It’s not controversial to suggest that craft beer’s trajectory is heading toward a smaller and more local focus. Production breweries in wide distribution already flood the shelves of local beer coolers, making the idea of big-scale brewing and major expansion less attractive each year.
Like all markets, craft beer adapts. New breweries focus more on the surrounding neighborhoods and less on getting tap handles in neighboring states. The next logical step is breweries opening in cities thirsty for hometown brews — places like Riverview, Valrico and New Port Richey, all three of which gained their first breweries in 2018.
Leaven Brewing co-founder Jillian Lynch saw the need for a tasting room in Riverview based on her experience at breweries in South Tampa, where she and her husband K.J. — co-founder and brewer at Leaven — lived at the time of Leaven’s inception.
“We met a lot of people during our outings that lived out in Brandon and Riverview who made the trek to these Tampa-based breweries. That’s a long Uber ride after drinking beers coming in at 6 percent and above,” she said.
“The response has been overwhelming love and support,” Lynch said, speaking about Leaven’s reception in Riverview.
The scene in the tasting room supports that claim, with groups of friends — and often their dogs — meeting in the brewery’s bustling tasting room to listen to live music, order from a rotating lineup of food trucks pulled up to a roll-up shutter door in the back and sample the lineup of a dozen house brews.
The interior is homey, populated with hanging plants and vintage sofas, beer menu displayed on a plastic marquee above the tap wall. According to Lynch, the focus is on “traditional, true to style” beers, a craft that K.J. Lynch learned during stints at breweries both small (Fort Myers Brewing Co.) and large (Brew Hub). Pale ales, porters and stouts are staples, but expect to also find several Berliner weisse variants, like Requested Berliner, which was treated with 140 pounds of raspberries.
While the beer itself is outstanding, it’s clear that a big part of the draw at Leaven is a result of servicing the local community, which now can proudly drink local. It’s an effect seen in Valrico, where Jamie Ratcliff opened a brewery with his brother-in-law, Chanse Haas.
“I have been in Valrico since 1993 and just saw a need for a neighborhood brewery out here,” Ratcliff said. “It has always been a dream to own a bar and I really saw a need out here so I took the plunge.”
Along with brewer Matt Morrow, Ratcliff’s and Haas’ Bullfrog Creek Brewing Co. — named after a spot where Ratcliff used to launch his kayak — has developed a strong following of Valrico residents who were in a brewing dead zone until the tasting room opened in March.
Like Leaven, Bullfrog Creek is focused on traditional styles like English brown ales and German altbiers, but Morrow has begun dabbling in mixed-fermentation wild ales like the raspberry- and strawberry-infused Frogs Gone Wild, as well as classic lagers, like Valrico Vienna lager and The Diddy, a German-style pilsner that’s become the brewery’s top seller.
The brewery’s 2.5-barrel system is visible through a pane of glass on one wall, opposite a mural of the mangrove-dense creek that inspired the brewery’s name. True to its neighborhood vibe, Bullfrog Creek keeps a busy event schedule, ranging from weekly karaoke and trivia to pub runs, live music and open-mic nights. On especially busy nights, the crowd overflows onto the patio, lined with metal tubs standing in as planters and string lights hanging overhead.
On the other side of the bay is Cotee River Brewing Company, New Port Richey’s first. Like Ratcliff, owner Bryan Hackman is no stranger to the community.
“Both my wife and I were born in New Port Richey and it is where we call home,” said Hackman, whose wife, Kelly, owns another downtown business, The White Heron Tea & Gifts.
“We have enjoyed being a part of the downtown family with our first business,” Hackman said, “so it was only natural to look at New Port Richey first when we decided to open up our brewery.”
Named after the Pithlachascotee River that runs through New Port Richey’s downtown, Cotee River started as a tasting room serving guest taps from other local breweries. It tapped its first brew a few months ago: Market Fresh Wheat Ale, a light brew flavored with fruit- and vegetable-infused tea from The White Heron. Before Cotee River opened its doors, residents had to travel to Trinity or Tarpon Springs for locally brewed beer, making New Port Richey’s quaint downtown a perfect spot for the Hackmans to start a new venture.
“About a year and a half ago, we were at home watching a City Council meeting on TV,” recalled Hackman. “They were discussing new developments downtown and one of the council members mentioned that they needed a brewery at some point. My wife and I looked at each other and I think we thought the same thing: ‘Okay, I guess we need to do it.’”
Now, Cotee River is a nightly hangout six days a week, featuring live music in a rustic tasting room decorated with vintage photographs, woodworking and boating gear. It’s a vibrant and authentic neighborhood pub that Hackman hopes is followed by more like it.
“We really hope that our brewery can continue to be a catalyst for the changing downtown ... and that people will ... stay to check out the town,” said Hackman.
If the nanobrewery boom in bigger markets like St. Pete and Tampa are any indication, Hackman will likely see his vision come to fruition. New Port Richey, Valrico and Riverview are now on the brewery map, and it’s only a matter of time before we see brewery firsts in other area towns waiting for someone to brew up something local.
11238 Boyette Road, Riverview; (813) 677-7023, leavenbrewing.com
Specialty: Brewer K.J. Lynch is focused on authentic, true-to-style beers, as well as consistency. ► As co-owner Jillian Lynch puts it: “Repeatability is one of the things which makes a brewery great, in our humble opinion. K.J. writes traditional recipes, uses key ingredients and has an absolute science to his process.” In other words, when you find a Leaven beer you love, you can rest easy knowing that it will taste the same each time you order it. ◄
Hours: 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 3 p.m. to midnight Friday; noon to midnight Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday-Tuesday.
Bullfrog Creek Brewing Co.
3632 Lithia Pinecrest Road, Valrico; (813) 703-8835, bullfrogcreekbrewing.com
Specialty: Brewer Matt Morrow loves brewing traditional lagers, including his Valrico Vienna Lager and the brewery’s most popular beer, The Diddy, a German-style pilsner.
Hours: 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; noon to midnight Friday-Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Cotee River Brewing Company
5760 Main Street, New Port Richey; (727) 807-6806, coteeriverbrewing.com
Specialty: Market Fresh Wheat Ale is Cotee River’s debut beer, and it’s also the brewery’s flagship, featuring fruit- and vegetable-infused tea from The White Heron, a shop owned by the husband and wife duo behind Cotee River ◄ .
Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday; noon-11 p.m. Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.