March 2-9 is Tampa Bay Beer Week and it wasn’t too long ago when you might have been scratching your head and thinking, “Wha….Florida?” Pioneer breweries such as Dunedin Brewing and Tampa Bay Brewing have persisted and have helped paved the way for Florida to finally develop into a happening craft beer scene. The weather is probably the year around best for enjoying beer and almost always invites sandals and a warm induced thirst.
There are hundreds of beer weeks happening in the USA every year. Tampa Bay’s beer week brings back my recent memories of brewery visits I made last November. I marveled at the progress and inroads Florida’s home grown craft brewers have been making. I learned that there was more to come too. Here are a few memories from from my trip.
Going to Somewhere is better than nowhere. At 10 a.m. on a late November morning I visited Saint Somewhere Brewing Company in Tarpon Springs. Also showing up were 10 local beer enthusiasts gathered for volunteer work on the day’s bottling run. Bob Sylvester is the founder and brewer of this 500-barrel a year craft brewery specializing in “farmhouse” style beers. All the beer is open fermented and in order to get the “farmhouse” character Bob took to spraying the entire brewery with a mist infested with Brettanomyces yeast. Now every brew is naturally enhanced by the truly local yeast. I had a taste of his Black Saison , a “Farmhouse” special flavored with tamarind and sage (my favorite) and one very pucker-charged sour “Farmhouse” brew. If you like Belgian specialties go Somewhere!
A short distance away you can find brewmaster Franz Rothschadl at his Lagerhaus Brewery and Grill brewing an incredible variety of fine lagers, ales and specialty brews. Tucked away in a small Palm Harbor shopping mall, the Lagerhaus brewhouse is tiny by most standards. The waterfront Biergarten and friendly indoor setting draws a loyal clientele. Franz brews 4 barrels at a time. He grinds his grain at home because there’s no room at the brewery to do so. Wow the beers are a treat for thirsty souls. He’s an Austrian expat and you’d think he would stick to lagers, but that is definitely not the case. His Bohemian Pilsener is outstanding; so is his Altbier/Vienna lager. But he exceeds expectations with his ultra-fresh “Week-old” Hefeweizen, there’s also a Tangerine Hefeweizen in the works during my visit (60 pounds of tangerine juice per barrel), 14% abv Imperial Passion Fruit “lambic-type” ale (all fruit or puree) and a superbly well balanced sour brown “Flanders” style ale (natural lactic fermentation). Lagerhaus is both a brewpub serving its own as well as others and a limited but well received food menu balances out the great experience that locals are privileged to have.
There’s a relatively new brewery in Dunedin. It’s the Seventh Sun Brewing Company, opened in January 2012. I walked into the middle of their transition to doubling their size. With the existing 150-barrel brewhouse kettle and fermenters they were able to wheel their fermenters into the small air conditioned office for cooling. By now partners Devon Krebs (formerly worked for Sweetwater Brewing in Atlanta and before that for Anheuser-Busch InBev) and Justin Strange are fully utilizing their 4 new 7-barrel fermenters (cool jacketed) that were being installed during my visit. Their beer menu was luscious and tantalizing. I only had the opportunity to try a barrel aged ale and their Galaxy hopped IPA. Yowser. Great stuff.
Only two blocks away is the ever popular Dunedin Brewery; Florida’s first microbrewery. Always a full range of ales and limited release specialty beer on tap and packaged on premise. I was there at a meeting of the Florida Brewers Guild. You’ll even find a copy of my original 1976 self printed 75 page 1st edition book The Joy of Homebrewing framed on the wall with a wacky picture of me on the backside – framed on the wall in one of their tasting rooms.
If you head south about an hour to the gulf-seaside town of Sarasota you’ll find a treat in the form of Darwin’s on 4th. It’s a new brewery and restaurant in downtown old town Sarasota. Not even a year old yet, this great venue is the brainstorm of owner Darwin Santa Maria. Darwin is Peruvian and the restaurant specializes in Peruvian flavors. This is a popular restaurant now, so be advised to make reservations for Friday or Saturday evenings. Not only is the food terrific (Darwin is also head chef), but their head brewer of the 600 barrel per year brewery, Jared Barnes has succeeded in establishing himself as an excellent and creative brewer. Their Charapa is a specialty beer with cacao nibs and Aji Charapita peppers, annatto and orange blossom honey; it’s well balanced and addictively delicious. There are other specialties like Quinoa Cerveza (roasted quinoa), Citrica (3 types of oranges) as well as well brewed Bohemian and German-style pilseners. A few IPAs for hopheads satisfies any thirst for hops. Other beers are for exploring.