THE LO­CAL CRAFT BEER SCENE EX­PLODES

Tap­ping into the Fort My­ers craft beer scene

Times of the Islands - - Cover Page - BY MELANIE PA­GAN

Once it hits your lips it’s so good!” When Will Fer­rell spurted out this iconic line in the 2003 hit com­edy Old School, he was re­fer­ring to a re­fresh­ing gulp of ice- cold beer. Judg­ing from his sur­round­ings, he was likely guz­zling down some ma­jor la­bel do­mes­tic brand, funded by bud­dies on a tight bud­get. Still, he was right on the money. The first sip of frothy ale from a glass that’s drip­ping con­den­sa­tion almost al­ways war­rants a mouth- es­cap­ing sigh of bliss. For a long time, the buzz- in­duc­ing bev­er­age served as the per­fect com­pan­ion to a Sun­day foot­ball game or late night so­cial gath­er­ing, but re­cently, beer has grad­u­ated to a higher level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion.

In the last few years ( or decade, de­pend­ing on which part of the U. S. you con­sider), craft beer has be­come some­thing of a phe­nom­e­non. All around the na­tion, brew­mas­ters are act­ing as sci­en­tists, mix­ing in­gre­di­ents at var­i­ous tem­per­a­tures in pri­vate lab­o­ra­to­ries ( or brew­ing rooms), un­til the ul­ti­mate, thirst- quench­ing anec­dote is con­cocted and bot­tled up for con­sumers.

Sounds like a pretty neat gig, right? Well, turns out, the craft beer trade is bub­bling into big business. So much so, you can’t spill a pint in some ci­ties with­out it land­ing on a mi­cro­brew­ery’s doorstep. And in other places, like Fort My­ers, nearly a dozen brew­eries ex­ist, of­fer­ing just a glimpse of what’s to come.

So, with a boom­ing in­ter­est in high- qual­ity lo­cal beers, why did it take so long for the city to hop on the “brew wagon”? What sort of im­pact has it had on our com­mu­nity? And, per­haps most im­por­tantly, where can one go to get their drink on? We sat down with some area brew­ers to find out.

ALL AROUND THE NA­TION, BREW­MAS­TERS ARE ACT­ING AS SCI­EN­TISTS, MIX­ING IN­GRE­DI­ENTS AT VAR­I­OUS TEM­PER­A­TURES IN PRI­VATE LAB­O­RA­TO­RIES ( OR BREW­ING ROOMS), UN­TIL THE UL­TI­MATE, THIRST- QUENCH­ING ANEC­DOTE IS CON­COCTED AND BOT­TLED UP FOR CON­SUMERS.

LAGER- ING BE­HIND

When Fort My­ers Brew­ing Company own­ers Rob Whyte and Jen­nifer Gratz first con­sid­ered open­ing a mi­cro­brew­ery in the area, they couldn’t help but dream with hes­i­ta­tion.

“Florida is way be­hind the rest of the na­tion,” Whyte says. But be­fore the pitch­forks come out and or­anges start get­ting thrown, when it comes to craft beer, Whyte has a point.

Up un­til Fort My­ers Brew­ing Co. opened in 2013, there was no ac­tual mi­cro­brew­ery in Lee County. Yet, in San Diego, Whyte had vol­un­teered at one of 30 brew­eries lo­cated within a 15mile stretch, from 2004 to 2010.

“They’re set­ting trends,” he says of his pre­vi­ous in­hab­i­tance. “We’re just try­ing to catch up.”

The West Coast is of­ten cred­ited for pi­o­neer­ing the na­tion­wide craft beer cru­sade, largely due to its sup­port­ive cli­mate. “A hop vine can grow 20 feet tall in the Pa­cific North­west and yield 10 pounds of hops,” Whyte says. But in a sub­trop­i­cal cli­mate like South­west Florida, main in­gre­di­ents used to make beer don’t fare nearly as well. And it isn’t just the weather that made the area’s birth of brew­eries dif­fi­cult. A higher state tax rate, leg­is­la­tion and li­cens­ing have all played a role.

“Ask any [ pro­fes­sional brewer], and they’ll say a fed­eral li­cense takes longer to get [ than a state li­cense], but for us it was the op­po­site, be­cause brew­eries had never opened in the area,” says Walt Costello, who owns Point Ybel Brew­ing Company with his wife, Amy.

Costello faced another is­sue be­fore of­fi­cially open­ing the Fort My­ers– based business late last year. The re­tired boat cap­tain and fish­ing guide hoped to build Point Ybel Brew­ing Co. on Sani­bel, where he and Amy live, but zon­ing codes pro­hib­ited it. How­ever, Costello notes, the code orig­i­nally served to stop ma­jor fac­to­ries from open­ing up— part of which adds to Sani­bel’s un­spoiled charm— so both own­ers are work­ing with the city to even­tu­ally ex­pand on their side of the bridge.

HOPS ABOARD!

Pi­o­neer­ing busi­nesses like Point Ybel Brew­ing Co., Fort My­ers Brew­ing Co. and Naples Beach Brew­ery ( which opened in Col­lier County in 2012), have paved the way for oth­ers, mak­ing it a bit eas­ier for new­com­ers to ap­proach city coun­cilmem­bers. Brian Hahn, who owns the re­cently opened Mo­men­tum Brew­house with his wife, Kather­ine, says: “Ev­ery­one in the city of­fices has been so great to work with,” specif­i­cally cit­ing Rudi Vrugt­man of the Small Business De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter ( SBDC) and the Bonita Springs Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Depart­ment. “We couldn’t have done it with­out them.”

But, support from lo­cal brew­ers, such as Whyte and Costello, is what re­ally kept the “mo­men­tum” go­ing for the Hahns.

“The brew­ing com­mu­nity is very col­lab­o­ra­tive,” Hahn says. “We share brew­ing tech­niques, ideas on recipes, dis­cuss leg­is­la­tion— in a nutshell, we all try to pay it for­ward.”

Area brew­eries quickly learned the ben­e­fits of lend­ing help­ing hands ( and the oc­ca­sional ex­tra bag of hops) to their col­leagues. “The more of us there are, the busier we are,” says Whyte.

“If you are in an area with mul­ti­ple thriv­ing brew­eries, you are not go­ing to go to just one, you are go­ing to do it all,” Costello ex­plains. “It be­comes a des­ti­na­tion point for peo­ple. It can be the de­cid­ing fac­tor when book­ing va­ca­tions.”

And while shell- filled beaches will al­ways be a rea­son to book a trip near lo­cal wa­ters, brew­eries in all parts of Lee County are mak­ing it easy to ven­ture away from the ocean. Newly opened Old Soul Brew­ing is nes­tled in an in­dus­trial dis­trict on Cleve­land Av­enue, Bury Me Brew­ing Co. can be found at House of Brewz in Gulf Coast Town Cen­ter, a Cape Co­ral- based es­tab­lish­ment is in the works, and Palm City Brew­ing Co. is slated to open off Alico Road in early 2015.

IPA: IN­CREAS­ING PUB­LIC AP­PRE­CI­A­TION

There’s no ques­tion­ing the in­flux of craft beer in the area, but it isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the first time lo­cal brew has popped up. Jamie Shea, co- owner of Marco Is­land Brew­ery, a sports bar and restau­rant fea­tur­ing its own small batch bev­er­ages since 2010, re­mem­bers a time when peo­ple showed more skep­ti­cism than in­trigue. “We kind of got laughed at when we first opened … like, peo­ple wouldn’t want to drink all that fancy beer,” she re­calls. “It just hadn’t re­ally hit Florida. Craft beer has come so far in the last few years; there are a lot of peo­ple be­hind it now.”

Whyte says the in­com­pa­ra­ble fresh­ness of a just made batch of brew might be re­spon­si­ble for the trend shift. But home­made malts with Florida fla­vors can pos­sess other pow­ers. One sip can evoke feel­ings of nostal­gia within a Sun­shine State na­tive, from that per­fect sum­mer day at the beach, to the of­ten picked from orange tree in one’s child­hood back­yard. With the same beer, tourists can taste the el­e­ments of an area known for its ripe cit­rus fruits and sweet honey.

“THERE ARE SO MANY CHOICES. I WANT PEO­PLE TO HAVE A BEER WITH KEY LIME OR LO­CAL HONEY IN IT SO THEY CAN SAY: ‘ I HAD A REAL SOUTH­WEST FLORIDA BEER!’”

— WALT COSTELLO, OWNER, POINT YBEL BREW­ING COMPANY

“There are so many choices,” Costello says about adding lo­cal in­gre­di­ents. “I want peo­ple to have a beer with Key lime or lo­cal honey in it so they can say: ‘ I had a real South­west Florida beer!’”

Most beer la­bels are enough to rep­re­sent the area all on their own. Two fan fa­vorites at Point Ybel are called Red Man­grove and Snook Bite IPA, Fort My­ers Brew­ing sta­ples in­clude Tami­ami Tan and City of Palms, and Marco Is­land Brew­ery’s Pel­i­can Pil­sner is almost al­ways on tap.

A STEADY BUZZ

Brew­eries strive to en­cour­age all as­pects of an “eat lo­cal, drink lo­cal, stay lo­cal” phi­los­o­phy in Lee County— whether it’s through work­ing with eater­ies, get­ting in­volved in char­i­ties or pro­mot­ing area growth and en­ter­tain­ment.

Each day, a des­ig­nated food truck ( another common com­po­nent of the West Coast) sits out­side of Fort My­ers Brew­ing Co., with menu items of­ten in­clud­ing tick­ets for a free draft. Thurs­day is burger night with The Nosh Truck, where cus­tomers can get a burger, fries and pint all for $ 10.

Point Ybel Brew­ing Co. col­lab­o­rates with neigh­bor­ing restau­rant 11: Eleven Café, and reg­u­larly fea­tures Florida bands, such as Road­kill Ghost Choir, whose mu­sic re­sume in­cludes rock­ing the stage at both Lol­la­palooza and Bon­na­roo mu­sic fes­ti­vals.

A com­edy club and lengthy ap­pe­tizer list sits inside House of Brewz, where Bury Me Brew­ing’s three- bar­rel sys­tem is out in the open. Hahn says the po­ten­tial growth in Bonita Springs was a large fac­tor in de­cid­ing Mo­men­tum Brew­house’s lo­ca­tion.

FEEL­ING CRAFTY

Each brew­ery is unique in its of­fer­ings. Old Soul Brew­ing has a vin­tage feel to it, while Mo­men­tum Brew­house is more rus­tic with kid- friendly el­e­ments. But award- win­ning beers, tast­ing room tours, and ever- chang­ing events and spe­cials can be enough to make one want to ex­plore them all.

Those who are novices on the craft beer scene need not worry when pay­ing a visit to any one of th­ese places; the ex­perts have of­fered up a few tips to en­sure the tast­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is a thor­oughly en­joy­able one.

Whyte sug­gests start­ing with a beer close to what’s fa­mil­iar. A Hefeweizen, for ex­am­ple, might be an easy switch for those used to Blue Moon or Shock Top. Not sure what might be a close tran­si­tion? “Just ask!” says Costello, not­ing that bar­tenders and staff can make easy rec­om­men­da­tions.

Hahn ad­vises tak­ing ad­van­tage of sam­plers, or flights, to fairly judge a drink on taste over aes­thet­ics. “Color re­ally doesn’t dic­tate what goes into a beer,” he says. “The per­cep­tion is re­ally hard to get over, so I say just go in and try a dark beer.” When Ryan Bowen and his wife, Mar­i­anne, open Palm City Brew­ing Co., they will fully en­cour­age flights to bring cus­tomers one step closer to their per­fect match.

“There’s a beer out there for every­body,” Bowen says. “It’s just a mat­ter of find­ing the right type.” Cheers to that! Melanie Pa­gan is the as­sign­ment ed­i­tor and so­cial me­dia co­or­di­na­tor at TOTI Me­dia, Inc. Follow her on our Face­book, Twit­ter and Pin­ter­est pages, and at blog. to­ti­me­dia. com.

Rob Whyte, co- owner of Fort My­ers Brew­ing Company

FORT MY­ERS BREW­ING CO.

Not sure what beer sounds best? Area brew­eries, like Point Ybel, of­fer flights so you can sam­ple a few dif­fer­ent beers at a time.

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