PLANT CITY — The craft beer scene now has a stop in Plant City, and judging by the grand opening of Two Henrys Brewing, plenty of people will be making the trip.
The debut Saturday of Clay Keel's creation drew thousands of enthusiasts to Keel and Curley Winery. The same place that just celebrated its 10th anniversary of serving up wine is now pouring — and producing — its own beer.
Clay Keel, son of owner Joe and previously the winery's marketing director, is now a brewmaster. Though Clay admitted to a bit of nervousness as the public got its first opportunity try his beer, all was well received.
"I felt really good about the IPA. It's definitely a good product," said Clay, referring to the 7 Mile Bridge India Pale Ale, which is the first to hit the taps at the winery.
The beer bar, just across the room from where folks have long saddled up to sample wine, is open seven days a week. Within the next month, all five creations — including a pilsner, pale ale, black IPA and chocolate stout — are expected to fill out the inaugural Two Henrys lineup.
Keel handed out samples of everything at Saturday's grand opening, which contained a lot more pomp and circumstance (and bounce houses and cornhole tournaments) than what will be the more laid-back vibe at the winery.
"It went well," said Joe Keel, Clay's father and winery owner. "I was working the parking lots most of the day, and so you get to hear people as they walk back to their cars. They were all saying, 'Oh, we liked it,' and they were taking home growlers."
For the uninitiated, a growler is simply a genius method to take home draft beer either in a 32-ounce or gallon size. Plenty of 7 Mile growlers have been filled.
The Two Henrys refers to Florida pioneers Henry B. Plant and Henry Flagler. A year ago, Clay Keel knew that he liked drinking beer and had no concept of brewing it, but he does know his Florida history.
The 7 Mile Bridge was Flagler's famous overseas railway, for example. Rough Around the Edges is the name of the pale ale and refers to the "Rough Riders" who stayed at Plant's hotel in Tampa en route to the Spanish-American War.
In a perfect world all five of Clay's cleverly named creations would already be available. But things don't always go smoothly for a craft brewery, much less a startup.
The IPA was first called the 8th Wonder, but turns out there is an 8th Wonder Brewery in Houston that wasn't so crazy about the choice. Then there was the issue of not having enough power to adequately run Clay's seven-barrel system, though after some quick cooperation from TECO, that has been fixed. The high-tech system is 10 days or so from having its next big batch ready to pour.
Fortunately Cigar City Brewing, whose incredible growth provided the landmark for breweries in Tampa Bay, lent its facilities to the Keels, who have learned just how cooperative the beer community is.
"It really is like a fraternity. We help each other," Joe said.
Likewise Keel and Curley actually has been producing Cigar City's cider (more a wine than a beer) for the past year. Try walking by the Sour Apple Cider vat and not have your mouth water.
More invaluable help has come from Jay Martin, the president of beer distributor J.J. Taylor's craft department, who met with Clay and brother Ryan when the Keels were still unsure about getting into the beer business.
"It's not all about making money, that's for sure. You don't start out to be Budweiser II. It really is an art form," Joe said.
But the Keels have good insight. Debbie Barker, former head of the Stroh's brewery in Tampa (now Yuengling), is a family friend and constantly lends her expertise.
Darek Sharp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.