adults-only places seek out taprooms that prohibit anyone under 21.
“Or just go to a regular bar if you don’t want to be around kids,” he said. “Our business model is to welcome families.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.