When I moved to the Tampa Bay area in Florida fifteen years ago, finding a Craft Beer in a bar was like finding an outdoor skating rink: it just wasn't there. Sure, you could find good imported beer; Guinness, Bass, Newcastle, and so one were readily available in just about every British and Irish pub from St. Petersburg to Clearwater to Tampa. A few specialty beer stores were around that carried a limited variety of American Craft Brews, but the selection was sparse, and their coolers were also mostly dominated by imports. The other aspect of what passed for “beer culture” in the Tampa Bay area was the fact the Anheuser Busch (and the Busch Gardens amusement park) dominated the beer scene. Budweiser was everywhere, and was – like so many other places – the drink of choice. For a beer lover coming from northern California, it was a bit of a culture shock.
Sure, there were a few glimmers of hope. Ybor City Brewing (since assimilated into the Florida Brewing Company) opened the year I arrived, however their brews were more in line with the macro-tradition of quantity produced and not quality. While the Gaspar's Porter was enjoyable, the “Gold”, “Amber, and “Wheat” styles were evocative of Bud, Michelob, and a feeble attempt at a wheat beer. Their “Light” could easily have been Michelob Light. But as unimpressive as the brews were, it did open some eyes to other possibilities in the beer world, and for that I give them credit. It may have been pretentious, but it was also somewhat of a status marker to order a “local” beer instead of what everyone else was drinking.
Two years later, however, real change came to the area in the form of two new breweries, one on either side of the bay. On the Pinellas County side, the Dunedin Brewery opened its doors as the first brewpub/microbrewery in the county. With a small but tasty pub menu that complimented the beers they brewed, their year-round styles were bottled and sold on local retail shelves. From their Piper's Pal to their Redhead Red and Beach Tale Brown, the Dunedin Brewery has become a stronghold of good beer and good Craft Beer values in Pinellas County.
That same year in Ybor City, the Tampa Bay Brewing Company opened their own brewpub. Where Dunedin keeps their menu small and simple, TBBC has created a beer-driven gastronomical juggernaut. Beer is central to everything, and many of the menu items share their name with the brew they are made with. Iron Rat Stout Shepherds Pie. Home Made Jack the Quaffer Bread Pudding. Fish and Chips made with their One Night Stand Pale Ale. In 2006, the brewpub moved to a new location still in Ybor City, more centralized and with much more seating. Their beers continue to be excellent and they host the Tampa Beer Fest in May each year.
The newest arrival to the Craft Brew party is Cigar City Brewing in Tampa. Started by beer-writer Joey Redner and award winning brewmaster Wayne Wambles, Cigar City takes its name from the long and storied history of the cigar industry in Tampa, but their approach to brewing is fresh and exciting. Of course, they have their “standard” line including the excellent Jai Alai IPA and the Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale, but what really set them apart from the crowd is their innovative use of flavors in combination with their brew. Guava, vanilla, and coffee are just some of the exotic additions you will find in the simple but comfortable tasting room at the brewery, in full view of the production area. Cigar City is a working brewery, so do not expect snacks or luxury when you visit, but growlers are available to go, and of course the full assortment of collectable shirts, posters, and glassware.
So what is next for Florida in the world of Craft Beer? Each year the Florida Brewers Guild-sponsored Tampa Beer Fest draws more and more attendees as well as more breweries offering a taste of their brew. The Craft Beer Expo in St. Petersburg has become a must-attend event, with representatives from all over the country in attendance, as well as a VIP cheese and beer tasting session and lectures on food pairings.
Florida is still far behind the “Beervana” of Portland, Oregon or the Craft Brew Mecca of the San Francisco Bay Area (of the over 400 breweries represented at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, CO, only two are from Florida). Years of dominance by AB (now UniBev) and antiquated anti-microbrew law have faded away now, though. Homebrewing is on the rise in Florida. Craft Beers are showing up in local bars and restaurants, and previously unavailable flavors and styles from around the country are finding their way onto the shelves of even the supermarkets. Beer culture is on the rise in Tampa Bay and throughout Florida. Only time will tell, but things are looking up in the Sunshine State. I think that calls for a beer.