I think we could all agree, every week should be beer week. So, an entire year between Beer Weeks is simply too long. The good folks that coordinate the annual Tampa Bay Beer Week in March came up with a solution: The Halfway There Rare Beer Festival.
Strategically placed on September 7, the Halfway There Festival was, indeed, halfway between the actual Tampa Bay Beer Weeks. The Halfway There Festival was created as a rare beer festival to keep the excitement and momentum of the Tampa beer scene going.
The festival featured only beers that were either not available in Florida, or were not sold outside of the breweries’ own tasting rooms. Given those parameters, I was surprised that most of the participating breweries were local Florida breweries. Overshadowed by other regions on a national level, I’m continually impressed with the creativity and uniqueness of the Tampa Bay beer scene.
The Cuban Club
The festival was held at the Cuban Club in Ybor City. The Cuban Club was probably something back in the day, but it’s been ridden hard by years of partying. The “ugly lights” were on much too bright and it was showing its age. Or lack of care.
On the positive side, the venue features a spacious outdoor courtyard, a must to take advantage of the nine months of great Florida weather. There was a band on stage, and about half of the breweries were situated outside.
At a beer festival, assuming the logistics and bathrooms are adequate, the venue is secondary. It’s all about the beer. And at this festival, the beer was the star.
I splurged for a VIP ticket, which granted me access to the festival an hour before the common man was allowed in. However, that was really the only bonus. For an extra $25, I had hoped for a little more. Perhaps some VIP-only beers, or a VIP section with complimentary food to snack on throughout the festival.
What VIP access did provide was excellent networking opportunities. During the VIP-time, most of the pouring stations operated by the brewers themselves or brewery staff. Once the masses were let in, many of the stations were taken over by volunteers.
The Halfway There Festival did not disappoint me in my quest for new and unique offerings. I’ll touch on a few of my favorites.
Cigar City, Tampa Bay’s flagship brewery, brought out the big gun: Brandy Barrel Aged Hunahpu. Yes, it was as good as you can imagine. They also brought an excellent Humidor Series Peach IPA, which as the humidor implies, was aged on cedar. The cedar, hops and peach flavors meshed together exceptionally well.
St. Somewhere debuted a couple new beers: Merde de Singe, a wild fermented saison brewed with tamarind, and Fluer de Soleil, a funky sour blend of cabernet barrel-aged Lectio Divina and fresh Pays du Soleil.
Southern Brewing & Winemaking won my “Most Creative” award. They randalized their Moonraker Stout through Oreos. They let the Oreos soak in the randall for about 20 minutes before serving, and the flavor came through very well. They even gave you an Oreo to dip in the beer. Forget milk, it’s stouts from now on.
Continuing to prove that homebrewers can compete with the pros, Dan from Special Hoperations brought one of my favorite beers of the day. It was a perfectly smooth and balanced coffee stout. I don’t know what that man does during the day, but he has a gift with fermentation.
Peanut butter also had strong representation. Funky Buddha sent emissaries carrying their widely renowned No Crusts, which is a liquid peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not to be outdone, Rapp Brewing countered with a Chocolate Peanut Butter Stout, which was like drinking a Reeces Peanut Butter Cup. I don’t know if I could pick a favorite between the two, let’s just say we were all winners.
After such a strong showing last Saturday, I feel primed and ready to experience my first Tampa Bay Beer Week next year. In the mean time, you have six more months to seek out and support your local breweries. We’re up to around 20 by my last count in the Tampa Bay area, and there’s still room for more!