From Margaritaville to brew-ville: Florida draws craft beer fans | Crain's Orlando

From Margaritaville to brew-ville: Florida draws craft beer fans

Whether they're partial to barrel-aged brews, pale ales or dark lagers, craft beer lovers from around the world are getting acquainted with Florida brews that barely existed a decade ago.

Tampa’s Cigar City, St. Pete’s 3 Daughters and South Florida’s Funky Buddha and other breweries, as well as taprooms and craft beer bars, are fast becoming top destinations for connoisseurs here and abroad.

According to Sean Nordquist with the Florida Brewers’ Guild, Florida is the fifth-fastest growing market in the nation, with 212 breweries already in operation. That's up from the ninth-fastest in 2015.

And there's room to grow, he says. “We're an infant in the industry and we’ve got the third-largest [national] population,” Nordquist says. The best-known brewery in the state, he notes, is Cigar City in Tampa, “and it’s only 9 years old.”

Another sign of Florida’s growing prestige among craft beer lovers: The state's craft breweries won eight medals at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, more than ever before. 

Travel industry analysts say craft beer is a proven draw, offering an opportunity to engage motivated consumers looking to visit local neighborhoods and beer-themed events.

In Tampa/St. Petersburg, Central Florida and South Florida, tourism agencies and brewers guilds, as well as the brewers themselves, are capitalizing on that trend with targeted promotions like “ale trails,” beer festivals and on-site activities to connect beer lovers with their latest creations.

One of the most popular promotional tactics is the beer trail, which links breweries and brewpubs together to generate traffic using incentives like badges and stamps. 

Tampa Bay, which ranks 18th among U.S. cities in the number of breweries with 53 in the metro area, did just that with its 2015 “Bay Crafted” web campaign. Visit Tampa Bay worked with local brewers and spent $50,000 on in-state ad buys, resulting in 11,000 additional room nights from markets like Orlando/Daytona and West Palm Beach.

The campaign won a national advertising award and also helped attract the 2016 Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference. The agency's current "Craftopia" campaign featured a similar "Craftober" promotion with passport stamps and special offers.

In St. Pete/Clearwater, which boasts the highest concentration of craft breweries at 27, the Gulp Coast Craft Beer Trail (a play on "Gulf Coast") has been a huge success.

“It’s a huge draw because people are looking for experiences over material things,” says Leroy Bridges, director of media/interactive with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. “It’s unique and local, and that’s exactly what they’re looking for.” The trail, which connects 24 cities and communities from Tarpon Springs to St. Pete Beach, evolved over a four-year period along with growth in both craft beer fandom and local establishments, he notes. “In the beginning, we had seven breweries and that was enough to call it a trend. Now we have 35.”

Although the trail spans an hour's drive, the real story is hyperlocal, he explains. "Each destination along the way is a window into the community. The brewer lives down the street. They’re able to share the process and experience with you. In most cases you don’t have to book a tour—you can show up and see this local, authentic experience.” The town of Dunedin, in north Pinellas County, has six breweries within walking distance of each other. At 3 Daughters Brewery in downtown St. Pete, he notes, “some weekends there are more kids running around than adults.”

The recently introduced Gulp Coast passport is the latest element of an ongoing effort to come up with creative ways to get consumers to embrace local craft beer culture. “We’ve got people coming [here] that never would have come if it weren’t for the passport.” 

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater also does a lot of targeted marketing through social media to tap into those niches, says Bridges, who makes sure the craft beer community is integrated into other promotions such as the Clearwater Sea-Blues Festival. Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest share of visitors to Gulp Coast destinations travels from Orlando. "I think that market knows the east coast so well, historically, and is just now getting to know us."

Beer festivals, neighborhood gatherings and on-site promotions are equally popular draws for craft beer lovers. Volusia Beer Week in February culminates with Deland’s Craft Beer Festival, which is powered by a volunteer force of 75 people and spotlights around 100 breweries organized geographically.  

“We put a lot of emphasis on local and statewide, and every year the percentage grows,” says Ann-Marie Willacker, owner and brewer at Odd Elixir Mead Works in DeLand (which is technically a winery). “There are new breweries opening all the time, and the great thing about beer festivals is that you get a chance to showcase all of them in one spot showing what they do.

“Since the festival is organized by region—Volusia County, Tampa, Central Florida—that’s cool for people to see. I’m always amazed at the people who don’t know about Longwood or Winter Garden [breweries].” This year’s event expects to draw more than 1,500 attendees, up from 200 four years ago.  

In the Orlando area, where Central Florida’s Ale Trail has already expanded since its launch this summer, local breweries are hopping, according to Orlando Brewing's John Cheek.

“I can see a real big change in the last three years. We’ve had 17 new breweries or craft brew pubs open since then, and another eight more are in the works,” Cheek says. Over that time period, the organic brewer—one of six in the nation—has seen a 20 percent increase in on-site sales.

Central Florida’s Ale Trail, which extends from DeBary to Kissimmee, is just one aspect of the craft beer community’s collaborative spirit, Cheek explains. “You sink or swim as a group. All these new breweries have had an impact on my bottom line, but in a positive sense.”

The craft beer craze has revitalized numerous corners of South Florida, too. Just north of downtown Miami, Wynwood Brewing and J. Wakefield and other breweries and craft beer pubs have helped turn the formerly blighted Wynwood neighborhood into a beer destination. This year's Wakefest Anniversary Celebration & Invitational will feature brews from more than 100 local, national and international breweries.

Central Florida’s Brewers Guild will produce its first-ever Central Florida Brewer’s Fest in February. In the meantime, Orlando Brewing is hosting yoga under the stars and offering up donut and beer pairings to get people out. 

But the biggest draw of all at Florida's growing crop of craft brewers are the constant, eclectic and tantalizing beer releases.

“We make a big deal of it. We’re releasing our Imperial Pumpkin bourbon-barrel aged woodruff on New Year’s Eve,” says Cheek, noting that the Chocolate Mint “Girl Stout” is still on draft, and there will be a new Grapefruit Pale Ale in February.

December 12, 2017 - 5:52pm