Some of River Rat brewery’s favorite and most loyal customers can’t even drink the beer.
There’s Ethan, the 5-year-old inspirational leader of a weekly trivia team: “Ethan’s Drinking Buddies.”
Then there’s Mike and Ella Grace, the brewery owners’ 3-year-old twins who “fixed” the outdoor skeleton decoration with green tape sometime between running in and out of the playhouse and eating ice pops sold at the bar.
Turns out, alcohol and kids can mix just fine, much to the pleasure of fun-loving parents. And it’s a growing trend around Columbia to see full families enjoying themselves at traditionally alcohol-centered establishments.
“We’re not a bar, per se,” said Mike Tourville, owner of River Rat on Shop Road. “There’s not people here chasing women. There’s not women here chasing guys.
“It’s social groups. It’s people coming after work,” he said. “And it’s families who just want to come here, let their kids run around, talk to their friends, glance at their kids to make sure they’re not doing something crazy. And they just want to have fun. We’re a community center with alcohol.”
What was once thought of as a strictly grown-up environment is becoming increasingly kid-friendly for some Columbia drinking spots.
But not all, of course. You likely won’t find kids running around your classic dim-lit, close-quartered bar while their parents sip a drink or few.
In Columbia, traditional bars like Taneyhill’s Group Therapy in Five Points don’t draw many, if any, little ones.
“I guess it’s a parent preference, but I don’t see that at my bar, for sure,” said Group Therapy owner Steve Taneyhill, a former USC quarterback. “I don’t know that it’s not a good environment; I just think it’s a traditional bar.”
But places like River Rat or Swamp Cabbage or Conquest breweries tend to have an atmosphere less like a bar and more like a community park or a neighborhood backyard party where there just happens to be beer, too.
“It’s kind of the whole craft vibe,” said Mike Taylor, owner of Conquest Brewing on South Stadium Road, where parents often bring their kids for football tailgates and birthday parties and bike-riding meetups. “People that gravitate toward craft beer aren’t here to get hammered. ... The folks that tend to follow craft beer tend to come for the taste of the beer and the experience of the brewery.”
The young-professional age group, in their 20s and 30s, is the biggest consumption group for craft beer, said Andrew Johnson, co-owner of Craft and Draft beer store and taproom on Devine Street. And in that same group are folks who are likely to be just starting families.
“So it just makes sense from a business sense to cater to that demographic,” said Johnson, who sometimes can be found pouring beers behind the bar at Craft and Draft with his year-old son, Henry, strapped to his chest.
It’s important to Johnson to invite his young son into his social life by bringing Henry along to places where his adult friends bond over drinks, Johnson said.
“It’s a time for us to be social as a family and for him to understand social structures around what we do and what makes us happy. And part of that is being around friends and family,” Johnson said. “It also introduces him to the beer environment. The earlier he’s introduced to a friendly, family environment that involves beer, the less likely he’ll be to abuse it.”
Kids start forming impressions about alcohol at around 8 years old, said Steven Burritt, the S.C. director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
Watching adults drink responsibly or recklessly can send either a positive or negative message to children about how to behave with alcohol, Burritt said. And those situations can set up opportunities for parents to talk to their kids about alcohol use and consequences, he said.
“With underage drinking being a very prevalent risky behavior for youth, it’s always important to think about the messages they’re receiving,” Burritt said.
Another factor behind breweries’ rise as kid-friendly drinking places is the loosening of South Carolina laws applying to breweries, making it easier for those environments to thrive.
In 2013, lawmakers increased how much beer customers can drink in a brewery taproom to 48 ounces – or three pints – from just 16 ounces. Since then, three craft beer breweries have opened in Columbia.
And this year, the General Assembly passed a law that allows breweries to serve liquor in their taprooms. That opens the door for Columbia’s popular Hunter-Gatherer downtown brewpub to expand to a new brewery and taproom, expected to open soon in the Rosewood area.
“The venues have changed because the laws have changed. It’s now more feasible to operate a taproom,” Johnson said. “It’s allowed us to grow our creativity a little bit.”
And for Columbia breweries, that environmental creativity has grown with their customers’ families.
At River Rat on a recent weeknight, George Cooper sat at an outdoor picnic table over a Victim rye beer and a plate of barbecue nachos, watching his almost 2-year-old, Molly, run in and out of the plastic playset in the yard.
“We’ll occasionally do babies and beers days with a couple of people we know – have a couple of beers and let them run around, get into baby shenanigans,” he said. “I feel like it’s acceptable, you know. I’m not going to take her to, like, Bar None or Group Therapy.”
But here, he said, “It’s like a neighborhood playground that serves concessions.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.