The Art of Crafting Beer

South­west Florida’s tap­rooms are more than just places to sam­ple new brews

RSWLiving - - Contents - Gina Birch is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor. A lover of good food, good drinks and a fun time, she is also a well-known me­dia per­son­al­ity in South­west Florida.

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.

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