What's Brewing in Tampa

The malted gold and amber hues of Tampa Bay's craft beers are as varied as the Gulf Coast sunsets.

It may be better known for its cigars, citrus fruit and sunny beaches, but the Tampa Bay area is making its presence known to the beer world, too, with bold breweries that are turning out a number of award-winning craft brews.

Craft brewing is at a fever pitch, and Tampa Bay is a hotbed of action with more than a dozen local brewers already in operation, another half-dozen in the planning stages and rumors of other openings abounding.

“In the last few years it has been really crazy,” Gerard Walen, who blogs about beer on RoadTripsforBeer.com, said about Tampa’s relative burgeoning beer market. “It’s hard to keep up. I don’t really see an end to it.”

While craft brewing has been in this area for nearly two decades, many in the local industry agree that Cigar City Brewing Company put Tampa on the national beer map with its opening in 2009.

On The Map
A winding tour through a series of warehouses off the bustle of North Dale Mabry Highway reveals a sophisticated brewing operation by men who love their craft at Cigar City Brewing.

A tour of the brewery is only $5, which gets you a beer of your choice, a pint glass to keep and about a half-hour of your tour guide’s intrepid personality and knowledge of beer-making.

Indulge in samples and learn about the brewing process in behind-the-scenes tours. (©Chip Litherland)

Brewer Neal Whitney and barback (bartender assistant) Nick Khoury explained the history of the brewery and founder Joey Redner’s passion for these varied concoctions of water, malt, hops and yeast.

Khoury explained that Redner has always loved the Tampa area and its culture. That love, coupled with a gig as a beer reviewer for the The St. Petersburg Times, eventually bloomed into an idea for Cigar City.

During the company’s first year, Cigar City produced 1,000 barrels. It was a small operation at the time, but it has grown exponentially ever since. The following year, the company produced 3,500 barrels, and the year after that, in 2011, its total blossomed to 9,700 barrels. Last year, the company produced 16,000 barrels—and it is on track to make 25,000 this year.

“We’re brewing all the time,” said Justin Clark, Cigar City’s vice president. “We’re not even meeting demand.”

Clark said it’s not unusual for the tasting room to get visitors from all around the world. The Tampa Bay area is a melting pot of people and culture, so such a turnout is only natural. And the interest in the local beers has grown, too, according to Neal Whitney.

“The beer culture is growing,” he said. “It’s dramatically changed from what it was five years ago.”

Crafty Beginnings
While Cigar City might exemplify what the region has to offer to beer lovers, Florida’s market hasn’t always been craft-brewer-friendly. It had a slower start than other parts of the country, said Joe Tucker, executive director of RateBeer.com.

"Cigar City ... led the way for a lot of brewing starting up." (©Chip Litherland)

“I visited Central Florida in 2003 and there wasn’t much going on here,” he said. “It was really a slow start.” Tucker blames this on a couple of factors—Florida’s heat and state bottling laws at the time. For example, a 1966 law only allowed beer to be sold in 8-, 12-, 16- and 32-ounce sizes. But craft brewers in the 1970s and ’80s were producing beers in 22-ounce and 750-ml bottles.

The law restricted other companies from distributing in Florida, leaving the state high and dry. But that all changed in the early 2000s when the state legislature changed the bottle laws, and that opened up the state for business, Walen said. “That really opened up the palates of Floridians. But in the last four or five years is when it really started to boom. A lot of that was started by Cigar City. They kind of led the way for a lot of brewing starting up.”

The Local Scene
Dunedin Brewery, which began in 1996, and the Tampa Bay Brewing Company, which opened a shop in 1994 and started a brewpub in 1997, were two of the area’s first brewers to take flight.

Dunedin offers a lineup of seven ales on tap, along with numerous other seasonal and limited-release offerings at its brewpub on the northern end of Pinellas County. Its popularity in the area also has given rise to several other brewers, such as newcomer Seventh Sun Brewing Company and Saint Somewhere Brewing Company, Rapp Brewing Company and Barley Mow Brewing Company. Barley Mow features live music and food, while The Dunedin Brewery offers $5 tours.

Tap handles display some of the selections on tap at Barley Mow Brewing Company. (©Chip Litherland)

At Tampa Bay Brewing Company in the heart of Ybor City, head brewer and owner David Doble thinks up his next hit recipe.

“I hesitate to say, but I think Tampa is one of the last craft-beer boom towns,” he said. “We really have created a good culture here. We’re in an area that just really spawns growth. We have a huge concentration of people and a huge tourist crowd. Everything lends itself to have a huge craft-beer boom.”