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America's best beer gardens

Courtesy of The Mecklenburg Gardens

Founded in 1865, Mecklenburg Gardens is the oldest continually running restaurant and beer garden in Cincinnati. Imbibing takes place underneath 100-year-old grape vines.

Philadelphia-based Stephen Starr oversees an empire of more than 20 restaurants that includes high-end Buddakan and Morimoto. Not one to be left out of a trend, though, he opened a different kind of establishment earlier this year — a beer garden.

Slideshow: America's best beer gardens

We’re officially in the midst of an American beer revival, with beer gardens flourishing and more domestic breweries than at any time since Prohibition (1,595 as of 2009). No longer do you have to travel abroad to spend a lazy afternoon at a beer garden. You can find both hip and traditional options from L.A. to beer-centric Philadelphia.

Let’s give a hearty willkommen to this beer garden trend, which has been a long time coming. In the early 20th century, U.S. towns or cities with large German or Eastern European immigrant communities supported hundreds of beer gardens. But anti-German sentiment after World War I along with Prohibition dried up beer culture in America. Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Queens, N.Y., and Mecklenburg Gardens in Cincinnati were among the few survivors.

Now restaurateurs like Starr and chefs like Kurt Gutenbrunner are among those launching a new generation of beer gardens. “The challenge for proprietors is to not make beer gardens gimmicky or ironic,” says Andy Crouch, author of "Great American Craft Beer: A Guide to the Nation’s Finest Beer and Breweries." “The best beer gardens are much simpler affairs, well-kept outdoor spaces where friends can gather and enjoy beer, preferably surrounded by nature.”

San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co. exemplifies this philosophy. Its owners took the term beer garden quite literally, planting pine, elm and olive trees, creating a koi pond, and installing tables with umbrellas. The result is a tranquil one-acre spot for sampling some of the 36 craft beers on tap.

Like the rest of America’s best beer gardens, Stone Brewing Co. is a natural venue for celebrating during Oktoberfest — or at any time of year, thanks to modern improvements like heat lamps and retractable roofs.

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