Add Land O'Lakes to the list of Tampa Bay area towns with at least one brewery. For a while, it was looking like the upcoming In the Loop Brewing would be first on the scene, but Craft Life Brewing opened quietly in July, brewing 1-barrel nano batches in its modest Land O'Lakes Boulevard brewery and tasting room.
It has been a couple of months, but I haven't picked up on much of a buzz surrounding Craft Life. Part of that undoubtedly has to do with its location — a Seminole Heights opening, for example, would be a hot topic in the local beer groups — but it also seems like Craft Life is intentionally trying to not draw too much attention to itself.
Sure enough, I almost drove right past the place. It's an anonymous, windowless, gray building — the kind of roadside dive that you'd happily pass on any given day — with a small sign displaying the brewery's logo: a black line drawing of a sun rising, with Craft Life Brewing in handwriting-style text. A small banner on the side encourages visitors to "drink local," and features other local brewery logos in equal prominence to the Craft Life logo. I prepared myself for the worst.
I had an idea what I'd find inside. I've been to dozens of these places. They're invariably smoke-filled, dark and borderline depressing. Did I mention the no windows thing? Well, I'll be damned if the Craft Life folks didn't take one of these crusty old dive bar buildings and transform it into an entirely welcoming tasting room.
No smoke, no damp and stained carpeting, no sticky high-tops or ratty old pool table felts — just a low-key beer bar, with 20 beers on tap and a handful of house wines. It's roomy, clean and simple: a neighborhood bar feel without the less pleasant aspects of the average neighborhood bar.
On to the beer. The chalkboards above the bar are broken into four categories — light, medium, dark and hoppy — with Apple Pie cider from Cigar City Cider & Mead off in the corner by itself. I had a fun time decoding the chalkboard at first, as all brewery names (all local, by the way) are represented by initials, rather than by their full names.
STB, SHB, CTB, CLB, CCB (not to be confused with CBC) — it's like a stock ticker that I actually care about. And then there's CLB, which is, of course, Craft Life Brewing. When I visited, eight of the 20 on tap were house brews, covering a broad range: APA, IPA, honey blond, amber, nut brown, porter, pumpkin ale, milk stout.
Craft Life's owner and brewer, Tim Foley, who was bartending on his birthday, was clearly excited about the new digs, offering to give me a brief tour of the brewhouse, which is a nifty little 1-barrel (31-gallon) system — enough to brew two kegs per batch.
He explained that with such limited output, the goal is to keep a pretty low profile and have a customer base of friendly regulars who are in the know. That's a solid strategy for a nano brewery like this, which gets its edge not from getting lots of product out to all the local beer bars, but by perfecting brews in house, small batch by small batch.
To that end, the plan seems to be working. I did a flight of the APA, IPA, amber and nut brown, followed by a half-pour — kudos for offering half-pours — of the porter. For a brewery that is ostensibly still in a soft-opening phase, these beers are production-level quality, brewed to style and clearly not the output of an amateur operation.
For all the honest quality and simplicity of the beers, there are quite a few things in the works at Craft Life. There's a fenced-in outdoor courtyard with corn hole and oversized Jenga. Food trucks make regular appearances. Live music is already steadily featured on the calendar, and a weekly trivia night has just been added. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's the complete neighborhood nano brewery experience, in a town where the next nearest brewery is 10 miles away.
If Craft Life's early batches are any indication, we can expect good things to come from Land O'Lakes' first brewery. Brewing on such a small system allows a brewer to fine-tune their product on a regular basis, which in theory leads to a well-honed roster of house beers. In practice, that's exactly what you'll find at Craft Life Brewing.