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.
By Stephen Kubiak
Beyond the sun-drenched asphalt of US-98 and the mountainous white sand dunes on Okaloosa Island lies the Brooks Bridge into Fort Walton Beach, a sleepy beach town sandwiched between two major United States Air Force bases. Just over the bridge, an unassuming sign for a microbrewery hangs from the corner of a strip mall. It would be easy enough to pass by without noticing the sign, but if you did, you’d lose out on more than a great beer. You’d miss a story of brotherhood.
Props Craft Brewery, which was opened in 2011 by active duty members of the Air Force, grew out of brewery co-founder and Air Force pilot Mike Kee’s love of home-brewing. Kee, a home-brewing enthusiast since 2003, would invite fellow pilot Nate Vannatter and aerial gunner Travis Peterson over on the weekends to make beer.
“We were coming to a time in our careers where we had to say, ‘What are we going to do next?’” said Vannatter. “We all love beer. We love to make it. We love to drink it. Why not do something that you love?”
Eventually the three found themselves in the back of a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle on a military exercise, trying to come up with a name for the new venture.
“We literally came up with the name in the back of a truck while covered in mud,” said Vannatter.
“We were all coming from helicopters or jets, but we were coming to fly these little propeller planes for special ops, so Mike leans over and mentions Props. He said that he could get us a prop and we could hang it from the ceiling.”
“We heard it and knew it was the one,” said Peterson.
Since the three were busy with their military careers, Brian O’Neal was hired to help manage the business and eventually was brought in as a partner.
“Mike and I were all over the world and he kept it running,” said Vannatter, smiling. “We hired him off Craigslist.”
Even with the airmen deployed around the globe, they left their mark on the brewery - a legacy of military heritage enshrined within the brewery walls. The tap handles depict a 1940s pin-up model hugging a bomb - the logo of their popular Blonde Bomber Ale. Framed pin-up photos and paintings by active duty and military veterans line the walls and the brewery’s signature propeller hangs from the ceiling.
“See those light sockets?” said Nate. “I put them on. The bar? Guys in our squadron made it. We love this place because we did everything, just military guys struggling to rub two nickels together.”
On tap, the core beers for Props give a nod to military aviation history with brews like the Flying Coffin IPA, named after the original logo of the 39th Airlift Squadron, and Blonde Bomber Ale, a tip of the hat to the aircraft nose art of World War II. Both beers are also available in cans. The brewery also produces several seasonal beers, including the Ghost Rider Oatmeal Stout, a creamy stout named after the AC-130 gunships stationed at nearby Hurlburt Field.
Opening the brewery wasn’t easy, as the partners had to learn about business as they went.
“At first, we had a hard time getting people to drink craft beer because it wasn’t part of this area,” said Peterson. “Now, it’s more popular. There’s more public participation. People love the atmosphere, people that love planes or military heritage. We have a lot of older folks, World War-II generation, and they just love it.”
“The military really pulled us through the first year until the locals got it,” said Vannatter. “There wasn’t a lot of craft beer in the area four years ago. Now, if you’re going to open a bar, you’ve got to have craft. The coolest thing is seeing your beer on tap at a restaurant or bar other than your own. Seeing someone order your beer in another bar is an amazing thing.”
The growing popularity of craft beer in the Fort Walton Beach area has seen Props beers pop up on taps at several local pubs and bars, like Salty Duck, a nearby craft beer bar, Fokkers, a pub and restaurant that focuses on German food, KC’s SandBar, another local bar and grill with an attached craft beer bar, and Shalimar Cheers Pub, a classic pub that caters to locals.
“A lot of the craft beer growth in the area has to do with the military coming in and out of here - with their overseas experiences and experiences around the world,” said Vannatter.
Nearby Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base have kept plenty of military personnel coming, going and staying in the Fort Walton Beach area over the years. It’s an area with a rich military history and one local museum serves to honor both the airmen and aircraft that have defended the United States.
Located just off the main gate to Eglin, the Air Force Armament Museum is a look at the warplanes and weapons used by the military over the years while paying tribute to the airman served on them. Inside, the museum is full of missiles, bombs, small arms and aircraft used by the Air Force in conflicts all over the world from World War I and beyond.
Outside the museum, military aircraft that have left their mark on the history of aerial warfare are displayed on the grounds. Aircraft such as the AC-130 Spectre Gunship, F-16 Fighting Falcon and SR-71 Blackbird sit quietly in the well-manicured airpark after years of service. Admission to the museum is free.
Like the many military planes that find a final resting place in the Armament Museum airpark, so too do many military members retire to the warm weather and beautiful beaches of Florida’s Emerald Coast. Most go on to other things after their service, and the men of Props have formed a new brotherhood in beer.
“Most people retire [from the military] and they go and do their own thing,” said Peterson. “Rarely do you see four guys come together after retirement. That’s what makes us what we are.”
“We were active duty guys, deploying around the world, and were able to make this work,” said Vannatter. “You won’t find another place like this.”
If you're a beer fan, here are some top Florida craft breweries and beer bars to check out.
When You Go...
What: Props Brewery & Grill
Where: 255 Miracle Strip Pkwy SE, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548
What: Props Craft Brewery & Tap Room
Where: 125 Lovejoy Rd, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548
What: Air Force Armament Museum
Where: 100 Museum Dr, Eglin AFB, FL 32542
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