Beer Gardens are Growing in Connecticut
A splendid time is guaranteed for all at Old Heidelberg in Bethel.
“Biergarten.” The word evokes a convivial Bavarian tradition. Outdoors-loving people gathered at long, narrow tables, gravel underfoot and big, leafy trees overhead. Lifting tall, cool foam-topped glasses of beer to their lips. Beer gardens are casual and fun. And they’re a hot trend right now in Connecticut, spurred on by the craft-beer movement. Not one but two large-scale contemporary versions just opened in Stamford, inspired by the recent flowering of beer gardens in New York. In South Norwalk, SoNo Marketplace has opened a beer garden across from its farmer’s market. Other more classic beer gardens around the state have been purveying brews and good times for years. Here’s the cream of the crop.
The Beer Garden @ Harbor Point in Stamford is a 300-seat, indoor/outdoor, industrial-waterfront scene. The throngs descended on day one, and owner Johnny Heil ordered more German beer garden tables the next day. Now the long, narrow, blonde-wood-topped tables are occupied by groups of people who’ve just come from the office, or stopped in after a baseball game, or were walking their dogs on the boardwalk and decided to enjoy the day even more with a beer. In the evening, the sun sets across the canal, against a background of barges. The interior of The Beer Garden, a two-story steel-and-glass box with retractable windows open to the breeze, is clubby—music pumps in this open space of polished concrete floors, walls lined with wood pallets reclaimed from Harbor Point construction, and copper bistro chairs. The walls are decorated with eye-catching framed installations of live moss.
There are 24 beers on tap, including selections from Connecticut breweries like Thomas Hooker (Hartford), Two Roads (Stratford) and Charter Oak (New Canaan), and regional brews like Dogfish Head and Captain Lawrence. Curious Traveler Shandy, a wheat beer infused with lemon and lime, is a top-seller. In Germany, people are allowed to bring their own food to beer gardens, lending a relaxed picnic air. Here, you grab something from one of the gourmet food trucks parked nearby: a lobster roll from Lobstercraft, Caribbean food from Maddy’s, an organic thin-crust pizza from Skinny Pines. A kitchen will be built this winter.
Landmark Biergarten at Station Eats in downtown Stamford also has a contemporary vibe. The second-story patio outside organic fast-food restaurant Station Eats seats 80 at German beer garden tables topped with bright orange and blue umbrellas. Candles and grey-leaved plants in orange planters decorate the tables. The oak-and-cherry wood bar built by a local craftsman offers a rotating selection of taps that can include Brooklyn Lager, Dogfish Head IPA, Half Full (brewed just two miles from here), Coors and PBR. All pints are $6 to encourage those who might order by price to try a (usually more expensive) craft beer. Station Eats keeps the food prices down, too. The idea is fast, casual—healthy—food for under $10, e.g., grass-fed beef burgers and dogs, fries and fixings made from organically raised produce. Co-owner Nick Type has recently added some German-inspired dishes like bratwurst on a pretzel roll, and brats and pork belly braised in beer and sauerkraut.
In Westport, the popular Bobby Q’s Rooftop Beer Garden is open for its second summer. For people who count beer and barbecue right up there with wine and cheese or milk and cookies when it comes to world-class combinations, this is the place. Order the pit-smoked barbecue in the restaurant downstairs, then bring it up to a picnic table on the roof and dig in beneath a string of lights overlooking Main Street. There are 12 taps at the rooftop bar, and owner Bobby LeRose says the key is rotating draft lines. “Brewers are always coming out with new beers and people want to try something new,” he says. One of the newest is a wheat IPA from Two Roads in Stratford. Or try a super-hoppy high-alcohol India Pale Ale (IPA) like LaGunitas (California) or a lime-infused summer ale from Samuel Adams. The biggest seller here is Stella Artois (“The Bud of Belgium,” sniff craft-brew snobs). Live music plays on weekends.
A traditional German beer garden can be found at the Old Heidelberg, celebrating its 10th anniversary in Bethel. Behind the cozy-looking building on Stony Hill Road is a gravel-lined beer garden filled with long tables and festive umbrellas, shaded by a giant maple tree. A picket fence keeps the kids’ play area separate, but the whole vibe is family-friendly and mellow. Old Heidelberg offers 40 rotating seasonal drafts and bottles, mostly German, with a few from Austria. The most popular drafts are the Radenburger pilsner (light and dry), the Hofbräu dunkel (dark, sweeter) and hefeweizen (spicy wheat beer). Owner Alex Tucker has sought out German craft beers from Apostel Bräu, Erdinger and Hofstetter. He says the American craft beer movement, with its pushing of the boundaries of traditional beer styles, has gotten German brewers to up their game. “They’re brewing in untraditional ways, using different yeast strains and importing hops from other regions,” he says.
The cooking is simple here, and the most popular dish is the hulking roasted pork shank, Bavarian schweinshaxe, golden-brown crackling skin encasing tender, slow-cooked pork. When Tucker bought the restaurant two years ago, he knew he had to keep it on the menu. Actually, he kept the entire staff, including the German chef. The salad platter, offering four German salads, potato, cucumber, cabbage and carrot, arrives heaped together and topped with lettuce. The cucumbers are thickly sliced (a German grandmother would say they should be thin). The cabbage salad is dressed with bacon and vinegar. The sausage plate offers a choice of six imported from Germany, including the pale veal weisswurst, skinny pork Nürnberger and smoked-beef grobe rindswurst. The atmosphere and the view (of a field and trees in the distance) is transporting. On weekends, a three-piece oompah band plays.
East Side Restaurant in New Britain is Connecticut’s oldest German restaurant. The location on a residential street, seems like an odd place to find a restaurant, but the restaurant opened 70 years ago, back when a trolley ran down the center of Whitney Avenue. The beer garden was opened in 2009 on a second-story deck that seats more than 120. With lederhosen-wearing servers shouting “Ticki Tocki Ticki Tocki—Hoy! Hoy! Hoy!” (words not found in my German-English dictionary) as they deliver enormous 1-liter steins of beer and an accordionist playing toe-tapping music, this place is so over-the-top, you just have to join in the fun. Even when dirndl-clad waitresses deliver “small” (half-liter!) beers with a mocking “Teeny, teeny, teeny, ha, ha, ha.” As for the touristy, 2-liter “das boot” beer in a souvenir glass boot? No comment. East Side offers seven draft German beers on tap, including, Warsteiner Pilsner, Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse, Warsteiner Dunkel and Hofbräu Original.
German potato pancakes are house-made with shredded potatoes fried crisp, golden-brown. Coleslaw is finely shredded, crisp and vinegary. A specialty here is the “meter board,” a 3.3-foot board heaped with enough sausages or potato pancakes to feed six to eight people. The bratwurst, knockwurst and “German sausage” (very similar to kielbasa) are made locally, some from Adolph’s Meats in Hartford. A side order of spätzle tastes even better if you ask the waitress to bring sour cream gravy.
Warning: The brobdingnagian beers and portions here take their toll. When the accordionist starts playing “Smoke on the Water,” you may have had your fill.
SoNo Marketplace Beer Garden opened at the end of June. In the gravel courtyard, across from the farmers’ market, there’s now a bar offering 12 beers on tap and in bottles, including choices from Two Roads, Thomas Hooker and Relic Brewing in Plainville. You can pick up food inside: a foot-long hot dog on a pretzel roll from Festivities Eatery, pizza from Wise Guys Pizza Pies, even oysters and clams on the half-shell at Bloom Brothers. Other vendors offer cheese and fruit platters, fish tacos, sushi, and fish and chips. Note: The SoNo beer garden is open Thursday through Sunday.
Okay, it may not be exactly a beer garden, but it’s still one of the best places around to drink good beer in a casual, convivial outdoor setting. Eli Cannon’s Tap Room in Middletown was on the cutting edge of microbrewing when it opened 20 years ago. In the beginning there were six taps; today, there are 36. IPAs and wheat beers are the most popular in the summer, as are the five-beer flights. Three outdoor seating areas include a sandy beach area, a “New Orleans” bricked area, and “the cage,” with a black-linked fence and motorcycle theme. The food is American—burgers, wings and nachos—and the atmosphere’s fun.
The beer garden at Angelico’s Lake House Restaurant, overlooking Lake Pocotopaug in Hampton, has an outdoor crushed stone dining area that offers 15 craft beers. Owner Paul Angelico looks for “stuff that is different.” His customers “are willing to experiment more,” he says. “There’s been a huge uptick in interest.” Angelico’s has a festive summer atmosphere, celebrating community events like July’s boat parade (you can watch it from your table), and throwing an occasional beer dinner. (There’s a beer and cigar dinner July 25.) The menu is American with a focus on seafood: lobster quesadilla, Rhode Island-style calamari and lump crab cakes with roasted-corn salad. On weekends, there’s live music and dancing.
The Beer Garden at Gelston House in East Haddam, popular over 40 years ago, once offered 45 beers. Today, it’s a beer garden in name only, with 12 mostly standard offerings plus Goose Island IPA and Shock Top Belgian White. Still, the big patio overlooking the Connecticut River and Goodspeed Opera House remains one of the loveliest places there is to hoist a brew.