CLEARWATER — Maine’s Shipyard Brewing Company had faith in the Florida craft beer market before there was a good reason.
Owner Fred Forsley first brought his brew to the state the 1990s, well before a new microbrewery was opening up nearly every month. Back then, Florida was known as a “craft beer wasteland.”
The brewery now is preparing for a big expansion of its Sea Dog Brewing Co. pub and restaurant in Clearwater, which opened in February on U.S. 19, just south of Countryside Mall.
The company plans to add a full 20-barrel brewing system here, its only major production site in Florida, as it looks to broaden statewide distribution.
The decision by a national craft beer brand that sells in 33 states to grow its operations here is another testament to the Tampa Bay area’s emergence as one of Florida’s brew capitols.
It may also be a sign that the state is overcoming its bad rap as a land of bland mass-market beverages. For years, Florida beer distributors refused to carry microbrews.
“There was a time when they thought variety was Bud Light, Miller Light, Coors Light,” said Forsley.
“I think Florida five to 10 years from now will be one of the largest per-capita microbrewing states in the country.”
Demand in the state for Shipyard beer and its sister brand, Sea Dog Brewing, is driving growth — a 30-percent increase in business each year for the past five, Forsley said.
Florida ranked No. 44 in the nation in craft breweries per capita in 2012, with 57 serving a state of 19 million people, according to a survey by the Brewers Association trade group.
Craft offerings only account for an estimated 5 percent of the state’s beer market, said Justin Clark, vice president of the Florida Brewer’s Guild.
“At some point, there is going to be a critical mass, but I don’t think we’re close now,” said Clark, the vice president of Cigar City Brewing in Tampa.
Shipyard is riding on a wave of craft beer mania this year, especially in Pinellas County, where a half-dozen new microbreweries are expected to be open by the new year.
Plans for the Clearwater site, which still must be approved by the city, include converting about 3,000 square feet of outdoor patio space into a major brewing operation that will produce kegs and, eventually, cans for distribution.
Currently, the pub features 14 taps and a house brew that’s made on site, though local production is limited.
In addition to getting favorites such as the Sea Dog Blueberry and Shipyard Pumpkinhead Ale into more pubs and stores, the extra capacity will also support the brewery’s other business: catering big and small events with barbeque and beer trucks. One of those trucks is outfitted with 27 taps on the side.
Another innovation will be the option to make your own beer for a wedding, graduation or other special occasion with the help of head brewer Bobby Baker.
“It’s kind of educating people about what craft beer is,” said Baker, who grew up in the Countryside area.
“Whenever you actually make an IPA, you take your appreciation to a whole other level.”
For a market that hinges on freshness and quality, shortening the distance between production and distribution points is crucial, Clark said.
That’s why several popular West Coast brands such as Sierra Nevada and Oskar Blues have opened branches near East Coast craft beer havens such as Asheville, N.C.
For Shipyard, the Clearwater expansion will solely serve the Tampa Bay area and Florida markets, Forsley said.
As a peninsula that stretches to the southernmost point in the country, Florida may not be considered an ideal distribution point for national brands looking to reach the Southeast, Clark said.
A distinct advantage for Shipyard among local consumers, though, will be its ability to claim status as a “local” beer when all of its offerings are brewed on site, he said.
“It really is a local beer at that point because it’s manufactured here,” said Clark, who has worked for Shipyard in the past.