ST. PETERSBURG — Dogs lazing around in the afternoon sun, children tossing bean bags on the lawn and their parents gathered around tables sipping beers called Green Bench IPA and Skyway Wheat.
That’s the weekend scene in the spacious outdoor beer garden next to a revamped brick warehouse that’s home to St. Petersburg’s newest microbrewery, Green Bench Brewing Co.
To owners Nathan Stonecipher and Steven Duffy, this environment embodies their three-year-old vision of creating a craft brewery that not only makes tasty brews but exemplifies their hometown’s character.
“It started with the name: Green Bench. We wanted something that was uniquely St. Petersburg,” Stonecipher said, making reference to the green-colored benches that once lined downtown streets.
“That’s where everybody met friends or made new friends, had heated debates or had funny conversations. That’s the same thing we wanted people to do around our beer. We wanted our beer to be that gathering point for the city.”
That sounds mighty lofty for beer, but identifying craft brews with cities, places or area landmarks has proven a popular way to draw the loyalty of locals and visitors’ curiosity in an industry that’s seeing growing interest, throughout the country and in the Tampa Bay area.
Established brands such as Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada, found in nearly every American grocery store, still evoke their origins.
When tourists deplane at Tampa International Airport, they see a big yellow sign with a picture of a cigar that says Cigar City Brewing. At the airport microbrewery, patrons sip the fruity hopped flavor of the Jai Lai India Pale Ale or the Maduro Brown Ale, both of which evoke aspects of Tampa culture.
“When you travel and you’re new to a city, you actually tend to notice what makes it unique more than if you live there in some cases,” Cigar City owner Joey Redner said.
Redner has only recently started distributing again in other states after local demand for his renowned brews outstripped supply.
These brewers are on to something, tourism officials say.
“People will take vacations and they will purposely seek out these little known or unknown breweries,” said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
“They want any kind of experience in a local place that you really can’t have somewhere else.”
In the past few years, the Tampa Bay area has seen a proliferation of microbreweries, and St. Petersburg is finally catching up this year with three opened already and two more in the wings.
Several of these brewers make their local roots explicit. There’s Florida’s oldest microbrewery, Dunedin Brewery, or the Tampa Bay Brewing Company in Ybor City. The forthcoming St. Petersburg Brewing Company offers beers such as the St. Pete Orange Wheat.
Cycle Brewing in downtown St. Petersburg produces a rye ale that’s become the official beer of the St. Pete Shuffleboard Club called Biscuits & Tang, named after slang terms for the stick and disc used in the game.
While many brewers don’t adhere to this local naming convention, a sense of connection with their place of origin is important to beer fans, Brewers Association spokeswoman Julia Herz said.
It’s the personal touch, meeting the brewers, learning how the beer is made that’s attractive to aficionados.
“The people behind the brand, the place or origin behind the brand are very valuable for many beer lovers,” she said.
Green Bench certainly offers a sense of place.
On the side of the 1920s-era brick warehouse located on a side street between Central Avenue and First Avenue North, there’s an enormous mural with the words, “Greetings from Green Bench Brewing Co.” in the style of a vintage postcard; in each letter, there are colorful scenes from city attractions.
The bar was crafted by an artist in the nearby Warehouse Arts District, and its façade is covered in stone hex blocks recycled from old city sidewalks.
The local vibe isn’t just in the aesthetics, though.
Stonecipher and Duffy were school friends in St. Petersburg with strong roots here. Head brewer Khris Johnson is also a native.
Before they opened the doors, the trio stopped by a few neighborhood association meetings to offer free beer samples.
Their spring visit was one of the best attended meetings of the Old Southeast Neighborhood Association, treasurer Bryan Eichler said.
“The cool part is it’s a great way to market. You’ve got 50-60 people in a room and, heck, you just say the word beer, and they come flocking,” Eichler said.
Green Bench plans to name future brews after St. Pete neighborhoods.
“They’ve got to all be perfect, or really good, or it may work against us,” Stonecipher said.
Ensuring excellent beer comes forth from its 15-barrel brew house is Green Bench’s top priority. Johnson, the brewer, has plans for a series of rich, complex Belgian beers and sour ales made in an oak wine fermenter, the only of its kind in the Southeast.
All will be sold in St. Petersburg this year. By next year, Stonecipher and Duffy would like to see production jump from 1,500 barrels a year to 4,000, with the prospect of regional distribution.
The demand appears to be there.
In 2009, Cigar City turned out slightly fewer than 1,000 barrels from its warehouse brewery on West Spruce Street in Tampa. Now, Redner’s brewery is producing 30,000 barrels with the addition of a tasting room, a small brewery at the airport and a brew pub restaurant in Carrollwood.
Locals drive most of his business, Redner said.
Tampa pride clearly isn’t the only driver in Cigar City’s sales; it also makes great beer, consistently.
In its first year, Cigar City’s barrel-aged IPA won gold at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Last year, Ratebeer.com named Cigar City the No. 4 craft brewery in the world.
Stonecipher is optimistic about following Cigar City’s success on his side of the bay. Ultimately, though, quality will dictate growth, though, he said.
“Growth can be deceiving up front,” he said.
“What we always say is: We will grow as large as the quality allows us to.”