Ten years ago, Plant City blueberry farmer Joe Keel started making wine as a novel way to use up fruit left over from the year's harvest.
Since then, wine making has eclipsed his fresh blueberry business and become a year-round operation. The wine sells at 1,500 retail locations across Florida and metro Atlanta, including most Publix stores and Total Wine & More.
In celebration of producing its one millionth bottle, Keel and Curley Winery is graduating into its next drink: beer.
Joe and his son, Clay Keel, have started Two Henrys Brewing Co., named after Florida rail barons Henry Plant and Henry Flagler. Big beer fans, the Keels wanted to jump into the hopping craft beer business, which generated $10.2 billion in retail sales last year, up from $8.7 billion in 2011.
The Keels have developed recipes for a pale ale, a lager, an IPA and a stout, but they plan to add seasonal and other varieties as demand warrants. They chose the name partly after their alma mater, Plant High School in Tampa, and their town of Plant City. They haven't named the individual beers yet but are pondering titles with railroad tie-ins. Think Runaway Locomotive, a strong contender.
The brewery will operate out of Keel and Curley's original 1,200-square-foot winery, which has been converted from berries to barley. Clay Keel, the head brewmaster, says the system can make up to 42 kegs per day.
"We're trying to keep it a separate entity from the winery. We want it to be a brewery,'' he said. "We don't want to be a winery that makes beer.''
Two Henrys will be produced in kegs initially for purchase and tastings at the Plant City winery, starting in October. Eventually, the Keels hope to package it in bottles or cans for restaurants and stores, an idea that isn't too far-fetched, given the winery's connections and strong retail presence.
The Keels already produce hard apple cider for Cigar City Brewing in Tampa. No doubt, they would love to replicate Cigar City's fast and widespread success.
Two Henrys will officially launch during Biertoberfest on Oct. 19 at the winery, 5210 W Thonotosassa Road. The festival will have beer made by home brewers, a cornhole tournament, live music and food.
In the meantime, Keel and Curley is marking its 10-year anniversary and one millionth bottle with a Golden Cork Contest. It's like Willy Wonka's golden ticket contest, but with golden corks in wine bottles.
The winery has hidden 10 golden corks in bottles going out to stores this week. People who find the golden corks will gather at the winery on Oct. 10 to compete for the grand prize, a trip to Napa Valley for a steam train tour of California wineries. The other winners will receive Keel and Curley gift baskets.
The winery is on target to produce 400,000 bottles of blueberry, blackberry and other fruit wines this year, the most to date for any year.
"When I started this in 2003, I didn't think about one million bottles. I didn't know if it would take 10 years, 20 years or ever,'' Joe Keel said. "It wasn't an easy task, getting people to accept blueberry wine over grape wine. But once people taste our wine, they like it.''
Their typical customer is a nontraditional wine drinker who has tried merlot and other grape-based wines but soured at the taste. At $10 to $15 a bottle, the wine is considered a bargain, minus the headache of some grape wines priced the same.
In other words, don't buy it as a gift for serious wine drinkers. For them, you might want to wait for the Two Henrys beer.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter at @susan_thurston.