Local Breweries Set Stage For Florida's Craft Beer Revolution

It is no secret that craft beer enthusiasts in southwest Florida have spent years languishing in what the industry nicknamed "The Beer Desert,'' a barley-barren and hop-less landscape almost entirely devoid of locally brewed ales and lagers.

The Sunshine State ranks 46th in the nation's breweries per capita, according to statistics collected by the National Brewers Association in 2012, and despite the Bay area presence of big-name brewery, Cigar City Brewing Company, and smaller operations such as Tampa Bay Brewing Company and Dunedin Brewery, locally brewed craft options have been historically sparse in St. Petersburg and south of the Skyway Bridge.

Times are rapidly changing, however, with the emergence of a handful of new independent breweries that are working toward the common goal of positioning the greater Tampa Bay region as the oasis in Florida's craft beer desert.

In the last year alone, taps have begun to flow at no less than nine new brewery operations in St. Petersburg, Bradenton and Sarasota, each of which is carving out its own identity in the Gulf Coast's craft beer industry -- a market which was, until the microbreweries' simultaneous arrival, virtually untapped outside of Tampa.

Brewer's Tasting Room, Cycle Brewing, Green Bench Brewing Company, 3 Daughters Brewing and St. Pete Brewing Company each hit the downtown St. Petersburg scene within months of one another. In Sarasota, two brewing companies called Big Top and JDubs Brewing opened their tasting rooms earlier this year. Motorworks Brewing and Darwin's Brewing Company also arrived in 2014 to place Bradenton on the Florida brew map, and the buzz surrounding Little Giant Brewing, a popular Bradenton nanobrewery projected to open its first full-scale brewpub in early 2015, is currently growing to a foamy head. To the north, the Barley Mow Brewery in Largo, Rapp Brewing Company in Pinellas Park and Lakeland's Brew Hub are also relative newcomers to the brewery scene.

The microbrewery renaissance that recently introduced five breweries to St. Petersburg is related, in large part, to the recent relaxation of zoning laws that prohibited the production and sale of beer and malt beverages under the same roof in Pinellas County. The changes were initiated by Green Bench founders, Nathan Stonecipher and Steven Duffy, who worked with city zoning and economic development officials to draft "brewer-friendly'' codes that would allow them to open their brewery in a 1920s brick warehouse on First Avenue.

Brewer's Tasting Room was the first of the new St. Pete microbreweries to open in January 2013, followed by Cycle Brewing in August 2013, Green Bench and 3 Daughters in September 2013, and St. Petersburg Brewing Company in April of this year. Although the sudden influx of multiple breweries to the same five-mile radius may seem like a recipe for cutthroat competition, the attitude shared among the brewers is one of neighborly camaraderie.

"I think there are enough people in this area who drink craft beer, or who will eventually begin to drink craft beer, that it's really not a competition -- and in some ways it's even a team effort. There's enough for all us out there, especially since everyone is doing something different. A little bit of everything that's going on is going to drive people downtown,'' says Jon McCracken, owner and brewer of St. Petersburg Brewing Company.

Motorworks Brewing Marketing Director Barry Elwonger uses the term "co-optition,'' a neologism coined to describe cooperative competition, to characterize the mindset of the craft brewing industry.

"Consumers are starting to take notice of what they're drinking. They're getting away from the typical yellow fizzy stuff and beginning to understand the complexities of what beer has to offer. People are also taking a real interest in drinking local,'' Elwonger says. Neighboring Bradenton brewery, Darwin's Brewing Company, is located one half mile away from Motorworks.

"You'll never hear another brewer talking poorly about his brothers in arms. It comes back around to the fact that we're 10 percent of the market. We need to stick together to make the rest of the market to understand why we're doing this -- for the love of the beer.''

This shared ''love of the beer'' has given rise to a more sophisticated culture that is centered on inspiring appreciation, rather than inebriation, among beer consumers at the Tampa Bay area's new breweries -- many of which emphasize a family-friendly environment.

Each brewery has its own style and specialty. Cycle Brewing's Doug Dozark is known for his barrel-aged beers and session IPAs. Motorworks, along with St. Petersburg Brewing Company and 3 Daughters, takes a classic approach to its beer recipes, often favoring tradition and balance over experimental flavor wildcards. The brewmasters at Darwin's Brewing Company and Green Bench take the most extreme and eclectic approach to creating beers.

Darwin's co-owner and brewmaster, Jorge Rosabal, experiments with unusual South American ingredients such as aji charapita peppers and quinoa to pair his beers with the Peruvian style culinary dishes created by brewery co-Owner and Chef Darwin Santa Maria.

"Our vision is to place Bradenton on America's beer map; to get this area to a point where we are recognized as a destination for craft beers. Personally, I think one of the most important parts of the craft industry is developing a culture of pairing craft beers with food, so that's where our beers begin,'' Rosabal says.

Like Rosabal, Green Bench Brewmaster Khris Johnson sees an opportunity to position Florida's Gulf coast at the center of national attention by pushing one-of-a-kind, daredevil brews. Under Johnson's creative direction, Green Bench Brewing leads the Bay area in outside-the-box, hop-fueled Belgian beers and sours such as the "Jalepeno Goose Joose,'' a hoppy kiwi sour with jalepeno peppers, and the "Surrealist,'' a sour IPA.

"My goals as a brewer are to make what I love drinking and to bring something to St. Pete that the area has never tasted. We're in this experimental stage, and I want people to be saying, 'What the hell is going on in St. Pete?','' Johnson says.

"Because Florida is late to the game, we have this mindset of needing to catch up. We're inventing styles and changing peoples' perceptions on beer because we're under that pressure, and we're growing faster, as far as education and community goes, than anywhere else in the country because of it,'' he adds.

Although Bay area brewers may not be able to agree on a brewing style -- and for the sake of variety, it's a good thing they can't -- they are unanimous in their confidence that the craft beer revolution has only just begun in Florida, and that the Bay area is poised to lead the way.

American craft brewers contributed $33.9 billion to the U.S. economy in 2012, with Florida craft brewers responsible for $876 million of that economic impact. Although National Brewer's Association statistics show a 1.9 percent drop in overall beer sales, nationally, in 2013, craft beer saw a 17.2 percent jump -- and the craft brewery explosion in the Tampa Bay region is a clear indicator of a growing trend throughout the state and across the nation.

"This is not a trend. We're using the same mindset that other craft brewers across the country have been using for years, but we're all adding our own unique twist,'' says Darwin Santa Maria.

"Cigar City built a platform for little places like us, like Motorworks, and JDubs and Big Top in Sarasota, and like the guys in St. Pete -- and now we all have our own story to tell. Craft beer is here to stay.''

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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