DUNEDIN — It may have been the most expensive beer ever poured in the Tampa Bay area. Beer geeks from across the region crowded into the tiny tasting room of Seventh Sun Brewing, Florida's newest craft brewery. Owners Justin Stange and Devon Kreps auctioned off their first pour, the proceeds going to charity. The $202.50 winning bid was attention-getting, but even more so was who placed it: two top executives with one of Seventh's Sun's chief rivals, Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, along with a beer distributor. It underscored a key characteristic of Tampa Bay's growing craft beer brewing scene: They see themselves as collaborators more than competitors. "We work in synergy," Stange said, as Cigar City owner Joey Redner leaned against the bar awaiting his first taste of Seventh Sun Donut Porter. "We help each other out."
Some compare it the early days of California's Sonoma Valley, where dozens of wineries created a destination for wine lovers. In the beginning, they saw France as their chief rival, not each other. Around Tampa Bay, craft beer brewers compete for market share with much bigger players — international mass brewers like Belgium's InBev, makers of Bud Light, or the UK's SABMiller, which makes Miller Lite.
While the number of craft breweries nationwide exploded in recent years, craft beer still accounts for only about 6 percent of total beer sales, according to the Brewers Association. And in Florida, Redner estimates, it's about 1 percent.
Redner and other brewers cite John F. Kennedy's famous dictum on economic development: A rising tide lifts all boats.
"Let's say we got together and got 3 percent (of the market)," Redner said. "It would be feast time for us, and InBev would barely notice."
Collaboration comes naturally to craft brewers. They nearly all started as home brewers, learning from one another.
Stange, a former brewer for Sweetwater Brewing Co. in Atlanta, worked for several months at Cigar City, learning all he could about the Florida beer market.
Once he found his own space, Florida's oldest craft brewer, Dunedin Brewery down the street, "held our hands" and even lent equipment, Stange said.
The collaborative spirit extends to the beer they produce.
Last year, Dunedin collaborated with Cigar City on a limited-edition Scotch ale. Cigar City also collaborated on a sour ale with St. Somewhere Brewing in Tarpon Springs, which had lent its Belgian yeast to Cigar City for a couple of batches of Guava Grove ale, recently praised by the New York Times in a review of sour ales. Meanwhile, Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville collaborated on a couple of special barleywines with Cigar City to be released soon.
That collaborative spirit was on full display at the Seventh Sun's grand opening Jan. 7: A Who's Who of Tampa Bay brewers streamed through, sampling and praising the 11 beers on tap.
There was Jay Dingman and his fiancee, Colleen Huffman, owners of Barley Mow, a new pub in Largo, who hope to pour their own first beers in March.
"We're buddies with those guys too," Dingman said of Seventh Sun. "They're a couple months ahead of us. … It's nice looking over their shoulders to see what kind of trial and tribulations they go through."
Also on hand was Greg Rapp, an award-winning home brewer and president of the Pinellas Urban Brewers Guild home-brewing club, who plans to turn pro this year with a tasting room and nano-brewery making about two barrels at a time.
He has gotten advice from other brewers and hopes to make 200 barrels in the first 12 months (a barrel equals 31 gallons, or 328 12-ounce bottles).
"The better we are, and the more and varied breweries in the area, the better the draw to the area for craft beer folks," Rapp said. "It is a win-win for everyone."
Also at the Seventh Sun opening was Trace Caley, a brewer at Dunedin Brewery happy to see such a huge crowd turn out for beer. Dunedin recently switched from bottles and draft to all-draft. "We're ramping up and brewing more than we ever have," Caley said.
More brewers are ready to capitalize on Tampa Bay's growing taste for flavorful, hand-crafted, locally produced beer.
Tom Williams, co-owner of St. Pete Brewing Co., already has bottle wheat beer in the market (brewed in Maryland) and is scouting locations for a brewery near downtown St. Petersburg with plans to produce 1,000 barrels the first 12 months. He said he coordinated his location scouting with Green Bench Brewing, which hopes to open downtown in several months. Williams hopes to be close enough to Green Bench to help make downtown a beer destination. "St. Pete's big enough for a few of us," Williams said.
Overall beer sales nationally dropped 1 percent in 2010, but craft beer sales increased 11 percent despite the economic downturn. The growth continued last year, and the number of breweries is expected to hit 2,000 this year — up from fewer than 100 in 1978, the low point for brewing in the United States.
Florida ranks 44th per capita for breweries, lagging behind leaders like California, Colorado and Oregon, but it's catching up. And Tampa Bay "is in the forefront of craft beer here in Florida," said Luke Kemper, owner of Swamp Head Brewery.
Like tech startups, the growth is fueled by small operations, often in humble warehouses. Tampa Bay brewers see nothing but opportunity for growth.
Cigar City is leading the way. It has been on a tear since opening nearly three years ago. It has grown from a two-man operation — Redner and highly regarded brewer Wayne Wambles — to a staff of 32 that generated $3.6 million in revenue last year on 9,600 barrels of beer. It is moving into a brewing space three times its current size in the same warehouse on Spruce Street near Interstate 275 and hopes to double production this year. It also will shift from bottles to cans, a growing trend among craft beer brewers.
While its growth is impressive and national awards keep coming, Cigar City's volume is relatively tiny, even for craft brewers. Its volume last year would not have cracked the top 50 for brewers nationwide. Sierra Nevada, for example, sold 786,000 barrels in 2010.
One key to Cigar City's growth: a tasting room at the brewery selling beer by the glass, bottle or growler — containers of beer-to-go. Nearly a third of the company's revenue last year came out of that room, from only 10 percent of its total beer volume.
The tasting room allows Cigar City to test new recipes, and the revenue has fueled the company's growth, a model being duplicated with new breweries such as Seventh Sun, which will sell most of its beer on site, with some draft sold at local pubs.
Cigar City's success has inspired others.
Mike Bishop, a longtime home brewer, and partner Clay Yarn plan to open Big Storm Brewery in a warehouse in the Trinity/Odessa area of Pasco County in April or May. A tasting room is part of the plan, but not immediately. Instead, they will focus on draft beer at local taverns, and cans later this year, depending on demand.
He said he has gotten a lot of advice from local brewers. "Everybody's been extremely helpful," Bishop said. "The name of the game in Florida is, the more the merrier. … It's an exciting time right now."
Bob Sylvester would agree. After four years running St. Somewhere Brewing in a warehouse in Tarpon Springs, he finally quit his day job. He runs a one-man operation, with the help of volunteers on bottling days. Last year he brewed nearly 400 barrels, and this year hopes to hit 500, 95 percent of it sold in 750-milliliter bottles.
"Nobody can keep up with production right now, and we don't see an end to that real soon," Sylvester said. "It's still a family type thing rather than competitors, and not a feuding family. We drink each other's stuff, support each other's stuff.:
Tampa Bay Brewing Company has been around nearly as long as Dunedin Brewery, but took an unusual route, switching last year from brew pub, with all the beer consumed on premises, to a full-fledged brewery with draft in pubs around Tampa Bay.
The impact was huge. Founded in 1997, TBBC doubled production from about 800 barrels a year to 1,600 in 2011. Demand is strong. "We've actually had to limit the amount of accounts," said head brewer David Doble.
Doble thinks 2012 is "going to be huge" for Tampa Bay and Florida. "We're kind of the last frontier," he said.
Which is why it's important for Tampa Bay brewers to collaborate, Doble said.
"If we all stand alone, we will be killed," he said. "Craft beer is still too weak for anyone to stand on their own. I'm sure that will change over time."
For now, it's a lovefest.
Tom Scherberger, who home brews with the Pinellas Urban Brewers Guild, can be reached at email@example.com.