Friday, April 27, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Empouria: St. Petersburg's original craft beer bar gets a facelift

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.

[email protected]

Comments
Bar review: Danny’s Sports Pub in Palm Harbor

Bar review: Danny’s Sports Pub in Palm Harbor

Every town has that institution, the reliable neighborhood dive: enduring for decades, with the nicotine stains and scuffed furniture to prove it. The appeal of these places is that they never really change; they’re largely the same as they were in t...
Published: 04/26/18
Local craft beer of the week: Skaterboarders, drink up this After Sesh Lager from Cigar City

Local craft beer of the week: Skaterboarders, drink up this After Sesh Lager from Cigar City

Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing has been in the collaboration game longer than most, working with breweries across the world, as well as musicians, artists and local businesses to produce a growing list of partnered brews, most of which are one-time relea...
Published: 04/26/18
Why does Yelp think Asian restaurants serve cat and dog meat?

Why does Yelp think Asian restaurants serve cat and dog meat?

A strange thing happened when typing "dog menu" into the restaurant ratings website and app Yelp. It automatically generated suggested searches. There were dog massage, hot dogs, pet groomers. Also: "dog meat." But it got more disturbing. Take Yelp...
Published: 04/25/18
Updated: 04/26/18
Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s opens first Tampa restaurant, Nebraska Mini-Mart grab-and-go coming soon

Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s opens first Tampa restaurant, Nebraska Mini-Mart grab-and-go coming soon

NOW OPEN: TEX-MEX CHAIN CHUY’SThe Austin, Texas-based Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s opened its first Tampa restaurant on Tuesday, giving away free Chuy’s for two for a year to the first 50 customers. I know, we missed it, it’s a bummer, but we can still visit...
Published: 04/25/18
We tried the new restaurants at Tampa International Airport, and we're full

We tried the new restaurants at Tampa International Airport, and we're full

When Tampa International Airport debuted in 1971, each terminal had a newsstand and a snack bar, called something kicky like Snack Bar.
Published: 04/25/18
The best airports around the country for food and drink

The best airports around the country for food and drink

It was a revolutionary idea: Have travelers’ experience of a city begin when they land at the airport. Instead of McDonald’s and Panda Express, why not have restaurants that reflect the culture and breadth of a city’s offerings? San Francisco Interna...
Published: 04/25/18
Seared tuna salad is quite a catch

Seared tuna salad is quite a catch

A satisfying salad of tuna and beans is a Mediterranean favorite, often served as a meal in warm weather. In my favorite version, the main ingredients — rich tuna and creamy beans — are accented with red wine vinegar, tomato and onion, finished with ...
Published: 04/25/18
Top places to bring your dog in Tampa Bay, from breweries to baseball games

Top places to bring your dog in Tampa Bay, from breweries to baseball games

Dozens of places to take your dog in Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg and the entire region.
Published: 04/24/18
Updated: 04/26/18
Drunk in love with banana bread

Drunk in love with banana bread

I have a thing about bananas. They have to be perfectly yellow, with a light hint of green. And they absolutely cannot have a spot of brown on them. At all. Brown bananas make me gag. My window of tasty opportunity is small, so I love to bake with ov...
Published: 04/24/18
Cooking Challenge: Making a stovetop steak for the first time

Cooking Challenge: Making a stovetop steak for the first time

Raw meat terrifies me. Growing up, I was the kid who avoided cookie dough because it could give me salmonella poisoning. Just imagine how I feel about a slab of bloody steak. So for my latest cooking challenge, I’m diving into the deep end and making...
Published: 04/24/18