Acluster of new businesses has sprung up on and around Florida Avenue, despite the shells of stores shuttered long ago by the economy. What's fueling the growth? Beer. More specifically, fancy beer. And the latest business to join them makes gallons of it.
Cold Storage Craft Brewery — "Tampa Bay's Youngest Local Brewery," as it bills itself — opened in December churning out a small line of beer under the Florida Avenue label.
It joins restaurants such as the Refinery, Ella's Americana Folk Art Cafe and the Independent pub. Located within a few miles of each other, they all opened during the last two years and pour microbrews to a growing customer base that wants more than just Budweiser. Coming soon on nearby Nebraska Avenue is the Southern Brewing Homebrew and Winemaking Supply store, which is relocating to Seminole Heights from a suite on Busch Boulevard.
"I love the fact that we're getting more craft breweries in the Tampa Bay area," said Veronica Vellines, the Independent's co-owner. "We're becoming a beer destination with all the beer bars and the restaurants selling good beers."
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Florida has never been mistaken for Oregon, Colorado or Washington — states heavy with microbreweries and independent taverns. But change is brewing in Tampa. In SoHo, the Cork wine bar transformed itself into the Yard of Ale last year — never mind that three other beer bars compete within the space of a block. Ales, it seems, are a booming business these days.
"Over the past couple of years, craft brews have been growing and getting more and more popular," said James Pellizzi, owner of 3-year-old Taps Wine & Beer Restaurant downtown. "It's actually grown faster than wine sales."
The Cigar City Brewery on Spruce Street has led the charge of this cultural shift since it opened in 2008. Its nationally award-winning microbrews are based on the tastes of Tampa using Ybor City Cuban coffee, Lutz orange blossom honey and Spanish cedar native to the region.
But outside of Cigar City and the 15-year-old Tampa Bay Brewing Company in Centro Ybor, the only known commercial brewery in Tampa was Yuengling, with a plant on N 30th Street.
Then Bruce Talcott and partners Andy De La Parte and Brent Berthy formed the Cold Storage Craft Brewery in an old Kash 'N Karry grocery store at 4101 N Florida Ave.
The origins of their operation date to the first time Talcott, 63, made an amber ale using a home brew kit his wife gave him about 30 years ago. The retired area logistics manager for GTE and Verizon was just a hobbyist until his brother-in-law pointed out that Busch Gardens was selling off its brewery equipment last year, piquing Talcott's interest.
Talcott and his partners bought the giant steel vats used to store, cool and filter beer. They installed much of the equipment themselves, piecing together a microbrewery that's cranking out about 74 kegs or 1,147 gallons of beer a week. Their Florida Avenue line of beer began with an ale but expanded to include an India pale ale and a blueberry wheat beer that's now available in about 30 local bars and restaurants, including Ella's, Fly Bar, Hattricks, Skipper's Smokehouse and some World of Beer locations, as well as supermarkets and liquor stores.
The brewery also has a large tasting room with a bar, pub tables and couches dressed up in the brewery's logo with pint glasses and shirts on the shelves. Right now, the brewery uses the large space to showcase its beer to distributors, but Cold Storage may open up to the public a few times a month in the future.
The brewery does not have a license to sell beer from the location, so it can only offer samples.
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For such a large state, no one knows why Florida doesn't have more microbreweries. Maybe it's because sangria and mojitos seem more appropriate? Or maybe it's the heat that makes people shy away from heavy stouts and porters? It's certainly not history that's keeping more breweries from establishing themselves in Tampa, considering Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the founder of Ybor City, operated a brewery in the late 1800s.
Many brewers think the state's bottling laws, which limit the sizes of bottles that can be sold, obstructed microbrewery growth. But local breweries have learned to adjust over the past few years.
Florida Avenue beers purposely trend toward the lighter side of the taste scale, so people can enjoy it while fishing or golfing in the hot Florida weather, Talcott said.
"A local, fresh beer" is how Cold Storage's brewmaster, Dave Nicholas, 42, puts it.
Soon, the line of beer is expected to be introduced into the Orlando market.
"The beautiful thing about craft beer is the product will sell itself if the people will give it a chance," said Dave Doble, the head brewmaster at Tampa Bay Brewing Co. He called the Southeast United States the last frontier for microbrew culture.
He and Joey Redner, owner of Cigar City Brewery, see inroads being made every day. Cigar City recently had more than 1,100 people attend its Hunahpu Imperial Stout release party, with participants coming from as far as Chicago, New Hampshire and New Jersey.
"In the coming two or three years, you're going to see it blossom," Redner said of the local microbrewery scene.
And one thing all the local breweries believe: There's plenty of room for more. "The more there is," Talcott said, "the more exposure you're going to get."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]