We’re Halfway There

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.

Nicole outside of the Cuban Club

Nicole outside of the Cuban Club

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.

VIP Access

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 Beer

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.

Rick from Southern Brewing posing in front his the Oreo-filled randall.

Rick from Southern Brewing posing in front his the Oreo-filled randall.

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!

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Monday Night Brewing Tasting

Monday Night Brewing out of Atlanta, GA is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary. They were kind enough to send me a few samples of their beer to try.

Kick off your wingtips, loosen your tie and sit back with a post-work beer as Nicole and I sample Drafty Kilt Scotch Ale, Eye Patch IPA and Fu-Man Brew Belgian Wit.

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There’s a Big Storm Brewing in Odessa

big storm tap wall

I thought long and hard about the title for this post, and I couldn’t resist the pun. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Puns aside, there really is a Big Storm Brewery in Odessa, and they really are brewing up a storm. Co-founders Clay Yarn and Mark Bishop opened Big Storm in July 2012 as the first brewery in Pasco County.

In the year since they opened, demand has soared to the point where Big Storm is already upgrading its original 3.5 bbl brewhouse to a 15 bbl system, which is set to go online in September. Chances are, if you haven’t seen Big Storm in a store or bar near you, soon you shall. They’re set to go from 30 accounts to nearly 300 after the new brewhouse becomes operational.

Big Storm truly is the incarnation of many a homebrewer’s dream. A little over three years ago, Clay and “Bishop” were roommates, and after Bishop brewed his second batch of beer in their apartment, he knew that’s what he wanted to do with his life. “It wasn’t really even that good,” Clay admitted, “but Bishop didn’t care.”

Bishop was taken on as an intern at Dunedin Brewing, and for two years he learned the craft from the ground up. Clay summed it up, “We would sit on the porch, just the two of us getting bombed on all the beer we were brewing at home, dreaming of where it could go.”

The seminal moment came when both Clay and Bishop lost their jobs at about the same time. “We were like, now is the time. I told Bishop he was going to be the head brewer, and we’re going to make it work,” Clay said.

From that moment on, the two roommates bootstrapped their way to commercial brewing. For the first three months, 20-hour days were not uncommon. And on their first brew day as Big Storm, they brewed what would become their flagship, Wavemaker Amber, and the cost of that batch took them down to their last dollar.

big storm crew

The Big Storm Crew: (L to R) Chief, Clay Yarn, Norman Dixon, Mark Bishop. Not pictured, Dan “Carlos” Hendrix

As with every great American success story, the pair rose from the ashes, and Big Storm continues to brew great beer. I was up in the tasting room a couple weeks ago, and I had the opportunity to sample the wares. Big Storm’s regular rotation goes five-deep, and all the beers are solid.

If you want to check out the brewery, the tasting room is open Thursday – Saturday, noon to 9pm, and Sunday and Monday 3 to 7pm. If you won’t be in the Odessa area any time soon, you can catch Big Storm at the 97X Craft Beer Experience on August 17 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

The Lineup

Wavemaker Amber – The beer that put Big Storm on the map. It’s got a nice malt backbone and a clean hoppy finish with a mild roasty character. Nicely balanced and very easy drinking.

Palmbender – A pale ale brewed with grains of paradise. It has a bready malt character with a hint of pepper on the finish.

Arcus IPA – Brewed with orange blossom and Brazilian pepper honey.

Firestorm Black IPA – Dark, hoppy IPA with a slight roasty character. It’s an excellent dark IPA, a style I consider quite difficult to pull off well. This is one of the best I’ve had.

The Kalm Kolsch – Fruity with a clean malt finish. Flavorful and sessionable.

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New Belgium Will Hit Florida on July 29

The Mothership is landing in the Sunshine State.

The Mothership is landing in the Sunshine State.

New Belgium, the third largest craft brewery in the United States, is coming to Florida. On July 29, they will hit the shelves running in a state-wide launch featuring their core beers: Fat Tire, Sunshine Wheat, Tripel, Ranger IPA and Shift.

Any time one of the national big boys enters a market, it’s bound to send shockwaves through the craft beer community in that area. It affects bar and restaurant taps, shelf space in stores, and the local and regional breweries.

I am a firm believer there is a great abundance out there for all craft beer. Rather than fearing New Belgium will come in and stomp out the little guys, I think they will be a tremendous boon to the craft beer scene. The greatest asset they bring to the table: influence. (Well, that and more good beer.)

From what I’ve seen in my brief time here, there are some laws and regulations that could use tweaking. I could go up to the legislature or any number of distributors in the state, and I’d be lucky to get an appointment. New Belgium comes knocking and they listen.

That begs the question, is New Belgium a benevolent force in the galaxy? I was in South Carolina in 2009 for their launch there. (Prior to their arrival, I remember there was a tremendous buzz about this beer called “Fat Tire.”) In the time after the launch, I felt they were good citizens of the beer world, and they seemed to have a lot of fun. I enjoy their lineup of beer, and I fell in love with their Lips of Faith sours (more on that later).

My hope is that they will continue the acceptance and education of craft beer that local brewing pioneers such as Cigar City, Tampa Bay Brewing and Dunedin Brewing have already laid the groundwork for. New Belgium can help grow the pie for all craft beer.

And if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that we need more pie.

A Trip to the Mothership

Nicole and I took a trip to Colorado in 2011, which included a stop in Ft. Collins to tour New Belgium. That experience gave me a renewed appreciation and great respect for the brewery.

Nicole and I at New Belgium in 2011. I swear I had fun. I was in an 1890s, "I have a beard" photo phase.

Nicole and I at New Belgium in 2011. I swear I had fun. I was in an 1890s, “I have a beard” photo phase.

New Belgium has a love for humanity at heart. They are 100% employee-owned and go to great lengths to be sustainable. They built a gigantic brewery (huge by craft standards) and it felt like they designed it specifically to be toured and experienced by their fans.

On the tour, you get to look through a window into the massive brew kettle as the wort is boiling, stand beside massive 100-bbl oak barrels that are aging sour beer, and gaze over the expanse of their bottling and canning lines.

My backside sliding down the slide at the end of the New Belgium brewery tour.

My backside sliding down the slide at the end of the New Belgium brewery tour.

The tour is free, and you always have a beer in your hand as they take you into each step of the process. The best part is at the end, when you can slide down a spiral slide and walk on over to the tasting room to enjoy another pint.

What really struck me while at the brewery is how much the employees love to be there and how much thought they put into the experience of New Belgium. There was a positive energy that everyone seemed to exude. It really comes through in the atmosphere, and I believe makes it’s way into the beer. I’ve never met a surly person that has worked for New Belgium.

New Belgium’s Beer, It’s More Than Fat Tire

You don’t get to be the third largest craft brewery in the country if you don’t make good beer. If you’re that big, your beer also has to be accessible to a large audience. New Belgium does both.

Most of the year-round beers, starting with their flagship, Fat Tire, are flavorful, well-balanced and easy to drink. They are not over the top with malt sweetness, hoppy bitterness, or crazy amounts of herbs and spices.

You'll be seeing a lot more of this site around Florida after July 29.

You’ll be seeing a lot more of this sight around Florida after July 29.

As they say in beer-geek-speak, their beers are sessionable, meaning you can drink one or more in a sitting over an extended period of time and not suffer the dreaded palate fatigue or get overly hammered.

This also means that their beer is much more accessible to the average consumer than the extreme beers most beer geeks go nuts over. Because of that, some in the beer community have criticized New Belgium as being uninteresting or boring.

I will certainly admin, Ranger is not my favorite IPA on the planet, nor do I consider New Belgium’s Trippel to be on the level of Westmalle. However, New Belgium makes solid beer that you can always count on as a go-to, in the same vein as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Where New Belgium seeks to appeal to the beer geek is in their Lips of Faith series. Lips of Faith beers are small batch recipes that were inspired by ideas from their employees or collaborations with other breweries.

Some of my favorite Lips of Faith beers from the past have been Cocoa Mole (one of my favorite beers ever, an imperial porter with chilis, cocoa and cinnamon), Kick (a dark sour with cranberries and pumpkin) and Brett Beer (a funky wild collaboration with Lost Abbey).

Where I really fell in love with New Belgium is with their Lips of Faith sour beers. In 1996, they hired Peter Bouckaert from Rodenbach to be their head brewer. He brought the funk from Rodenbach, literally and figuratively, and has been producing some of the best sours in the world from Colorado.

La Folie is their “standard” sour, though I would hardly call any sour beer standard. It’s intensely tart with a zing of Granny Smith apples and dried cherries. My favorite sour I’ve had of New Belgium’s is Tart Lychee, made with lychee fruit and cinnamon. Other great sours that I have had from them are Le TerroirEric’s Ale, and Clutch.

The Launch

New Belgium will be dropping 22 oz. bombers of each beer to start. Kegs and 12 oz. bottles and cans will follow starting September 16. As I mentioned at the top, they will be kicking off with five of their year-round beers:

  • Fat Tire: The Flagship. The Golden Egg. The One Ring to Rule Them All. This is what made New Belgium famous. It’s an amber ale that’s slightly toasty and biscuity. It’s balanced, not too sweet or too hoppy, which makes it a very sessionable beer.
  • Ranger IPA: To me, it tastes like a hoppy Fat Tire. It has a quaffable citrus hop aroma and a clean, bitter finish. It’s a solid, well-rounded IPA.
  • Shift Pale Lager: A pilsner-esque pale lager featuring American and New Zealand hops. A little more hops, maltiness and body than your typical American Light Lager, it’s flavorful and easy to drink.
  • Sunshine Wheat: A great summer beer. It’s a wheat beer with orange peel and coriander, like a better version of Blue Moon. It has a creamy wheat body with citrusy, spicy character. For those scared by bitterness, don’t worry, there’s no hoppiness to be found here.
  • Trippel: A Belgian tripel with a bit of coriander added. It has notes of clove and bananas. It’s not as intensely sweet as many tripels you’ll find, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you like your tripels.
Jeff Sipes, the Florida sales manager, pours a Trippel for me at the launch party on Tuesday night. Jeff is blazing the trail for New Belgium's launch.

Jeff Sipes, New Belgium’s Florida sales manager, pours a Trippel for me at the launch party on Tuesday night. Jeff is blazing the trail for New Belgium’s launch in the state.

There will also be a limited supply of four Lips of Faith varieties that you may be able to find scattered about at fine craft beer establishments:

  • Cascara Quad: A dark Belgian strong ale with dates and cascara, which is the fruit of a coffee bean.
  • Heavenly Feijoa Tripel: A Belgian strong ale with hibiscus and feijoa, which is like a pineapple guava.
  • Pluot Ale: A funky 10% strong ale with pluots, fermented with a blend of Brett and their house Belgian strain.
  • Paardebloem: A collaboration with Red Rocks Brewing that features dandelion greens, grains of paradise and wild Belgian yeast.

Some people are put off by success, particularly an artist’s success. Much like when your favorite band from college makes it big, and they are no longer “cool” to follow because everyone else listens to them now.

Similarly, breweries seems to fall into the same category. Achieve commercial success, and you must have “sold out.” I, for one, don’t subscribe to the starving artist theory. I believe that great artists should be compensated for the contribution they make to our world. Making a great product that a lot of people demand is not selling out, unless you’re Nickelback.

I’m excited that New Belgium will be here, and I look forward to cracking open a Fat Tire in a couple weeks. Cheers, and welcome to Florida!

(And please send some La Folie this way… soon…)

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Shakoolie – Your Shower Beer Companion

Moments of genius often come at times when you least expect it, like in the shower. In the case of the Shakoolie, it’s a moment of genius about being in the shower… with a beer.

Say you’ve had a long afternoon of yard work out in the sun, or you’ve been brewing all day in the un-air conditioned garage, or you jogged a few miles in 100% humidity. You come inside, and you immediately want to crack open a beer.

However, you’re covered in dirt and sweat. If your wife/girlfriend/grandmother catches you sitting on the couch or recliner in that state, you’re toast.

You want to get cleaned up, but you really want a beer. You aren’t opulently wealthy, so you don’t have shelves in your shower. You have no place to rest your beer if you want to drink it while you shower.

Which do you do first??? Do you get that beer, or take a shower? Now, you don’t have to choose, you can do both.

That’s where the Shakoolie comes in. It’s a koozie that uses a wall sticker and velcro to attach to your shower. Yes, it’s that simple.


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ConvergeFL Homebrew Workshop – Wednesday, September 11 in Jacksonville


I’m excited to announce that I’ll be conducting a half-day homebrewing workshop at the ConvergeFL 2013 conference in Jacksonville on Wednesday, September 11. Registration for the conference is now open. If you would like to come to the workshop, it’s an extra pre-conference session, so be sure to add the workshop to your registration.

ConvergeFL 2013 is another in the series of Converge conferences that bring together elements of Web design, development and business into a three-day extravaganza. The speakers are top-notch in the industry, and I’m happy to tag along to bring a change of pace with some good ol’ beer brewin’ fun.

The workshop will be for those who love craft beer and have an undying curiosity to see how it’s made. Or perhaps they’ve always wanted to brew, but have been intimidated by the mystery of the process.

I’ll be there to show just how easy it is to make good beer. We will go through the entire process, from procuring your equipment, to formulating a recipe, to surviving brew day and beyond.

I’ll demonstrate brewing a small batch of beer, and you’ll learn how to brew using both malt extract and “all-grain” techniques, how to taste beer and understand off-flavors in your beer, and how to troubleshoot common problems.

And of course, since it’s brew day, I’ll be brewing a special batch that we’ll tap during the workshop! You’ll also have some other goodies to drink and take home. It’ll be a good time, I promise.

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Sour Fest at the Cajun Cafe Brings in da Funk

The Saturday after Andrea, the Great Tropical Storm of 2013, made her way over Florida, I boarded my trusty boat, the S-10 known to some as Black Sunshine, for the longest voyage in its 17-year existence to take me from Greenville to Tampa.

In an ultimate blessing-in-disguise moment, the idler pulley in my truck locked up and snapped the serpentine belt the Friday before my departure, when I was only two miles from my auto shop, and not somewhere in south Georgia in the midst of a sea of corn.  (I didn’t know there was such a thing as an “idler pulley” until 10 days ago.)

So with fingers crossed that the ol’ sled would hold up over the 603 mile drive, I set sail for the Bay. 9 uneventful hours later, I arrived at my new home with the truck in tact.

After coming so far, I feel that Tampa immediately opened its arms to welcome me with a big hug filled with beer. That hug came a week after my arrival in the form of the 2nd Annual Sour Fest at the Cajun Cafe on the Bayou in Pinellas Park.

Florida doesn’t have much of a reputation as being a beer state. With the exception of North Carolina, that pretty much goes for the entire Southeast. However, there is definitely an upward trend for local beer in the greater Tampa/St. Petersburg metroplex.

There are about a dozen breweries in the area and a few more on the way shortly. Add in a progressive beer festival that features all sour beers, and it sounds like Tampa/St. Pete is ready to handle some serious craft beer. And lots of it.

On To Sour Fest

Sour Fest featured over 100 sour beers, most of which were brewed by local breweries. It was hosted by the Cajun Cafe on the Bayou. The Cafe definitely has a beach shack atmosphere to it, and as the name suggests, it’s positioned right on a bayou with a spacious deck overlooking the water. I had a couple people also speak very highly of the food.

Speaking of food, with admission into the festival, you were given a ticket for a sampler plate of their cajun cuisine. The plate included pulled pork BBQ, jambalaya, cajun gumbo, and a piece of crawfish cornbread. It was all delicious.

In addition to the cajun plate, they had servers walking around with large trays filled with stuffed pretzels, bacon wrapped little smokies, and around 4 they brought out the whiskey bread pudding. I had the bread pudding with Angry Chair Brewing’s Let My Peaches Go Berliner Weisse, and the pairing was something like a phenomenon.

bread pudding

Nicole was impressed with the whiskey bread pudding and peach Berliner Weisse.

Sorry, I forgot this is a beer blog, not a food blog…

Since the festival was outdoors in Florida in June and featured exclusively sour beer, a niche genre for sure, the festival was not packed. I seldom had to wait in line for a beer, or even the bathroom.

The one brewery that did have a significant line was J. Wakefield Brewing out of Miami. I had never heard of Mr. Wakefield until Saturday, so I obviously had to see what worth waiting in line when there were no other lines to wait in. Well, it was worth the wait.

He came with a strong lineup of five Berliners. I got to try the Miami Madness (A tropical Sweet Tart on steroids), I’m Your Huckleberry (Berrylicious and aggressively sour. And sorry, that’s the best taste analysis your getting out of me after a beer fest in which I didn’t write anything down.), and Ain’t Yo Momma’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie, which Nicole described as angel kisses.

j wakefield

J. Wakefield Brewing, with Johnathan (left) behind the bar.

I came to learn the reason I had not heard of J. Wakefield Brewing is that it’s still a brewery-in-process. They hope to open their doors in December 2013. That’s definitely a brewery to keep your eye on.

Another other brewery that I thought was right up there with J. Wakefield was Green Bench Brewing, which also happens to be a brewery-in-process soon to be opening in St. Petersburg.

My favorite of the Green Bench offerings was their Sour IPA, which I felt had a perfect balance between the sour and hop character. It was a delightful beer, and the extra hoppiness was a welcomed addition after tasting so many other fruit-forward sours. They also poured a barrel-aged peach Berliner Weisse, French Oak-aged Black Saison and a Brettanomyces Pale Ale.

7venth Sun Mixing Lab

No, I was not being drug tested at Sour Fest. I’m pondering how I want to mix up the samples from 7venth Sun’s blending lab.

One of the more fun and unique experiences at Sour Fest was 7venth Sun’s Blending Lab. You could pick up a tray with four of their sour selections and a mixing vial.

Blending beer is how gueuze is made, mixing old and new lambic together. Since the beasties that produce sour beer can be a little more unpredictable than straight brewing yeast, many lambic and sour beer makers also blend different beers and adjust proportions to ensure consistency in the final product.

7venth Sun’s blending tray included Wolfman’s Berliner (3.8% Berliner Weisse), Saison Vert (a saison dry hopped with Nelson and Citra), Brett d’Or (Belge d’Or 100% fermented with brettanomyces bruxellensis) and Red d’Or (a raspberry Belgian golden).

My favorite combination was 2 parts Red d’Or with 1 part Brett d’Or. The Brett d’Or had an intense brett funkiness, so the sweetness of the Red d’Or toned it down to where it had just enough of everything you would want in a funky brett Belgian. The only combination I did not like was mixing equal parts of Wolfman, Saison Vert and Brett d’Or. Way too much funk and not enough soul.

In addition to the local and regional breweries that were there, the festival had several tables that were pouring some of the best sours from around the world, including some that are rarely seen in the Southeast. Included in that group were some of my all-time favorites: Cantillon Gueuze and Rose de Gambrinus, Lost Abbey Red Poppy, New Glarus Berliner Weisse, Westbrook Gose and New Belgium La Follie.

Since this was the first sour beer festival I’ve been two, I noticed two key differences from any other beer festival I’ve been to. The first is that most sour beers are somewhere between 4-7% ABV. There aren’t many high-gravity beers to sample, so three hours into the festival, I didn’t feel like I was really feeling it. I could sample to my heart’s content, drink some water along the way, and I could maintain a good pace.

The other major difference was that after sampling sour beers for three hours, my stomach had all the acidity it could take. While I love sour beer enough to want to drink it all day, sours are ultimately best enjoyed in a pint or two with a meal, not as an all-day out on the beach beer.

I really enjoyed my first trip to Sour Fest and the Cajun Cafe. For only being the second year of this festival, I thought the selection was outstanding, the food was a great accompaniment, and the logistics were transparent.

I will definitely mark this one on my calendar for 2014, and I’m sure I’ll find myself out on the deck at the Cajun Cafe sipping an Abita eating a Po Boy, just maybe not when it’s 92 degrees.

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