By the end of this year, St. Pete will look like one of the most beer-friendly cities in the country. There will be more than a dozen bars focusing solely on craft and import beers, four of which will be breweries themselves. Nearly every bar downtown already has an extensive craft-beer selection, and it's nearly impossible to find a restaurant without a few reasonable options on the menu.
You may remember that it wasn't always like this, even as recently as eight years ago. In 2005, there were three places to buy good craft and import beers (Shep's, ABC and Rollin' Oats) and exactly zero bars dealing exclusively in these kinds of brews. Finding a bar that served Sierra Nevada was a rare treat!
I was at the Independent during its grand opening that year and was amazed that we finally had a bar where we could order Belgian Trappist ales, a wide range of traditional German beers, and even some options from tiny breweries across that country that I'd never heard of. It was a first for St. Pete, and it was several years ahead of the mainstream craft beer explosion.
Over the next seven years, the Indy became a go-to watering hole, eventually spawning a popular second location in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood. Last year, the Independent closed its doors, the result of the divorce between owner John Vellines and his wife, Veronica, wherein she retained ownership of the Tampa location and rights to the Independent name and brand. It remained shuttered for months before finally re-opening in December with a new look and new name: Empouria.
Why the history lesson? Because it gives insight into where Empouria came from, and incidentally, what it's all about now. Though the name and paint job has changed, this is still very much a pre-craft-beer-boom place, with a focus placed largely on traditional styles imported from various parts of Europe. Most beer-centric bars these days overwhelmingly favor American craft brews, but Empouria is all about the roots.
The makeover looks pretty good. Some of the interior seating has changed, but the familiar long bench in the center of the small, shotgun-style room remains, as well as the cafe seats out front, where large crowds spill into on busy nights. It's brighter inside now, with a blue and gold color scheme, along with a rotating selection of local art adorning the walls. Behind the bar is a sculpture of a jacket; you won't believe it when you first see it, but it's sculpted entirely from a single block of wood. I had to touch it to believe that it wasn't an ordinary jacket hanging on the wall.
At the bar you'll find a dozen taps and nearly 100 more bottled beers. Strangely enough, this is a modest selection by today's standards (where 40 taps and hundreds of bottles are the norm), but there's nary a throwaway item on the menu. A perusal of the bottle list gives the impression of a carefully curated selection — no filler, and lots of unique entries, divided into categories intended to provide a concise snapshot of what each beer is like: crisp, roast, fruit, hearty, tart and so on.
Another impressive feature is the presence of the appropriate glassware for nearly every beer on the menu, including my favorite — the Kwak glass, a tall, bulbous vessel resting in a wooden frame that doubles as a handle. Empouria's slogan is "The Art of Beer"; between the diverse cache of unique glassware, clean and modern aesthetic, and collection of cool art on display, I'd say that's quite fitting.
Still, Empouria hasn't quite regained the popularity that it enjoyed under its previous incarnation. Increased competition, a long gap between closing and re-opening, and a fickle downtown crowd are just a few of the reasons. With a steady stream of new events on the calendar, such as region-centric beer specials and Liquid Thursdays — during which DJs spin records and customers are invited to bring their own selections, with a free glass of Bavik Pilsner for anyone whose record gets played — I can see things changing for the better.
In St. Pete's ever-growing craft-beer scene, Empouria continues to occupy a unique and relevant niche. Especially when it comes to classic European imports, there are few better options in town. Personally, I like to spread my action between all of the fantastic local beers bars, but I'm happy to revisit the spot that first brought great beer downtown.