When you think about craft beer destinations in North America, the sprawling network of cities, towns and highways that make up the greater Tampa Bay area likely doesn’t top the list. But over the past decade, Tampa Bay has transformed itself from a brewing backwater into one of the United States’ most innovative, under-the-radar beer scenes.
How did that happen? There’s no one answer, but it’s a fact that brewing’s long been in the region’s blood. The Ybor City Brewing Company, Florida’s first brewery, opened in 1896 after early settlers discovered a spring flowing underneath what’s now one of Tampa’s most vibrant neighborhoods. In recent years, the state’s bounty of local ingredients—citrus fruits, hot peppers, honey, even seafood—has allowed brewers with rebellious, unorthodox streaks to truly shine. And nearly year-round patio weather doesn’t hurt the cause, either.
At most recent count, the Tampa Bay area boasts at least 50 breweries, here are five of the best.
1. Dunedin Brewery, Dunedin
Dunedin Brewery’s (pictured above) been churning out high-quality ales and lagers since 1996, making them the oldest microbrewery in Florida. They moved to their current location in 2001, a friendly Scottish-themed tavern just off the Pinellas Trail and only blocks from Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, spring training home of the Toronto Blue Jays. With high-quality pub food and regular live music, the brewery’s where baseball fans, Canadian snowbirds, and regular Dunedin folks get together and hang out.
As for their beer: from top to bottom, it’s an absolutely solid lineup. Dunedin says their apricot peach ale is their most popular brew, and given how well the full-bodied fruitiness goes with the Bay area sunshine, that claim makes a ton of sense. More adventurous drinkers will want to give their constantly-rotating capsaicin series a try: the brewery tries to release a new pepper-infused beer every Monday, so even if you don’t like this week’s selection, just wait seven days and another curious concoction will show up. Other locally sourced ingredients that have made their way into Dunedin’s beers include passion fruit, hemp, and Florida honey.
2. Cigar City Brewing, Tampa
It’s safe to say the Tampa Bay beer scene owes a major debt to Cigar City Brewing. Founded in 2009, Cigar City might not be the oldest craft brewery in the region (see above) but their willingness to both innovate and pay homage to the place they’ve called home means they’ve done more than anyone else to put southwest Florida on the map.
Cigar City’s Jai Alai IPA is arguably their best-known brew; crisp and bold with delightful citrus and pine notes, it’s an excellent example of what an India pale ale should be. But Jai Alai—a nod to the sport that was hugely popular among Tampa’s Hispanic population from the 1950s to the 1970s—is only the beginning. Their Humidor series features brews aged on Spanish cedar or cedrela, the same wood traditionally used to make cigar boxes. Their Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout is one of the few beers with a near-perfect rating on BeerAdvocate. And they’ve recently expanded into ciders and meads. The brewery lives in a cozy former police building in Ybor City where in the early days of the Spanish American War Teddy Roosevelt would have stabled his horses.
Rumors that Cigar City was going to be sold to mega-conglomerate Anheuser Busch-InBev earlier this year ultimately proved untrue, but the brewery did change hands in 2016, selling controlling interest to a Colorado craft brewer and becoming part of a collective called United Craft Brews LLC. Cigar City’s owners have said they made the deal because they were out of production space and they’ve promised Tampa beer lovers will see few changes.
3. Coppertail Brewing, Tampa
When the boozy Cuban-American enclave of Ybor City’s debauchery and late-night antics get a bit too much, Coppertail Brewing Company is where you’ll want to escape to.
Located in a former olive cannery and mayonnaise factory on the neighborhood’s outskirts, across the highway from a massive IKEA, Coppertail has quickly become one of the region’s most popular new breweries. Lawyer-turned-brewery-owner Kent Bailey poured Coppertail’s first pint in 2014, and since then their constantly shifting lineup of beers has included some real dazzlers. A Belgian trippel brewed with coffee beans? Check. A sour berliner weisse doused with pineapple and cilantro? Sure, why not. They even make a savory stout by boiling up about 200 pounds of Florida stone crabs.
4. Darwin Brewing Company, Bradenton
The drive across the bay to Bradenton, over the stunning Sunshine Skyway bridge, is worth it for the view alone. But it doesn’t hurt that the city of 50,000 is also home to Darwin Brewing Company, one of the state’s more unique craft breweries.
In the business since 2012, Darwin bills itself as a purveyor of “Andean-style” ales and lagers. That means you’ll likely find specialty brews on tap like the Chapo, a weizenbock made with plantains, or the Charapa, seen above: a spicy-yet-sweet porter infused with cacao beans and charapita peppers, ingredients native to Amazonian South America. The brewery got its start at a now-closed Peruvian gastropub in nearby Sarasota, which partly explains its Hispanic influences; there’s also the fact that Darwin co-founder Jorge Rosabal was born in Cuba and, for a time, oversaw production for one of the largest breweries in Honduras, as well.
The brewery’s across the street from charming Bill McKechnie Field, the third-oldest stadium in use by a major league baseball club (it’s home to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ High-A affiliate), making a postgame beer practically mandatory. There’s a welcoming patio, and the nearby food truck will keep you sated between rounds.
5. Saint Somewhere Brewing Company, Tarpon Springs
Saint Somewhere Brewing Company does one thing and does it right: Belgian-style ales. Founder Bob Sylvester has been whipping up his small-batch brews from a tiny warehouse with limited hours in Tarpon Springs since 2006, giving his beers an air of authenticity and exclusivity.
If you’re into the funky, leathery notes imparted by brettanomyces yeast (most beers use saccharomyces, brett’s less audaciously-aromatic cousin) you’ll want to spring for a bottle of Saint Somewhere’s Pays du Soleil or Cynthiana, two of the brewery’s most-loved offerings. There’s also the Saison Athene—a highly rated farmhouse ale brewed with chamomile, rosemary and black pepper—as well as one-off collaborations with other locals like Cigar City and St. Petersburg’s Green Bench Brewing. And it’s easy to get lost in Saint Somewhere’s immaculately detailed, classically inspired labels, too.
For beer pilgrims on a tight schedule, Saint Somewhere’s not the most convenient brewery to check out: as of May 2016, they’re only open four (!) hours a week, early Thursday and Friday evenings. But thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, plans are afoot for a new taproom in downtown Tarpon Springs. Until then, take heart that select Saint Somewhere brews are also available in bottle form in more than 40 states and five countries.
Trevor Pritchard is a freelance writer and photographer based in Ottawa, Canada.