As a craft-beer fan from Florida, Tampa's Joey Redner often felt deprived. When traveling across America, he eagerly sampled imperial stouts, bitter IPAs and sour ales—but in the Sunshine State, he mainly found mass-produced lagers and blonde ales. A properly hoppy IPA was as elusive as Ponce de Leon's fabled Fountain of Youth.
"I was a beer geek pining for the cool things that we couldn't get in Florida," says Redner, who fixed that by founding Cigar City Brewing. (Its name references Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood, which was celebrated for its cigar factories.) He set up shop, hired brewer Wayne Wambles and, in early 2009, debuted the English-inspired Maduro Brown Ale and the citrusy, tropical Jai Alai IPA.
"We really didn't do anything new, but we did things that weren't yet available in Florida," says Redner, who soon saw Floridians' thirst outstrip supply. "There's a lot of pent-up demand for craft beer."
While Florida has long been known for its beaches and amusement parks, beer was always an afterthought, save for the Coronas crammed in coolers. But now the craft beer wave is sweeping across the state, which currently counts some of the country's most exciting breweries. In Gainesville, Swamp Head uses local ingredients like Tupelo honey to make balanced beers suited for a humid climate, while Boca Raton's Funky Buddha knocks out novelties such as No Crusts, a peanut butter and jelly-flavored brown ale. And Dunedin's 7venth Sun is earning plaudits for its tart, German-style Berliner weisses flavored with local tropical fruit, a style that's swiftly becoming a state favorite. (The recent Berliner Bash in Gulfport attracted a dozen-plus brewers and around 500 attendees.)
Fifteen years ago, this revival would've been unfathomable. State-mandated restrictions on bottle sizes meant that 22-ounce bombers—a favored format for craft brewers—and both 500 and 750ml bottles, which are standard in Europe, were banned. "Florida was a beer desert," says Josh Aubuchon, the executive director of the Florida Brewers Guild. After the legislature overturned the law in 2001, Belgian and European imports arrived. Brewpubs sprouted. Breweries followed, offering innovative beers rarely seen in Florida, much less in America. At Cigar City's popular tasting room, fans flocked for samples of Guava Grove Farmhouse Ale; the Humidor Series of beers aged on Spanish cedar (it's used to craft cigar boxes); and barrel-cured beers such as the cultish Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, which is released once a year during an all-day celebration.
"Cigar City opened the doors for Florida," says Greg Rapp, a longtime homebrew who debuted Seminole's Rapp Brewing last September.
Rapp takes an artisanal approach, devising diminutive batches (about 50 gallons at a time) of more than 20 different styles, including a salty-sour German gose, an oaked bourbon porter and a chocolate peanut butter stout. "It's not uncommon for people to order three flights of six beers and go through all of them," says Rapp, a former IT professional. You'll also find this adventurous streak at Dunedin's 7venth Sun, which doses beers with wild yeasts and hot peppers and flavors tart Berliner weisses with kiwis and key limes, while Sarasota's Darwin's mixes Peruvian cuisine with house-hewn beers flavored with annatto, quinoa and orange-flower water.
While Florida's beer future seems sunny, several clouds remain. Legislation to permit breweries to sell 64-ounce growlers (only 32- and 128-ounce growlers are allowed) was recently defeated; brewpubs are barred from selling beer to go; and interpretation of zoning laws and regulations can vary widely. Despite hurdles, "I get two or three inquiries a week from people looking to start a brewery or a brewpub," Aubuchon says. Plus, existing breweries are rapidly increasing capacity, becoming important parts of the classic Florida vacation. "We've always had beaches and theme parks," Rapp says. "Now we have some of the best breweries in the world."
FIVE FLORIDA BREWERIES TO KNOW
Credit: Cigar City Brewing
Doug Dozark, who cut his teeth at Peg's Cantina, will soon open this St. Petersburg brewery specializing in lower-alcohol, full-flavored beers such as the fruity, hoppy Freewheel Pale Ale and subtly spicy Ryerish Red.
3038 Beach Blvd S, Gulfport, FL 33707
Funky Buddha Brewery
In June, the quirky Boca Raton brewpub will open a production brewery, giving it wider distribution of boundary-busting beers such as Maple Bacon Coffee Porter and Last Snow Porter, which is made with white chocolate and coconut.
Funky Buddha Brewery
2621 N Federal Hwy, Boca Raton, FL 33431
Cigar City Brewing
From crisp Hotter and Helles Lager to massively roasty Marshal Zhukov's Imperial Stout, Cigar City makes some of Florida's most accessible and exciting beers. The brewery recently opened several brewpubs (including one in Tampa's airport) and a spinoff specializing in cider and mead.
Cigar City Brewing
3924 W Spruce St, Tampa, FL 33607
Though Greg Rapp dabbles in a dizzying array of beers (he always has around 20 on tap), the former IT professional is best known for his riffs on a trio of ancient German ales: the salty-tart gose; smoky-sour Lichtenhainer; and refreshingly acidic Berliner weisse.
10930 Endeavour Way, Seminole, FL 33777
J. Wakefield Brewing
Though Jonathan Wakefield's Miami brewery is still in planning (it'll hopefully open later this year), the homebrewer has earned plaudits for his sour, German-style Berliner weisses fermented with guava, mango and passionfruit. It's a burgeoning indigenous style that's colloquially known as the "Florida weisse."
J. Wakefield Brewing(Opening December 2013)
2500 North Miami Ave, Miami, FL 33127