In 1989, Ray Oldenburg, an American urban sociologist, published a book titled The Great Good Place. The subtitle of the book was informative and really conveyed the essence of Oldenburg’s ideas. The subtitle was Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. In this book, and in his subsequent work, Oldenburg writes about the importance of what he calls “third places” in American culture. According to Oldenburg, Americans occupy three distinct spaces as they go about living their lives – first places (homes), second places (work places), and third places (places outside of home or work, where people congregate and interact with their peers). Stuart M. Butler and Carmen Diaz, writing for The Brookings Institution, describe Third Places as “locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships.” As the subtitle of Oldenburg’s book suggest, the types of venues that can serve as Third Places are wide ranging and run the gamut from cafes to hair salons.
Oldenburg identifies seven characteristics of Third Places. According to him:
- Third Places are neutral meeting places,
- Third places are inclusive and everyone is welcome; no one is excluded,
- Conversation is the main activity,
- Third Places have regulars; people who go there on a regular basis,
- Third Places are physically plain and have an unpretentious ambience,
- In Third Places, the mood is playful and wit is prized,
- Third a Places are a home away from home.
Oldenburg’s devotes three chapters to three types of Third Place where beer was important – the German beer garden in nineteenth century America, the English Pub, and the American tavern.
Last November, I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a small conference at Harvard University. The theme of the conference was “Shared Spaces in Smart Places”. In my presentation, I tried to make the case, that the taprooms of the modern-day craft brewery is a new type of Third Place that is emerging on the American landscape. The idea that places, such as bars, where people congregate to have a beer (and hence function as Third Places) is not new. There are a number of studies that have examined the role of pubs, particularly in rural England and Ireland, as places where people gather to drink and socialize. I am thinking in particular of the work of Ignazio Cabras and Matthew P. Mount, whose research on pubs in rural Ireland highlights the critical social role that they play. Pubs are where the community gather to celebrate the success of a local sporting team, as well as to celebrate the life of a recently departed local resident. It is where the local drama society rehearse and language classes are held. The owner/bar tender of the rural Irish pub plays a unique role in village life. He functions as a respository and dispenser of useful information, such as knowledge of casual or part-time employment opportunities that may have arisen. And in this role, he is often able to connect job seeker with job provider.
Research by Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, at Oxford University, has demonstrated the mental health benefits of going to a pub. According to Dunbar, “frequenting a local pub can directly affect peoples’ social network size and how engaged they are with their local community, which in turn can affect how satisfied they feel in life. Our social networks provide us with the single most important buffer against mental and physical illness.“ Dunbar’s research indicates that the social bonding that occurs in pubs also benefits the larger community, as it builds social capital and enhances levels of trust among individuals.
When Oldenburg published his classic work in 1989, I suspect that craft breweries were not on his radar. In 1989, there were only 215 craft breweries in the United States. The craft beer revolution was in its infancy. Had craft breweries been more prominent at that time, I suspect that they may have been a candidate for inclusion in Oldenburg’s volume. In previous blog entries, without using the term Third Place, I have alluded that this is exactly what many craft breweries function as. You can read those entries here and here. Now, while not every taproom of every craft brewery satisfies all of Oldenburg’s seven characteristics I would argue that many of them satisfy enough of them to justify the appellation of Third Place.
All across the United States, craft breweries are providing opportunities for people of like mind to come together and be a community (or rather lots of different communities). Craft breweries are designed with the larger community in mind. The space they occupy is often flexible; within a few minutes it can be transformed, for example, into a yoga studio. It is the place where Dads take their pre-schoolers to hear a story, do a craft, and enjoy a snack. It is the place where local fiber artists meet to enjoy a beer, socialize, and do some crocheting and knitting. Craft breweries all across the United States have become the meeting place for a plethora of different groups, engaged in a vast variety of activities. And it is not just in the United States, where craft breweries are meeting the needs of the community. I was in Wellington, New Zealand in November 2016. While there, I visited the Black Dog Brewing Company. As it turned out, my visit coincided with the brewery’s annual fundraiser for the Wellington branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The taproom, and sidewalk outside, were packed with beer drinkers and their dogs, who had come together to socialize while supporting a good cause.
Interestingly, a number of brewery oweners are actually aware of Oldenburg’s work and find themselves inspired by his ideas. Third Space Brewing in Milwaukee, WI opened its doors in 2013. Co-owners, Kevin Wright and Andy Gehl, met at a YMCA summer camp in Wisconsin. Summer camp is full of happy memories for Wright and Gehl. According to Wright:
“Summer camp was our third space growing up. It was like our homeland away from home. It was where I met my wife. And to me, that was what we wanted our brand and beer to represent – a place where everyone is welcome and they can come to enjoy what we’re doing and engage with others from the community.”
Colin Rath, co-owner of Migration Brewing in Portland, OR has a degree in Community Development from Portland State University. It was while studying for this degree that he heard about Oldenburg’s Third Places. When he opened Migration in 2010, he envisioned that it would be a Third Place, for those living in the neighborhood. In discussing his brewery Rath stares that:
“What we’ve created is what’s known as a third space…[Migration is] a place for the community to come together, that hosts the community and a place that engages with the community and helps facilitate other people’s dreams and aspirations. It’s a place for people to celebrate, to mourn, to raise money for a cause or whatever their thing may be.”
You can watch an interview with Rath here.
Other breweries, around the country are equally up front about what they are trying to achieve in their taprooms. Monday Night Brewing in Atlanta, GA state that “Monday Night Brewing exists to deepen human relationships over some of the best beer in the country”, while the Black Cloister Brewing Company in Toledo, OH highlight their “desire to build community in Toledo.”
Breweries deploy a number of strategies to create tasting rooms conducive to social interaction. The aforementioned, Black Cloister Brewing Company, has no television screens in its taproom. The underlying logic is that television are distractions and stifle human interaction. Renegade Brewing Company in Denver, CO, share this philosophy. On their website they note:
“Our tasting room doesn’t have TV’s; it doesn’t need to. Instead of screens flashing advertisements and running results of the latest game, you’ll see the room filled with friends and families and you’ll hear the rumble of conversation accented with laughter. The tasting room is where our community comes together. It is where friendships are made, rekindled, or strengthened. Our beer is the closest we can get to packaging that feeling of belonging and community.”
I have visited literally dozens of craft breweries all across the United States. I have read about the activities of dozens more from their websites and media articles. Based upon what I have seen and read, it is my opinion that many craft breweries are intentionally and strategically embedding themselves within their respective communities. My choice of the word embedding in the previous sentence is intentional. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, embed means “to make something an integral part of”. This, I believe, is what many craft brewery owners are doing. The are making their breweries an integral part of their communities, while simultaneously making the communities an integral part of their breweries. And, in doing so, they are creating a symbiotic relationship that is strengthening the social fabric of the towns and cities that Americans call home.
Cabras, Ignazio and Matthew P. Mount. 2017. How third places foster and shape community cohesion, economic development and social capital: The case of pubs in rural Ireland. Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 55, pp. 71-82.
Dunbar, R. I. M, Jacques Launay, Rafael Wlodarski, Cole Robertson, Eiluned Pearce, James Carney, and Pádraig MacCarron. 2017. Functional benefits of (modest) alcohol consumption. Adaptive Human Behavior and Phisiology, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp. 113-133.
Oldenburg, Ray. 1989. The Great Good Place. De Capo Press: Cambridge, MA.