SOUTH TAMPA — Most breweries make their debut with a typical craft beer, such as an IPA or amber ale.
Yet new Tampa brewery 81Bay distinguishes itself by showcasing a lighter beer. This may seem like blasphemy to craft beer aficionados, especially in Tampa Bay, which produces 40 percent of the state's craft beer, but 81Bay's Lightning Lager is its top seller.
"We let our taproom kind of speak for itself," said Keelan Cottle, 81Bay director of sales and marketing. "We were selling more lager, almost twice as much lager, as our second best seller."
To get their beer out in the Tampa Bay market, the owners of 81Bay took another unique step when they decided to team up with Micro Man Distributors. Based in Oldsmar for 19 years, Micro Man specializes in mostly imported beers, but 81Bay is now the only locally brewed beer that Micro Man distributes.
"We were searching for a local brewery because we really wanted to add something to the portfolio locally," said Ian McCarthy, president of Micro Man. "It's given us an opportunity as a distributor."
The relationship will be one of the keys if 81Bay is to succeed in Florida's most competitive market.
A lager is not the only unexpected offering at 81Bay Brewing. Three dimensional foam art, an enormous wall mural, and interactive projector art greet visitors to the atypical taproom of the brewery.
Cottle joined Florida natives and friends Michael Beard and Shawn Bowman in starting the brewery and holding an official grand opening in August, making it the first microbrewery in South Tampa.
While living in San Diego for five years, Beard and Bowman started a growler club in their neighborhood with their homebrewed beer. Once they realized that home brewing was becoming more than hobby, they considered opening up a brewery in San Diego. Due to an oversaturated market and high costs, the two looked at the Tampa market.
"I saw it as very underdeveloped, not overdeveloped, coming from the California market," said Beard, the president.
Bowman, director of operations, and Beard teamed up with Cottle, Beard's Delta Tau Delta fraternity brother from Florida State University. After looking at more than 30 locations around Tampa Bay, they decided on renovating 17,000 square feet of space at the corner of W Gandy Boulevard and S Manhattan Avenue, which now houses their brewery and taproom.
Betting on a lager may be an even bigger decision.
• • •
Although lagers are the most popular style of beer in the world, they take longer to produce, requiring more equipment and much colder fermenting temperatures. McCarthy said that is one of the reasons there are very few lagers produced by local breweries. Realizing the gap in the market, both 81Bay and Micro Man decided to focus on distributing the Lightning Lager.
"We found that our views and our strategy aligned almost perfectly," Beard said. "That's why it was such a good matchup."
So far, the partnership has proved successful. With Micro Man guiding the distribution, 81Bay's Lightning Lager is available at more than 50 locations throughout Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.
"We've had a good response," said McCarthy, who describes Lightning Lager as a very approachable beer and one that any beer drinker can enjoy.
• • •
In addition to Lightning Lager, visitors to 81Bay Brewing's uniquely designed taproom can sample a variety of beers, such as Fishwater IPA and Reel Slo Red Ale. Local artist Sebastian Coolidge was commissioned to design the two- and three-dimensional artwork that frames the enormous taproom. His work is incorporated with the digital art that was created by Pixel Rain Digital. It uses interactive projection to generate an underwater seascape where fish and dolphins swim.
"We want people saying this is the best taproom in the world," Beard said. "No one is doing something on this level."
Aiming to provide a fun and interactive atmosphere for adults and kids, the taproom offers board games, table tennis, darts and corn hole. Sports fans can watch games on six TV's and two projectors. There is a stage for live music, and special events such as yoga classes, and there is a private event room that can be used for parties.
Though 81Bay only recently opened, there are already plans for expansion.
"The demand is there," Beard said.
Contact Danielle Hauser at [email protected]