You’ve heard of pairing food and beer. How about pairing beer with authentic Florida experiences? Join us as we explore the state -- through the flavors of Florida’s craft beer culture.
By Stephen Kubiak
A perfect paring: something salty, something sweet. Slurp an oyster in Apalachicola, chase it with a local brew – sometimes using honey from just down the road as a key ingredient.
Heading west on Highway 98, you notice the salt tang in the warm air the second you cross the Apalachicola River. Fishing boats bob along the docks in perfect rows. Apalachicola, in rural Franklin County, sits low to the ground - no high rises here.
It’s a small waterfront community with deep ties to the past. Generations used to make a living from the oysters in the bay, but in the city, a thriving tourism industry now sees folks from all over the world. Downtown Apalachicola, or Apalach as it’s called here, is an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops, art studios, and, now, a brewery.
Oyster City Brewing Company is a new addition to downtown, but it feels as if it’s been here for years, in a building with bare brick walls aged from years of previous enterprise. Founded by the owners of the Owl Cafe, Oyster City Brewing arose from a love of craft beer and customer demand.
“People would sit down over at our Tap Room and ask for the local beer,” said Oyster City co-owner Cassie Gary. “We carried craft beer, but nothing made within a 100 - mile radius. It was really a niche that needed to be filled.”
Oyster City proudly showcases its heritage. The tap handles? Genuine culling irons used by oystermen to knock barnacles off oysters and measure them. Oyster tongs (think metal rakes) used to pull oysters from the depths are mounted on the walls.
Sitting between the taps, there’s an oyster shell attached to the lip of a barnacle-covered beer bottle an oysterman brought in one day. The battered bottle has become something of a symbol to Oyster City.
“We love to hear locals say, ‘Come try our beer,’ Cassie said. “There’s a lot of local pride.”
The brewing operations share space with the tasting room, offering patrons an up-close look at how beer is made.
“We wanted to keep the space very open because we want to people feel like they are part of the process,” Cassie said. “But it gets a little dicey on brew days, so we have to rope (the brew area) off. It’s a very wet process.”
A wet process indeed, but worth the effort when you try a flight of Oyster City beers. From the First Light of Day Summer Ale, made with Florida orange peel, to the rich chocolate and honey flavors of Hooter Brown Tupelo Honey Ale, there’s a little Florida in all the brewing company produces.
“We are just going to make the best beer we can make,” Cassie said.
The Hooter Brown ends with a sweet finish, thanks to a key ingredient: locally-sourced tupelo honey. Cassie said that Oyster City likes to use local products whenever possible, such as that orange peel, plus lemongrass, Florida sugar and, quite possibly for a future stout, local oysters.
Tupelo honey is especially local, with production centered in the Apalachicola River basin. Jugs of amber honey sit on pallets behind the brew room, ready to be transformed into Hooter Brown.
“It’s a cool town with a great tourism industry,” Cassie said. “This is just another reason to visit Apalachicola.”
To find where Hooter Brown gets its sweet buzz, you don’t have to look far; it’s just upstream.
Wewahitchka, or Wewa, as the locals call it, sits at the edge of the Dead Lakes in Gulf County, where cypress stumps jut out of the water like wooden icebergs.
Known for one of the largest beekeeping operations in Florida, Wewa is at the heart of tupelo honey production. Famous for its distinctive taste, and made more famous by the 1997 film “Ulee’s Gold” starring Peter Fonda, tupelo honey season is just a few short weeks in May. But the sweet stuff can be found all around Wewa. Off one dusty road you can see, and taste, what makes tupelo honey so special.
Voted the best artisanal tupelo honey producer by Food and Wine Magazine, Smiley Honey sits in a low building behind two houses, a no-frills operation not much more than a dark warehouse filled with 55-gallon drums of raw honey, a bottling room, and boxes of the final product: packaged honey. A small display outside houses jars of honey for sale, with an honor-pay system if the store is closed.
“Other honey is good, but not as good as Florida honey,” said current owner Brian Bertonnaeu, who bought the apiary from founder Donald Smiley a few years ago. “I’ve always been fascinated by bees. If my family is ever having problems trying to find me a gift, they know they can always get me honey and I’ll be happy.”
Brian opened one of the hives, noting the bees were being very calm.
“Bees are fascinating creatures,” Brian said, gently prying out a wax-laden frame oozing with sweet goodness. “They live for 40 to 45 days and make a tenth of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime. They can smell nectar in the parts--per-trillion range, forage in a two- to three--mile radius, and they make this wonderful stuff we call honey.”
But surely honey is honey is honey, right?
“I think you’ll be surprised - some people are amazed at the different flavors and types of honey,” Brian said.
He’s right. After tasting the four main varieties Smiley carries - orange blossom, holly, wildflower and tupelo - the tupelo has a milder sweetness and an almost medicinal quality when compared with the rest.
“It’s goodness from a foodie perspective, goodness from a health perspective. I had allergies, but I just take a few tablespoons of honey and now, no allergies,” Brian said. “Come down for the taste, come down for the health benefits, come down and we’ll go look at a hive.”
Sweet honey or a bitter brew - finding Florida’s flavors is about exploring with your senses.
When You Go…
Oyster City Brewing Company
Where: 17 Avenue D, Apalachicola, FL 32320
Phone: (850) 653-2739
Where: 163 Bozeman Cir, Wewahitchka, FL 32465
Phone: (850) 639-5672
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