What's orange and quenching, sometimes fruity and sour, and oh-so-Florida? If you guessed orange juice, you haven't been paying attention.
It appears beer is Florida's new liquid gold.
In the past 18 months, craft beer has exploded in the Tampa Bay area. According to the Beer Institute, an industry research group, there are 2,751 breweries operating in the United States, more than at any other time in American history. By far the biggest craft beer scene in Florida is here in the Tampa Bay area, with more than a dozen breweries and brew pubs having opened shop and another half dozen in the planning stages.
There are plenty of growth signs. Local darling Cigar City Brewing has expanded to include a kiosk at Tampa International Airport. A brew pub is soon to open in a former T.G.I. Friday's restaurant in Hillsborough's Northdale, while in Ybor City longtimer Tampa Bay Brewing Co. continues to turn out its famous Old Elephant Foot IPA. And in Largo, 2011 newcomer Barley Mow Brewing Co. is a nano-sized endeavor with 14 beers on tap, including their own black IPA called the Unkindness.
The second annual Tampa Bay Beer Week gets under way on Saturday, with "beer tourists" and locals expected to flock to more than 200 events at bars, restaurants, brewpubs, microbreweries and nanobreweries from Ybor City to Dunedin.
Cyrus Hire, executive sushi chef at Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, is coming to Tampa for the festival, and while he has some specific events he hopes to attend, he's primarily drawn by the reputation of the area's concentration of craft brewers.
"I know it's been a really thriving area, with Dunedin Brewery and Saint Somewhere. I like stouts, and that's something Cigar City Brewing does extremely well. I'm definitely going to Cigar City's Hunahpu's Day release party. Part of the draw is it will have five of the world's best breweries there, and each of them will be offering something special. If you're a beer lover, it's kind of an epic thing."
Hunahpu's? Huh? Yes, fans of Cigar City's coveted and very limited imperial stout will line up before light on Saturday for a chance to buy bottles at $20 each. The entire batch will likely be sold within hours.
The state is not lacking in beer lovers. Florida has emerged as the country's third-largest beer market, behind California and Texas, which has meant breweries and distributors from all over scramble to have their products represented in the growing number of craft beer bars such as World of Beer, or beer-savvy retail outlets such as Total Wine.
But it hasn't been smooth sailing. As recently as 2009 Florida was among the states with the fewest number of breweries per capita, with one per 470,000 people. The bulk of beer drunk in Florida was big production stuff, familiar brews from Anheuser-Busch and others.
According to Gerard Walen, who blogs about beer at RoadTripsforBeer.com and BeerInFlorida.com, archaic bottling laws stymied craft brewery growth in the state.
"Florida is part of a countrywide explosion in craft beer, but it took a little longer here," he said.
A law passed in 1966 limited bottle sizes to 8, 12, 16 and 32 ounces. But as the craft brewing scene evolved, starting in the 1970s and picking up speed in the 1980s and 1990s, craft brewers packaged in 22-ounce bombers or the typical 750 ml wine-bottle size, which were forbidden by Florida law, he explained. When the law was amended in 2001, the craft beer scene began to heat up.
Still, things didn't start boiling until this happened: Cigar City Brewing, the award-winning Ybor City brewery founded by Joey Redner.
"(Cigar City) put Florida on the map," says Matt Abdoney, who manages the beer portfolio for Florida distributor J.J. Taylor. "Joey knew that if you created bold, distinctive flavors, and kept them in rotation, you'd be able to drive the business back in to keep experimenting. If I had to sum up what Cigar City is, it's authentically local, boldly passionate and in your face."
Abdoney thinks the state's breakthrough came in 2009 when popular beer site RateBeer.com named Florida one of the best beer states in the country. More recently it rated Cigar City's Hunahpu's imperial stout one of the top five beers in the world. More recently, it deemed Rapp Brewing Co. in Seminole the best new brewer in the state.
Unique Florida style
A homebrewer for 10 years, Greg Rapp has more than 20 housemade beers on tap at any given time in his small tasting room. He reports that he regularly gets patrons who've read about his beers online and traveled from out of state to sample it.
"What we focus on is brewing a variety of beers," he says, but he describes some specialties that other Tampa Bay craft brewers are pursuing as well.
There are two trends, Rapp said. One is the sour beers and the other is lower-alcohol session beers. People are tired of the heavy, high-alcohol beers and they want something a little easier to drink in the Florida heat.
Joe Tucker, executive director of RateBeer.com, which started in 2000 in California, agrees.
"Florida has created its own beer style. Why craft beer had a hard time in Florida and Texas in the early days was because it's hot there. Craft beer was being popularized in places that were a little cooler, where there was no problem drinking a 7 percent alcohol beer. Very few of the beers getting a lot of attention were lower in alcohol. Florida brewers have put together something called a Florida weisse (a wheat beer), which is a Berliner weisse usually brewed with tropical fruit flavors."
Spirit of 'coopetition'
Green Flash Brewing Co. in San Diego recently collaborated with Cigar City on Candela, a rye barleywine aged on cedar wood. Founder Mike Hinkley thinks Cigar City's spirit of innovation has had ripples in the Florida craft beer community and beyond.
"I was at Tampa Beer Week last year and got to know a number of brewers. (Florida) is still a little young, but there are some innovative brewers. With Cigar City as a lead, Florida is in good shape. They're proving you can make craft beers that are exciting and innovative, and you can do those in lighter styles or heavier style," he says, describing a growing number of styles nationally.
Despite the recent furor, craft beer still accounts for less than 5 percent of beer sold in Florida, says Abdoney.
"If we keep up the pace that we're at it's going to be spectacular. But it's not cutthroat — the brewers are living by the mantra that a rising tide raises all ships.
Says RateBeer's Tucker, "It's all pulled together with a lot of passion and not a lot of money, where 'coopetition' is a huge part of the culture. The Florida scene was created by beer geeks who've done a whole lot right."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.