It's been a few months since Cycle and Green Bench brought craft brewing to downtown St. Pete. In addition to being first on the downtown scene, both breweries have proven extremely popular; there's little doubt that they will continue to be the faces of craft brewing in this city for some time to come.
Now that the initial fanfare has subsided, I decided to check in and see how well these breweries have found their footing, and what they're doing for the identity of St. Petersburg beer.
To be fair, Cycle is not entirely new. Owner/brewer Doug Dozark has been pumping out highly-rated beers from the seven-barrel brewhouse at Peg's Cantina in Gulfport for years. That head start is evident when sampling beers in the laid-back, local-art-adorned tasting room.
Of the 12 rotating taps, at least half are part of Cycle's regular stable, such as flagship session IPAs Fixie and Freewheel, as well as Patch Kit porter and Bottom of the 9th Brown. The others generally follow this pattern of fresh, hopped-up American beers, like the Unicycle series, each of which showcases a specific hop variety; Motueka, Wakatu and Columbus have all been in the lineup, and Citra is on deck next. Tang & Biscuits IPA is a rye pale ale that gives a nod to old St. Pete (tang and biscuits are names for the sticks and discs used in shuffleboard); it's no coincidence that Dozark and his wife were married at the historic St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club.
One of Cycle's major claims to fame is its barrel-aged imperial stouts and old ales. This Saturday, all 12 taps at Cycle will be taken over with a variety of these beers, including Chocolate Bourbon Batch 300, Single Malt DDT and a rum barrel-aged version of PumQueen. The event starts at noon and is likely to be heavily attended by those in the know (psst — that's you).
A few blocks down the road is Green Bench. Whereas Cycle is a small, low-key affair housed in an old pharmacy, Green Bench is built for volume, housed in a hangar-like ex-garage. It features a massive beer garden, where guests play games, sit around a fire pit, and even watch movies and TV shows screened directly onto the side of the building. Green Bench is a full-scale microbrewery, which, according to the Brewer's Association, means it can brew up to 15,000 barrels of beer per year.
Head brewer Khris Johnson has a thing for Belgian ales, as evidenced by the presence of a massive oak foudre in the brewery. This traditional vessel is a rarity in the United States, but Johnson has already fermented four beers in it, including Le Banc Belge, a Belgian-style pale ale; and Saison de Banc Vert, a traditional farmhouse ale. Several of Green Bench's recent releases are collaborations with other local breweries, including Saint de Banc Vert, a tart, brettanomyces-tinged saison brewed with Tarpon Springs' Saint Somewhere; Over the Bay IPA, a collaboration with Ybor City's Coppertail; and Sgt. Pfeffer, a brown ale collaboration with Cigar City in Tampa.
Green Bench's beers have received mixed reviews. A common criticism I've heard is that the beers have lots of potential but need polishing. This is understandable, as adapting to a new brewing system is far more difficult and unpredictable than it seems, and batches are next to impossible to nail on the first try. However, I've sampled several of Johnson's beers that have thoroughly impressed me — such as the Surrealist IPA, a sour (seriously!) IPA that will be on draft at Green Bench in a couple of weeks — and I have nothing but confidence that the beers will keep getting better and better.
In the meantime, second batches of the original beer lineup are making their way into the tasting room, including a beefed-up version of Green Bench IPA — the first batch didn't ferment all the way, making the hop presence noticeably out of balance — and a softer version of Skyway Wheat, featuring extra dry hops for aroma, but fewer bittering hops than the first batch.
Oak barrels containing wild yeast and bacteria as part of Green Bench's sour beer program will begin to be filled next month, an item that wild beer enthusiasts will certainly want to take note of. Until then, between Cycle and Green Bench, St. Pete's brewing scene is off to a promising—and exciting—start. — firstname.lastname@example.org