116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When a friend told me about the thriving craft-beer scene in the Bay Area, I assumed he meant San Francisco.
I was wrong. He was talking about the other side of the country and what's brewing around Florida's Tampa Bay area. Turns out, a lot.
RateBeer.com, a popular forum and rating site for beer lovers, has two Florida brewers in their top 100: Cigar City Brewing of Tampa, and Cycle Brewing across the bridge in St. Petersburg. And Livability.com ranked Tampa the fifth best beer city in the country, right up there with heavyweights such as Denver and San Diego.
It was time I made a pils-grimage to the Sunshine State.
For some direction, I contacted Andi Graham, a Tampa beer nerd and co-creator of TheBreweryBay.com
'We are so lucky to have Cigar City leading the scene here,” she said, 'and smaller but well respected breweries like Green Bench, Cycle, Angry Chair, 7venth Sun and our personal favorite gem, Rapp Brewing. They all collaborate and brew some amazing stuff.”
Soon, she tells me, the Tampa Bay area will have more than 60 breweries. The state's oldest craft brewery calls this home, and America's oldest brewery, Pennsylvania-based Yuengling, opened a production facility here.
I landed at Tampa International Airport and found beer right away: Cigar City Brewing has an actual brew pub - billed as a first for U.S. airports - inside terminal Airside C. Lucky you if you fly Southwest Airlines.
Cigar City has become one of Florida's most highly regarded breweries, its Jai Alai IPA having no small part in building that reputation. A visit to the Tampa production facility, 3924 W. Spruce St., is essential. In the sky-lighted tasting room you can watch activity in the brew house on closed-circuit television if you happen to come on one of the few days they don't offer tours.
The 24 taps and a couple of casks offer the staples plus a constantly rotating selection of creative one-offs, barrel-aged brews, seasonals and sours. Even during my visit, two new beers came on. I tried the cask ales, including a pale ale aged on cedar, but my favorite pour was Patio Tools, a dry Irish stout with a hint of smokiness. Grab some cans of Jai Alai before packing your (checked) luggage for the flight home; Cigarcitybrewing.com
Tampa Bay Brewing Co. in Tampa's historic Ybor City district - a former town founded by cigar makers and birthplace of the state's first brewery back in 1897 - makes a good lunch stop for brew pub grub; 1600 E. Eighth Ave.; Tampabaybrewingcompany.com Its Old Elephant Foot IPA is dry hopped and finishes bitter, while Reef Donkey American Pale Ale is less aggressive for the non-hopheads.
Dunedin Brewery, in the town of the same name across the bay from Tampa, is Florida's oldest continuously run craft brewery. The brew pub at 937 Douglas Ave. has half a dozen standards on tap, including their most popular, Apricot Peach Ale, plus another six seasonals or limited releases. The pub menu includes a nod to the North with their own take on poutine made with tots, Wisconsin cheese curds and pulled pork. I was happy with their Biere de Cafe, a coffee brown ale, and wings smothered in tangy, medium-hot 'Snakebite” sauce; Dunedinbrewery.com
Only a block away is a rapidly rising star: 7venth Sun Brewery, cramped into a couple of old storefronts at 1012 Broadway, is often standing room only, with patrons spilling out onto the front walk and a sheltered patio. No one minds standing next to stacks of malt bags because the beer is so good. Ten brews are on tap, including a couple of local guest selections. After a lot of beer tasting, Time Bomb, a good session IPA, was welcome, and Hopeless Bromantic, a Brettanomyces sour ale with Italian plums, had a nice funkiness and tart finish.
7venth Sun's second, much larger location is expected to open any time now in Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood, not far from Angry Chair (Angrychairbrewing.com), Southern Brewing & Winemaking (Southernbrewingwinemaking.com) and Brew Bus Brewing, 4101 N. Florida Ave., the brewery and terminal for popular beer-fueled bus tours, whose offerings include a $43, three-hour-long 'Sampler Tour” as well as 'Local Loop” shuttle service on Sundays that visits several local bars and restaurants on a continuous loop; Brewbususa.com
Nearby St. Petersburg has a cluster of three breweries worth a visit, including St. Pete Brewing Co. (Stpetebrewingcompany.com), 544 First Ave. N., and the bicycle-themed Cycle Brewing, just a block away at 534 Central Ave. Cycle has a dozen brews on tap. I tried Cream & Sugar, Please, a decent coffee porter. But Cycle is best known for its hoppy brews; five of eight that day were hop-centric. The citrusy Crank IPA didn't disappoint.
Just down the street is a favorite of mine: Green Bench Brewing, named in honor of the public benches that were a hallmark of the city back in the day; 1133 Baum Ave. N., Greenbenchbrewing.com Three versions of Russian Mail Order Bride, a Russian imperial stout, were on tap. The batch aged in apple brandy barrels was tremendous. Before I left, I picked up a bottle of a wild ale, Florida Poster Girls. The taproom is food-friendly, so be sure to walk across the street to Bodega (Bodegaoncentral.com) and pick up an excellent Cuban sandwich to go with your beer.
I had just enough time left to hit the taprooms at Ybor City's Coppertail Brewing Co. (Coppertailbrewing.com), a large production brewery serving four core beers and 16 rotating brews, and Stilt House (Stilthousebrewery.com), the first craft brewery in Palm Harbor. Located in a former auto service shop, Stilt House has 26 beers on tap, ranging from pilsner and pale ale to sours, stouts and barrel-aged brews.
The Tampa area's pint glass runneth over with dozens more breweries, but they'll have to wait for my next trip back, by which time even more are sure to be on board.
Brewers' Tasting Room (Brewerstastingroom.com) in St. Pete not only brews some of their 28 tap beers, but it also brings in aspiring local home brewers to make small batches for the public to try. Surely some future breweries are fermenting here.