THE LOCAL CRAFT BEER SCENE EXPLODES
Tapping into the Fort Myers craft beer scene
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.
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.
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.