Paul Unwin has a nice little beer fest going and he'd like to keep it that way.
It's held at Cajun Cafe on the Bayou, the rustic, rambling place owned by him and his wife, Rebecca, the daughter of the Cajun who started the place. After five years, the fall fest has managed to secure a special place in the hearts — and taste buds — of Tampa Bay's craft beer aficionados.
It's not the biggest or the best-known among the growing number of local beer events. But for beer geeks, "this is the most anticipated one,'' says Kristina Kirk, assistant brewer at Peg's Cantina in Gulfport. "It's not one everybody knows about, but if you know about it you don't miss it.'' A beer blog recently named it one of the top fall beer fests in the country.
So what makes it special?
"It's probably Paul,'' said Joey Redner, owner of Tampa's Cigar City Brewing. "He knows what's going on and he'll buy beer just to hold it to have for the fest.'' Which means you'll find beer you don't usually find at local beer events. "I don't want to be a slave to the distributors,'' Unwin says.
Besides the beer, adds Kirk, there's the laid-back vibe, waterfront location, good food (crawfish corn bread and Cajun pulled pork, for example) and a jovial host who loves nothing more than to talk beer. Which is really what a beer fest is all about, says Unwin, who has been to many beer fests in Europe and the United States and has decided opinions on the subject and beer in general. They boil down to this: Respect the beer.
"We've always tried to run a beer fest without encouraging people to just get drunk,'' says Unwin, 50.
The British expat threw his first beer fest two years after he and his wife took over the cafe from his father-in-law and started stocking myriad craft beers you don't usually see at Cajun restaurants. Ninety people showed up for that first fest, but Unwin kept at it and drew a few hundred last year. He's fine with that, and worries that as words gets out it might get too big.
This year he'll have more than 100 beers — probably a lot more but he's not sure. Several beer distributors will be there, along with most of the top local brewers, including Peg's, Dunedin Brewery, Cigar City and St. Somewhere Brewing in Tarpon Springs. A few home brewers will be pouring their unique beers. And Unwin plans to infuse a keg of Oskar Blues Ten Fidy with vanilla bean and wood chips, just for the fun of it.