If you ordered a Belgian beer around town four or five years ago, you'd likely end up with a Stella Artois or a blank stare. These days, quality craft beers can be found nearly anywhere, from the local dive to ordinary restaurants and cafés. Although newcomers to the craft beer scene will benefit greatly from the abundance of quality brews served in even seemingly improbable locations, true enthusiasts have long known where to find the good stuff. — Justin Grant tbt* correspondent
The Independent and Rex
An early proponent of the craft beer movement, the Independent has been serving up an excellent selection of draft and bottled beers from around the world for the past six years, back when quality craft brews were much harder to come by. Years later, they still manage to serve up some of the best beers in town. The selection is heavily weighted toward continental European ales, with most served in their brewery's signature glassware. Rex, a new sister bar to the Indie, is a few blocks down the road and specializes in a rotating list of domestic draft micros served in a somewhat quieter, more intimate setting than the occasionally crowded Independent. The Independent, 29 Third St. N, St. Pete. (727)820-9514 independentbeer.com. Rex, 2061 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 822-2337. (There is another Independent in Seminole Heights, at 5016 N Florida Ave., Tampa. (813) 341-4883, theindependenttampa.com.)
The Brass Tap
It's not easy to find a solid beer joint in a shopping mall, but the Brass Tap — with locations in the sprawling Brandon Town Center and the shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel — is just such a place. The draft menu is extensive, and there are many quality bottles available on the menu, with detailed descriptions of each. The atmosphere here is fairly upscale, and you'll find premium wines and cigars offered alongside the many beer options. There's a new location in Trinity scheduled to open later this year. Two locations: 775 Brandon Town Center, Brandon. (813) 654-4712; 2000 Piazza Ave., Wesley Chapel. (813) 991-4343, brasstapbeerbar.com.
Formerly in University Mall, Mr. Dunderbak's took up a new, larger location near the USF campus a little over two years ago. With a larger space came a broader beer selection — Mr. Dunderbak's now has more than 50 beers on draft, as well as cask beer served from a beer engine. The décor is that of a Münich biergarten, and the food consists of a wide range of German specialties. Tampa Bay B.E.E.R.S. — a local homebrewing club — meets here once a month, where homebrewing kits are sold, along with German foods and beers to go. 14929 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., Tampa. (813) 977-4104, dunderbaks.com.
The Ale and the Witch
This new St. Pete beer bar has become remarkably popular in a very short time — it just celebrated its "1/2-year anniversary" — which is no surprise, considering the constantly changing list of more than 30 great domestic beers on draft. The beers are selected to complement — rather than compete with — the selection at other local establishments, so there's always something new and unusual on draft, even for the experienced beer drinker. It's not uncommon to see two or three new kegs tapped on an average weekend night, when the courtyard quickly fills up with large groups, local musical acts, and even a vegan hot dog cart. 111 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 821-2553, thealeandthewitch.com.
Willard's Tap House
The motto at Willard's is "No Crap on Tap," and it would be difficult to argue. Even the bar's compromise beer is the somewhat-more-respected-than-PBR Narragansett Lager, and novice beer drinkers will find incentive to branch out into new territory with the use of a punch card that rewards them with free beers and merch after completing pints corresponding to each of the numbers on the draft list. Aside from the 40-odd ales, lagers and ciders you'll find on draft, Willard's has a modest bottle list, which I can assure you also contains no crap. 12500 Starkey Road, Largo. (727) 581-8600, willardstaphouse.com.
Cajun Café on the Bayou
At first glance, the Cajun Café — a cajun restaurant in Pinellas Park, situated at the end of a dirt road next to the flea market — appears to be a fairly unlikely destination for the serious beer drinker. But not only will beer drinkers find a great selection of quality craft brews here, they'll also find a truly unique place to enjoy them in. As the name suggests, the Café offers seating on its waterfront deck, and a large, outdoor seating area gives the place a festival vibe. Sure enough, the Café is host to several annual beer festivals, where owner Paul Unwin has been known to serve rare and unusual beers that he's accumulated throughout the year, many of which are not available anywhere else in the area. 8101 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park. (727) 546-6732, cajuncafeonthebayou.com.
Tampa's Channel District has never really been known for its serious beer culture, so Pour House's arrival last year must have been somewhat of a game-changer for the neighborhood. At first glance, the bar blends in perfectly with the surrounding condos and loft apartments — exposed air ducts, a modern, subdued look, overstuffed couches and a coffee table, polished floors — but the beer list is all business. Out of 40 taps, nearly a quarter are devoted to local breweries, such as Cigar City, St. Somewhere and Dunedin Brewery. The laid-back, living-room feel and beer nerd bartenders make it feel more like a party at a friend's apartment than a night at a trendy Channel District bar. 1208 East Kennedy Boulevard #112, Tampa. (813) 402-2923, pourhourtampa.com.