TAMPA — This month's Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference hosted an array of writers at the Marriott Waterside and Marina Hotel with varying degrees of knowledge. Some were merely hobbyists looking to gain more experience by touring Florida breweries, but others were far more adept at both writing skill and knowledge.
The Tampa Bay Times interviewed two attendees to ask their thoughts about the conference, Tampa's beers and other issues.
San Diego-based blogger and home brewer Derek Springer, 33, writes a blog called FiveBladesBrewing. He is president of the Society of Barley Engineers, an American Homebrew Association member and a Beer Judge Certification Program judge. Springer, a software engineer, said his website averages 10,000 views per month.
Austin, Texas, based Brandon Kraft, 31, writes a blog called 365Brew and garners about 500 daily visitors, he said. The Tampa conference was his third beer blogger gathering. Kraft, a customer service manager, got interested in beer blogging when he met with a professional and learned that she and her husband where on a quest to try a different bottle of wine every day for a year.
What beers made a positive, lasting impression and which ones didn't?
Springer: I'll admit I was a little ignorant to the Florida/Tampa/St. Pete beer scene before the trip. I had heard of Cigar City before the trip, but don't think I could've otherwise named a single Florida brewery. Partly this is due to many of the breweries in Florida not distributing much further than their surrounding counties — they definitely don't make it to California. The beer scene in Tampa reminds me of Southern California 10 years ago. Only one brewery, Engine 15, in Jacksonville, seemed like it was coasting merely on beer hype. Everyone else was making high-quality beers that I enjoyed quite a bit. Cigar City probably had the most diverse array of high-quality beers, but they're the obvious choice. Otherwise, in Tampa I was really impressed with the beers and food at Ulele. The brewmaster there has some solid chops, and I thought their tight coupling between the brewing and the menu is the new model for cutting edge restaurants.
Kraft: The brewery that impressed me the most was Ulele. While their obvious pull is the fine restaurant and location, a brewery in that context can be seen as an afterthought or a gimmick of sorts. In their case, however, they are a high-class brewing operation. Their brewmaster is one of the most passionate brewmasters I've heard speak. His love for the craft was quite notable. I'll admit, I wasn't a huge fan of the beers, but they were served for our group a bit early and were a tad warm when we got them. I didn't have a particular beer that I thought was poor. I was hoping to see more diversity of style, though, for what was presented to us.
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How would you characterize the Tampa conference itself? Was there anything you think organizers did very well or could improve on for the future?
Springer: I think the (Marriott) hotel and conference space in Tampa were the best — comfortable rooms, fast Internet, and plenty of space for the conference. Asheville was very cramped. I think my biggest disappointment was the Live Beer Blogging at J.J. Taylor Distributing Florida. The Internet wasn't working and half the breweries brought very common offerings. My biggest note for the organizers to improve on is to make sure the breweries and sponsors bring their A-game. When you have the largest collection of beer writers in the nation gathered together, they aren't interested in sampling the stuff you can find anywhere, unless it's something truly local we couldn't get otherwise. That's a contrast to last year when Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada hosted a private Oktoberfest at their new Asheville brewery to give us all a sneak peek of their new Oktoberfest collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele, whom they flew their brewers out from Germany to meet with us.
Kraft: It was fantastic to have the Marriott Waterfront sponsor the conference. In the future, there are two things I'd like to see more of. First, more chances for the attendees to interact with purpose, like the sharing of best practices, trials we have faced, those kinds of things. Secondly, to ensure off-site venues have ample Wi-Fi coverage. The live blogging event was at a sponsor's location (J.J. Taylor) who probably wasn't used to having that many people on site at one time trying to use their Wi-Fi.
What did you think about the MillerCoors event?
Springer: I enjoyed it quite a bit, I try to stay relatively neutral on the whole craft vs. crafty issue. My point of view is that there's a right time and place for every beer. I could tell they were definitely trying to suck up to us, I think they're very aware of their perception amongst our lot and are trying to do the best they can with what they have. I just wish the business side of their operations wasn't so scummy.
Kraft: These macrobreweries are known for their particular lowest-common denominator brews — Miller Lite, Coors Lite, etc. They are of a style that just isn't good. I think the event worked in terms of improving my initial reaction to their name and reminding me that they have more going on than Miller Lite. In general, it doesn't convince me. No one wrote about beer until people other than Miller, Coors and Bud started making waves.