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  1. Tampa

Fermented Reality Biergarten looks to put the spark in Sparkman's Wharf

TAMPA — Sitting in front of his sparkling new outdoor beer extravaganza — Fermented Reality Biergarten — owner Joel Bigham started the conversation with a dose irony.

"I thought I hated beer. That's really how the story begins."

It was years 20 ago and Bigham was 21 in New Jersey. He said he didn't know anything other than the typical domestics in television ads and the brands his dad bought in convenience stores: stinky lagers made with rice and corn and filled, as Bigham says, with junk.

"I tried them all as a young man and I thought these are not good," Bigham said. "I thought these are really pretty awful."

Then one summer his family went to Delaware for vacation and he tried a micro-brew IPA and he said, "That changes everything."

Did it ever. Ever since then it's been hops, barley, malt, yeast, IPAs and barrel-aged barleywines and everything else about the industry.

"I immersed myself in learning everything I possibly could about beer, and the more I learned and tasted, the more I loved it and the more interested I became," Bigham said.

After moving to Tampa and working all day as an IT guy in corporate America, Bigham went to micro pubs and breweries all over the place, sampling IPAs, hefeweizens, stouts and so on. He joined "exclusive geeky beer groups." He read books on beer. He picked the brains of beer makers and aficionados and started talking incessantly about beers being "bitter," and "malty" and "bright" and so on.

He became a beer aficionado.

Then one day in 2015, he said, "Enough already with the corporate world."

"I wanted to do what I loved," Bigham said. "I loved beer. I loved the people involved with beer. I loved the beer industry."

The first thing he did was design "B Cups," which are reusable, dishwasher safe plastic beer cups specifically designed for different types of beer, such as IPAs, stouts and so on. You can now go on-line and order B Cups for yourself.

The next thing Bigham did was buy into a storefront at 1937 W Brandon Blvd., a place recently renamed FR Bottleshop: about 1,000 square feet featuring hundreds of brands, 12 taps (with thoughtfully rotated selections), six high-top tables and a relaxed vibe centered around beer experimentation, and, well, education.

Brandon Wright, in fact, thought the place was so cool and Bigham was such a force of beer nature that he quit his job and joined up to become the FR Bottleshop general manager.

"It's my job to show customers the joy of beer, to tell them stories about the beer, to find beers they will enjoy — what could be better than that?" Wright said. "I feel a part of something that's great and getting better and gaining tremendous momentum. It's exciting."

Which brings Bigham and his partner, brother-in-law Dan Charley, sitting outside last week in front of "Fermented Reality Biergarten," an anchored feature of Sparkman's Wharf.

"It really is so exciting to be a part of all this because we feel a great responsibility to help make this happen for Tampa," said Charley, who with Bigham had to beat out several strong competitors bidding for the designated beer garden spot. "We had a vision to bring a wonderful experience to our customers. Now it's happening and that's pretty cool."

Is it ever.

At last week's opening weekend, Fermented Reality Biergarten sold a whopping 150 kegs of beer from its 30 taps, featuring the best brews from the area, the state, the country and the world from a state-of-the-art tap system.

"I am ecstatic, thrilled and energized," Bigham said. "I'm doing what I love. What a time it is."

For beer, of course.

"Good beers," Bigham said, "only good beers."

Contact Scott Purks at