Two months ago and nearly 2,000 miles away, the unthinkable happened: Cigar City Brewing was awarded a gold medal for its Minaret ESB at Denver's Great American Beer Festival, beating out 42 entries and making official Florida's status as an up-and-coming beer state.
While the Tampa brewery has been busy making waves in the craft-beer community, enthusiasts on the other side of the bay have been quietly getting plans in order to open breweries of their own.
"We went to the Great American Beer Fest, and I overheard someone say, 'I never thought I'd see the day that a Gold Medal beer would come out of Florida,' " recalled Jay Dingman, co-owner of Largo's Barley Mow Brewing Company. "It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because that's what we came here to do."
Dingman and girlfriend/co-owner Colleen Huffman opened Barley Mow's taproom in November and serve craft beers on their 14 taps, several from Tampa Bay. In March, the couple hopes to pour their own creations, including a flagship black IPA, The Unkindness.
Pinellas County is no stranger to craft beer — Dunedin Brewery, Palm Harbor's Lagerhaus and Tarpon Springs' St. Somewhere have been brewing for years — but a recent surge has aficionados looking at Florida's west coast in a new light. Even St. Petersburg — a city that doesn't have formally established rules for the opening of a brewery — will see two of them pouring beer in 2012.
Along with Green Bench Brewing, St. Pete Brew will be one of the first to take a stab at commercial brewing in the city, a move co-owner Tom Williams sees as a big step.
"The idea was to make something that was unique to St. Pete," said Williams, whose St. Pete Orange Wheat features a label designed by St. Pete artist Carrie Jadus, depicting local scenes like the Pier. With his wife and co-owner Michelle, Williams plans to open a family-friendly taproom near downtown by the end of this year.
Williams envisions a scene similar to the one in Fort Collins, Colo., where enthusiasts can spend days enjoying the scenery while touring various breweries and pubs. "If you can provide people with something fun, and maybe a little bit of a buzz for the people who love craft beer — what more could you ask for?" he said.
Those wishing to try new local beers won't have to wait. Dunedin's Seventh Sun Brewing will pour its first beer Saturday.
The opportunity to be served the first pint of Seventh Sun was recently auctioned for more than $200, with the proceeds going to Clearwater's Homeless Emergency Project. Although the opening has created a substantial buzz, co-owner Justin Stange sees his brewery as being cooperative with other local breweries and pubs. "We want to brand Dunedin as a beer destination, a community," he said.
Stange opened Seventh Sun's standing-room-only space with girlfriend/co-owner Devon Kreps just over a month ago with the intention of serving Belgian-style ales and IPAs likely to have been kegged on the day you drink them. Among their first beers is a chocolate porter that has glazed donuts added to the finished beer in a process similar to dry-hopping — adding fresh hops to a finished beer to give it additional flavor qualities. Stange calls it "dry donuting." Donuts aside, Stange and Kreps are serious about their beer. (The Seventh Sun staff is required to go through certification similar to that of becoming a wine sommelier) and plans are for beers that include oak-aged varieties — Stange works with a cooper to have virgin oak barrels charred to his specification.
"The public is becoming more and more educated about craft beer," he says, "there's a lot of opportunity here."