The Trillium Brewing Co. beer garden on the Greenway might be the last place you expect to find state Senator Nick Collins.
But there he was on a recent Friday afternoon, knocking back the brewery’s Fort Point pale ale, explaining to me how he loves beer gardens — even though the Southie Democrat is cosponsoring a bill that would pretty much kill them.
“We’re not looking to put anyone out of business,” Collins assured me as we sat at a long table amid a crowd that ranged from men in suits to parents with strollers.
Collins wants to limit the one-day alcohol licenses under which beer gardens currently operate. The problem is the bill would have the unintended consequence of hurting nonprofits such as the Boston Children’s Museum or the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which rely on these temporary licenses to host events.
After his proposal sparked an outcry in those quarters, Collins has now modified his position to support a state seasonal beer garden license. His ultimate goal: “You have to have rules everyone follows,” he said.
Last week, a House subcommittee on temporary liquor licenses held its first hearing on Collins’s bill. Its chairman, Representative Jonathan Zlotnik, a Gardner Democrat, told me it’s too early to say whether the committee will recommend creating a new category of licenses, but he acknowledges there is “dissatisfaction” with the current process.
“Whether you are a purveyor at one of these establishments or you’re the competition so to speak, we’ve heard that same sort of dissatisfaction across the board,” said Zlotnik.
Let’s be clear: I don’t think Collins’s bill is the answer to regulating beer gardens, but — at the risk of sounding like a killjoy — he’s right about the need to rewrite the rules. I love beer gardens too, but any reasonable person can see the inequity of the current system and why the state needs to come up with a better way to license beer gardens.
Consider this: A brick-and-mortar restaurant can pay close to $140,000 to secure a beer and wine license in the city of Boston. A beer garden open from mid-May to mid-October might only need to spend a little more than $10,000 by paying for a series of one-day licenses.
Like Zlotnik, I’ve heard about frustrations over the current process from all sides – brewers, restaurateurs, and regulators. Only customers are happy — they get to enjoy a cold one outdoors during Boston’s fleeting summer.
“The status quo isn’t the best,” acknowledged Rob Burns, cofounder and president of Everett’s Night Shift Brewing, which operates two beer gardens, one on the Esplanade and another in Allston. “We have to constantly pull these one-day licenses — you wonder if you are going to get the permit in time.”
Burns does not support Collins’s bill but he would consider getting behind a new kind of temporary license for beer gardens.
“There is room for improvement,” he said. “Brewers are interested in coming to a solution.”
It’s not easy for regulators, either. The City of Boston has allowed nine beer gardens this year, up from half dozen in 2018. There’s a lot of paperwork to process when brewers string together one-day licenses. City officials have also had to make adjustments, advising beer garden operators, for example, to go through a community process, which is not required of one-day license holders. The thinking is that if beer gardens will be around for several months, it’s good to let the neighbors know.
The beer garden that has raised the most eyebrows this summer is the one run by Cisco Brewers in the Seaport District. Licensed for 670 patrons, Cisco’s beer garden would easily be one of the biggest bars in the city. On a Friday night, you’ll see millennials lined up to get in as if there’s nowhere else on the South Boston Waterfront to grab a beer.
This beer garden, like others, offers a laidback appeal: beer in plastic cups, tacos, pizza, and lobster rolls from outdoor stalls, along with live music. Real bathrooms? Try porta potties.
Cisco operates on an empty parcel owned by WS Development, a major developer in the Seaport that leases space to restaurants and stores. Wouldn’t a beer garden take away business from its other tenants?
“We describe it as a symbiotic relationship between the pop-up and the permanent,” said Yanni Tsipis, a senior vice president at WS Development.
Tsipis said WS wanted a beer garden to help draw new people to the Seaport. It tested the idea by bringing in Cisco Brewers for one month last summer. The developer found that the beer garden increased foot traffic, with some tenants reporting a boost in business. “Had we seen it was hurting our bricks-and-mortar tenants we would not have done it,” said Tsipis.
But at least one nearby brewery/restaurant, Hopsters, blames a decline in business on Cisco Brewers. Last month, Hopsters filed a complaint with the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. It alleges various licensing violations and calls for the suspension of Cisco’s license for its beer garden, and others in Boston. The complaint provides a window into how brewers have created multiple entities to comply with state liquor laws, which only allows a person or organization to obtain up to 30 one-day licenses. To operate a beer garden from May to October, Cisco uses five entities, each of which the city granted a so-called special malt and liquor license for 30 days.
The chief beef from Hopsters is that not every entity followed the licensing rules, such as obtaining a proper permit from the Boston Fire Department.
“The complaint certainly identifies several corporate and regulatory issues where Cisco was just flat-out wrong, but it also sheds light on the broader public policy concern here as to how the beer gardens are twisting the letter and spirit of the regulations,” said Brian Haney, the attorney for Hopsters. “That shell game shouldn’t be allowed to continue.”
Dennis Quilty, a lawyer for Cisco Brewers, said the beer garden is in compliance with regulations. “Competitors aren’t necessarily crazy about this,” he said. “We have followed every regulation to every letter of the law.”
The ABCC confirms it has received a complaint and is looking into it. Beer gardens should bloom in Massachusetts, but not by hacking the system while regulators and policy makers, for the most part, look the other way and hope for the best. It’s not good for the integrity of alcoholic beverage laws, or the brewers who want to operate beer gardens with some level of certainty.
We’ve seen before how emerging players can disrupt staid sectors — whether it’s Uber in transportation or Airbnb in hospitality — and we’ve seen how policy makers can be slow to react.
With another beer garden season drawing to a close, lawmakers have the whole winter to figure it out. Here’s chance for the state to be on top of a business trend before more ill will brews.