Florida Craft Beer: Orlando Brewing
By Stephen Kubiak
You’ve heard of beer and food pairings. How about beer paired with authentic Florida experiences? Join us as we explore the state through the flavors of Florida’s craft beer culture.
It’s not exactly a place where you’d picture a brewery, but it also doesn’t serve your father’s pilsner here. In an industrial district southwest of downtown Orlando, the sound of trains clattering along the nearby tracks echo off a psychedelically-painted bus parked out front. Patrons gather around a fire pit, the embers from the flames mixing with small talk, both slowly rising into the cool air. A band plays on an outdoor stage, belting out covers of popular songs with beer themes – the Turtles’ “Happy Together” becomes an anthem for craft beer.
John Cheek, owner of Orlando Brewing, wears a beanie atop his bespectacled face, taking time to shake hands with his friends and regulars as he sips his beer. It’s music, it’s good beer, it’s old and young mingling together under the low-hanging moon.
“It’s a little of everything,” Cheek said of the brewery clientele. “Sometimes it depends on the music.”
Brewing since 2004, Orlando Brewing has been the cornerstone of the craft beer movement in Orlando for over a decade, a miracle considering the brewery’s rocky beginnings.
“The brewery was started by accident,” said Cheek. “I had the brewery equipment and one of the guys in the homebrew group I was in wanted to start Orlando Brewing. I became a 25-percent owner and he did all the work. After some time, the other guy was foreclosed on and to get my equipment back, I had to pay the fines. Once I paid it, I had a brewery.”
With the brewery in his control, Cheek went on to create something unique at the time – organic beer. That decision allowed Orlando Brewing to become the only USDA-certified organic brewery south of Vermont and east of Colorado, something Cheek is very proud of.
“Everything we do is 100 percent organic,” said Cheek. “No pesticides, no sewage sludge, no petroleum, no GMOs. It all starts with the land.”
The best place to sample Orlando Brewing’s organic beers is onsite at the brewery.
Inside the dark taproom, an eclectic mishmash of old beer signs, Christmas lights and black-and white photos adorn the room. In the corner, a gigantic American flag hangs from the wall. As a Vietnam-era veteran, Cheek believes in giving back to those who serve.
“On Veteran’s Day and Flag Day we have free beer for veterans.” said Cheek.
One of Orlando Brewing’s most popular beers is the Pale Ale, an American-style ale made with Cascade hops that give the brew a citrusy flavor. The Blonde Ale, another popular beer, is a refreshing crisp ale, perfect for those who enjoy light beer. The brewery adheres to the German Purity Law of 1516, which means that only water, hops, yeast and malted barley are used in beer production – with the exception of the “violator” series of brews.
“Retail has kept us alive, but the tap room is thriving,” said Cheek. “There are people that come for beer tours and people that happen to be in Orlando on vacation and stop by. I’ve even seen a lady sitting at the bar while nursing a baby.”
The brewery’s reputation for great beer has spread, prompting celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse to visit during a taping of “Emeril’s Florida.”
“He’s a great guy, pretty funny actually,” said Cheek of Emeril’s visit.
Orlando Brewing’s beers can be found throughout much of central and south Florida, and there are a few restaurants the pair the organic brews with farm-to-table eats.
The Wave... of American Flavors – or The Wave, as it’s called by regulars – at Disney’s Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World celebrates locally and regionally sourced ingredients like Florida rock shrimp and eggs from Lake Meadow Naturals in Ocoee. To accompany your meal at The Wave, you can order beer from Orlando Brewing by the pint or flight.
Several other Disney restaurants and bars serve Orlando Brewing beers, giving visitors from around the world a chance to sample Florida craft beer. The beer has also been featured during special events like the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.
“We have a good presence at Disney,” said Cheek. “We have a lot of people from Disney that come in and love beer and had been pushing to get it at the resort for a few years.”
As the evening gives away to darkness and the band continues to play, Cheek reflected on his goal for his brewery and Florida craft beer.
“It’s teaching the public, one beer at a time.”
If You Go
What: Orlando Brewing
Where: 1301 Atlanta Ave., Orlando 32806
What: The Wave... of American Flavors
Where: 4600 N World Dr., Orlando, FL 32830