On a recent Saturday afternoon at Taft’s Brewpourium in Northside, a group of fathers, pints in hand, engaged in a competitive game of cornhole with their grade-school sons and daughters.
Meanwhile, at a long picnic-style table nearby, three couples sat with their children eating New Haven-style pizza and Buffalo wings. As the parents talked about adult matters, such as work and recent home repairs, the kids busted out the Crayolas and started coloring.
Closer to the bar, a young brother and sister, exhausted after a long, hot day at Kings Island, mustered enough competitive strength to complete three matches in a row on one of the taproom's two shuffleboard tables. Children of practically every age swarmed around them with so much unbridled joy you would think you were at a child’s birthday party instead of a brewery.
It’s a scene that’s not uncommon in Cincinnati, home to dozens of taprooms and breweries. And at many area breweries, it’s the new norm.
Adults who grew up in the Tri-State might remember sitting with their parents over french fries and Cokes at places like Perkins or McDonald’s, Friendly’s or TGI Fridays. But today’s kids are more likely to find themselves devouring a grilled cheese sandwich while engaged in a game of Jenga, while Mom and Pop ponder the merits of a just-released pilsner or IPA.
And while the idea of taking a child to what’s essentially a bar gives some parents pause, others are ecstatic to have so many establishments around town that provide an opportunity for grown-ups to be grown-ups -- and kids to be kids.
“I love going to breweries as a family, because they are more casual than a restaurant,” said Amy Leibrock of Columbia-Tusculum. Leibrock, along with her husband, Peter, often takes her 9-year-old daughter, Neala, to Taft’s, as well as other area breweries.
“There’s less pressure for kids to sit at a table for a long time," she said. "Some provide games, or you can bring them yourself.”
It’s not just the customers who find the family-friendly vibe appealing. Brewery owners and managers say they love that they can help patrons build family and community relations, too.
“I think it’s great,” said Mike Stuart, director of people and social strategy at MadTree Brewing, a cavernous, kid-friendly space that houses a taproom and a restaurant that serves pizza, hummus and other family-friendly fare, as well as an occasional marketplace. MadTree also offers free Wi-Fi so kids can hop on their iPads or other devices.
“It’s nice to see families just hanging out and enjoying themselves in a place that’s kid friendly, but not like Chuck E. Cheese,” Stuart said.
Looking at the websites of most area breweries, it seems that providing a family-friendly atmosphere is more of a requirement than an option.
Brink Brewing Co. in College Hill offers a dedicated "Kids Corner" with art supplies, as well as a life-sized Scrabble board. Rivertown Brewery in Middletown has face painting and balloon animals on Mondays, and Sundays at West Side Brewing offer board games, Rock ‘em Sock ‘em robots, and -- best of all -- root beer floats. And in addition to board games and cornhole, Taft’s Northside location also offers kid movie nights. (Recent selections have included "Frozen," "The Lion King" and "Captain Nemo.")
In many ways, the taproom as family gathering spot is nothing new to a city like Cincinnati, where, as far back as the 1800s, German beer halls in Over-the-Rhine were filled with families playing and sometimes even imbibing together.
According to Christine Sismondo, author of "America Walks into a Bar," European immigrants were the ones who brought along the “template of the modern beer hall.”
“They were usually bright, and they were usually pretty large, and they were definitely full of families,” she recently told the online publication Vox.
Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association, said the growing popularity of family-friendly breweries is also part of a national trend of Americans going out to dinner a lot more than they used to do. In 1955, according to Riehle, Americans spent about 25% of their food spending on restaurants. These days it’s up to 51%.
“Not surprisingly, locally produced alcohol, including beer, is one of the most important trends right now,” said Riehle. And while breweries are reaping the benefits, all restaurants -- from family friendly to formal -- are getting in on the action.
“By and large, restaurants operators are focusing more on alcoholic beverage offerings because consumer expectations in that area have definitely grown.”
Perhaps nowhere is the kid-friendly brewery vibe more proudly on display than at Fifty West Production Works. Just across from the brewery’s original location on Wooster Pike, you’ll find a family-oriented outdoor recreation area with volleyball courts (one designated for kids), a bike shop and Roadside Grill, a casual restaurant with a kids menu featuring burgers and grilled cheese, and the option for little ones to pour their own root beer straight from the barrel.
Asked why the brewery decided to put more focus on kids, James Gilligan, general manager of food and beverage operations for Fifty West, said it was a no-brainer.
“People are more open to taking the family out with them,” he said. “And because breweries are a little more casual than most restaurants, it’s a natural fit for kids.”
Gilligan also said Fifty West provides an alternative for friends to get together without worrying about getting a good sitter or entertaining at home.
“Breweries are a great way to socialize with other families without having to clean your house.” said Leibrock of Columbia-Tusculum. “There’s usually something for everyone. Beer for the grown-ups, games or space to play for the kids and usually some good food. I know that being 'kid-friendly”' can mean more work for staff, but I really appreciate it when breweries welcome and encourage it.”