The Surprising, Evolving (Sunshine) State of Florida Craft Beer

Drink Features Florida breweries
The Surprising, Evolving (Sunshine) State of Florida Craft Beer

It wasn’t long ago that the entire state of Florida was routinely written off as something of an afterthought by craft beer geeks. Sure, there were a few bright spots on the landscape, such as the pioneering efforts of Cigar City, or the rustic, authentic saisons of the (still underrated) Saint Somewhere Brewing Co., but even five years ago the state’s total number of breweries was absolutely woeful, with only 57 reported in 2012, in the third most populous state in the country. By means of comparison, Washington state in 2012 had three times as many breweries, with only one third the total population. Clearly, there was some room for growth.

Moreover, the breweries that did exist in Florida, outside of a handful of notable exceptions, weren’t producing beer styles likely to get those beer geeks excited. Bland, “beach friendly” lagers and blonde ales proliferated as the state’s independent brewers attempted to compete in a market dominated by macro beer, in a battle they weren’t likely to ever win. It must have seemed like a pretty dire landscape to visitors who rolled into cities such as Orlando or Miami, looking for a great imperial stout regardless of whether it was warm outside.

Thankfully, those dire days are now in the rearview mirror. Florida’s beer scene has come to life, exploding into national prominence with a younger generation of established breweries and hype-generating newcomers. It was a surge that mirrored the brewing booms of so many other states, but simply took a little bit longer to arrive. When it did, though, it came in force—from 57 breweries in 2012 to 195 in 2016. That represents a 242% increase over the course of four years, and the number only continues to grow. It’s now somewhere well over 200.

“It’s night and day from how it was,” says Byron Burroughs, co-owner of Tallahassee’s Proof Brewing Company, which brewed its first batches in 2012. “We went from a small handful of us to an army. The downside of the industry back then was that we were synonymous with lagers and all of these terribly light, touristy, beach-accessible beers. I think people were scared to make inroads into truly making a variety of beer styles, until places like CIgar City came along and led the charge to open that up for everyone. They basically made a statement and said ‘You know what, if you make a big, flavorful beer, people are going to buy it.’”

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This conversation with Burroughs is taking place in the brewhouse of Proof, as a huge party rages in the background. It’s the fifth anniversary of the Florida Tap Invitational, an annual festival created by Proof with one goal in mind: to celebrate and promote the increasing quality and diversity of Florida beer. This year, 40 Florida brewers from all over the state are in attendance, pouring more than 100 taproom-exclusive and limited release beers. You won’t find any year-rounders here, and you likewise won’t find any booths manned by uninformed volunteers, unsure of what they’re pouring. Every booth is staffed by either brewers or brewery employees, and that’s no coincidence—Proof has enticed them all by not only paying for every drop of beer poured at the festival, but also paying for all the brewers’ accommodations and equipment. That’s how you create an event people are actually excited to participate in, says Events & Sales Director Bryan Smith.

“Our idea was to treat this as a festival of how we would like to be treated when we attend a fest,” he says. “Most festivals you go to, they ask you to donate the beer, bring your own tent, pay for your room, etc.”

“You’re starting to see a general trend in that direction in Florida, like the way they run Hunahpu’s Day (Cigar City) or Maple Bacon Day (Funky Buddha),” says Burroughs, chiming in. “We think it’s best to treat these guys like the rock stars that they are, and as a result you end up with brewers and owners at the festival instead of just having volunteers pouring. We take care of them, and in return they bring their best beers to share with everyone, and it shows everyone in attendance how far Florida beer has come.”

Tallahassee as a microcosm

While attending the Florida Tap Invitational, it becomes clear to me how the development of beer culture in a city like Tallahassee has mirrored the entire state’s rapid expansion in the last 4 to 5 years. Over the course of 48 hours, I’m able to visit a few local Tally watering holes, sample a few dozen Florida beers from breweries I’ve only read about in the past, and sit down with some of the brewers to discuss how far things have come. But my longest conversations are with the festival hosts at Proof, who have watched all this growth unfold around them in a way that is both unique and unusual.

The thing is, Proof didn’t begin its life as a brewery. Before they ever brewed a drop of professional beer, Burroughs and his wife Angela began as Tallahassee’s first craft beer-focused retailers. They then opened one of the city’s first beer bars, which was the original business to bear the “Proof” name, and the original location of the Florida Tap Invitational, which essentially began as a 52-tap takeover. It was only because of Florida’s unorthodox licensing laws that they were then able to move into full-on beer production, closing their bar in the process.

“Each expansion was just attempting to fill a need that wasn’t yet being serviced in Tallahassee,” Burroughs says. “It was just us saying ‘there really ought to be a proper craft beer bar in town; somewhere that the bartender can tell you about what you’re drinking.’ But eventually we formed so many connections to the breweries themselves that we wanted to open our own brewpub.”

At the time, that made Proof a novelty. Five years later, they’re one of six breweries in Tally, surrounded by rapidly growing neighbors. The night before the festival, I stopped in at one of those breweries, Ology Brewing Co., already being hailed as the next hot thing on the scene just four months after opening their doors. Featuring a tasty, hazy, tropical fruit bomb of an NE-IPA called Sensory Overload, it’s clear that breweries in this youngest wave such as Ology are fully embracing the cutting edge of the American craft beer landscape.

“Just a few years ago, Tallahassee in particular really didn’t have anything interesting,” says Ology head brewer Nick Walker. “Proof was just getting their legs under them and starting up; kudos to them for doing a lot to grow the craft scene here. Now we just feel lucky to have such a selection.”

ology inset (Custom).jpgA variety of beers from Ology Brewing Co.

When asked what kind of Florida beer is now making waves, Walker offers an answer that is repeated throughout the weekend: The now almost ubiquitous “Florida weisse,” a take on Berliner weisse often loaded with the tropical or citrus fruits that grow throughout the region.

“There’s a lot of crazy, creative fruited combinations right now, and a lot of unique fruited IPAs as well,” he said. “When it’s in the ‘90s out, they’re an obvious way to incorporate sour beer into the local culture. But then you look at someone like Angry Chair Brewing or J. Wakefield Brewing, and they’re having equal success pumping out these huge, sweet, heavy stouts.”

In fact, one of the most impressive beers I tasted at the festival itself was a sour produced by Walker at Ology. Labeled simply as “stone fruit sour,” the name belies the degree of labor involved—a beer that started out as a neutral sour base before being transferred into red wine barrels for five months, including two months on 80 pounds of apricots and peaches. Burroughs also comments on the same topic, calling the growth of authentic Florida wild ales perhaps the most exciting and cutting edge aspect of the state’s development.

“I think the one thing you’re really seeing take off here right now is people who are doing sours and wild beer on a much higher level,” he says. “If you look at the stuff Green Bench is doing, or 7th Sun Brewing, you’ve got more and more guys pushing the envelope and making world-class sours and true wild-fermented beers.”

The road ahead

Still, for all the distance that the Florida beer scene has come, to many it still feels like the first steps of a long journey. At Hourglass Brewing in Longwood, assistant brewer Eric Garbarczyk continues to hone his craft as the brewery refines their line of sophisticated, funky, brettanomyces-driven farmhouse ales. Drawing upon inspiration from the likes of Bob Sylvester’s famed saisons at Saint Somewhere, Garbarczyk and co. are making some of the best, more austere saisons in the state, without necessarily bombing each and every beer with infusions of tropical fruit. And yet, Garbarczyk says they still get customers on a regular basis who are surprised to find that such beer is succeeding in the Florida market.

“We’ve been in the Orlando area for five years, and that already makes us like the second oldest brewery in the entire area, because the scene is still so young,” he says. “And people don’t even believe we’re that old. They say ‘there’s no way you’ve been around that long, because people here haven’t cared about this type of beer for that long.’ That’s how big the change has been.”

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If there’s one constant, it’s that everyone seems to feel like they’re in the same boat. Every brewer I speak with is as eager to talk about beers they love from other breweries as they are their own product. At Ology, Nick Walker happily hands out recommendations of other young breweries for anyone who will listen.

“You really need to check out Idyll Hounds out in Grayton Beach; they’re pushing out some good IPAs, stouts and Berliners,” says the brewer. “Also Calusa Brewing down in Sarasota is about a year old, and they’re doing some fantastic juicy IPAs right now.”

At Proof, meanwhile, the next hurdle will be further expansion. The crowded taproom is proof enough of the activity, with servers hustling to draw pints and fill growlers—the 64 oz growler having finally become legal in Florida in 2015, after a long, drawn-out fight. Producing around 6,000 barrels per year currently, the brewery is running right around capacity.

“We’re packed to the rafters here, but we’re not complaining,” says Burroughs. “The next challenge is to see how we can expand a little bit, and we’re excited to take it on. It’s an exciting time to be a brewery in Florida.”

Just for fun, here’s a quick and dirty list of 10 of the best beers I tasted at the 2017 Florida Tap Invitational.

10 great beers from the Florida Tap Invitational

1. Angry Chair Brewing Apricot Berliner Weisse: Somehow only 3.2% ABV, which seems impossible, but absurdly packed with juicy, fuzzy stone fruit flavors and firm, balancing tartness.

2. Proof Brewing Co. Royal Bloodline: A velvety, almost syrupy and very intense flavored imperial stout (coffee and vanilla, if I’m remembering right) that revels in its power but still features more balance than something like Cigar City’s Barrel-Aged Marshal Zhukov’s Penultimate Push, which came off as far too boozy in comparison.

3. J. Wakefield Key Lime Stush: One of the most unique-looking beers you will ever witness, this bright green aberration’s appearance is hiding a deliciously tart, piquant key lime tang.

4. Calusa Focus IPA: A bright, citrus-forward IPA that draws upon Citra and Mosaic to deliver crowd-pleasing, juicy, but not over-the-top flavors, with a modicum of balancing bitterness to hold everything in check.

5. Civil Society Brewing DankStar: An excellent pale ale to contrast with the previous one from Calusa, DankStar eschews the “juice”-chasing obsession to deliver a pale ale that does feature mild citrus/white wine notes, but mostly delivers some very pleasantly dank, grassy, woodsy tones.

6. Intuition Ale Works Pamplegose: Intuition takes the classic gose formula (mildly tart, dash of salt, hint of coriander) and adds a nice twist of grapefruit to it, along with an unexpected element: Jalapenos. The result is a pleasantly refreshing gose with a nice herbaceous quality and just a hint of heat.

7. Ology Stone Fruit Sour: Thoroughly an “American wild ale” in form, this red wine barrel-aged offering from Tallahassee features a deft blend of peach and apricot notes. It’s not as straightforward and crowd-pleasing as the previously mentioned apricot Berliner from Angry Chair, but it’s measurably more complex and thoughtful.

8. First Magnitude Brewing Co. Passionfruit Sour /w Mosaic: I’ve had a lot of fruited kettle sours, and a lot of hopped sours, but rarely have I been given a hoppy, fruited sour. But the tropical fruit characteristics of Mosaic work in perfect harmony here with the ripe, juicy passionfruit. It’s a perfect match.

9. Funky Buddha Mexican Coffee: The people at Funky Buddha are masters of big, flavored beers—they routinely succeed while producing concepts that other breweries would bungle. Here, they take a popular flavor profile for imperial stouts (Mexican coffee/hot chocolate) and simply execute the hell out of it, with a huge body, assertive sweetness and plenty of spice. It’s what you want from a beer with “Mexican Coffee” as the name.

10. Hourglass Brewing Wild Florida Saison: A bretty farmhouse ale brewed in conjunction with Bob Sylvester from Saint Somewhere, the result is the best of both worlds between the two breweries—a bright, funky saison with plenty of fruit (apple, pear) and the requisite barnyard notes. A perfect, if unorthodox, beach beer for the discerning palate.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more beer writing.

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