With the seemingly endless variety of craft beers currently available in the Tampa Bay area, it's hard to believe that some of the biggest names in the scene are missing from our shelves. To enjoy New Belgium, Founders, Deschutes, Three Floyds and other big names, you'll need to travel out of state.
Bay area beer drinkers, however, crossed one name off of their wish list last week, as SweetWater Brewing extended its distribution range to Tampa Bay.
Previously, SweetWater was available in parts of northern Florida, but the Atlanta brewery recently underwent an expansion, making the distribution of its popular, hop-forward beers farther south a reality.
"We came down here and just fell in love with the city," SweetWater founder Freddy Bensch said while sipping a 420 Extra Pale Ale — his brewery's flagship beer — at The Lime in South Tampa Oct. 17. The Lime was the first of several stops on a daylong publicity tour of bars and restaurants in the area that were pouring SweetWater beer for the first time.
The move into Tampa has been in the works for some time, according to Bensch, but it was important to ensure that his beer's quality wouldn't suffer in the process.
"Geographically, growth isn't better for us," he said. "It's all about the quality of the beer and making sure it's fresh. Take a 10-day-old beer versus a 90-day-old beer, both having been kept cold. It doesn't spoil like milk spoils, but it doesn't taste like it did when it left the brewery."
SweetWater is widely known for the freshness of its beers, a crucial factor with the hoppy styles the brewery specializes in. SweetWater beers are neither filtered nor pasteurized, which means that long periods of time spent in transit or storage could have a devastating effect on the product.
Tampa Bay residents can find SweetWater beers at bars, restaurants, and retailers serviced by Pepin Distributing in Hillsborough County and Great Bay Distributors in Pinellas, but for now the selection will be limited to a few of the brewery's biggest sellers. "We start out with the flagships — the 420, followed by the IPA and the Blue," said Bensch, "then we'll start working our Catch and Release series in, which is four rotational beers throughout the year."
Although SweetWater's limited-release beers are still out of reach for bay area residents, attendees of last week's Craft Beer and Crab Festival at the Olde Bay Café in Dunedin were treated to a collaboration brew — a lemon-infused Biere de Garde called Hand Shandy — between SweetWater and Dunedin's Seventh Sun. The connection is no accident; Seventh Sun owners Devon Kreps and Justin Stange are former SweetWater employees.
Although the bay area has seen a surge of new brewery upstarts such as Seventh Sun over the past year, Bensch is confident his beers will feel right at home among both local offerings and an ever-expanding selection of craft beers from around the country.
"I hope it's received as part of the movement," he said. "The whole craft brewing industry is continuing to make progress and we definitely want to continue raising the quality bar.
''It's all about fresh, good beers, quality people, taking care of each other and having fun."