In 2013, St. Petersburg went from zero to four microbreweries with a fifth on its way.
Nearly every bar that has opened in the past year seems eager to showcase a vast variety of craft beer made in the Tampa Bay area or at one of more than 2,400 local breweries operating in cities across the nation.
To the new batch of brewers, that’s not competition or an oversaturated market; it’s St. Petersburg’s first move toward becoming a beer city.
“I think locally there are more and more craft beer drinkers, there’s more awareness every day,” said Doug Dozark, who opened Cycle Brewing on Central Avenue in August. “There’s a lot of room to grow.”
When Green Bench Brewing opened in September less than a mile away, followed by 3 Daughters in December, Dozark says there has been a bump in his business.
Mike and Leigh Harting have seven in-house beers on tap at 3 Daughters, a converted 18,000-square-foot warehouse on 22nd Street South that now shelters an enormous 30-barrel brewing system ready for broad distribution.
When patrons have tried their Brown Pelican Dunkelweissen and Summer Storm Stout, there’s a range of options available from neighboring breweries across the Tampa Bay area.
Over the bar hangs the inscription: “Proudly offering beers from some of our brothers in brewing.”
“I’ve been amazed. It’s not a competition,” Leigh Harting said.
Visitors from Cycle, Green Bench, Cigar City Brewing in Tampa and others have stopped by 3 Daughters since its opening to offer support and friendly advice.
“It’s a community,” said Harting, a restaurant industry veteran.
Mike Harting began brewing at the restaurant he co-owns, Bella Brava New World Trattoria, with his head brewer Ty Weaver.
They’ve seen an enormous rise in demand for microbrews in the past several years.
The Brewer’s Association industry group estimates craft breweries contributed $33.9 billion to the U.S. economy in 2012, employing 108,440 people directly at brewpubs and breweries.
While Florida has gradually shaken off its bad rep as a “beer desert,” the state has been slow to embrace craft beer. The state ranked No. 44 in the nation in craft breweries per capita in 2012, with 57 serving Florida, a state of 19 million people, according to the Brewer’s Association.
In the past year, 15 microbreweries have opened across the state and every day this niche erodes a little bit more market share from the Miller Lites of the world, said Justin Clark, vice president of the Florida Brewer’s Guild.
“Florida has been so behind the rest of the country,” said Clark, also vice president at Cigar City. “We’re seeing huge growth every year because we didn’t have much previously.”
Tourism marketers have seized on local beer as a distinctive selling point for their community to the millions who visit the state each year.
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater posted a video in recent months showing Pinellas County’s long line of craft breweries stretching from Tarpon Springs to Gulfport.
The bay area as a whole has added several this year, such as Pair O’Dice Brewing in Clearwater and Two Henrys Brewing in Plant City.
St. Petersburg has been late to the party, though.
At first, there were legal barriers. Zoning rules didn’t allow for microbreweries until Green Bench co-owner Steven Duffy worked with the City Council to update them, allowing him and others to pursue their plans.
A gradually improving economy, coupled with reasonably-priced leases on the outskirts of downtown, may partly explain why several brewpubs came to fruition in 2013, Dozark said.
Brewer’s Tasting Room was first on the scene, opening in January in the St. Petersburg’s northern gateway. In August, Cycle opened near downtown, followed Green Bench in September and 3 Daughters in December.
St. Petersburg Brewing Company, which has been in the works for several years and sells at area bars, is expected to open in early 2014 on First Avenue North.
Seeing patrons stop by Cycle for a barrel-aged imperial stout before heading over to Green Bench for a sour IPA is heartening for brewers like Khris Johnson.
“We all have sort of roots here,” said Johnson, Green Bench’s head brewer. “We’ve all been to these other cities and seen the explosion of the market and how great it can be.”
Aside from a shared desire to see their hometown thrive, Johnson says local brewers are collegial because they each bring something different to the city.
Cycle is known for citrus IPAs and barrel-aged beers served for years at Peg’s Cantina in Gulfport. At 3 Daughters, a university biology student will work at a brewery lab to experiment with yeast strains as the Hartings roll out new creations. A new selection from one of the area’s many local home brewers is ever on tap at Brewer’s Tasting Room.
Green Bench plans to build a reputation on sour Belgian beers using a special oak foudre for a distinct fermentation process typical of wineries.
“I’m not here to make beer for everyone, nobody is,” Johnson said.