Sunday, January 21, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Wild Rover Pub and Brewery joins Tampa's craft beer scene

My favorite Irish folk song is Whiskey in the Jar. But a more popular tune in pubs all across Ireland and the U.K. is The Wild Rover, which tells the story of a wanderer who returns to an old pub he used to drink in after giving up life on the road.

Derek Wells undoubtedly has heard this number many times, having worked in and managed several neighborhood pubs in his native Hailsham, England, in the '70s. It was while working in one of these pubs that he met his wife Linda, a fellow bartender.

The couple moved to San Diego, had a son named Ricky, relocated to Florida, and — here's where my ears perk up — the younger Wells grew up to be a home brewer, churning out batches of ale in the family's garage.

The next logical step for a barman and his homebrewing son, of course, was to open a small brewery, combining the friendly, homey vibe of a traditional English pub with small-batch craft beer brewed in house.

This is how Odessa's Wild Rover Pub and Brewery came to be. This tiny pub, opened in November, is located in the corner unit of a quiet strip mall on N Mobley Road. Little of the fanfare that has come to signal the arrival of a local craft brewery was seen for the Wild Rover, which has been steadily building a following since its opening.

And that couldn't suit the place better. The Wild Rover is an authentic pub, not a bar simply decked out in Union Jacks that serves Bass in an imperial pint. It's not flashy, and it's not trying to be the next big thing. The decoration is minimal, featuring framed old photos of pubs and a brewery in East Sussex (where Hailsham is located) and a few horse brasses — small plaques used to decorate horse harnesses, frequently found in U.K. pub décor. Above the bar is a chalkboard with the current draft selections, as well as a pane of stained glass to add color.

A faux fireplace adds to the feel, a steel-tipped dart board beside it. Dart competitions (301, 501 and Cricket) are held on Mondays, with the winner enjoying free beer. Outdoors, there's a large, dog-friendly beer garden, and out front is often a food truck.

The beer is quite good. Batches are produced on a four-barrel (around 120 gallons) system in the back, and the emphasis is on classic U.K. styles: bitter, ESB, mild, porter, imperial stout. All eight taps are house brews, and an additional four are available in cask-conditioned form — the hand-cranked, pub-style "real ale" you'll find in many small pubs across England.

These are all available by pint, half pint or even as sampler flights. A traditional shandy is also an option, made from your choice of beer and mixer. The classic is bitter and Sprite, according to Derek Wells, but others prefer ginger ale. Wells himself drinks a 50-50 blend of bitter and the excellent house mild ale. He explained that the mild was a working- class beer in the old days, while bitter was slightly more respectable (and thus more expensive). On payday, workers would often spruce up their usual mild by blending it with bitter, and Wells has a taste for it to this day.

The Wild Rover maintains a concise bottle selection, mostly Belgian and German specialty ales, as well as a brief wine list. There's plenty to like in these lists, but I really think it's mandatory to try the house beers first, such as Just A Saison, a fruity, wheat-forward farmhouse ale; John Barleywine, a smooth but potent malty ale; and Czarina, Czarina, a roasty imperial stout with chewy coffee and chocolate notes.

As I sat at the bar enjoying a pint of the Mild Rover, several locals wandered in, curious about the Wild Rover after seeing neighborhood advertisements. The bar was soon lined with strangers, all engaged in conversation. That's as authentic as the pub experience gets.

As the lyrics go, "No, nay never no more, will I play the wild rover, no never no more."

If this is the kind of place that weary traveler was coming home to, then I think I can relate.

[email protected]

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