Almost a year to the day after Flying Boat Brewing Co. broke ground on its Woodlawn Oaks facility and tasting room, the St. Petersburg brewery officially opened its doors for business last week.
Owners Glenn Zakany, Tanner Zakany and Josh Perian had a concept for the brewery before they even had a brewer: a beery tribute to St. Petersburg's aviation history. The titular flying boat refers to the Benoist Type XIV Flying Boat piloted by Tony Jannus on the world's first scheduled airline flight, between downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa on New Year's Day 1914.
Many people don't realize St. Pete's important role in modern aviation, and the Flying Boat crew aims to shine a light. As such, the brewery nods to the city's pioneering past, using a large collection of historic photos as well as flight boards (get it?) shaped like little wooden airplanes. The beers are also named with aviation or St. Pete themes, like Whitted Wheat, Hangar Brown and Woodlawn Oaks Pub.
Before I get to the beer, I want to point out how notable Flying Boat's location is. Just blocks from Woodlawn Park, the brewery is embedded squarely in a quiet residential neighborhood.
At first, it's a bit jarring to have a view of people's homes from the front patio, but it's ultimately a very cool setting for a brewery that's built around local pride. It offers a community pub vibe that's near-impossible to achieve in typical brewery locations, like a downtown entertainment district or an industrial park.
It's a spacious facility, broken into three rooms and an outdoor patio, with picture windows providing unobstructed views into the brewery proper. The interior is fully air-conditioned, which I've only recently learned is an uncommon feature at local breweries.
For the beer, Flying Boat brought on Tyler Singletary, previously of Tampa's Southern Brewing. I've had many of Singletary's beers in the past, so I knew that the quality would be reasonably high.
Sure enough, the six beers offered — joined by an oatmeal stout at the time of writing — were all well-crafted and effectively flawless examples of the core styles they represented: mild, pale ale, American IPA, brown, blonde and American wheat.
And that's the cue for a minor rant that I've been kicking around for a year or two.
While some would argue that we're at a point of local craft beer saturation, I've long maintained that we're not. Rather, we're at a point of saturation for the same beers in a relatively small geographic region. There's incredible room for beer growth in St. Pete alone, not to mention the greater Tampa Bay area. But the room for growth isn't in ubiquitous styles like blonde ales and IPAs — it's in uniqueness.
The argument for core styles is well-worn and entirely reasonable. People want go-to beers, and core styles sell. New breweries absolutely should have blondes and IPAs if their patrons want them. But let's see a little creativity at work, too.
Flying Boat has a talented, creative brewer, and I was disappointed to find a dearth of distinctive options in the initial taproom offerings.
The plan, as I understand it, is to let the clientele dictate the direction of taproom offerings. But I think that's going at it backwards. The brewery's theme was planned more than a year ago; why would the brewing approach be any different? Carve a niche.
To be clear, I'm not knocking the beers even a little. I thought they were great. The pale ale is expertly balanced and crisp, while the brown has an assertive roastiness and well-defined bitterness to round it out. The wheat ale is especially compelling, with a sweet, chewy finish following a mild initial spiciness.
The Woodlawn Oaks pub ale — essentially an English mild ale — seems to be an early crowd favorite, and I'm not surprised, given that it's the relative outsider of the bunch. Well-made examples of dependable styles may come with the promise of steady business, but offering something that everyone else isn't also offering is how breweries create a true identity.
I know Flying Boat will get there. It has a great bar staff, a cool historical tie-in, a unique, spacious facility and an experienced head brewer. Once Singletary starts stretching his legs in the brewing department, all of the pieces will be in place for Flying Boat to become a must-visit brewery. I'm excited to see how high it'll fly in the coming months.
— firstname.lastname@example.org; follow @WordsWithJG