The Florida Brewers Guild 18th Annual Beer Fest Saturday was another demonstration of the state's flourishing craft beer industry.
Not that we needed one. But it’s easy to forget how quickly the landscape has shifted in just a year or two.
The fest, moved this year from Ybor City to the spacious and gorgeous downtown waterfront, drew 60 craft brewers — 50 percent more than last year — from every corner of the state — Pensacola to Tallahassee, Jacksonville to Melbourne to Miami, Naples, Fort Myers — and of course Tampa Bay, with more breweries than any where in Florida.
And this at a fest that struggled in its early days to gather enough brewers. The Brewers Guild was founded in the ‘90s during the First Craft Beer Boom and is growing along with the industry in this second, much bigger boom. “We’re actually one of the nation’s oldest craft beer guilds,’’ said Josh Aubuchon, the executive director and lobbyist who is leading the charge to legalize growlers and expanding retail craft beer tastings. “We’re still growing as a beer state.’’
Everywhere you turned along Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park was a brewer who wasn’t around a year ago, another that opened a couple years ago and is expanding, and a few that haven’t even opened yet but were pouring test batches and beaming.
Like Oyster City Brewing in Apalachicola. Still a few weeks from opening in a storefront in Apalachicloa's historic and charming downtown, it proudly offered one beer to sample — the Tupelo Honey Hooter Brown, made from hives along Owl Creek just a few miles from the brewery.
Or Proof Brewing Co., a small, highly regarded Tallahassee brewery that is adding a production facility with plans to distribute in Tampa Bay later this year.
And Naples Beach Brewery, opened just 14 months with a nano system (1.5 bbl) and offering up its most popular beer, a solid, well balanced mango ginger tripel.
Or Tampa's Cigar City Brewing, celebrating its fifth anniversary with a rare Double Barrel Hunahpu’s, aged in Rum and Apple Brandy Barrels, a nod to the other big event of Tampa Bay Beer Week, the Hunahpu’s Day beer fest March 8.
An hour into the fest, the longest lines were at 7venth Sun, which offered up both intriguing takes on barrel aged and Belgian styles with a Florida bent, but also the most beer-geek draw of the fest — Brettanomyces Lab, samples of three types of wild yeast. The differences were subtle and showed off the science behind beer.
More than 2,000 people attended but it never seemed crowded. Gone were the mob scenes from last year’s fest at Centennial Park in Ybor City. Lines were few and food trucks were standing by to soak up the alcohol.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn, in a repeat performance from last year, tapped the ceremonial ferkin filled with Tampa Bay’s two dozen or so breweries and read a proclamation declaring this officially Tampa Bay Beer Week.
And then joined in the festivities. He loves his craft beer.