It's mid-afternoon on a hot day and Nathan Beam, 25, and Corey Chin, 23, have driven with friends from Orlando to Tampa with one destination in mind: Cigar City Brewing. They had hoped to join one of the brewery tours but all were sold out.
No worries: They cut to chase and settled in for some serious sampling of the brewery’s award-winning craft beers.
Half the people on the tours this day are out-of-towners, many like Nathan and Corey -- millennials who have embraced the local, artisan culture of craft beer.
Visiting a craft brewery personalizes the beer experience and creates a narrative for the beer aficionado to savor. Of course, it helps that you get to try new beers.
“When you go to a brewery,” says Corey, “you can try everything they make, not just the few they bottle.”
Besides, adds Nathan, “It’s an affordable thing for us to do.’’
Millennials like Nathan and Corey are fueling Florida’s booming craft beer scene, which has exploded in the the past five years. Today more than 100 production breweries and brewpubs are licensed by the state, stretching from Pensacola to Key West.
The national renown and instant success of Cigar City Brewing -- “the best in Florida,” Corey says -- encouraged others. A new brewery opens somewhere in Florida every month these days. From the venerable McGuire’s in Pensacola to the tiny Oyster City Brewing in equally tiny Apalachicola to the 2014 national gold medal winning Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville, craft breweries are growing and expanding to meet demand.
As Florida’s standing in the craft beer world improves, the breweries have become a magnet for visitors in much way that wineries are a draw in California. The crafter breweries are putting their own spin on every style, reinvigorating forgotten styles and developing approaches that challenge the palate. And they are all rooted in their communities.
Cigar City used cedar spirals for their Humidor series of beers and added white oak to their highly regarded Jai Alai IPA. Darwin Brewing in Bradenton/Sarasota is adding Peruvian fruits and peppers and pairing its beers with Peruvian cuisine. Funky Buddha in Fort Lauderdale turned beergeek heads with No Crusts, a brown ale that tastes like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a glass. Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg added fresh Florida fruit to the classic Berliner Weisse, creating a new styled dubbed FloridaWeisse. Orlando Brewing uses only organic ingredients. 7venth Sun in Dunedin specializes in wild ales and barrel-aged beers. Oyster City’s Hooter Brown ale includes Tupelo honey harvested upriver at Owl Creek.
One draw for beer tourists is the scarcity of most craft beer brands. While Cigar City distributes statewide (and recently hopped aboard Florida Carnival Cruise ships) most distribute very close to home, many at their tasting rooms and select local taverns only. Even those expanding beyond their local borders, such as Jacksonville’s Bold City Brewery and Intuition Ale Works, the vast majority of their brands can be had only at the source. Visitors can sample them and take many of them home in growlers -- specially made containers for draft-to-go. Many are so limited even growler sales aren’t possible
Most breweries offer some kind of tour, from big players like Yuengling (Tampa) or Anheuser Busch (Jacksonville) or boutique operations like St. Somewhere (Tarpon Springs). CCB offers tours several days a week while smaller operations like Swamp Head hold them weekly. Some, like Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg or 7venth Sun in Dunedin, are so small a tour is decidedly short and spontaneous.
Cigar City’s tours are limited to 20 people at a time. They begin in the tasting room, a long, spacious bar connected to the brewery. A typical Saturday mid-afternoon finds the place filled with more than 120 people.
"We get a lot of tourists," says Cigar City owner Joey Redner. "That's why you can come to the tasting room at noon on a Tuesday and the place is packed. They're all tourists. When you're a tourist, you can drink beer at noon."
During the tour that Nathan and Corey missed, an affable bearded beer gnome named Bob Lorber wittily walked guests through the basics of beer-making, gave a brief history of CCB, pointed out the various tanks and barrels and fermenting equipment and offered samples poured straight from the fermenter. Nothing fresher, he says, and his beaming guests soon asked for more. The tour costs $10, takes 30-45 minutes and ends back in the tasting room with a souvenir glass and a beer of their choice.
About half of Cigar City’s production is devoted to one brand: Jai Alai IPA. But the brewery has also produced more than 500 other beers since opening in 2008 -- most available only at the brewery or in limited distribution. There’s a lot to try at the tasting room, which tripled in size since it opened.
Every craft brewery in Florida has a tasting room of some sort, though CCB’s is the biggest. Most could easily be mistaken for a craft beer bar. You’ll find plenty of beer geeks in serious discussions about experimental hops but it’s a casual atmosphere that reflects the craft beer scene in general.
“It’s less pretentious,’’ says Nathan. “Nobody’s going to tell me how to hold my glass.”
A sign of Florida’s burgeoning craft beer scene is the emergence this year of not one but two guide books. The first, Florida Breweries by Gerard Walen, includes profiles of breweries and brewers (66 breweries at the time of publication). The second, The Great Florida Craft Beer Guide by Mark DeNote, has a special focus on the history of Florida beer.
Walen credits a certain mindset among craft brewers for the ongoing boom. “The collaboration and cooperation among breweries, which in other industries would be competitors, is pervasive throughout the state,” he notes. “Without that mindset, the craft beer scene would not be where it is.”
Florida’s car culture can pose a challenge for beer tourists so tour buses have begun operating in Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami. In St. Petersburg, Cycle, St. Pete Brewing and Green Bench Brewing are clustered within easy walking distance. Same in Dunedin, where Florida’s oldest craft production brewery is an easy stroll from one of the newer breweries, 7venth Sun, and the Dunedin House of Beer, a tavern that recently began brewing its own. In Jacksonville, Bold City and Intuition are just a few blocks apart in the Riverside section of Jacksonville.
Redner still sees plenty of room for continued growth in a state long dominated by mass-market beers and years behind states like California, Colorado, Oregon and North Carolina. Beer enthusiasts, like wine lovers, enjoy the variety that multiple breweries offer, along with the chance of trying something they can't get anywhere else. “The craft beer drinker is a promiscuous drinker,’’ Redner explains.
The biggest craft beer scene in the state by far is in Tampa Bay, with more than two dozen breweries and brewpubs and more on the way. The region also spawned the growing World of Beer and Brass Tap chains of craft beer taverns. It's not uncommon to find craft beer bars with 30 or 40 taps, a rare sight five years ago.
With shoestring budgets and narrow profit margins, Florida's craft brewers are the very definition of small businesses, and most rely laregly on word of mouth, social media and a growing list of beer festivals to get the word out.