With 30 craft beer breweries and brew pubs, plus locally produced beer sold at dozens of restaurants and taprooms in the Tampa Bay area, people may wonder what made the local craft beer industry take off so quickly. According to Doug Dozark of Cycle Brewing on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, that’s a bit of a misconception.
“Nationally, craft beer had already exploded, and the southeast was way behind,” says Dozark. “It’s almost harder to understand what took so long.”
There is no denying the industry is now making great strides locally, however. Cigar City Brewing in Tampa incorporated in 2008 and opened for business in March 2009. Dozark, who interned at Cigar City and began brewing on a small system behind Peg’s Cantina in Gulfport, opened his own downtown St. Pete location, Cycle Brewing. Cycle has already expanded and recently signed with J.J. Taylor Distributing to supply some of its best known brands to bars, restaurants and growler fill stations throughout J.J. Taylor’s 17 distribution counties.
Craft breweries are a boon to the local economy and the community. They provide employment, utilize local products, boost tourism and bring a much-desired younger demographic to the area while garnering national attention. In an October 2014 poll conducted by USA Today and 10Best, Tampa Bay was chosen by USA Today readers as the number two beer town in the country (10best.com/awards/travel/best-beer-town). The area also came in fifth as the best beer city in a Livability.com poll.
Cigar City Brewery and Cycle Brewing were the only two American craft breweries to rank among the top 90 breweries in the world on the RateBeer (ratebeer.com) annual list, released January 30. The list is based on professional and user-submitted reviews of more than 200,000 beers from 19,000 breweries worldwide.
And it’s not just the product, but the culture that appears to be spreading. The annual Tampa Bay Beer Week in March celebrated with events such as the St. Pete Beach Beer Fest and the Beer Bus Brewery Tour of Cigar City and Cycle, plus relative newcomers on the scene 3 Daughters, St. Pete Brewing Company, Green Bench and others.
Those attending the Barrel Event at Peg’s Cantina on March 13 enjoyed the debut of 14 barrel-aged taps, including some flavored with coconut and hazelnut. Tickets for the popular yearly event went on sale March 5 and sold out quickly.
“Last year, about 700 people showed up,” said Tony Dodson, owner of Peg’s Cantina along with his wife, Peg Wesselink. “This year we sold tickets and limited the number to 250.”
The Brewers Association, which represents small and independent American craft brewers, published a report on March 16 showing craft brewing profits in the US reached double digits last year for the first time, drawing an 11% volume share of the total beer market, up from 7.8% the previous year.
When an industry is generating that kind of success, it’s no surprise the macro brewers are taking notice. Anheuser-Busch InBev took a swipe at craft beer artisans in a 60-second commercial that debuted during this year’s Super Bowl at a cost of $9 million. The ad, “Brewed the Hard Way,” dissed craft beer concoctions such as “pumpkin peach ale.”
Despite the commercial’s negative message, however, Aheuser-Busch has spent millions of dollars trying to gain a foothold in the craft brewing market. In January, the company purchased Elysian Brewing, based in Seattle, which coincidentally makes a pumpkin peach ale.
The company also approached owner Joey Redner of Cigar City, who declined the offer.
“The Budweiser commercial was a real milestone for craft beer. The Super Bowl is almost a macro holiday and what are people talking about? Craft beer,” said Dozark. “I did take offense to the ‘brewed the hard way’ depiction. Large scale brewing is not the same as brewing by hand, which is just plain hard physical work.”
The commercial proved beneficial for craft brewers, prompting supporters in Congress to more aggressively pursue a bill that aims to provide excise tax relief for small breweries.
Despite the rosy picture, craft brewers face some problems. Among them, the so-called “growler bill” before the 2015 Florida legislature which would allow breweries to sell 64-ounce growlers – an empty glass container that can be filled and refilled from taps at breweries and brew pubs.
“We have a good growler business,” said Rob Schoos, a bartender at St. Pete Brewing Company. “We can sell 32-ounce growlers or the one-gallon size, but not the 64-ounce, which most people want.”
Still, the craft brewing industry doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
“Craft beer is fun,” says Dozark. “There is a connection to the consumer and locally produced products are in demand.”
EDIT: An earlier version of this article misspelled Doug Dozark’s last name. The Gabber apologizes for the error.