What are you drinking? Miller Lite? OK. But how about a Paddlepuss Blonde Ale? Or a Keewaydin Crusher? Have you tried the City of Palms Pils yet?
They’re local. They’re good. They may just be your new favorite beers.
So, you ready to try something new?
Southwest Florida is in the middle of a beer boom. As of press time, there were 18 craft breweries between Punta Gorda and Marco Island (and potentially three more on the way). Just five years ago, there was one.
These are microbreweries, producing maybe a few thousand gallons of beer each month. You can get a glass of their goods at dozens of restaurants or bars in Southwest Florida. Some have started canning and getting their product on store shelves. Most have taprooms, where you can sip a cold one right next to the giant metal drums where it was fermented. Chances are if you do visit, there’ll be a crowd. It’s not just about the beer, after all. It’s about the atmosphere. A craft culture has started to emerge, where beer-minded people come to try out new concoctions.
When Bone Hook brew master Josh Deitner first arrived, he was unsure what he was getting into. Would people be receptive to something new? Would they order beers that played up ingredients like hot pepper or chocolate? “They warned me: It’s not like elsewhere,” he says. “But I’m seeing it change before my eyes.”
What’s happening here is a reflection of what’s been happening beerwise across the country. The number of breweries nationwide has doubled since 2012, according to the Brewers Association, which represents independent beer makers. The growth in the industry has been tied to the growing popularity of beer coming from small breweries. Long and short of it: Sales of Big Beer (Miller Lite, Coors, Bud and that ilk) are falling; sales of craft beer are rising. In 2016, while overall beer sales were flat, craft beer was up about 6 percent.
Beer drinkers are showing that they’re willing to pay more for something that tastes a bit more interesting than the usual mass-produced varieties. With how fast Southwest Florida has been growing, it’s no surprise that microbreweries are cropping up. But, let’s face it: Florida is a bit behind the trend. The state has only about one brewery per 100,000 people. That ranks it in the bottom 10 nationwide, according to the Brewers Association. “There’s still plenty of room for growth,” says Gerard Walen, author of Florida Breweries.
Earlier this decade, Will Lawson (pictured right) was brewing up batches of beer at home, but something bugged him about the Naples beer scene. Mainly, there wasn’t one. “There’s this huge, growing population,” he recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘How are there no breweries?’” So, he opened one in 2012. Naples Beach Brewery was the first in Southwest Florida.
The brewery isn’t in an expected location. It’s in an industrial plaza behind Naples Municipal Airport. During the day, you’re more likely to take your car there for repair than to sit down for a beer. But in the late afternoon, you’ll find a mix of people—retirees to recent college grads— mingling under the lit tents, grabbing a bite from a food truck and choosing from among Naples Beach’s 31 beers on tap. Like many breweries locally, it’s got an urban feel, similar to something you’d find in a larger city. It seems worlds away from Fifth Avenue South or Mercato. Naples Beach Brewery doesn’t get the foot traffic it would in a strip mall or downtown area. But being the first brewery in Naples, it’s generated a solid following of those who come for the beer and the atmosphere.
It’s been quite the climb to get where they are now. In the beginning, they just brewed and sold to local bars and restaurants—because that’s all they could do. Collier County didn’t allow for a taproom, meaning a brewery couldn’t sell beer for consumption on-site. After working with the county for about a year, they got approval and moved to a bigger space a few doors down in 2015. Lawson’s initial thought was that the larger space could also mean they would brew and sell more to local establishments.
He expected to double the amount they distributed. It’s been only about 50 percent growth, in part due to the flood of craft beer locally. “There’s a ton of breweries,” he says. “And that’s great. But there’s a saturation in the distribution market.”
But the success of the taproom is what’s really driving business. He estimates that the taproom sold about 1,500 gallons per month for the last half of 2017. (Distribution accounted for about 1,200 gallons.) “Clearly, people want to go to the source,” he says.
Stop by Fort Myers’ Millennial Brewing on a weekend night and often there will be food trucks outside, live music coming from inside and a crowd spilling out into the parking lot. Then, stop by on Sunday with the family; kids can get pizza and parents can try some new brews.
Millennial Brewing opened with the intent to serve as a community gathering spot. Kyle Cebull and his partner, Logan Roberts, opened Millennial on New Year’s Eve 2016. Cebull was more of the business mind, who had a taste for good beer, and Roberts was the brew master. They found an old carpet warehouse in downtown Fort Myers and went about cleaning up a space layered in decades worth of dust and grime. They stripped it down to the concrete, yet kept some of the southern pine from the massive carpet shelves to create the tables and walls in their brew house.
Millennial Brewing is just a large open space. On purpose. You can walk in and sit at the bar and just steps away, in plain sight, are the drums where your beer was made. Brewing beer is a complicated process, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be inviting. The whole premise of Millennial Brewing is “accessibility.” Drink the beer, see how it’s made, ask questions—the brew master will even let you taste the bitter caramel malt that’s kept in large sacks in the back.
Accessibility also means it’s something more than just a brewery. It hosts everything from concerts to business networking events.
But don’t forget, of course, that it is a brewery. So, its beers have to be legit for it to succeed. Millennial brews for in-house consumption. It doesn’t distribute its product to bars or restaurants. The menu rotates, and Cebull and Roberts have found which beers get strong followings, such as their Coffee and Contemplation porter made with Fort Myers’ own Rebel Coffee. Their success depends on their physical location, and that’s why they’d welcome even more competition into the local brewery scene, Cebull says. More successful breweries mean a better reputation for beer, which means more attention, more tourism, more sales.
Imagine, he says, if downtown had a few breweries within walking distance. A drink here and a drink there, stop by one place for a concert or head to another for a more laid-back vibe—it would become a beer destination, like Tampa’s Ybor City. “We’re not coming close to saturation” of breweries, Cebull says. When it’s all said and done, he expects it to come closer to 30 breweries in the area, almost double what it is now.
So is that where we’re headed? Southwest Florida as a beer destination? It’s bound to grow, considering the population influx in the area. But without a big urban center, it’s challenging to say whether Southwest Florida could emulate what’s happening in Tampa. One good sign: Ancillary businesses are popping up supporting the local brew scene. The Naples and Gulf Coast Pubcycle takes beer fans on pub crawls in Naples and Cape Coral onboard a 16-seat cycle that looks like a small bar on wheels. (Unfortunately, the Southwest Florida Brewery Tours service that bussed beer lovers among breweries shut down last year.) The SWFL Ale Trail is a contest of sorts, where participants pick up passport books, get stamps for each brewery they visit and receive rewards for their efforts. The catch with craft beer is that it requires a certain taste. Not everyone will take a liking to something that challenges the palate.
Bone Hook brew master Josh Deitner spent more than three years brewing in China for Shanghai Brewery before returning to raise his family in the states. Bone Hook ended up a brew masters dream—the chance to experiment with the new and different. Unlike Shanghai, where the focus was on their half-dozen cash-cow brews, he’s produced more than 140 different styles at Bone Hook. He’s found success, too. Bone Hook produces around 3,360 gallons per month, and you can find their brews in 45 restaurants. To Deitner, it speaks of the growing sophistication of the local audience. Some stick to what they know. Most people know a Pilsner (the pale lager Budweiser tries to replicate), so they come and order a Pilsner. IPAs continue to be big, and sour beers have been in vogue recently. Bone Hook has two systems—the larger one to produce its sure-fire hits, the smaller one for more experimentation, like the Mexican Stout that had hints of hot pepper and cocoa. He’s played with chocolate—how to introduce it in the brewing process—and came out with the S’mores Stout. Some inventions catch on; others don’t. But he’s seeing more and more people here willing to take a chance. Not bad for a place not known for its sophisticated beer palate.
As the scene grows, Lawson largely expects to stay as they are. Naples Beach Brewery may open satellite taprooms in other locations. But Naples is home. He’s proud to be a craft brewer. He’d like to keep it that way.
“We had great timing in the beginning,” he says. “Now, it’s a matter of managing our brand and our growth. We’re in it for the long haul. I’m not looking to sell in 10 years. I’d like this to remain a family business.”
So, what do you say? How about that Purple Grain? Or the Coffee and Contemplation? Take a chance. You may just be on to the next big thing.