St. Petersburg readies for three brew pubs
ST. PETERSBURG - While the Tampa Bay region is considered the heart of Florida's independent brewing scene, St. Petersburg has no craft breweries to call its own. After years of planning, working with city officials and searching for the right space, though, three breweries plan to open downtown this year. The friendly competitors will appeal to diverse palates, from lighter wheat beers to rich, complex pale ales. Their goals range from building a reputation among connoisseurs to becoming a regional competitor in the Southeast. One of the biggest challenges they all face is opening in the downtown area, where space is limited and costs are high. While many craft breweries start off producing beer in remote industrial parks, where the rent is cheap, St. Pete's future brewers have waited it out to find the right place downtown."I like St. Pete. I live in St. Pete. I like going out in St. Pete. I want to be brewing in St. Pete," said Doug Dozark, who brews a range of beers at Peg's Cantina in Gulfport. "There's a great opportunity now, and there's room for several people to do it." Dozark, an experienced brewer who previously worked at Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, has been searching for a space for two years and said he's narrowed the search to two locations. He wants his Cycle Brewing label to bring prestige to his hometown by rising to the top tier in craft beer circles. Entrepreneurs Tom and Michele Williams say their St. Pete Orange Wheat is already a big seller at area bars, from The Pier to the beach, and they're confident St. Petersburg Brewing Company will bring casual drinkers and beer geeks together when they open on First Avenue North this year. A little more than a half-mile down the street, Nathan Stonecipher and Steven Duffy envision a sunny beer garden outside their Green Bench Brewing Company in a 1925 brick building that will serve as the headquarters for a regional brand. Tampa Bay may be the epicenter of craft beer in Florida, with well-established breweries such as Cigar City Brewing and the Dunedin Brewery, according to Josh Aubuchon, executive director of the Florida Brewers Guild. Craft breweries were rare in Florida in the '90s, though national brands such as Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling have a long history in Tampa. Archaic laws regulating bottle sizes kept out specialty brews and imports such as Belgian beers that traditionally come in 22-ounce containers, said Aubuchon, a Tallahassee attorney who represents the alcoholic beverage industry. "It was a different time back then," he said. "They used to call Florida the beer desert, actually." As laws relaxed in the late '90s, breweries such as Cigar City grew and used their success to bolster other craft brew start-ups.The state is now home to more than 40 craft breweries with about a dozen in the Tampa Bay area alone. In 2011, craft breweries accounted for 1,940 of the 1,989 breweries in the United States, though their market share by volume was only 5.7 percent within the industry as a whole, according to the Brewers Association. About 250 new craft breweries opened that year. While beer sales in the United States were down 1.3 percent by volume in 2011, the craft brewing industry was up 13 percent the same year. But even with the abundance of new craft breweries opening across Florida and locally, the region is far from being saturated. Only 5.6 percent of beer sales in Florida come from microbreweries; whereas in places out West such as Eugene, Ore., where microbreweries are popular, microbrews account for 33 percent of sales, Aubuchon said. Retail space is a major reason St. Petersburg has been late to the craft beer party. Many craft breweries open as microbreweries, which produce fewer than 15,000 barrels of beer each year (465,000 gallons) and sell 75 percent of their product offsite. A brew pub is the retail alternative, which sells 25 percent or more of its beer on site, according to the Brewers Association. Some microbreweries open in industrial parks, where property is cheap and they can expand their brewing operations with ease. About half the craft breweries in Florida are based in nonretail spaces, Aubuchon said. Florida's oldest microbrewery, the Dunedin Brewery, began as a distribution-only operation in 1996, selling beer offsite until late 2001, when it opened a tasting room and, later, a full-service kitchen and music venue. Opening a retail brewpub offers the direct income of selling your own beer and the chance to establish a better reputation, said Michael Lyn Bryant, the Dunedin Brewery's owner. "From brewery tours to flights of samples, the drinker makes a deeper connection with the single brewery's offerings," he said. "This does not happen out in the distribution market. Out there, your beer is mixed in with the rest of the market." All three of St. Petersburg's future breweries are intent on opening as retail pubs near downtown. Navigating the legal requirements can be tough, though. In order to open, Green Bench Brewing had to go to the city and request a change to old zoning rules that prohibited the production and sale of beer under the same roof. Duffy said he and his partner worked with the city's economic development and zoning officials to make the language of the code "brewer-friendly." Even with the regulatory path cleared, leasing a downtown space can be cost-prohibitive for a new brewery, with the rent, insurance and property tax hikes eating away at profits, Dozark said. Long-term leases are easier in industrial parks because the space isn't in high demand, according to Williams. That's ultimately why he chose to buy a building downtown. Williams has been testing his beer in local pubs and started selling bottles of the St. Pete Orange Wheat in December. Lack of brewing space has forced the Williamses to brew their beer in Maryland, leading some to balk that it's not truly local. "That's been our biggest Achilles' heel for us," Williams said. "But when the brewery lights go on, the beer will be made here." Competing for tap handles at bars and restaurants can also be a brutal business, as other distributors sometimes edge out Williams by cutting their keg prices by a few dollars. The couple is hoping that selling their own beer directly in a retail space will yield better profits. But having invested some of their own money, as well as borrowing for St. Petersburg Brewery, Williams admits he's a little nervous about the opening. "I'm a very risk-averse guy, and this business scares me. As much as I love beer and what we're doing, it scares … me because the margins are so tight," said Williams, whose firm, e-Lease, has financed other businesses that sell craft beer, such as the Ale & the Witch pub downtown. What makes for great craft beer? Each of the future brewery owners has a different take, and that's why they say having three breweries in St. Petersburg would be good for business. The opening of Seventh Sun Brewing Companylast year, only a few blocks from the Dunedin Brewery, hasn't hurt business there because each place has distinctive offerings, Bryant said. Jay Dingman, who opened Barley Mow Brewing Company in Largo with his wife, Colleen, welcomes the diverse selection of craft breweries across Pinellas County. "You can go to all these different places, and everybody is making great beers and everybody has a different delivery," he said. "It's just cool because you see the personalities of the brewers and the owners." Ale & the Witch owner Brett Andress said the St. Petersburg and Cycle Brewing beers are already popular at his popular craft beer pub on Second Avenue Northeast and that the number of Florida brews he stocks has jumped from five to 20 within a year. He expects customers to try select local beers at his business and then visit the nearby breweries to sample all they brew. "It's a cross pollenation of like-minded consumers," Andress said. In St. Petersburg, which takes pride in its local food and arts scene, having multiple microbreweries and craft beer bars could help everyone if the city identifies itself as a beer destination, he said. "It's almost like sports; it's almost like this whole kind of community that you're proud of," he said. While Williams wants to appeal to beer enthusiasts by offering rich brews such as pale ales, his citrusy wheat beer should attract a different crowd looking for refreshment during the hot Florida summers. He envisions his pub as a place for beer fans, casual drinkers and people who just want to support local business to gather over a brew. Green Bench Brewing, named after the ubiquitous green benches that once lined Central Avenue, will have 6,000 feet of outdoor space with a beer garden, patio and covered porch. The brewery will offer about a dozen different beers on tap in the tasting room. The partners have raised $1 million from investors and have plans to become a full-scale production brewery, selling and distributing 7,000 barrels a year by their third year. But even with such big plans, the competition to be the city's first brewery is collegial, Stonecipher said. "The more the merrier as far as we're concerned," he said. "Brewers are usually pretty good at all working together." "One of us will be at the other one's grand opening, whoever is first." To Dozark, the greatest sign that the city is ready for craft beer is that you can buy Cigar City's beer at Tropicana Field. "If they're putting it in the Trop, we're ready for craft beer," he said.
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