Thursday, February 22, 2018
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For Tampa beer lovers, brewery taprooms offer pure tasting experience

Much is made of a beer's freshness. Some craft brewers even go so far as to visit their local beer retailers to personally remove old stock of their brand from the shelves. In most cases, fresh beer simply tastes more flavorful, more interesting; the less time between a keg tapping and consumption, the better.

Of course, there's no fresher form of beer than beer enjoyed right at its source — the brewery that produced it. Nearly every brewery in the country has a bar on site serving cold glasses of its various brews. Some are full-on restaurants with house-brewed beer on draft — Dunedin Brewery, Lagerhaus, Peg's Cantina and Tampa Bay Brewing Company are fine examples of our area brewpubs.

Some breweries, however, opt for the simple approach, largely forgoing dining and entertainment in favor of beer alone, catering to a clientele made up almost entirely of true beer devotees. These taprooms offer some of the best opportunities to really get to the essence of your favorite local brew, whether that means a guided tour, special releases on tap, conversations with the brewing team or simply a beer that is really, really fresh.

The distinction between a taproom and a brewpub is a matter of licensing. A small brewery and taproom generally possesses a production brewery license, which allows them to fill growlers and distribute their beers off-site. A brewpub license requires the business to sell food but forbids off-site sales and growler fills. Some brewpubs, like Tampa Bay Brewing Company, are also production breweries.

Pinellas, Pasco get tapped

Pinellas County's brewing scene has ballooned over the past year, with three new breweries opening, all with accompanying taprooms.

First came Dunedin's Seventh Sun Brewing, the brainchild of former Sweetwater Brewing employees Devon Kreps and Justin Stange. The beer is brewed right beside the bar, so when Devon or Justin tells you that their beer is fresh, they mean it — in many cases the beer in your pint glass will have been ­kegged just days earlier. The specialty here is Belgian-style and sour beers, such as the Midnight Moonlight Berliner-Weiss. But the beer most affected by the taproom freshness advantage is FYA, Seventh Sun's crisp, floral IPA.

Like many small operations, Seventh Sun's taproom is an integral part of the business, allowing its beer sales to support a relatively small brew volume, while building revenue toward expansion and distribution to other area bars. An expansion is currently in the works, which will allow the taproom to open on brew days, allowing visitors to watch the process in action.

A taproom visit is also a way to meet the people behind the beer you're drinking.

"It gives us the opportunity to meet and hang out with our customers, tell our story, find out what beers interest them," Kreps said. "Making that connection is not only really fun, but has helped us to establish a great supportive following."

Next to open was Barley Mow Brewing, a small facility housed in a former Irish pub, giving it a classic vibe further supported by a full liquor selection. Like Seventh Sun, Barley Mow features an in-room brewery setup located mere feet from the bar. Owners Jay Dingman and Colleen Huffman often are around to pour beers and chat with visitors, should you have questions about what they have on tap. Most are Barley Mow's own creations, including its flagship black IPA, The Unkindness. With Barley Mow's wide variety of styles, you may want to consider a flight, which includes four 4-ounce samples of the beers of your choice for around $6.

Pinellas's newest brewery belongs to Greg Rapp, head of the Pinellas Urban Brewers Guild. With an astounding 18 in-house beers on tap at any given time, ranging from revivals of arcane styles such as Roggenbier and a spectacular Lichtenhainer to Imperial Stouts and Belgian Golden Ales, Rapp Brewing holds claim to some of the most original brewing happening in Florida. If you're lucky, there may even be an open bottle of Rapp's OMG — a monumentally strong, 24 percent alcohol by volume brew served at room temperature, still and in a tiny snifter — which is something that you definitely won't find elsewhere, other than at the occasional beer festival that Rapp attends.

Big Storm Brewing Co., a new addition to the Odessa brewing scene, recently opened its taproom to the public, offering three of beers on draft — its flagship Wavemaker Amber Ale, Oats in Hose (a seasonal Oatmeal Stout), and Arcus IPA — along with guest taps from other local breweries such as Tampa Bay Brewing Company.

"The coolest feature of the taproom is the ability to look through large windows into the entire brewing area," said Big Storm brewmaster Mike Bishop. "People like to come in and watch the whole process while having a pint."

Tampa keeps on pouring

Before any of these breweries had poured even a single drop in their current homes, three Hillsborough breweries had already been brewing on an impressively large scale, ranging from big to extremely big.

Cold Storage Craft Brewery, producer of the Florida Avenue line of beers, operates a mid-sized brewery on — where else? — Tampa's North Florida Avenue. A tour of the brewery lasts a few minutes, after which guests can sample the brewery's five different beers in the adjoining taproom, a lounge and bar area with a sunny, tropical vibe. Along with the three widely available Florida Avenue beers, guests will want to try Betchy Brown, Cold Storage's silver medal-winning American Brown Ale, as well as Copperhead, a sessionable Amber Ale. The taproom also fills growlers and has kegs for sale on-site.

Then there's Cigar City Brewing, an impressively popular and constantly expanding brewery. The back wall of the original taproom was removed a few weeks ago, expanding the room by a good 30 feet in length and adding extra taps, bringing the total on hand to around two dozen. Although Cigar City beers are readily found at nearly every local craft beer bar or retailer, the taproom is the only place to get a taste of the many experimental batches that Cigar City releases regularly, many of which are produced on a one-and-done basis, as well as special, cask-only variations of the brewery's main production beers, served fresh from a traditional firkin.

You may not think of Yuengling Brewery as a local operation — indeed, "America's Oldest Brewery" has been family-run from Pottsville, Pa., since the early 19th century — but the fact is, most of the Yuengling you see on local shelves was brewed right next door to Busch Gardens in a 1950's-era brewery previously owned by Schlitz, Pabst, and Stroh's.

The brewery gives a phenomenally informative tour sure to appeal to persons with even an ounce of beer nerdism. Perhaps most interesting is the near-obsolete malt press system, along with a massive, 500-barrel (15,000-gallon) brew kettle filled with two stories of churning, boiling wort. An early to mid-week visit is your best bet to see the brewing facility and bottling line in full swing.

At the end of the brewery tour, guests get full run of the Yuengling line, from the familiar lager and Black and Tan (both produced in the Tampa brewery) to the Lord Chesterfield Ale, a pleasantly floral and hoppy ale which is still brewed in the original Pottsville facility. Although you won't see it on draft, be sure to ask for the Yuengling Premium Beer, an American Pilsner that is brewed locally here for shipment to the northern market — it's not available elsewhere in Florida.

The local taproom experience is a fine way to learn more about how Bay area beers are made. Even if production doesn't interest you as much as the beer itself does, you'll find that the special release brews, cozy environments and ultra-fresh beer — often poured by the very hands that made it — likely will.

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