For the fifth summer in a row, thousands of people have flocked to Milwaukee County’s beer gardens to sample an array of beer and kick back with family and friends. The county experimented with the idea in 2012 – and now more beer gardens are popping up across the area. They appear to have accomplished their purpose of bringing people back to the parks.
It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, but the gloomy weather hasn’t stopped dozens of people from packing into the beer garden at Estabrook Park in Shorewood. A band is playing a polka tune, while patrons sit at picnic tables – sometimes for hours -- drinking beer from glass steins.
Kathy Mitich lives nearby – she says she and her family are frequent visitors; they’ve been coming here since the beer garden first opened in 2012. She says she loves the relaxed vibe.
“You can bring your snacks, you can stay awhile, you’re not in a hurry, you can bring your dog, your kids, we brought our grandpa today,” Mitich says.
Mitich says before the beer garden opened, her family ignored the park because she didn’t think it was safe. Assistant Business Developer Joe Mrozinski says when the Estabrook beer garden opened five years ago, parks were facing declining numbers of visitors and budget challenges. He says the county had bounced around a number of ideas to establish a dedicated funding source. Then, a local restaurant owner shared his vision.
“Hans Weissgerber came to the parks department and gave us the idea of bringing back beer gardens to the parks. They had been gone for many decades and he had frequently visited Germany and saw the beer gardens and saw great potential in the Milwaukee County Parks to reintroduce those to the area,” Mrozinski says.
Mrozinski says the idea gained traction, and the county opened its first beer garden at Estabrook Park. He says people flocked to the place, and it solved some of the issues the park was experiencing, including concerns about crime.
“Now it’s full of families and neighbors and people gathering and a busy park is a safe park. The police and sheriff calls for vandalism have been almost nonexistent, which wasn’t the case before those beer gardens existed,” he says.
Mrozinski says the county also partnered with other private businesses. Now it has beer gardens in five parks, during the warmer months. And a traveling beer garden makes its way across a dozen county parks for two week intervals.
Mrozinski says the beer gardens have seen financial success as well. In the first year, they generated $82,000 for the parks system. This year, that figure is estimated at $1.7 million. Mrozinski says revenue generated from the beer gardens has been put toward significant improvements.
“Renovating bathrooms, making parks more ADA accessible, energy efficient lighting, planting of trees, resurfacing of parking lots, the list goes on and on,” he exaplains.
Aside from bringing in money and visitors to the parks, the beer gardens tap into a sense of nostalgia, according to Milwaukee historian John Gurda. He says today’s beer gardens are a nod to the city’s German roots, and to the beer gardens set up at local breweries during the 19th century. Some were quite large, and offered a variety of family entertainment.
“They were outdoor and indoor, and all of them had some kind of a pavilion or arcade. The Pabst beer garden in town had its own kind of amusement park,” Gurda says.
Gurda says people from all walks of life flocked to the old beer gardens. Sunday was the busiest day. He says like patrons of today's beer gardens, visitors had one thing in common – they went there to relax and spend time with their families.
“(It was) their one day off and remember there was no air conditioning, no TV and no video games. We sometimes look back at those years as more virtuous because they were spending more time together,” Gurda says.
Gurda says those original beer gardens died, during Prohibition. Today’s are becoming a trend, popping up in municipalities across southeastern Wisconsin. Kenosha opened a beer garden at one of its parks this year – its parks director says the county got the idea from Milwaukee.