Every restaurant worth its salt these days offers a selection of craft beers, often drilling down to showcase local and regional options. And now restaurants are taking it one step further, brewing their own beers or partnering with local breweries to develop signature suds. • These "bespoke beers" are one of the year's biggest national trends, and in the Tampa Bay area a number of these collaborations are available for local diners to sample. • Not surprisingly, Tampa's Cigar City, the grandfather of Florida craft brewing, was early to explore collaborations with restaurants. They have done two beers exclusively for Bern's Steak House, one in 2013 called Legacy One, a rich, dark barley wine-style beer made in a Four Roses single-barrel bourbon barrel, and one this year called Legacy Two, a Belgian dubbel made in a Mount Gay rum barrel.
"Dean Hurst from Bern's gave me a call one day and said he'd like to offer something special and exclusive for their guests," said Cigar City vice president Justin Clark. "Beer has a place at the table as well, and they were able to source a barrel."
Hurst agrees that the whiskey barrel prompted the creative spark.
"We had just bought the barrel. I was at an event and bumped into Joey (Redner) and Justin. We tasted the whiskey together, and they came up the idea for a rich, dark, giant beer."
Hurst gave Cigar City carte blanche in the creative process.
"I have a philosophy: They do award-winning beer. Why would I tell them what to do?"
The result, Legacy One, was a limited release, only 53 gallons (about 17 cases of 750-milliliter bottles) total, offered on a reserve list to special customers as more of an after-dinner quaff. Brewmaster Wayne Wambles' notions for the second beer, also a small release, included dates and mission figs and coconut palm sugar — more in a tropical vein.
"We created a label for the first one using one of the (sculpted) busts from Bern's," Hurst said. "For the second one we had a label designed by local artist Dean Arscott. He does a lot of tiki-inspired stuff, and I thought it would be perfect with the rum to do a tiki-inspired label."
A signature beer gives a restaurant a certain cachet. But what's in it for the brewery?
"It was great to have a collaboration with such a great Tampa institution," said Clark, "somebody that we really respect in the area. And it's fun to work with people who are as geeked out with what they do as we are about our beer."
Mark Heimann, executive chef at the Vinoy, and Ty Weaver, brewmaster at 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg, didn't use the words "geeked out," but it was implied.
"Mark and Ty bonded and decided to build a beer around a specific menu that Mark would develop," remembers 3 Daughters owner Mike Harting. "They were just kindred spirits."
Heimann and other Vinoy staffers toured the brewery, Weaver walking them through the brewing process.
"I spent an hour and half going through the whole process with Mark," Weaver remembers. "It was cool because I used to be a chef myself. He seemed interested, and at the end when we were all there they said they wanted to make a beer and said something about the orange groves that used to be (at the site of the Vinoy), and they wanted something light because it's Florida. And so we settled on a white wheat, because they are normally made with orange peel and coriander."
The result is Paul's Landing, which debuted this summer on tap at the Vinoy. The fruity wheat beer is named for William Paul, who helped pioneer the orange groves in the area in 1854. To pair with it, Heimann has developed a short menu of dishes, things like scallops crusted with coriander and crushed chilies, pan-seared and served with salsa verde with a little bit of fresh strawberries and grilled onion, or a 12-hour-brined pork shank slow braised and roasted with brown sugar glaze and served with Gruyère grits and pickled red onions and arugula.
"I love beer but I'm not a brewer, so it was a good learning experience," Heimann reflected. "Microbrews have been a huge trend over the past few years, and once St. Pete started getting going, this just came about. The Vinoy was late to craft beer, but now it's a must-have."
Weaver summarizes the allure of these signature beers like so: "It's kind of cool to have a beer that only you have."
Doug Dozark, brewer-owner of St. Petersburg's Cycle Brewing, had different motivation for brewing a signature beer for Ducky's in Tampa.
"Personally, it was fun to meet Evan Longoria (who is a part owner of Ducky's) and make a beer for him."
But it wasn't easy.
"They called and asked if I wanted to make a beer for Evan Longoria and I said sure. … Right before baseball season started last year … I filled a bunch of little growlers for him to try. We talked about some broad concepts, then things went quiet for the entirety of baseball season."
As the restaurant got closer to opening, Dozark called to nudge, reminding them that it takes a month or more to make a beer and have it ready. Dozark was texted a list of Longoria's favorite foods: pizza, steak, "any style Latin food," ice cream and cheese. And then a list of the ballplayer's favorite beers: Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, Dos Equis amber, Pilsner Urquell and Bud Light. Not exactly cutting-edge lists on either count.
"It was a very entertaining list," Dozark said with a laugh. "But Pilsner Urquell is a well-made beer, so I put together a recipe for Ducky's Pils, a traditional Bohemian pilsner."
Hurst of Bern's is working on another collaboration, with JDub's Brewing Company in Sarasota. Working with a George Dickel whiskey barrel, the brewery is doing a smoked imperial porter for Bern's, which debuted Saturday at the Epicurean Hotel.
"If you want to be relevant in this age you have to have a nod to craft beer," Hurst says. "It says we're paying attention to our consumer."
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.