Quality beer festivals are nothing new in the Tampa Bay area. For years, we've sipped an endless variety of brews in parks, museums and overflowing brewery parking lots. Hunahpu's Day at Cigar City is one of the most popular beer festivals in the country, and the fall and spring beer festivals at Pinellas Park's Cajun Café on the Bayou are widely considered to be among the beer fests in the Southeast.
And 2015 might just be the year that propelled Tampa Bay into the big leagues.
Let's talk about The Festival. Which? Simply, boldly: The Festival — an annual get together thrown by Shelton Brothers, the Massachusetts-based distributor responsible for bringing some of Europe's best beers to the States, as well as distributing a wide range of high-end domestic brews. It changes locations every year. Last year it was held in Los Angeles; last month, St. Petersburg. It's a big deal.
The whys and hows of Shelton Brothers picking St. Pete for this year's festival are varied, but a little prodding from Tarpon Springs' Saint Somewhere Brewing and St. Petersburg's Green Bench Brewing certainly didn't hurt. Green Bench is a new Shelton Brothers client, while Saint Somewhere has had a relationship with the bros for years. However it happened, landing the Shelton Brothers Festival is a significant achievement: a moment of growth for our local beer community.
The Festival was a big success, filling the Coliseum with packed crowds for three separate sessions, making it one of the biggest beer festivals in the area to date. However, a new event — this weekend's Big Tampa Beerfest — aims to be even bigger, holding two sessions in 100,000 square feet of the Tampa Convention Center.
While the beer list at the Big Tampa Beerfest isn't filled with the rarities and special releases that dominated the Shelton Brothers Festival, it does feature a tremendous variety of selections from breweries across the country, including more than a few locals and other Florida breweries. There will be more than 250 beers, with proceeds benefitting Animal Rescue Partners.
I'm curious to see attendance figures for the first year of what will hopefully be a major annual beer festival. In terms of scale, it's new territory; the only thing I can compare it with would be the Great American Beer Festival sessions held in the Colorado Convention Center. This one can't possibly be anywhere near the size of that one, but it could be a great deal bigger than the festivals we're used to. If it's a success, it would prove that Tampa Bay is a serious player in the greater U.S. beer scene.
Between these events was the Cajun Café Fall Festival, which has been held annually at the Pinellas Park restaurant for the past nine years. Owner Paul Unwin started out by trying to emulate the small-scale festivals that he enjoyed in his native England, but it wasn't until the fourth year that attendance really picked up.
Since then, the Cajun Café festivals have become a staple in the local beer scene, with a capped attendance figure guaranteeing low or no wait times for beer, small crowds, and an intimate atmosphere that's often lost at larger events. Its popularity is such that the fall festival spawned a spring festival, which then spawned a sour and wild ale festival in the summer, as well as a cider and mead festival.
Festivals play a big role in developing a local beer culture, and we've demonstrated there's a big market for high-profile beer events here. If this year's pace keeps up, beer drinkers around the country will soon talk about Tampa Bay in the same breath as Portland, San Diego, Asheville or Denver. And why not — we've certainly got the festival credentials.
— [email protected] @WordsWithJG.