Over the two decades that I’ve called the Tampa area home, out-of-state friends typically phone for one of two reasons: to ask if they can crash at my father-in-law’s beach house, or to tease me about the latest Florida Man news.
These days, however, pals ring more often to gab about the local beer scene.
That’s because the Sunshine State is fast gaining a reputation as a craft beer destination — particularly Clearwater and St. Petersburg, communities once derided as God’s Waiting Room because of their large retiree populations.
And this transformation has seemingly been wrought overnight. Indeed, most of the Tampa Bay area’s several dozen breweries opened in the past two years. More are planned in the next year. What’s more, many are already winning national accolades.
Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing, which at six years old is something of an elder statesman in the local brewery scene, has brought home a fistful of medals from the Great American Beer Festival. The brewery most recently was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award.
“The craft beer scene has blown up since I moved down here from Chicago five years ago,” said Brent Morgan, a brewer at Largo’s Barley Mow Brewing Co., which began brewing a couple years ago. “In those days, you really had to search hard for any locally made beer. . . . Now, Tampa Bay and Asheville are the hottest craft beer spots on the East Coast.”
Other beer lovers apparently agree. Tampa recently took second place in a poll of best beer towns by USA Today, besting craft brew meccas such as Asheville, N.C., and Portland, Ore. (Grand Rapids snagged the No. 1 spot.)
I always ask for hometown suds at local watering holes, but figured a more scientific survey was in order. Which is why, on a recent weekday evening, I, along with my friend Lucius and brother-in-law Snow, visited several local breweries. As we soon learned, styles of brews vary as much as the spaces where they’re made and served.
We started at one of the newest and biggest, St. Petersburg’s 3 Daughters Brewing, named for the founding couple’s trio of young children.
At a cozy tasting room bar that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a high-end ski lodge, Leigh Harting, who a little more than a year ago started the brewery with her husband, Mike, poured us a flight of several signature beers.
Our lineup started with a Beach Blonde Ale, a light and refreshing beer that, true to its name, would be an ideal seaside sipper. Next up was Brown Pelican Dunkelweizen, a German dark wheat beer with a lovely winey quality. Or as Lucius, a sommelier who manages a local restaurant and wine bar, happily put it, “Freaking rich.” We wrapped up with a glass of toasty, chocolate-hinted Summer Storm Stout, which Snow said “would also be great for breakfast.” Like most beers made here, this one managed to be both true to style and accessible to newbie craft beer drinkers.
We agreed to come back when the newest batch of award-winning aged porter, resting in a couple dozen repurposed bourbon barrels, is ready to drink.
Good beer isn’t the only draw at 3 Daughters. The cavernous brewing room doubles as a kind of craft beer lover’s amusement park, complete with several shuffleboard and ping-pong tables, and jumbo-sized Jenga sets. Local bands often play on a raised stage. There’s even an 18-hole mini-golf course outside.
“This place is craft beer heaven,” I found myself saying.
Just a few minutes’ drive away is a very different brewery. Tucked in a storefront in downtown St. Petersburg, Cycle Brewing could fit in 3 Daughters’ broom closet. Local art adorns walls. The bar’s dozen-odd taps are fashioned from bicycle parts.
Our tasting started with a glass of Unicycle, an American pale ale that was wonderfully tangy and minty. Next was a Ducky Pils, a German Pilsener-style brew that we all raved about. We likewise gushed about Bottom of the 9th Brown, a tarry-hued American brown ale that was surprisingly light.
“Perfectly balanced,” Lucius said. Still, I preferred Cyclocross, a zingy rye beer with hints of (I swear) basil.
Then we tried Cycle’s Chocolate Bourbon Batch 300, ale that spent four months in a single malt whiskey barrel. Before we greedily downed our glasses, Cycle brewer Doug Dozark suggested we cup our hands around the brandy snifter-style glasses to slightly warm up the chilled dark amber liquid. He was right, of course. Each sip was a riot of flavors — whiskey, caramel, pumpernickel.
The only downside to lingering at these two breweries was that we were too late to visit others.
Among them: Barley Mow Brewing Co., which I visited a week later. Another smaller brewery, Barley Mow is just off the main drag in the little city of Largo. Like most local breweries, this one is expanding production and tasting space. At 3 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, the crowd was already growing.
At the bar I ordered a foursome of beers. My clear favorite was the Unkindness, a dark and super-hoppy brew that was curiously light on the tongue and had nifty hints of balsamic vinegar.
That same evening I stopped by Rapp Brewing Co. in nearby Seminole. If not for the open garage door revealing goings-on inside, you’d mistake it for just another tenant in a nondescript commercial strip center. But what it may lack in decor, Rapp makes up for in what it pours into your glass.
Among the standouts is its Gose, an obscure style of wheat beer that’s slightly sour and salty. Himalayan salt stands in for the natural salinity of water in its home town of Goslar, Germany. One sip and I was hooked.
“When it’s 95 degrees and 100 percent humidity here in Florida, this is perfect,” said founder and brewer Greg Rapp, who opened his brewery a couple years ago. “It’s like grown-up Gatorade.”
Another delicious sour wheat beer on tap was the Lichtenhainer, tart and faintly smoky. But the most pleasant surprise came with a glass of Chocolate Peanut Butter Stout. At first sniff, I feared a cloying rush of liquid Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Then I tasted; definitely peanut butter and chocolate in there, but somehow they worked and worked well.
“We want people to come look at the chalkboard and be able to try something they can’t get anywhere else,” Rapp said.
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Bungalow-turned-brewpub serving Mexican food and lots of local brews, including those made by proprietor Peg’s son, Doug Dozark, Cycle Brewing’s brewer. Mahi tacos are especially good ($15).
Cigar City Brewpub
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Brewpub spawned by Cigar City Brewing, serving many local beers on tap. Better-than-average pub fare with Cuban Italian influences, including a good Cuban sandwich ($10).
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Cigar City Brewing
3924 W. Spruce St., Tampa
Tasting room open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday through Saturday.
Barley Mow Brewing Co.
518 W. Bay Drive, Largo
Open 3 p.m. to 2 a.m., Monday through Friday; noon to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday.
534 Central Ave., St. Petersburg
Open 3 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Thursday; noon to 3 a.m., Saturday; and noon to 10 p.m. on Sunday.
3 Daughters Brewing
222 22nd St. South, St. Petersburg
Open 2 p.m. to 9 p.m., Monday and Tuesday; 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday; 2 p.m. to midnight, Friday; noon to midnight, Saturday; and 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday.
Rapp Brewing Co.
10930 Endeavour Way, Seminole
Open 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 3 p.m. to midnight, Friday; 2 p.m. to midnight, Saturday; and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday.
Abercrombie is a writer in Tampa.