It's not easy to brew good beer in Florida. Homebrewers are constantly struggling with cooling freshly brewed wort and maintaining proper fermentation temperatures in the perpetual Florida heat. So it's a bit surprising that a handful of folks that started out as homebrewing hobbyists have managed to elevate their craft to a commercial level right here in Tampa Bay.
Several bay area taprooms serve up a selection of beer brewed in-house, and I'm happy to announce that they're all quite good. There's nothing better than sipping a fresh-tasting IPA in the same room that it was brewed in, amid a backdrop of towering mash tuns, hot liquor tanks and conical fermenters. Here are a few places to check out if you want to try some quality Florida beer.
Dunedin Brewery: This was my introduction to the Florida beer scene some 10 years ago, and it remains a favorite to this day. The city of Dunedin was founded by Scottish settlers, an influence that can be found at many local businesses and events, such as the Dunedin Highland Games. The brewery is no exception, with Scottish flags hanging over the fermentation tanks and a line of beers paying homage to the city's ancestry, such as the Celtic Gold and Pipers Pale Ale. My personal favorite is a seasonal — the Highland Games Smoked Porter — but you should also keep an eye out for the Bière de Café, a brown ale with cold-infused coffee beans. It's a great drink to sip while you play chess on the outdoor patio or enjoy one of the many live bands that perform at the brewery. 937 Douglas Avenue, Dunedin. (727) 736-0606, dunedinbrewery.com.
Tampa Bay Brewing Company: It wasn't long ago that Tampa Bay Brewing Company outgrew its cozy 15th Street location and moved to the bustling Centro Ybor complex, complete with its own outdoor courtyard and bar. Fortunately, popularity hasn't affected the beers, which span an ambitiously wide range — from blonde ales and hefeweizens to barleywines and imperial stouts. TBBC seems to always have a new seasonal beer on draft, such as the current Berliner-Wiesse, but one of the biggest draws for real beer nerds is the cask beer, tapped every Thursday. Dispensed from a traditional beer engine, this unfiltered ale is about as pure as it gets, and it goes fast — expect Thursday's batch to be gone by Saturday afternoon at the latest. 1600 E Eighth Avenue, Ybor City. (813) 247-1422, tampabaybrewingcompany.com.
Peg's Cantina: Peg's son Doug is no stranger to great beer — he's a production manager at Cigar City Brewing. But he's also got a few tricks up his sleeve outside of Cigar City hours, brewing a range of outstanding beers available on draft at this quaint Gulfport restaurant. Peg's is a converted bungalow house on Gulfport's scenic Beach Boulevard, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that it's one of the area's best-kept secrets. Don't believe me? Check the ratings on some of the major beer sites. Pegs' Rare D.O.S. — an imperial stout aged in Florida's own Palm Ridge Reserve whiskey barrels — carries an A+ rating on Beer Advocate and a 99 rating on ratebeer.com. Enough said, really, but I would hate to leave out the Rainbow Jelly Donut — a sour beer that Doug claims contains a 100 percent sour mash grain bill. You'll either really love it or really hate it. Guess which category I fall into? 3038 Beach Boulevard, Gulfport. (727) 328-2720, pegscantina.com.
Lagerhaus: Franz Rothschadl, co-founder of Palm Harbor's Lagerhaus, will tell you that his family's brewing tradition dates back a few hundred years. It seems that a passion for brewing runs in the family, because Lagerhaus is one of the most active local brewpubs, constantly releasing new, experimental beers to round out its selection of more tradition European styles, like the Helles lager, Märzen or Bohemian Pilsner. If you sign up for a free "Lagerhauser" membership, you'll get more free beer promotions than you'll know what to do with — and trust me, it's good stuff. If you're adventurous, take a stab at one of the conspicuously strong fruit lambics or the seasonally available and ominously named 44-Magnum, a 22 percent alcohol-by-volume monster that you may want to split with a friend. 3438 East Lake Business, Palm Harbor. (727) 216-9682, lagerhausbrewery.com.
Cigar City Tasting Room: I'm not going to lie to you — I just got home from the Cigar City tasting room. Unfortunately, my dubious celebrity did not yield any free beers, so I'm forced to write this in a mostly unbiased fashion. That said, I think that even a fairly objective person would tell you that Cigar City presents one of the best cases for putting Florida beer on the map. Aside from its strong marketing and clever local niche appeal, Cigar City excels in what really counts — making damn good beer. You won't have to travel far to find Jai Alai IPA or Maduro Brown Ale on draft, but if you care to dig a little deeper, you'll find endless variations on the brewery's flagship beers, such as the Oatmeal Raisin Cookie ale or the Humidor Series, featuring beers aged in Spanish cedar (cigars, get it?). A trip to the tasting room nearly always yields new beers unavailable to the public at large, so stop by and hang it over the heads of your out-of-town friends' faces. 924 W Spruce St. Suite A, Tampa. (813) 348-6363 ext. 206, cigarcitybrewing.com.