Over the past few years, the most consistently asked question I've encountered — other than what's your favorite brewery? — has been about the possibility of a beer "bubble."
My response is cautiously optimistic, predicting that the market will adapt, perhaps in unforeseen ways, rather than burst outright. Yes, the rapid growth within the craft segment will test the boundaries of the market, and at least some dilution of profits should be expected, but the effect will not be as simple as some breweries thrive and others fail.
In December, Tampa's Three Palms Brewing closed shop, stoking fears that a bubble burst had begun. Later that month, Florida Avenue Brewing — opened as Cold Storage Brewing in 2010 and renamed in 2013 — announced that it too would be closing.
But in Florida Avenue's case, there was a catch. The closure had less to do with market saturation than it did with co-founder Bruce Talcott being ready to retire. Rather than completely shutting, Florida Avenue sold to Brew Bus, the Tampa-based brewery and tour company, which was to continue brewing Florida Avenue's flagship brews after reopening the tasting room under the Brew Bus banner.
Brew Bus is an interesting case in its own right. In 2012, the company debuted its own line of beers, originally brewed at Cigar City. The first beer was Are Wheat There Yet?, created partly by accident when hops intended for use in Cigar City's Jai Alai IPA were inadvertently added to Brew Bus' pale wheat beer. The result was so good that it remains a top Brew Bus seller today.
As of 2014, Brew Bus has produced its beers at Lakeland's Brew Hub facility, where it also produces Florida Avenue Ale and Florida Avenue IPA, albeit with slightly altered recipes. A relaunch of Florida Avenue's brown ale, as well as a new lager, are planned later this year. Two Florida Avenue brewers, Kevin Butler and Brett Griffiths, joined the Brew Bus staff. To finalize the integration, Brew Bus held its grand opening in its new "Terminal & Brewery" in Florida Avenue's former brewery and tasting room.
The tasting room remodel is the first step in a rebrand for the Brew Bus and Florida Avenue brands that is expected this summer. The new tasting room is open, spacious and minimalist, with unfinished natural wood furniture, white walls and a coffee shop-esque lounge in the corner. There are 20 beers on draft, featuring seven Brew Bus and Florida Avenue core brands, along with fantastically creative treatments of each.
For example, Brew Bus' Rollin' Dirty red ale is also available as Orient Express, spiced with tea and Mandarin orange flavors. First Thing IPA is the brewery's Last Stop IPA, treated with coffee from Blind Tiger in Ybor City. There's also Earmuff's, a mint- and lime-treated version of You're My Boy Blue blueberry wheat ale, which won silver at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. Florida Avenue isn't left out, either — Feel No Pain is a ginger and sorrel version of Florida Avenue Ale.
Of course, the biggest change in the local beer landscape came just last month. Cigar City announced it had sold a controlling interest in the company to Boston's Fireman Capitol Partners, a private equity firm that also holds majority stakes of the Oskar Blues, Wasatch, Squatters and Perrin breweries.
Cigar City has found a way to expand its operations and grow without a whole of lot change for staff and fans. Not many people saw the move coming, but it made quite a bit of sense.
I think we're going to see more of this kind of stuff as the craft segment continues to grow. There will be some sad losses, some interesting lateral shifts and some unexpected moves that strengthen craft brands.
I wasn't worried much about a bubble when the question started popping up a few years ago, and I'm less worried now. As we're seeing in our own local beer community, change is not always bad.
— [email protected]; @WordsWithJG.