CLEARWATER — Pinellas County wants in on the craft brew craze.
For years, the county has had a rule that put beer makers in a bind. While brewers had to work out of warehouses and other semi-industrial buildings, county zoning laws banned alcohol sales in those areas. Forget tasting rooms and brew pubs — these were foreign concepts — breweries couldn't even sell their beer without going through wholesalers.
But the sudden boom in craft beer's popularity in Florida, and in Tampa Bay especially, has changed the county's thinking, as did the half-dozen inquiries from beer makers interested in Pinellas locations.
On Tuesday, the County Commission voted to allow businesses zoned as "light manufacturing" to sell alcohol, a rule change that takes effect immediately. While there's no telling if the move will inspire an influx of independent breweries, county officials are hopeful.
John Cueva, the county's zoning manager, said that in the last month he's received more phone calls from interested brewers than ever before.
"The craft beer industry is picking up around here and our code is accommodating that," he said.
Cities like St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park already have changed their ordinances to make them more welcoming to the business.
About two years ago, St. Petersburg overturned a rule that prevented breweries from opening in downtown commercial spaces. Previously, the businesses had been relegated to warehouses far from the city's center, said city zoning official Philip Lazzara. The city changed its code after two St. Petersburg natives came to city officials with plans for a brewery.
Green Bench Brewing Co. opened on Baum Avenue last September. Two others breweries — Cycle Brewing and 3 Daughters Brewing — have also opened recently.
In Pinellas Park, city officials worked with home-brewer Greg Rapp to change their codes, allowing him to open Rapp Brewing Company in 2012. Today, the business occupies a 3,200-square-foot warehouse and has a tasting room.
For David Doble, who founded the Tampa Bay Brewing Company in Ybor City with his wife, Vicki, and son John, the county's code change came too late.
Last September, Doble was enthusiastically pursuing plans to open a brewery in Ozona alongside the Pinellas Trail. He'd made an offer to the owners of a 23,500-square-foot warehouse on Candy Lane, and a closing date had been scheduled.
Then the problems began. A man who lived near Doble's desired location began protesting the brewery's arrival. The school district got involved — the warehouse is close to Ozona Elementary — and not long thereafter, attorneys raised the specter of the county's zoning law.
Doble began looking for a new location and found one in Hillsborough. He's planning to open the brewery by the end of this year.
"We do still hope to one day bring some type of business to Ozona," he said. "I just think that town is so cool."