There's a new brewery that bills itself as South Tampa's first brewery. At first, that sounds improbable, but it checks out: The vast majority of Tampa's breweries are concentrated in the downtown, Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights areas.
81Bay Brewing Co. brings local beer to Gandy Boulevard, just a short jaunt across the bridge from Brewers Tasting Room, north St. Petersburg's lone brewery. The location was strategically planned by three friends who decided to set up shop in the Sunshine State due to its booming beer market, bringing a large brewery to a dry part of a rapidly growing beer town.
The addition of a head brewer — Stephen Foster — who studied at Weihenstephan and has international brewing experience, completed the crew. And a huge space on Gandy, decked out in multimedia mural work by St. Petersburg artist Sebastian Coolidge, gave 81Bay a spacious and lively home.
I'll focus a bit on that last detail because, at the moment, I think it's 81Bay's biggest asset. From the road, 81Bay is just another drab shopping plaza storefront, but the interior is a very different story.
The warehouse space is cavernous: high ceilings, concrete floors, a sprawling tasting room, a large stage and a partially open brewery in the back. But it's the brilliant artwork — a colorful, wonderfully surreal underwater fever dream — that makes the place special.
The stage wall features a facade in the shape of a giant shark's mouth, looking out onto a wide, theater-sized screen showing cartoon underwater video, as if the tasting room is wedged in the jaws of a Megalodon. An opposite wall is a projection screen for movies and sports.
Bright LEDs add a cool glow from beneath the bar. Even the bathroom has its own look: communal sinks are outside of the bathrooms proper, with repurposed beer kegs and functioning taps taking the place of traditional faucets.
The 3-D multimedia decor at 81Bay is not only outstanding work, it's wholly unique in the Tampa Bay area. I can't think of any brewery I've visited that was visually stimulating in a similar way. It's much more theme park than traditional tasting room, though it functions quite capably as the latter, offering a dozen rotating house taps.
The beers are good, but they don't stand up to the uniqueness of the setting. Most of the brews I sampled were reasonable versions of the typical stuff: English and American IPA, a red ale, a brown ale, a porter, a stout — you know the drill. I was excited by the Lightning lager (a 3.2 percent alcohol by volume very light lager), but it didn't quite do the trick for me, even considering its diminutive nature.
I was, however, very into the Hurricane Heather Ale, an un-hopped beer flavored with heather tips — a style originally brewed somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago in Scotland. It has a flavor reminiscent of mint and chamomile, making it extremely cool and refreshing. The only commercial version I've seen of this style is William Brothers' Fraoch Heather Ale from Scotland, so it's neat to see such a rare style brewed locally.
That's exactly the kind of thing that 81Bay needs. For as colorful and wild as the place looks, I expect a good number of the beers to follow suit. While I understand the need for core styles and crowd-pleasers, a few more beers in the spirit of Hurricane Heather Ale are very much in order.
Fortunately, 81Bay's website does list some intriguing coming-soon beers. There's a gruit (medieval, un-hopped beer, flavored with spices and herbs), a chocolate-raspberry porter, a bock, a Swedish öl flavored with lingonberries, and a Flemish red. And the Ramble On Raspberry Ale is a regular fixture, offering a non-sour raspberry brew that reminds me of the kind of stuff you'd find in craft/microbreweries a decade or two ago.
If the brewing program catches up to the interior design of 81Bay, then I think it will be a formidable player in the Tampa Bay brewing scene. The place is visually unlike anything else around, but the beers need to be similarly unique and exciting if that massive tasting room is going to get anywhere near full.
I have faith that the 81Bay crew will make it happen.
[email protected] @WordsWithJG.