On a scorching hot Wednesday night in July, Kyle Hanson and Shawn Bohlender cooled off with $5 pitchers of Budweiser in the Rose and Crown beer garden.
The beer garden — an elevated wooden patio shaded by trees and filled with wrought-iron furniture — feels more like someone's backyard (albeit a fancy, spacious backyard) or a secret garden than an extension of a dive bar with steel-bar-covered windows at 20th Street and St. Marys Avenue.
Hanson and Bohlender treat the beer garden like a backyard hangout, too. Bohlender occasionally brings his pet ferret, Ferret McKinley, who sometimes plays with a friend's pitbull that also frequents the bar. Strangers in the small space share lighters and tables and conversations as well, especially when the popular space fills up as it does frequently in the spring, summer and fall.
It's a scene that repeats itself all over Omaha — in Benson beer gardens at the Sydney and Krug Park, on the cozy outdoor patios at Dundee Cork and Bottle and downtown at La Buvette, and elsewhere in town.
Something about being outdoors on a summer night makes people relax and let down their guard a bit, Bohlender said.
That's certainly the case at the Rose and Crown.
“It's like a hippie Cheers,” said Hanson.
The Rose and Crown's beer garden begins to fill up around the same time each year, said bar manager Trenton Harbour. Beer garden season begins in the early spring, usually when it's still cold.
“People always kind of jump the gun because they miss it, and they're out there and it's low 50s,” he said. “They want it to be spring and summer already.”
When spring and summer do roll around, it's often standing room only, Harbour said. A few nights a week, the beer garden is the setting for live acoustic music. The outdoor shows have proved popular, he said. But even with organized entertainment, the beer garden has maintained its chill vibe; a few weeks ago, the entertainment included a woman with a ukulele who showed up thinking it was an open mic night. A band was already booked, but they let her join in, and she played for hours. Harbour was impressed and booked her again for tonight.
At the Brass Monkey, 36th and V Streets, a relatively new, two-level beer garden with an outdoor bar and a roof has become a popular setting for events. A beer-pong birthday party was held in the space a few weeks ago, as was a high-school graduation party for the owners' daughter, said bartender Jo-Anna Gill.
Gill sipped a Blue Moon beer after her shift ended one night, as her husband, John Gill, drank a Miller Light. The two live nearby in the house that John Gill grew up in. John Gill has visited the bar throughout much of his adult life. Like Hanson and Bohlender, he treats his neighborhood beer garden like an extension of his backyard.
From the Brass Monkey's beer garden, you can see the rooftops and trees of neighboring yards and hear “La Cucaracha” blaring on the horn of a passing car. John Gill, who is more than six feet tall, has been summoned to shoo away wasp nests in the beer garden and change light bulbs. It truly does feel more like a backyard patio, if that backyard patio happened to included a keno screen.
“I do think this is one of the more picturesque decks,” Jo-Anna Gill said.
The crowd is diverse, she said. Smokers, naturally, are drawn to the deck, but so are bar patrons of all ages, regulars and newcomers. Bikers mix with beer snobs, college students with old neighborhood regulars.
Wherever the beer garden, patrons are all drawn by the same things — a warm night, a cold drink and a place to sit outdoors.
Harbour, of the Rose and Crown, put it this way:
“It's kind of like an oasis downtown.”