Not many corners around Tampa Bay look like a quaint English village, complete with a friendly pub. And that's especially so in the pristine precincts of Westchase, which was an empty stretch of Hillsborough County just 10 years ago. Yet now it has a local joint where beer and good spirits spill as happily as they do after a soccer match in Fullpint-on-Tiddly.
And more generously. Since the World of Beer, like all American bars, is not tied to a single brewery as often is the case in Britain, the publicans here can pull dozens of lagers, ales and porters on draft. Plus, last call is much later.
World of Beer is part of a new round of drinks poured cheerfully in beer pubs and wine bars (occasionally one in the same), especially in new suburban frontiers, malls and downtowns under hip reconstruction.
Culinary trend watchers excited about better bar food have missed a bigger pleasure: better bar drinking.
I'm not talking small batch bourbon or apricot Grey Goose martinis but beer and wine that's just as interesting, such as a cream stout Belgian trippel or a Malbec rose.
Certainly bar food can move upscale. Try the crab and ricotta wrapped in fresh pasta set out with sushi flair at Taps Wine & Beer Merchant, the two-story come-hipper bar at the base of SkyPoint, downtown Tampa's sexy new condo high-rise. Even the old standbys, such as a ploughman's cheese platter, wurst on a bun or a White Rabbit pizza, are tasty. Still, the most impressive action is behind the bar and in the cooler.
It's about time. America's craft brewers are perhaps the most successful of artisan foodies. They've added a grand array of lagers, witbiers and porters to the beer list that matches the growing diversity of global beer. Remember your first St. Pauli Girl? Kid stuff today at a place like northwest Hillsborough County's World of Beers, which racks up 300 brands in nine full-door coolers. And then there's the truly good stuff, two dozen keg-fresh imports and microbrews chronicled on the 10-foot chalkboard, each name followed by alcohol percentages up to 10.5. That's alcohol per volume; and the monster is St. Bernardus, Abt. 12 at the top of the list. If that strikes fear, try the Striog black and white, half Bernardus and half witbier.
Want a sharp and bitter pale ale? How about a Clipper City Loose Cannon. "My favorite,'' bartender Kim Stein says of the Baltimore brew. "It's triple hopped.'' Indeed you could smell the spicy blossoms without lifting the glass. A strong Canadian Maudite ale, on the other hand, could warm a Quebecois all winter.
The wine spectrum is just as wide and expanding daily.
At uber-urban Taps Wine & Beer Merchant in Tampa, the drinkers' attention is divided. There's the wall of beer with two dozen beer taps and shelves of almost as many glasses. And a five-door cooler floating above the sleek wine lounge with uptown industrial-posh decor and a shiny Enomatic wine system, the first Tampa has seen. The Italian machines (used at downtown St. Petersburg's Tastings and 20 other Florida locations) dispense 30 wines, from modest Chianti to Opus One by the ounce (or 3 or 5). The charge is deducted from a prepaid plastic card, but at the lowest price — $1.30 — you can use up $20 quickly, so start with 3-ounce pour and give the beers an eye — more adventure for your buck.
No matter, beer drinkers or wine lovers, after work or after they get home, can be elbow to elbow at either one.
In Oldsmar, Sarasota
Not far from Westchase, new brew fans crowd into the Oldsmar Tap House's cozy room with 35 taps and an old English hand pump for true draught. Lost? Ask Lori Bissette in the "Beer Geek" T-shirt. "Crisp and dry? Hmmm . . ." and she reaches for Nitro from Shipyard, which turns out to be an easy, creamy quaff. In downtown St. Petersburg, the Independent's variety of beer, glassware and fans spills out onto the sidewalk most summer nights.
For broad wine selection and gourmet dining, Sarasota now heads to Cork & the Bottle Shop, a crisp double-decker wine destination on St. Armands Circle with a full-service restaurant above an eat-in wine store and sidewalk tables. A glass runs from $6 to $15 and half bottles and bottles $19 to $250, with selections from amarone to zinfandel.
Monitoring the offerings
Although the modern wine bars sport new decor and trendy locations they need careful wine selection and modest markup for long-term popularity. Wine directors have a bigger variety than ever, thanks to boatloads of bottles from all corners of France and Spain, Italy from the Alps to Sicily, plus Chile, Australia and South Africa.
"I'm always on the hunt, I try a lot of plonk but that's what I do,'' says Rochelle Smith, owner of A Taste for Wine, downtown St. Petersburg's wine bar since 1996.
While some wine-by-the-glass programs charge $8 and up for mainstream labels that sell for about the same a bottle, Smith is proud of affordable rarities at $6 on her 20-bottle Cruvinet, and other values. "If I charge $8 a glass, that means we paid $16 for the bottle.''
A few contemporary watering holes have stumbled, but many pioneer beer and wine mavens are still at it. Franz Rothschadl, the master brewer at Hoppers, opened LagerHaus in Palm Harbor two years ago, and his champion Bohemian beer is still on tap. Smith's Taste for Wine has now doubled its sofa-filled comfort zone and its ironwork balconies. Ybor City's Tampa Bay Brewing Company moved its brewery and pub to much bigger space in the heart of Centro Ybor. And Four Green Fields gave downtown Tampa a thatched-roof Irish pub.
Plus wine stores have evolved through several evolutions, adding bars and seats for weekly tastings. Don't miss American farmstead cheeses at Bella Vino Wine and Cheese Market in Belleair Bluffs and Pic-Pac Liquors in St. Petersburg or the small-plate menus at the Grape in Tampa and La Maison Gourmet in Dunedin.
No more crying in your beer — or wine. There's plenty to choose from.