A Craft Beer Crawl Through Southwest Florida
By Janet K. Keeler
It’s Friday evening post-work and Naples Beach Brewery is bumping. There are just a few seats open at the tasting room’s communal tables. A trio of TVs shows mostly sports, baseball playoffs on this night. Thirsty, work-weary patrons grab spots at the picnic tables outside, too.
Otis the basset hound has settled in. The big guy’s hangdog face belies the good times going on around him. After all, the humans are drinking beer, craft beer at that. The grub to go with the beer comes courtesy of Cajun Gringos food truck whose engines hum outside. The Gringos are masters of spice and Naples Beach’s Keewaydin Crusher cream ale cuts the spice of the Cajun Gringo Cuban sandwich. Keewaydin is named after a barrier island to the west. Paying homage to the local places and geography is common in the beer-naming world.
Naples Beach Brewery is one of about 30 craft breweries that have sprung up in Southwest Florida in recent years. From Marco Island north to Bradenton and Palmetto, entrepreneurs riding the wave of craft beer popularity are handcrafting IPAs, porters and hefeweizens, among other styles, for our drinking pleasure. In Florida, nearly 220 craft breweries have joined the 5,000 around the U.S. in the past decade.
Florida is awash in craft beer, and the breweries provide another something to do for visitors to Florida. In fact, visiting a local brew joint is a great way to experience Florida like a local. A Southwest Florida brew trail map helps locate breweries near where you are staying or gives you a reason for a road trip.
On our Southwest Florida craft beer crawl, Naples Beach Brewery has about 20 of its creations on tap. We get a flight, which is five small pours at Naples Beach whereas at other places it’s more often four. A flight allows patrons to taste several beers before committing to one. It can be shared with a couple people so that everyone gets a few sips.
We order a flight with mostly tropical flavors: Poms in Paradise gose; Nose Dive bourbon barrel-aged IPA; Island House coconut and pineapple saison; Keeywadin cream ale, and Country Time lemon raspberry gose. Gose? Saison? Cream ale? If you’re new to beer styles, the cool cats pulling the pours are happy to help you out. The truth is, they can educate you about the styles but it’s your taste buds that will really provide the lessons. That’s where those flights come in.
My favorite from our flight is Island House even though it’s likely that a beer purist might wonder what the heck the pineapple and coconut is doing in his saison, a Belgian-style pale ale. That’s okay. To each his own when it comes to thumbs up or thumbs down.
Naples Beach is in an industrial park, a location not uncommon for craft breweries. It’s across the lane from a special events floral designer and next door to a strength conditioning gym whose clients run by and gaze longingly at the frosty pints and open-face tacos. Saison after their session, maybe?
The brewery has no air conditioning but there are industrial-size fans to keep the air moving. Stainless tanks are visible and visitors feel like they’re in a working brewery because they are. In general, microbreweries are not fancy places, even when they are nestled in newish strip malls next to jewelry stores. Burlap bags of hops are piled about and high ceilings are almost always the norm. When full of people, they are loud. Just a few breweries serve food beyond bags of pretzels and peanuts so it’s mostly food trucks that feed drinkers, another trend that’s swept the nation.
Naples Beach beer is rooted in traditional German styles but you won’t find anything called “beer” in Germany flavored by fruit or herbs. German law requires that beer include only four ingredients: water, malted grains, hops and yeast. Once coffee beans, pomegranate and cranberries are added to the mix, the results can be called ale or something else, but not beer.
Our next top in Naples is RipTide Brewing Company, just a few miles but a world away from Naples Beach. If a microbrew could be called romantic, Riptide would qualify. It’s a little dark and a whole lot of swanky. We grab a high top and sit close. Nearly all breweries have board games such as Monopoly and Life, and plush seating areas, and that’s true at Riptide. We aren’t far off busy U.S. 41 but feel buffered from the cars and endless chain stores and restaurants.
Like many brewers, the RipTide beer masters got their start brewing at home as a hobby. The home experiment moved to a “man cave” in an old warehouse and then finally to a nondescript business complex. Plenty of parking with food trucks, too.
I like sour beer, called “sours” of which gose is one style, so RipTide’s Berlynder Berliner tickled my taste buds. It comes cold from the tap and gets better as it heads toward room temperature. The remaining three beers of our flight were hits, too: the light Hochwasser Hefeweizen; Crimson Sky Red Ale and Big Cypress Stout with a hint of roasted chocolate. The last one was thick enough to cut with a knife.
A good night’s sleep and then on Saturday we move north toward Fort Myers and Cape Coral, timing our stops to when the breweries opened. Some start pouring before noon, others not until 4 p.m. To maximize our crawl, we begin in Cape Coral where Big Blue Brewing opens at 11 a.m. Big Blue is a gastropub, too, serving hearty appetizers and main dish meals. At most craft breweries the non-beer drink options are limited but not at Big Blue, which pours sweet tea and soda plus wine and cocktails.
Big Blue is in a former bingo hall and the designers were wise to work the electronic bingo boards into their decorating scheme. And yes, there are bingo nights. And trivia. Nearly all breweries have nightly events and live music, too. Big Blue is also a place you can bring non-beer drinkers, because the food is good, there’s weekend brunch and on Saturdays from October to May the downtown Cape Coral farmers market is in the parking lot next door.
We order fried cauliflower with a creamy ranch dip and buffalo chicken dip and chips to go with our flight of Let It Bee Honey Brown Ale; “0603” Smoked Porter; Amber Ale, and Bones Coffee Stout. We split opinions here with one vote for the honey brown ale and the other for the coffee stout.
Our next stop in Cape Coral is Scotty’s Bierwerks, which specializes in German-style beer. Most folks are bellied up to the bar here because there aren’t many seats. We abandon the flight and go for one beer to share, a Hefeweizen. This is my go-to beer when I don’t know what else to order (and Kolsch is not on the board) because it’s a light, wheat beer that never treats me badly. Scotty’s version is slightly lighter than a typical hefeweizen but that’s not a bad thing in the Florida heat.
Fort Myers has a handful of breweries to try and we stop at Bury Me Brewing and then Fort Myers Brewing Co. Bury Me is the first brewery in the city and has a good time being ghoulish in both décor and beer names. Deathly Dunkel Dunkelweiss, Bag o’ Bones EPC and Catacombs Barley Wine are just a few that hew closely to undertaker parlance.
At this point, I order a 4-ounce pour and someone else is driving. I go for the Soulless Scottish Red Ale and drink it under the watchful eye of a skeleton masquerading at the Grim Reaper near a Foosball table. The tap pulls are trowels, just in case you need to dig a grave by hand. (At Big Blue in Cape Coral, the handles at the bathroom sinks are wooden tap pulls.) Devilishly fitting in with the décor is the creepy U.K. series, “Penny Dreadful,” showing on one TV (football on the other).
Fort Myers Brewing is down a rural road not far from JetBlue Park where the Boston Red Sox spring-train. The tasting room has picnic tables and a long bar, plus TV projected on walls at opposite ends of the room. One side is showing Florida State football; on the other, the rival Florida Gators play. Allegiances line up fairly equally and the middle of the room is empty.
I spy Caloosahatchee Kolsch on the handwritten board and before long I have it in a glass. (The Caloosahatchee River is nearby.) The golden ale is light and I had my first taste of it on a beer crawl in Cologne, Germany, where it is a specialty. In fact, it is protected in the European Union and unless it’s brewed in Cologne or within 50 miles, it must be called something else. Those protections don’t extend to the United States.
As I recall, that German beer crawl included someone in our party leading a big group in the FSU fight song. No such thing happened at Fort Myers Brewing. There were Gators afoot.
Punta Gorda is the next stop on our trek north toward Sarasota, and there we find Peace River Beer Company and Fat Point Brewing. Peace River was started by the folks at Bury Me and has the same fun with their beer names, playing off its rural riverside location. The Cow Goes Mooo Milk Stout and Night Paddle Black IPA prove the point. Bury Me’s Bag O’ Bones is here, too.
Fat Point takes its name from the English translation of the Spanish Punta Gorda. The Belgian-style Bru Man Chu is one of the stronger beers around with 11 percent alcohol content. Let it warm a bit to allow flavor to deepen. I went for the lighter, malty Big Boca ale in another small pour. The brewery is tucked into a quiet neighborhood not far from Interstate 75. It’s a little tricky to find so use your smartphone GPS. They have food, too.
It’s time to grab something to eat before more tasting so the designated driver steers us toward Sarasota to Walt’s Fish Market Restaurants & Tiki Bar. This is a favorite restaurant for locals, tourists and winter visitors. It’s been serving seafood to the Sarasota crowd for 100 years. The raw oysters are fresh and ice cold, and the spicy conch chowder is a favorite of mine. The best thing is the little scoop of smoked fish spread that comes from the kitchen complimentary as soon as you are seated. It’s not on the menu but you can buy some to take home from the seafood market.
Fortified, we head to Calusa Brewing, another industrial park brewery, this one specializing in IPAs and barrel-aged brews. One tall wall is filled with stacks of barrels. It’s quiet when we get there, which is good for the baby asleep in a stroller. This is a common site at microbrewery, which you might not think of as family friendly but that doesn’t stop families. Calusa is named after the American Indian people who lived in Southwest Florida until becoming extinct about 1800.
The brewing tanks are separated from the tasting room by big windows so you can watch the action when there is some. Otherwise, the purple lights give the stainless tanks a neon glow. Tasters are either at the bar or sitting at high tops. I order a Murloc English dark mild and take a sip of a Sonus brown ale with coffee and coconut. My dark ale was much more to my liking, the coconut ale too coconut-y. The murloc is a bit salty with pronounced sourness. I let it warm while I alternately watch the baby sleep and some Florida State fans licking their wounds over a loss.
One last stop and we will be ready to call it a night.
There are more breweries on the trail in Bradenton (Darwin Brewing Company, Motorworks Brewing and Good Liquid Brewing Company) and Palmetto (Corporate Ladder Brewing Company), just before the Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay. We will save those for another day.
JDub’s Brewing Company is tucked into an industrial area east of downtown Sarasota. It’s a small space but the beer garden in the back is expansive. I order a 4-ounce pour of Passion Wheat, full of mango and passion fruit notes, and head outside to perch under the twinkly lights crisscrossing overhead. A threesome sits in comfy chairs across the garden, talking and drinking. We close out the craft beer crawl with one last swig and head to our nearby hotel, visions of handcrafted beers and a fun day sloshing in our heads.