My girlfriend and I are going on a staycation. Well, maybe not in the strictest sense, as it would involve spending the night out of town, but at under an hour's drive, it's hard to call it anything else.
You see, craft beer is big business in Tampa Bay. It's near impossible these days to run into someone who hasn't had a Jai Alai, or sipped a beer in Green Bench's beer garden. A growler from the nearest taproom is a standard item in many bay area refrigerators.
But while we've been patting ourselves on the backs for our role in Florida's beer revolution, a new scene has been forming south of the Sunshine Skyway. Now's the time to pack a lunch, get in the car and head to some not-so-distant lands to see what's brewing in Sarasota and Bradenton.
For 25 years, commercial craft-brewing in Sarasota could be summed up in three words: Sarasota Brewing Company.
SBC was established in 1989, back when it was "micro" instead of "craft," and when the brewpub model was far more viable than the brewery-and-tasting-room model that prevails today.
Sarasota Brewing Company is, in that sense, old school. The décor is not unlike a family-friendly sports bar, specializing in typical brewpub food and classic beer styles. For years, brewer Vince Pelosi has been serving his flagship Sarasota Gold ale and Sequioa Amber Lager, the latter a bronze-medal winner in the American amber lager category at the 1998 Great American Beer Festival. These days, you'll find Pelosi's old standbys on the brewery's eight taps, alongside newer fare: Sarasota IPA, Sunset Red Ale and a ginger- and rosemary-spiced lager.
SBC has company now, and quite a bit of it. If you head a few minutes north, you'll run into Big Top Brewing Company, a modest production brewery tucked into an industrial park right off I-75.
Big Top, as its name suggests, pays homage to the city's long association with the circus — the legacy of the Ringling family pervades the history of the town in the early 20th century — with beers like its Circus City IPA and Trapeze Monk wit. One of the brewery's 30-barrel fermenters is named "Bearded Lady."
Big Top is a no-nonsense tasting room, featuring vintage photographs of Sarasota in its circus heyday to compliment rustic, carved wood tables. The brewery's de facto mascot is a custom jockey box made of three barrel-wrapped kegs, balanced precariously on each other in a decidedly circus-like manner.
Brewer Josh Wilson has crafted a diverse range of brews, with 12 taps ranging from a lime IPA, to an extremely sour twist on Floridaweisse, to a chocolate-and-peanut butter brown ale brewed in collaboration with a fan, as part of a contest held on the brewery's Facebook page.
Just up the street is JDub's Brewing Company, a partnership between founder Jeremy "JDub" Joerger and head brewer Tom Harris, formerly of Vermont's Long Trail Brewing Company. JDub's is working with a broad palette, brewing standards — a house pale, a brown, a Kölsch-style ale — alongside more currently "in" styles, such as a Berliner weisse and 100-IBU IPA made with New Zealand hops.
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Until recently, the JDub's crew was in a perpetual quest to refine the recipe for its flagship IPA, featuring early prototypes brewed at St. Pete's Brewers Tasting Room, along with a handful of festival appearances. The brewery has since locked down the recipe; Up Top! IPA is available on tap at JDub's and other area bars, including some north of the Skyway, and if you stop by JDub's, you can score a six-pack of Up Top cans, sometimes canned just days earlier. That's fresh!
JDub's tap room, like Big Top's, is nothing flashy. There's a tiny bar, a few tables, and a giant window facing the brewery so you can watch the staff at work while you enjoy the fruits of their labor. JDub's also has a small attached beer garden, featuring rotating food trucks, cornhole and an oversized Connect Four game, making it a nice stop for some day drinking.
Not to be outdone by the Sarasota scene, two Bradenton breweries have also surfaced, both offering something other than the typical tasting-room experience.
Motorworks Brewing is a big-budget affair, built on a scale to rival that of just about any competitor. "We want to be the biggest brewery in Florida," said my bartender. By the looks of it, she's not kidding.
The brewery, built on the site of a former auto dealership, houses a few 30- and 90-barrel (930- and 2,790-gallon) fermenters, and the interior of the taproom is cavernous, filled with nearly every bell and whistle: Light fixtures cut into the shapes of motorcycles and race cars, a decorative engine block, video and board games, a pinball machine, flatscreen TVs, comfortable lounge furniture, a professionally lit stage for live music on the weekends, a cigar humidor, and — crucially — a popcorn machine.
While the super-slick clubhouse feel of Motorworks' interior is impressive enough, the outdoor courtyard is truly a sight to behold. Inspired by founders' Frank and Denise Tschida's trip to German biergartens, the outdoor space is just massive, built around a mammoth, 100-year old oak tree that stands in the middle of a sprawling, raised deck. The rest of the exterior is covered in artificial turf and features cornhole, bocce and even a putting green.
The beer at Motorworks is fairly standard but very well-executed, ranging from a Cascade IPA and classic Kölsch-style ale to a rich Scotch ale with a touch of smokiness due to the addition of peat-smoked malts (like the kind used in Scotch whiskey). There are 30 beers on tap, eight brewed in-house, as well as a full liquor bar and solid wine selection.
While Motorworks features classic styles in a big package, Darwin Brewing Company, which celebrated its grand opening May 24, takes the opposite approach, serving elaborate, culinary-inspired brews inside a low-key tasting room that's just a short walk down the road.
Darwin Brewing Company is the extension of owner/chef Darwin Santa Maria and Munich-trained brewmaster Jorge Rosabal's Peruvian-infused creations at the former's popular Sarasota restaurant, Darwin's on 4th, a gastropub featuring beers crafted in its seven-barrel brewhouse.
With such a pedigree, it's no surprise that the beers are unique. Designed with food pairings in mind, it's not uncommon to find exotic Amazonian fruits or traditional Peruvian ingredients like chicha morada — a sweet beverage made from purple corn, pineapple and spices — in the beer descriptions. Take, for example, the Chapo — a weizenbock brewed with roasted maduro plantains. Or the Charapa, which features aji charapitas pepper, annatto and cocoa from the Amazon.
Everything at Darwin, from murals depicting pre-Incan brewing culture to in-the-works custom-carved flight boards in the shape of a finch, done in the style of the Nazca Lines (finch, Darwin — get it?), is extremely well thought-out and wholly unique in the area. Darwin's has a lawn game for its beer garden, of course, but even that is something different: A Peruvian game called sapo ("frog") that involved tossing coins into the mouth of a tiny metal frog.
With the exception of Sarasota Brewing Company, all of these places have only popped up within the past six months. That's tremendous growth. If you're a beer fan who hasn't yet borne witness to the variety and flavor of the blossoming beer scene to our immediate south, then it may be time for you to hit the road for a short, but impressively flavorful, road trip.