We're no strangers to Tampa but every time we go we learn something new about the city and its culture and fall more in love with this seemingly sleepy "small" town. Once referred to as "Florida's armpit", Tampa and the surrounding areas are a mecca for Floridians who are seeking the best that Florida has to offer in the way of beer. Cigar City Brewing leads the way with other breweries like, Cycle, Rapp, Green Bench, 7venth Sun, Dunedin, and Barley Mow all producing unique, high quality beer. If you live in Florida, visiting Tampa for a weekend (with a driver who doesn't drink) is highly recommended and actually, well, you just need to do it.
This trip started with a visit to Cigar City Brewing in preparation for our interview with Wayne Wambles their brewmaster later in the day. We showed up before opening and were greeted by a line of people just waiting to get in... At 10:30 a.m. A tour of the facilities brought me back to the first time we took a group tour, one of about 15 people looking at the then tiny brewery and thinking to ourselves, this thing is going to blow up. Well, it did. The original brew-house is still there but now they've expanded into a second building (Brewhouse #2) which resembling a missile silo to the right of the taproom entrance. The massive fermenters fill the building and shine in the morning sun when the front door opens. It's a beautiful thing.
Walking through the fermenters I felt like what that annoying kid in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe must have felt like when he stepped into the closet and out into Narnia. Except, instead of trees and snow, I found large metal cylinders filled with award winning beer. Winning. The best part about this place was the smell - the smell of HOPS. Citrusy, wonderful, hops. Everywhere. I was politely asked to stop hugging the fermenters and led to the canning line.
We followed Billy Burnes (seen left with a Marshal Zhukov work shirt), our gracious host, to the canning/bottling line. They've upgraded their canning line from a machine that would fill ~60 cans per minute to one that runs over 150 in the same amount of time. It's an impressive thing. Even more impressive is the walls of cans stacked up to the ceiling just waiting to be filled with beer, emptied into our glasses, and hopefully recycled and filled again. While this part of the brewery is not currently part of the tour, it's supposed to become part of the tour likely after the renovations that are set to take place soon.
We ended with a couple beers in the taproom, a single hop (experimental hop #527) IPA (very flowery and crisp) and a Horchata ale on nitro (think sweet, vanilla, cinnamon), as well as some samples, including their Peach American Sour Ale (incredibly refreshing, fruity, tart, sour, dank) and a really nice Dragon Fruit Lime Saison. After filling a crowler with Hoppier than Helles (an incredibly crisp and hoppy lager) we had lunch at taco bus - a must visit - and were off to meet up with Wayne at 7venth Sun Brewing in Dunedin.
7venth Sun is a small brewery in Dunedin, Florida, (4.5 barrels) that offers tons of brett options, saisons, barrel aged beers, and really unique, hop forward IPA's. It's a straight forward approach to beer - letting the ingredients shine, letting the yeast and barrels do their thing, but most of all, turning that into a dance between ingredients most breweries only wish they could achieve. There's no over hopped IPA just for the sake of saying their beers are hoppy - it's about creating balance! This is why we're such big fans. They create balanced beer NOT gimmicks! Best thing of all is that they are really nice people who all love beer and are knowledgeable in their offerings. In fact, all bartenders are cicerone certified - think sommelier but beer - and will very readily and willingly answer any questions about the beer you're about to spend your hard earned money on. The service you get here makes your experience with their product that much more enjoyable and sets 7venth Sun apart from many other breweries we've been to. For example, a craft beer novice can walk into the taproom, ask questions and not feel judged by asking those "dumb questions" they've been looked at weird for asking at other breweries. Instead, their questions will be met with an answer that actually helps you understand why what you are drinking is so special and why it tastes different than Corona or Bud Light. We need this attitude to permeate into every taproom in the country if this craft beer revolution is going to continue to strengthen and turn into a part of our mainstream culture.
The takeaway here is GO. Go now and go often. [For details on the interview with Wayne check out our conversations page.]
From 7venth Sun we set our course to Cycle Brewing in downtown St. Pete. This is one of my favorite breweries because of the quality of the beer they produce is just really damn good. You can get the beer at Cycle in downtown St. Pete, where we went on this trip, or at the original location, Peg's Cantina in Gulfport (we really love the feel at Peg's). I love their IPA's, their sours, their porters, and I especially love their roasty, sweet, chewy stouts (especially when they've sat in barrels). This visit I was rewarded with the Berry Best, an incredibly balanced and just sour enough Berliner Weisse that was a really nice, rich, pink color. The berries shine through up front and the sourness was just enough to put you on the verge of puckering - just right, and really refreshing. Sitting in the modern taproom with modern art on the walls and just about everything made to resemble parts of a bicycle or made from bicycle parts, you feel like you are in a completely different world than 7venth Sun's tap room just 30 minutes away. Not any better or worse, just different. The beers here are top notch and worth the 35 minute drive from downtown Tampa to St. Pete. Again, do yourself the favor and go.
We rounded out our day with our first visit to Green Bench Brewing. The tap room is really nice and inviting and was PACKED! We had a flight of beers and were happy with the offerings. Two different stouts and two different IPA's - I know, I know... we really did our best there to get a feel for their wide array of beer styles... The tap room screams vintage, woodsy, Americana, or an Abercrombie and Fitch bag from the early 2000's. That's not a bad thing! I've always loved the vintage outdoorsy feel and the Americana vibe. Plus, their taproom really sets itself apart from other breweries'. It's a great place to come in and have a few beers and you somehow forget you're sitting in a brewery even though you can see the brewhouse lit up through the massive glass windows just behind the bar. Just a few minutes walk down the street from Cycle Brewing, make this part of your visit to St. Pete.
Here's the moral of the story, if you say you are a fan of great craft beer and you live in Florida, you need to go to Tampa/St. Pete, otherwise you don't actually like great craft beer. That's an exaggeration but I think it drives the point home! For you out-of-staters, Cigar City is in the Tampa airport for God's sake, what more of a welcoming invitation is needed to get yourself on a plane and into our beautiful home State for a weekend of brewery touring?
(More pictures of our Tampa tour are in the "snapshots" section of the page)