You've heard of beer and food pairings, but how about beer paired with authentic Florida experiences? Join us as we explore the state through the flavors of Florida's craft beer culture.
By Stephen Kubiak
No other fruit is as synonymous with Florida as the humble Florida orange. One Florida brewer has been adding a bit of this sun-kissed citrus to his beer - not from the fruit itself, but from the flower.
"Beer is my passion," said Tom Moench, Orlando-native and owner of Orange Blossom Brewing Company. "I'm intensely serious about the blend of art and science that goes into brewing beer."
Orange Blossom Brewing Company's flagship beer, Orange Blossom Pilsner, or OBP, uses 2.3 ounces of local orange blossom honey in every can, which gives the beer a crisp, clean flavor that's perfect for a warm summer day. With all that honey, it would seem the beer would be overly sweet, but the sugar in the honey is actually fermented.
After playing around with honey in his home-brewing days, Moench knew he'd found a great beer when his friends, eager taste-testers but new to Florida craft beer, said that he was onto something. That something became OBP.
Orange Blossom Pilsner gets its signature flavor from orange blossom honey, but for bees to make this type of honey, they've got to go to the citrus grove.
Nestled between the rolling hills of Central Florida backcountry is Ridge Island Groves, a family-owned citrus grove in Haines City that's been soaking up sunshine since 1992. Roll down the windows as you pull in and listen to the crunch of gravel under the tires, the crickets humming in the warm air, the quiet murmurs of shoppers inspecting golden spheres of citrus in neatly arranged stacks. You've entered real Florida.
A little off the beaten path, Ridge Island Groves rewards patient travelers with fresh produce. "We built this place just trying to sell our own fruit commercially, but people just started coming out," said Ridge Island Groves owner Archie Ritch. While Ridge Island owns another location in Clermont, the real work happens here in Haines City.
"We call this location the mule," said Ritch. "The mule does all the work."
Ridge Island Groves is more than a citrus operation; here, you'll also find a gift shop, produce stand, and animal and hydroponic farms. For a small fee, you can take a guided tour of the grounds, passing rows of fruit-laden citrus trees, free-range chickens pecking around their coop, and cattle that quietly stare back as you drive by on the tour golf car.
At the hydroponic farm, brilliant red strawberries poke out from the leaves - all arranged in vertical planters about five feet tall. If you want a taste of those strawberries, the gift shop makes an amazing strawberry shortcake.
"Diversification is the future," Rich said of all of his family's grove. "Farm-to-table is a strong movement."
As visitors filed into the open-air store, many made a beeline to the counter to sample the orange juice. Ritch pointed to the OJ machine. "Most people, Floridians even, haven't had real, fresh-squeezed orange juice before."
Ridge Island Groves offers tours of the groves and the chance to pick your own fruit.
That fresh-from-the-tree taste has a window of about seven months, so the best time to visit the grove is from October through May, before the grove closes for the season. During the citrus season, a local beekeeper brings his bees out in February for the orange blossom bloom. The result? Sweet, golden orange blossom honey.
"It's the real Florida, family owned and operated, born and raised, parents and grandparents," said Ritch.
Want to try the honey-infused Orange Blossom Pilsner at its source? Try nearby Brew Hub, a place where growing breweries go to expand and brewers without breweries, like Orange Blossom Brewing Company, go to make beer.
Brew Hub is helping craft brewers reach the masses. Brew Hub is in Lakeland, about halfway between Tampa and Orlando. "The thing we're trying to do is take the stigma off contract brewing - we call it partner brewing," said Christopher Schoen, events and bar operations manager at Brew Hub, located along I-4 in Lakeland's industrial district. "We're here to help them and us."
"Brew Hub is a perfect match for Orange Blossom Brewing," Moench said. "They have a new, high-tech facility and a brew master with a Ph.D. in fermentation science. Who better to produce my art on a large scale?"
Christopher Schoen, events and bar operations manager at Brew Hub, stands between a row of fermentation tanks.
"Large-scale production is something Brew Hub can easily handle. Standing in a canyon of 300 barrel fermentation tanks, Schoen was dwarfed on both sides by three stories of gleaming steel. But even given its massive size, Brew Hub still has a local tasting room feel with its spacious yet cozy atmosphere complete with a long wood bar running the length of the room.
"(Brew Hub) is a fun place because you have all these great brewers coming in and collaborating," said Schoen. "There's no other place on earth that you have this meeting of the minds in one area brewing together. It's like the Justice League of beer."
Superheroes of suds aside, the tap room at Brew Hub not only offers Orange Blossom Brewing beers like Orange Blossom Pilsner, Orange Blossom Pilsner Squared (an 11-percent alcohol behemoth), and Toasted Coconut Porter but other beers from Brew Hub partners like Cigar City Brewing and BJ's Restaurant Brewhouse.
Hungry? Lakeland's Red Door Wine Market has a food truck on location that serves local, farm-to-table dishes infused with beer like Beer Cheese Mac and Cheese.
Take away the tasting room, food truck and massive tanks from Brew Hub and you're left with a man and his beer. For Moench, that connection to his beer is key to its success. "As a blend of art and science, my vision for craft beer is very personal and that's the thing that can't be replicated," he said.
When you go...
Orange Blossom Brewing Company
3900 S. Frontage Road
Lakeland, Florida 33815
Ridge Island Grove
6000 Polk City Road
Haines City, Florida 33844