Tampa Bay’s Brewery Boom Making Imprint On Beer World

Tampa Bay area now a destination for hop-heads

This week is American Craft Beer Week, a celebration of America’s growing industry of locally-brewed craft beers. Craft beer can come across as a niche pursuit complete with its own language, but at its core it is a movement of small, locally-minded businesses that typically work together with each other and other local businesses.

There are so many of these breweries these days that lovers of beer need the guidance of numerous websites to navigate their way through it all. Craftbeer.com is one of those sites, a go-to destination for beer lovers. News Talk Florida was able to speak with Jess Baker, editor-in-chief of Craftbeer.com about the industry, and Tampa Bay’s unique place in it.

It’s hard to miss the amount of breweries popping up around Tampa Bay. It seems that a new one is popping up every single week. From Brandon and Riverview to Pasco County, there appears to be at least one craft beer institution per neighborhood.

“More than 80% of Americans of drinking age live within ten miles of a craft brewery, so it truly is your community,” says Baker. “I’ve seen breweries who are barely making money for themselves, but still writing checks to charities that they believe in because for them it’s all about reinvesting where they live.

The brewing boom in Tampa Bay has not gone unnoticed nationally. A number of Florida’s beers, especially from the Tampa Bay area, are gaining notoriety nationwide. Hunaphu’s Day, an event put on in March by Cigar City Brewing Company, is something people plan entire vacations around. The event is shaped around the limited release of a unique stout, a must-have for the beer traveler.

That’s right: Beer traveler. Beer has nearly risen to wine’s level of travel based around tastings. San Diego, Portland and Denver have long been standards of beer travel, but Tampa Bay is becoming considered a destination approaching the same level.

What makes Tampa Bay stand out among beer destinations is that there is not necessarily one style that has become a local specialty. In the kind of situation that can only happen in a place like Florida, so many brewers have relocated to the area that styles from all over became popular here.

It is worth noting that the phrase craft beer is new, but the concept is not necessarily as new. “Craft breweries” were not too long ago referred to as “microbreweries,” but that term became insufficient when certain brands such as Samuel Adams and Goose Island became national. Many were purchased by larger companies like Anheuser-Busch parent InBev as well, making brands such as Magic Hat anything but “micro” anymore regardless of its beginnings.

With so many breweries opening, and only a certain percentage of the population who seeks out different kinds of craft beer, one might wonder how all of these places manage to stay in business. On the outside it all looks extremely saturated.

Baker suggests that a sense of community is bringing these places together, and working together is helping these places thrive together. In a way they’re not competing with one another, but instead sharing the same market. Go to a local taproom and the bartender may just be wearing a shirt from another brewery. Ask about it and they’ll recommend places for you.

“That is part of what is so cool about small and independent craft brewers. They’re small businesses in your area,” says Baker. “That camraderie of the industry is one of the things that I was so attracted to (about craft beer)”, says Baker. “Even when it comes to food trucks, local artists, comedians, breweries have become a community meeting place.”

These are local businesses first and foremost. They get their ingredients locally, they’re inspired by local culture, and they often partner with other local businesses. Many brewery taprooms save parking spaces for food trucks, or use a local coffee shop’s special blend for one of their beers, or a local chocolatier works with them. Cigar City Brewing Company, predictably, sells hand-rolled cigars along with their beers.

Some of these small breweries do some impressive business. Tampa’s Cigar City can be found throughout most of the east, with wide distribution and a word-of-mouth reputation that laid the groundwork for it. Big Storm Brewing Company has two different locations and serves as an official sponsor for both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Rowdies.

As for style, Tampa Bay is spoiled with different varieties everywhere. It is known as one of the better places in the country to get a dark beer, but also has a number of highly-regarded beers like IPAs that would be known as hop-forward.

What is the difference between all these styles? Much like the many varieties of wine, it varies. It mostly has to do with the specific kinds of hops, malt, or other ingredents used to make the beer. Darker beers like stouts (think Guinness) use darker malts and more of them. The IPA style is all about using more hops of different varieties.

Like wine, certain kinds of beer are named after and mostly made within certain places. Breweries in New England largely make India Pale Ale beers that are sweeter than other IPAs, sometimes described as juicy, so beers that taste like that are known as New England Style IPAs. A Berliner-Weisse is, as the name implies, known for being made in Germany. However, add fruit to it, and it’s a Florida Weisse.

None of this information is particularly important beyond knowing that there is a beer for almost every palate. Ask a bartender, or a server. Give them a good idea of what you might be looking for.

There are a few tips for someone who isn’t familiar with these new beers worth knowing off the bat.  Most importantly, these are generally stronger than one might expect. Words like double and imperial mean that an offering is particularly high in alcohol.  “Light” refers to color, not being lower in calories or alcohol. “ABV” means alcohol by volume, the percentage of alcohol in a given beer. “IBU” is a measure of hoppiness, and the higher the number, the more earthy and piney a beer is likely to taste.

It is estimated that the craft beer business took in $26 billion in 2017. That number is of course projected to go up in 2018, a combination of more breweries opening their doors and existing ones growing their businesses. These account for about 135,000 jobs. Keep in mind these are just American numbers, but the United States is very much at the forefront of craft brewing.

It is an industry to watch, as the business world tries to figure out if craft beer is here to stay or a bubble waiting to burst. It’s a constantly changing industry, with just a few national brands giving way to more and suddenly a flood of beers with wild names, flavor profiles, and stories behind the brew.