The Art of Crafting Beer
Southwest Florida’s taprooms are more than just places to sample new brews
When it comes to trends, Florida often is a little slower to catch on than much of the rest of the country; craft beer is one example. Rob Whyte, owner of Fort Myers Brewing Company (FMBrew), says, “Until recently there were more craft brewers in San Diego County (California) than in the entire state of Florida.”
Rob and his wife, Jen Grazt-Whyte, opened one of the first two microbreweries in Southwest Florida in 2012 and 2013; Naples Beach Brewery (NBB) was the other. NBB founder Will Lawson remembers, “Florida was one of the last frontiers for the craft-brewing industry to develop.”
Jen says, “If you look at the market share for craft beer in the U.S. when we opened, it was like six percent. In this area the share was only about one-half percent. People just didn’t have the flavor for it.”
The challenge wasn’t just developing clientele, but also overcoming hurdles in the county and state, says Lawson. “Zoning was fuzzy when it came to breweries and having taprooms along with retail.”
Today close to 20 microbreweries call Southwest Florida home, but that’s still well below the national average. Statewide there are some 350 licensed taprooms; FMBrew ranks number nine in terms of sales. In June FMBrew announced a 40,000-square-foot expansion on adjacent property in Gateway.
Local taprooms range from those resembling dive bars, to hipster hangouts, to more polished operations. Beer may be the foundation of a microbrewery, but its success depends on much more—the people, events, music and entertainment, food or food trucks, and cultivating an atmosphere in which everyone feels welcomed, even those who aren’t beer connoisseurs.
“We’re not just slinging beer,” says Lawson. “Education and customer service are important, and the vibe is the finishing touch. We want people to feel comfortable and know they are appreciated.”
The path paved by NBB and FMBrew has made the niche business easier for the new guys. Today they can open with broader selections such as India pale ale (IPA), which was nearly impossible in 2012.
“We opened without an IPA on tap as a strategic move,” explains Jen. “Even though there were people here whose palates were mature enough for it, the market in general was not.” IPAs are made in a wide range of styles but are generally more complex and often bitter.
She adds, “A lot of people were looking for a gateway from big beer producers to craft, so that is why we led with Gateway Gold.” The brewery’s flagship blonde ale is still a leading seller and widely distributed in Southwest Florida.
At NBB, Lawson says, “we quickly realized that to develop a clientele our beers had to be approachable in style. People weren’t seeing bitter beers on the retail shelves and weren’t as familiar with them.” In addition, the Naples market had a lot of refined wine and spirits drinkers, so, he says, “it was good to incorporate fruits and spice to help draw them to us.”
FMBrew is incorporating fruit in its new line of Spiked Seltzer. With no sugar or carbs, only 90 calories and made with natural flavoring, the seltzer appeals to the more health-conscious crowd.
The craft-beer scene in Southwest Florida “is alive and well,” according to Lawson, who adds that it’s not just about the beer-drinking clientele, but also the supporting businesses such as food trucks, retail and bars serving the locally made brews. There’s even a SWFL Ale Trail Passport (swflaletrail.com) offering incentives for visiting breweries. “Florida came from trying to catch up, to being more entrenched with the rest of the country,” says Lawson. “We are moving forward as a group, and it’s exciting to see the scene developing.”
Rob adds, “The more microbreweries there are, the more people have the option to get interested. The more they taste and try, the better for all of us.” It’s that old philosophy that the rising tide lifts all boats—or in this case quenches all thirsts.
Sampling beer flights is an efficient way to try what’s on tap at Big Blue Brewing in Cape Coral.
Many awards have been handed out to the beers crafted by Fort Myers Brewing Company.
Tasting seasonal selections from the taps at Big Blue Brewing
Naples Beach Brewery produces small batch brews with an ever-changing rotation of seasonal and specialty taps.
Fort Myers Brewing Company offers a total experience for beer lovers, including lots of special events and live music.