What better way to celebrate our country’s birthday than with some U.S. brewed beer?
This week, on the 4th of July, we are covering the 27th United State state, Florida. Gaining statehood in 1845, Florida was the first part of the continental United States to be settled by Europeans when the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon first landed in 1513. For most of its 330 years of European occupation prior to statehood, Florida was controlled by Spain. There is no historical record of these early Spanish settlers brewing beer in their newly claimed territory, so Florida would have to wait for another Spanish immigrant, Vicente Martinez Ybor, to build that first brewery in 1896.
Ybor, who left Spain for Cuba in 1832, founded a very successful cigar company which he eventually moved to the Tampa area in 1885. In Tampa, Ybor built a cigar factory that was the largest in the world at the time. To keep his employees from moving back to Cuba, Ybor also built a community around the factory that included housing, a hotel and the Florida Brewing Company.
Opened in 1896, the Florida Brewing Company, at 6 stories tall, was, and still is, the tallest building in Ybor City. The height of the building was essential for the gravity-fed brewing process where the raw grain material entered on the top floor, with the resulting finished product stored in tanks on the bottom floor. Brewing both La Tropical Ale and Bock, the Florida Brewing Company was very successful and soon became the leading exporter of beer to Cuba.
However, as we have witnessed in other states, with the national prohibition on the horizon, challenges would soon arrive. Florida enacted prohibition in 1918, two years prior to the national prohibition. Prohibition was detrimental to most of the smaller breweries, with the larger ones scraping by. In Jacksonville, Jax Brewery, which opened just 5 years prior, switched their business to ice and near beer which helped them survive. Florida Brewing Company had a different strategy, as stated here: “Florida Brewing Company took a different approach: ignoring the law. In fact, the brewery kept making beer up until 1927 when they were finally raided and shut down.”
The period after prohibition was the same for Florida brewers as it was across the country. Many brewers started, operated for a few years and closed. This pattern continued until the 1960’s when two big national brewers moved into the Florida scene. With the arrival of Anhueser Busch (and their marketing theme park) and Schlitz, it became increasing harder for the smaller breweries to compete.
To make things worse for small brewers was the passing of a strange bottle-size law by an angry group of law makers. In the mid 1960s, Miller changed their mind about building a brewery in Florida, instead choosing Georgia. This change angered state lawmakers, and with the backing of Anhueser Busch, they passed a law restricting beer bottle sizes to 8, 12, 16 and 32 ounces. This law was a direct assault at Miller and their 7oz “pony” bottles. However this law also prevented 22 oz bottles, the common bomber size used by craft brewers as well as the well loved 64 oz growlers.
With the bottle-size law changed in 2001, opportunities for craft beer are opening in Florida. However, even with these constraints, a few intrepid breweries, starting with Dunedin Brewery have helped to turn around the Florida beer scene.
The Florida tasting was held on Independence Day, without which, 50 states of beer would not exist. And on this beautiful afternoon, we settled into three different selections, two from Cigar City and one from Tampa Bay Brewing.
We started the evening off with a brown ale from Cigar City called Maduro. As Walt tells it: Cigar City is much newer [than Tampa Bay Brewery]. Owner Joey Redner is trying to get out from under his infamous father’s reputation as Tampa’s best-know strip club owner. Joe Redner Sr. has battled city hall for years over his nude dance clubs.
From our view up here in the Northeast, Joey Redner is succeeding in changing the family reputation starting with two gold metal winning brews. The Maduro Brown was a fun beer. With its dark color and malty aromas, one taster described its sweet taste as Roasted peanuts. This beer started up a conversation over the caramel smell and taste that was a distinctive characteristic of this brew. At one point, I mentioned to first time 50 states participant, Erin, that she was allowed to dump any beer she did like. No requirement to finish. On the Maduro, she responded with a hearty: It’s not dump-able.
The Cigar City Maduro had a taste of roasted peanuts.
After the Maduro, we switched over to an IPA from the Tampa Bay Brewing Company called Old Elephant Foot. Tampa Bay Brewing has been in business longer than Cigar City, and again from Walt:
Tampa Bay Brewing Company’s Old Elephant Foot is a local favorites. TBBC has been around for years and until recently you could only get the beer on tap at the restaurant. They make a great stout and a lighter beer (One Night Stand). Vicki, the owner, is from Wales and did stunt work on the British series “The Prisoner” made back in the 1960s (when she was a teen barmaid at a Wales pub). My son was an assistant chef at TBBC a few years back. They serve a great beer soaked meatloaf.
Surprisingly, with it combination of Northern Brewer, Centennial and Cascade hops, this beer didn’t have the hops aroma we have come to expect from an IPA. It was also a bit lacking in the flavor department too. While it was a very enjoyable beer, it didn’t stand up to some of the more interesting IPAs we have encountered on this journey. While I didn’t mind this IPA, and will grab one the next time I am at the Tampa airport, one of the non-IPA drinking tasters described the Old Elephants Foot as “tasted like that [an old elephants foot].”
We finished off this 4th of July tasting with another beer from Cigar City. This beer, another IPA, is called Jai Alai. The name Jai Alai, a game from the Basque region of Spain, brought up a discussion of the intro sequence to Miami Vice, where there is a quick clip of the game being played. Then the conversation moved to Mad Men, and the attempted Jai Alai television special plot line. Once everyone was up to speed on Jai Alai in popular culture, we moved to tasting the beer. This IPA was all about the aroma, with its nice piney, grassy, citrus smell. The taste was similar for this beer, and it had an enjoyable sweet finish. This was another enjoyable IPA, but not the best of the year. Given the amount of IPAs getting produced these days, and the number we have tried, it is quickly becoming a category that requires something special to stand out for our tasting party. Then, before we wrapped up for the evening, this beer started yet another conversation about the can and its resemblance to a 1970s soda can. With all the reminiscing done, we declared Florida a success.
In the end, I enjoyed all three brews from Florida, but the Maduro was definitely my favorite of the evening. Again, thanks to Walt for providing this week’s beer and brewery backstories.
Next week we will be deep in the heart of Texas.