ST. PETERSBURG — The walls are bare and the brew house isn’t running yet, but downtown’s first craft brewery has been drawing big crowds since its unexpected opening last week.
Doug Dozark’s Cycle Brewing, based out of Peg’s Cantina in Gulfport for several years, opened Thursday evening at 534 Central Ave.
The seven beers on tap are being brewed at the Gulfport restaurant for now, and there’s still a lot of work to be done at Cycle, like putting in a sound system, permits for outdoor seating and a license to brew on site.
“It was the soonest we could possibly open the doors,” said Dozark, who started work on the site in May.
“We’re the first downtown. It’s great. It was definitely something I wanted to push for. In the scheme of things, the beer is the most important thing, who makes the best beers in St. Pete, and I want that to always be Cycle.”
Three other breweries, Green Bench Brewing Co., St. Petersburg Brewing Company and 3 Daughters Brewing, all expect to open in the downtown area in the coming months.
This influx of downtown brew comes at a time when enthusiasm for locally made beer is burgeoning across the city and county.
Brewers’ Tasting Room officially became the first craft brewery in city limits earlier this year when it opened on Fourth Street North in the Gateway area.
Tourism officials in recent months started advertising a craft beer trail stretching from Tarpon Springs to Gulfport that will soon have a dozen stops.
“I work in a liquor store and craft beer is the only business that’s growing right now,” said St. Petersburg resident Holly Valenty, who attended the sold-out 97X Craft Beer Experience at the Mahaffey Theater on Saturday.
“Craft beer is exploding everywhere and I think St. Pete is just catching on.”
There’s been a modest craft beer presence in Pinellas County since Dunedin Brewery opened in 1996. But the ascendancy of Cigar City Brewing in Tampa and the numerous microbreweries that have followed it have given the Tampa Bay area a reputation as one of the state’s top beer destinations.
The website Living Social advertises a limousine tour on both sides of the bay hitting far flung sites in Odessa, Largo and Ybor City.
There are beer festivals in neighborhoods, parks, zoos and major venues such as the Mahaffey, which hosted its second annual craft beer event this weekend offering 100 different brews.
At the start of the event, a handful of people stood in line to sample mainstream beers like Stella Artois or Shock Top. The wait wasn’t particularly long to try beers from Atlanta-based craft brewery Sweetwater Brewing Co.
But the ground floor area where a half-dozen local and Florida brewers had set up tables was swamped.
A swarm of people with sample glasses waited to try the Berliner Weiss made by Rapp Brewing in Pinellas Park, which was named Florida’s best new brewery in 2012 by the website Ratebeer.com.
They praised the Bourbon Barrel Aged Porter made by 3 Daughters, which will open this fall in an 18,000-square-foot warehouse at 21st Street and Second Avenue South.
Mike Harting has tested some of his 3 Daughters brew at Bella Brava, the chic Beach Drive restaurant he co-owns.
He attributes part of the craft beer explosion to major beer labels like Budweiser and Coors recently allowing their distributors to start working with independent craft brewers.
Harting says St. Petersburg is well on its way to adding craft beer to its strong appeal as a tourism destination.
“It’s already a natural destination spot, so adding this element to it, I think it will do very well,” he said.
Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater clearly sees a growing tourism potential in craft beer, marketing an online video that features short vignettes about breweries across the county.
St. Petersburg Brewing Company owner Tom Williams says spring breakers will head straight to microbreweries on a rainy day. He recently spent $80 per visit at a couple of microbreweries during a trip to Idaho.
Locals, particularly in St. Petersburg, also have a strong affinity for beer made in their own neighborhood, he said.
“People are just thirsty to have something that’s uniquely theirs,” said Williams, whose brewery at 544 First Ave. N. is set to open this fall.
Williams, as well as Green Bench Brewing Co. co-owners Nathan Stonecipher and Steven Duffy, came out to raise a glass to Dozark after he quietly announced his opening on Facebook on Thursday.
Green Bench is expected to open a production brewery, tasting room and beer garden next month in the Edge district on First Avenue North.
Cycle Brewing still has some work to do to get fully operational. For now, the bartenders can only take cash until the phone and Internet are connected and the hours will be set day by day until a regular schedule is set next week.
Soon there will be 12 beers on tap instead of seven.
While some may have felt there was a race to be the first downtown brewery, Dozark says there’s enough enthusiasm for local beer in this town to go around.
“I think St. Pete has a great shot to have really great local breweries that are community supported and really become a great destination,” he said.