History tapped: Beer garden opens at Independence Mall

Mike Yip of Folsom, Atlantic County, was the first served at Independence Beer Garden, on Sixth Street between Market, Chestnut. "You literally don't feel like you're in Philadelphia," said owner Michael Schulson. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Mike Yip of Folsom, Atlantic County, was the first served at Independence Beer Garden, on Sixth Street between Market, Chestnut. "You literally don't feel like you're in Philadelphia," said owner Michael Schulson. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 17, 2014

Just across from the Liberty Bell, another homage to America's roots opened Tuesday afternoon: a beer garden highlighting the country's own brews.

Independence Beer Garden, located on the west side of Independence Mall at the foot of the Dow Chemical building, served its first glass just before 4 p.m.

Michael Schulson, a 41-year-old chef who also owns Philadelphia's Sampan restaurant, always wanted to open a beer garden. Now, after a few hiccups that delayed the opening, he finally has.

With 20 American beers on tap, the "garden" is big - approximately 22,000 square feet. But it doesn't look that way. The space is divided into sections with picnic and fire pit areas, several bars, even outdoor games.

The sections give off different vibes - there's what Schulson calls the "touristy" area, directly across from the bell. The game area includes bocce and ping-pong and is supposed to add shuffleboard soon. In the fire pit, guests can make their own s'mores and sit on Adirondack chairs.

"You literally don't feel like you're in Philadelphia," Schulson said.

That is, until you look east. There's the bell, and a few steps away, Independence Hall.

The menu offers snacks like pretzel bites and onion rings, and more substantive bar staples like chicken tenders and fish and chips.

Beer has a long history on this spot. Coxey Toogood, a historian with the Independence National Historical Park, said breweries and taverns dotted the area in the days of the founding fathers. In the 1780s, she said, a brewery stood near Sixth and Market Streets, not far from where the beer garden has sprouted.

"It's practically on the archaeology of a brewery," Toogood said.

Beer was popular in the founders' era, Toogood said - largely because water was often unsafe for drinking. People doubted their water back then, the historian said, because wells were often near outhouses.

But the founders might not recognize today's beers.

"I think that if an 18th-century person came back and saw our plastic bottles, they'd be shocked," Toogood said.

They might marvel, too, at some of the garden's menu items - pretzel bits, onion rings, and chicken tenders, served on paper plates with plastic silverware - and at the place's design. It was done by Groundswell Design Group, whose principal, David Fierabend, said the goal was to create a "traditional beer garden with an industrial twist."

It was made with repurposed materials - the bathrooms and kitchen, for example, are housed in old shipping containers.

Fierabend said the project faces its share of obstacles. There's the fact that the building it surrounds - Dow Chemical - is historic in its own right. But Fierabend said he doesn't mind. "We take the space and embrace it instead of obliterate it."

Katie Bonkoski, 30, arrived with a friend shortly before the official 4 p.m. opening. Bonkoski knew what she'd be ordering.

"Beer gardens are meant to serve beer," she said.

She found the space "aesthetically beautiful" and inviting.

Given the location, Bonkoski predicted it would make people more interested in city history. "It's the closest I've been to the Liberty Bell since grade school," she said.

Mike Yip, 55, works across the street at the U.S. courthouse. He arrived at 3:30 p.m. - he'd been told that's when the garden would open - and sat at one of the picnic tables under cover, eagerly awaiting a cold one on the muggy Tuesday afternoon. He said he didn't mind the wait.

"I'm here, I'm staying," he said with a laugh. He became the garden's first official customer - the bartender rewarded his patience by serving him before 4 p.m.

He ordered a Samuel Adams.


CFabris@phillynews.com

215-854-5607

@CaseyFabris

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