Cigar City Cider and Mead infuses Tampa's craft beer scene with fresh flavor

Cigar City Cider and Mead in Ybor City is reviving and refreshing the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages. Photos by Luis Santana/tbt*
Cigar City Cider and Mead in Ybor City is reviving and refreshing the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages. Photos by Luis Santana/tbt*
Published Dec. 18, 2014

Two things I'm not really interested in: cider and mead. I don't drink mead at all, and it takes a really unique cider to get my attention — Crispin's Stagger Lee, Woodchuck's Celler Series Smoked Apple and Domaine Dupont Cidre Bouché are good examples, but they are far from the norm.

That said, here's a place I'm extremely interested in, especially after my first visit last week: Cigar City Cider and Mead.

Helmed by cider- and mead-maker Jared Gilbert, Cigar City Cider and Mead is the parent company's latest foray into the "Let's put Tampa on the map by breathing new life into a small burgeoning industry" category, and I have to say, it's looking like a smart move.

Cigar City Cider and Mead (let's just shorten that to Cider and Mead) is not a new name, despite the fact that its actual facility and tasting room opened just last month in Ybor City, in a spot once inhabited by Tampa Bay Brewing Company. The company's Fight the Power sour and Homemade Apple Pie ciders have been in bars for months now. And these are really good ciders. The standard, base cider is not too sweet and not too dry; it's about as balanced as one could hope for, with loads of fresh apple flavor in the finish. Fight the Power is crisp and tart like a Jolly Rancher sour apple candy. The Homemade Apple Pie? The name says it all.

But there are only so many things you can do with cider and mead, right? I'm sure I'll catch flak for it, but I don't think you can achieve the same complexity of beer with cider or mead, regardless of how many different types of apples and honey you use. That's not a criticism, it's just an inherent disadvantage if your goal is variety — one of the reasons that the craft beer scene here is thriving.

One solution? Lots of treatments! Cider and Mead takes its base cider and adds flavoring ingredients post-fermentation, creating a range of bold, colorful flavors so wide that it's hard to believe most come from the same batch. The meads are made with different types of honey, produced in different styles — more on that in a second — but much of the variety also comes from unique additives.

What kind of flavors am I talking about? Ciders like Southern Hospitality, treated with tea; Crying Game, with cantaloupe, honeydew, and cucumber; and Rough Rider, flavored with elderflower, cactus, and jalapeño! For meads, there's the Vicente, a hydromel (lower-gravity mead) made with orange blossom honey and vanilla; Incestuous, made with gallberry honey and prickly pear cactus; and Square Deal, a metheglyn (spiced mead) made with wildflower, cardamom, lemon peel, and peppercorns.

If the flavors sound exotic, the tasting room is anything but. With a bit of a warehouse-y feel, Cider and Mead is a good mix of minimalism and coziness, with old-school painted brick, low-top tables made of old barrels, and large, floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto 15th Street. The outdoor patio will open soon, followed eventually by the upstairs area and balcony, a favorite feature of mine from the old Tampa Bay Brewing Company days.

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When Cigar City entered the beer market half a decade ago, craft beer was well-established and was already in the early stages of a big boom. Cider and mead are still somewhat niche, and Cigar City Cider and Mead intends to change that, especially when it comes to mead.

The tasting room is part functioning cidery and meadery, part tasting room, and part educational center, with detailed explanations of different mead styles and examples of mead references throughout history scattered around the room. Do you know the difference between metheglyn, hydromel, melomel, pyment, cyser and braggot? The folks at Cider and Mead do, and they want to make sure you do, too. If Cigar City Brewing jumped in at an opportune time at the start of a craft beer boom, Cigar City Cider and Mead intends to start the cider and mead boom.

Is it going to work? Personally, I'm sold. The variety and creativity displayed in the company's first month of business is impressive, and with the Cigar City brand to back it up, it's not unreasonable to predict that an elderflower-cactus cider will be next year's exotic fruit-flavored Berliner weisse.