I recently heard of the opening of "Clearwater's first brewery," which seemed odd to me, considering that there already are three in the city. Maybe it's Clearwater's first asterisk-free brewery — Sea Dog and Big Storm are local satellites of breweries from out of town (Sea Dog in Bangor, Maine, and Big Storm in Odessa) and Grindhaus Brew Lab is a home-brew shop that recently started serving its house brews in a new tasting room.
Enter Southern Lights Brewing Company, a neighborhood nanobrewery founded by three home-brewing friends who conceived the company in 2015 and officially opened to the public in August.
Clearwater is thirsty for breweries, especially in the downtown corridor, where it's offering up to a quarter-million in funding to brewery startups. Southern Lights is a smaller venture, brewing in two-barrel — 62-gallon — batches.
Situated in a nondescript Gulf to Bay plaza next to a Skyline Chili, Southern Lights is stripped down and to the point. It's the classic look of a no-frills nanobrewery: concrete bar, gray walls, exposed ducts, Edison bulbs and some heavily-lacquered wooden furniture scattered around the interior.
Aside from a couple of dart boards and a TV showing surfing clips — co-owner Ramy Malaty lived in Hawaii for several years — the only visual stimuli comes by way of colorfully painted palm fronds from local artist Michael O'Shea.
The focus is on the beer, of which there are seven options. "There would be eight, if it weren't for Irma," says Malaty.
There's room for 20 taps in total, but right now the brewery is focusing on keeping a steady flow of its core beers going, which is not necessarily a given when each batch only fills four kegs.
Of the seven Southern Lights beers on tap, all get an enthusiastic thumbs-up from me. From the crisp, mildly estery hefeweizen, to the rich and savory-sweet smoked porter, to the spice-and-bubblegum notes of the French-style saison, every beer far outperforms what you might expect from a brewery that's been open all of two months.
There's a velvety smooth dry stout, a robust dunkel, a double IPA made with Galaxy and Comet hops, and an absolute knockout of an IPA made with a new variety of Oregon hops called Strata.
This Strata IPA — almost a SMaSH beer, save for an addition of Columbus hops for bittering — is explosively fruity, with melon and cherry notes tempered by a smooth bitterness that finishes crisp and dry.
Make no mistake, the bay area is rife with quality IPAs of a similar ilk, but this beer is close to as-good-as-it-gets.
For non-beer drinkers, there's also Ananas pineapple cider from local Slim Pickens Cider & Mead, as well as four house wines. A little something for (almost) everyone.
Toss in some low-key live music on the weekends, and you've got yourself a brewery. It may not be Clearwater's first per se, but if the quality of the beer remains at the current level, it could make claim to Clearwater's best brewery some day.
Southern Lights is so new that most of its beers don't even have names yet. Malaty, however, keeps a list on his phone of at least 50 potential beer names that the Southern Lights crew has workshopped (more than a few of which are named after marijuana strains.)
The fact that the beers are currently nameless has no bearing on their quality — these suds are ready for prime time.
— Contact Justin Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @WordsWithJG.
Southern Lights Brewing Company
2045 Gulf to Bay Boulevard, Clearwater. (727) 614-9919, southernlightsbrewing.com
The vibe: A mix of tropical decor and warehouse tasting-room chic.
Booze: Beer and wine. Beer, $5; wine, $7.
Specialty: There's a nice range of beers in the seven current tap lines. Standouts include a truly top-notch hefeweizen and an intensely aromatic IPA made with Strata hops, a new west-coast variety previously available as experimental hop X-331.
Hours: 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; noon to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday-Tuesday.