A July 19 post on Reddit.com’s Asheville subreddit titled “Child-Free Breweries” called out “irresponsible young parents with very young children.” Specifically named were babies who cry “as loud as the music from the loudspeakers” and neglected toddlers who “act out” and want “to run around and bang on things.”
Closing with the question of whether there are any local breweries that don’t allow children, the post quickly became one of the few on /r/Asheville to exceed 100 comments. Some replies seconded the original poster’s opinions. Others, however, broke the news that, while a handful of breweries ban people younger than 21 after a certain hour or designate specific spaces for those of legal drinking age, all Asheville-area breweries are in fact family-friendly.
“The situations where you have hordes of unruly kids beating beer drinkers with sticks or something, I think those situations are extremely limited, if they ever happen,” says Cliff Mori, owner of the Asheville beer education and brewery tour company Brew-Ed.
More often, Mori continues, one sees groups of children playing off to the side with parents casually watching them while having a pint or two. “I think that’s mostly what we see is well-behaved kids hanging out,” he says. “But if you’re really sensitive to that, and you feel like it should be an adults-only space, I could see why people would be upset by it. I just think it’s probably an unrealistic expectation more than anything else.”
The bigger picture
The welcoming environment starts with the brewery owners, and no one on the local scene wants to exclude responsible patrons. Though tasting rooms are designed as spaces for sharing beverages that can only legally be bought and consumed by adults, the presence of younger people is part of a larger social picture.
“I think in the last four years there’s been a big movement in the brewing industry that’s kind of going away from being a regional brewery to being more of a community brewery,” says Joey Justice, co-owner of Sweeten Creek Brewing. “Asheville is a great example of how a city smaller than some of the larger cities in the state can support as many breweries as it does, and a lot of it has to do with that emphasis on community — the ability to find a good, comfortable space close to home. I think that’s why you’re seeing so many of these little breweries pop up right now.”
Sweeten Creek is one of the few smaller local breweries that offers plenty of room outdoors for kids to spread out and play, a luxury more commonly available at Asheville’s larger breweries. Greg Garrison, his wife, Ashley, and their two children, ages 4 and 1, live around the corner from New Belgium Brewing Co. Other than the convenience of proximity, they regularly visit the brewery for the appeal of an open and contained space that has a parklike feel with some shade, food and, sometimes, entertainment.
“The brewery is almost secondary to the space that has been created by the brewery,” Greg Garrison says. “If you think about the number of bars in Asheville or places where you can get a drink versus places where families can take their kids and have food in an open space that’s contained and has just a free-for-all [feel], there aren’t that many. So we as parents are almost thankful for the breweries to provide this space.”
In turn, Garrison does his part to honor the trust placed in him so that his and other families can continue to enjoy the privilege of playing on New Belgium’s expansive lawn and sidewalks. Each time he and his son, Finn, get ready go to the brewery, they talk about guidelines for properly using the space. Garrison sees each visit as an opportunity to teach Finn the necessity of having control around adults, dogs and other kids, abiding by a code of conduct and being responsible, much like being in a park.
Appreciative of parents like Garrison, Brian LaFever, a child-free Asheville resident who frequents Highland Brewing Co., Asheville Pizza & Brewing and both Hi-Wire Brewing locations, has the same stance on children at breweries as he does with the presence of dogs while he enjoys a pint.
“If they’re well-behaved, supervised and unobtrusive, then I don’t really care. However, the ones who are freely roaming, unchecked [and] detracting from other patrons’ experience — that’s the problem,” LaFever says. “And being able to properly gauge said things is something best left to a jury of other patrons and staff, not the owner [or] parent, because they, of course, will typically balk at the assertion [or] accusation that their child [or] pet is anything but perfect, normally.”
Highland President Leah Wong Ashburn is committed to offering a place where all of the above may coexist, an attitude she sees as an extension of how she was raised. Accustomed to staffwide outings with her father and brewery founder Oscar Wong’s engineering company and her parents actively engaging with their neighbors wherever they’ve lived, Ashburn says it’s only natural that Highland would conduct business in a similar manner.
As the brewery has expanded, its leadership has added more space to reflect those values. Poison ivy, underbrush and other obstacles in the meadow behind the brewhouse were cleared, giving families a place to let loose in the afternoons and augmenting the expansive family-friendly taproom. Then, in 2016, Highland opened a rooftop bar for guests who are over 21 as a means of offering a balance between settings.
“You might want to have a family-friendly area one night, and you might not on another night, depending on the occasion,” Ashburn says. “I love being in either place depending on my mood and the day. I don’t want to go to a bar all the time when I want an adult atmosphere.”
Ashburn adds that Highland’s operating hours send a message regarding customer expectations. (“We’re definitely in a social time, but not night life,” she says.) Time restrictions, as well as an acute understanding of space limitations, are likewise important at Wedge Brewing Co., whose expansive courtyard naturally attracts families, but at its core is a railroad lot. To reflect that awareness and encourage harmony among patrons, owner Tim Schaller implemented a policy — documented on copious signs around the property — that children must be within 10 feet of their adult and that after 8 p.m., only people ages 21 and older are allowed.
“That started around safety. There’s the parking lot and the train comes through, and kids find their way over to the fence,” Schaller says. “Like all rules, that’s there to use if you need to. I’ve watched parents who you can tell they’re watching the kid … but if we see they don’t have an eye on them, it’s more for the ones who don’t keep track because that’s not a safe thing to do.”
Wedge trains its staff about the brewery’s approach, which, in the event of spotting a child seemingly unaccompanied, is to go up and ask as nicely as possible, “Where’s your mom or dad?” The next step is locating the parent and informing them of the 10-foot rule — also while being kind. “No one wants to be told they’re a bad parent,” Schaller says.
The Wedge staff begins talking to parents at 7:30 p.m. to let them know about the 8 p.m. policy and give them plenty of time to wrap up their visit. Exceptions are made on nights when movies are screened in the courtyard and if a family is waiting on an order from the food truck of the day, but they try to stick to the 8 p.m. curfew as much as possible.
Despite the admirable intentions at the rules’ core, they’ve been met with occasional fiery criticism from customers. One-star Facebook reviews from 2014 are still viewable online, slamming the child policy after its implementation and calling Wedge “anti-child.” Well-aware of the backlash, Schaller says the funny thing for him is that for four years in the mid-1970s, he ran a nursery on Long Island and feels at ease talking with kids, often more so than with adults.
Space for adults
In addition to highlighting these child-free spaces and times at local breweries, several posters on the Reddit thread pointed to barlike tasting rooms such as One World Brewing — which welcomes families during the day but is also adults-only after 8 p.m. — as an alternative for people who want to have a drink without having to worry about the presence of children, as well as bars themselves. Brandon Skupski, co-owner of the Crucible Bar in the River Arts District, sees his 21-and-older private club as a haven for locals from tourists and crowds, not an escape from children. Nonetheless, he never considered making Crucible family-friendly, mostly for logistical reasons.
“A place like this, it’s an adult setting, it’s a small room, it’s a bar — there’s nothing here for kids to do, and there are plenty of great places in town where they can play outside and do their thing,” he says. “Also, the chances of interacting with adults who don’t want to interact with them is much lower at somewhere like the Bywater or the Salvage Station than they would be here.”
Options are indeed plentiful for local drinkers to find a place and time that matches their expectations. But in the event that both sides of the cultural divide find themselves in the same room, Garrison still sees the potential for a shared, peaceful and enjoyable experience.
“I think that a little bit of love from one side to the other wouldn’t be a bad thing,” he says. “We’re all just people trying to hang out and do things … and experience Asheville and also be responsible at the same time as parents and individuals.”