In recent years, beer gardens have enjoyed a renaissance on the East Coast.
New ones have popped up in New York, Philadelphia and, last year, Washington. So it was with great anticipation that I went to Baltimore's new beer garden, Leinenkugel's at Power Plant Live.
I've been hearing from local beer drinkers and beer experts that it's one of the best things the Inner Harbor complex has done in a while, and they're right. The new bar lives up to the hype — its best quality is the gorgeous greenhouse that is its home, an all-glass box beautifully lighted by shiny orbs on rustic chandeliers. Its beer selection is ample, and though beer experts would have preferred more regional brews — how about some Stillwater, Leinie? — there's plenty to draw them in.
There are also some problems — the music and a water leak — that can and should be addressed, and soon.
If I'm in a good mood, it's because I was Leinenkugel's last week when the Orioles blocked the red Sox from the playoffs. A German beer garden was the perfect place to feel that kind of deliciously overwhelming schadenfreude.
The bar was lightly crowded — it was a Wednesday — and everyone had their eyes on ESPN. When Robert Andino won the game, the few people in the bar hollered and clapped. Leinenkugel's fosters community; all tables are banquet-style and three of them are circular high-tops the bar is calling "social tables." Priced at a premium, they have two mobile draft handles that are meant to be shared in a group of 10 — anyone can sit at them, but there's a $120 spending minimum to set up the kegs.
The bar itself is a beauty, a jewel box with glass walls that looks out to the rest of Power Plant Live. Stretched long like a beer hall, it's also roomy and cool — all the glass walls are retractable and can be lifted for extra air flow. Three industrial fans keep the place refreshing when the windows are down. There's one problem with the retractable walls, though. When it's raining, water seeps into the first half of the bar so that, while I was there, my table was sitting on a puddle of water. This might have been resolved by simply closing the exit to the outdoor area, a gravel patio with some benches overlooking a handsome fire pit.
Leinenkugel's is not like beer gardens of the Old Country. It is sleek and ergonomic, with tables amply spaced, a lot of room by the bar and a comfortable, inviting outdoor area. There are no oompah bands — R.E.M. and Alanis played over the speakers while I was there. And the staff doesn't wear Oktoberfest gear — my bartender wore a dress shirt and khaki shorts. This is a concept bar done the Power Plant Live way. Much like PBR Baltimore, Leinenkugel's is far from the original that inspired it. If you want kitsch and tradition, got to Blob's Park in Jessup.
Leinenkugel's beer selection is also on the revisionist side. If you're looking for the breadth and quirks of the beer menu at Max's, for instance, you won't find it here. What the menu does have is a considered mix of lagers and ales, and a range of beers that go from light to heavy. There are plenty of Leinenkugel brands, and overall there are 30 beers on tap — Flying Dog and Heavy Seas in the mix — and more than 50 bottles. (One complaint: Leinenkugel's kitchen closes at 10 p.m., a habit many Baltimore bars are guilty of. Let's put a moratorium on this, please.)
The new Leinenkugel's is in many ways the perfect spot to open Baltimore Beer Week, which starts this week. Even if Leinenkugel's doesn't live up to the rich history of beer gardens, it offers craft beer for the average beer drinker and an introduction to the larger world of microbrews.
If you go
Back story: Leinenkugel's is part of Power Plant Live's $10 million renovation, which also included the addition of a Joe Squared and the new country-western bar PBR Baltimore. In Wisconsin, the Leinenkugel's brewery has a 144-year history; this is its first brick-and-mortar store. The company won't make any money with the bar — it only provided the name and wasn't involved in the design. Jake Leinenkugel, the company's CEO, said its an attempt to broaden the company's customer base in the Mid-Atlantic region, where the brand is an up-and-comer.
Parking: Metered parking is available on Pratt Street and by Power Plant; paid parking lots are all over the Inner Harbor.
Where: 34 Market Place, Power Plant Live
Contact: 443-208-3316; http://www.leiniebeergarden.com
Open: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Friday; noon-2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Price range: Pints are $4-$8; my Fat Tire was $6.37. Food starts at $6 — for Belgian-style fries — to $20 for a Joe Squared Black Forest Pizza.