It’s a popular misconception (or maybe it’s just me) that baseball is played year-round in sunny Florida. So when in Orlando recently with my girlfriend Monique to hit up Disney World, I thought we could take in a game or two and tour a couple breweries nearby. Turns out, the Sunshine State isn’t immune to either the cold or to lazy baseball players who take the winter off after playing all summer and fall. So I guess you’re stuck with just me and beer for this edition
Our first stop on the mini-beer tour of Central Florida was Cigar City Brewing in Tampa. I’d actually first encountered their beer a few weeks before at a bottle share at LA’s Beer Belly. And, I have to admit, my first reaction was, “I really hope this beer doesn’t taste like my mouth the morning after smoking a Dominican.”
I learned, thankfully, that the name comes not from tobacco leaves in the mash but in honor of the Tampa area’s long history of cigar production. In fact, a hundred years ago, the historic “Ybor City” district where the brewery is located was “Cigar Capital of the World,” rolling more stogies than even Havana.
We unfortunately couldn’t make the brewery tour but, since it was a Friday night, the attached pub was hoppin’ (pun intended). I first tried the Maduro brown ale. Named after a dark shade of cigar wrapper – and Spanish for ripe – this fortunately unspoiled ale was light, drinkable and malty. I then got a hot tip from @LAaleworks to try Marshal Zhukov’s Imperial Stout, an 11% brew aged in brandy barrels. Even though I stupidly ordered the “General” Zhukov from the bartender he still slid me a snifter of the dark black, fragrant beer.1 It’s ranked Top 50 in the world by RateBeer.com and, I must admit, with its high ABV and infused brandy it should be in the top 10 for ability to knock you on your ass.
The next day we headed northeast to Jacksonville to test that old maxim: the farther north you go in Florida, the farther south you go. The rustic setting of Intuition Ale Works – a converted brick warehouse on train tracks in an overgrown working class neighborhood – practically drawled “Dixie.” Top it off with friendly patrons, a BBQ truck parked out front, and a familial vibe – the bartender’s dad was saddled up to the bar – and I instantly loved Intuition and its Southern Hospitality. The friendliness didn’t extend to macro-brews. I told the affable bartender that our original plan was to stop by the nearby Budweiser brewery for the tour. He told me that the Intuition staff had recently crashed the tour and tried their hardest not to laugh when the guide sold the benefits of adjunct grains like corn and rice. We also bashed BJ’s Restaurant, which had just opened in Jacksonville, for its ostentatiously-displayed brewery equipment… and beer produced off-site.
When the owner Ben Davis arrived, the informal tour began. He explained that he started the brewery in October 2010 after working in the California wine industry for a few years. He didn’t like California (um, what?), hated watching Jaguars games at 10am, and thought beer people were, well, “much cooler.” Therefore, he moved back home to the “First Coast” to get into the craft beer business. Besides, he said, there so many creative options when brewing beer. With wine, you’re stuck with the grapes you have at the vineyard.
It was obvious Davis was a very ambitious young brewer. He hoped to increase the brewery’s output from 300 kegs per month to 8,000 a year in 2012 and, this January, they’re starting to can their beers. What really impressed me – and seemed more than just PR posturing – was that they shut the brewery down each Monday to feed homeless around Jacksonville.
At the bar, five bucks got me a pint glass and a pour of Golden Spiral, a Belgian golden ale described on their website as a “gateway beer for those new to Belgian beers.” I agree. It was smooth and, as the Budweiser tour guide might tout, was high in “drinkability.” It didn’t have that strong Belgian yeast flavor, which would be good for brew noobs. Next, I had the Punk Monk Dubbel, a Belgian pumpkin beer. This cloudy brown seasonal is brewed with pumpkin in the mash and the kettle then aged on vanilla beans. I thought it kinda tasted like gingerbread. Needless to say, it was quite festive.
Our final stop on the beer tour was the Orlando Brewing Company. Situated in a downtown industrial area, we arrived at the squat warehouse early for the 6pm tour, which the bartender quipped started promptly… at 6:15. Orlando Brewing’s claim to fame is it’s one of only 10 USDA-certified organic breweries in the country, which means no electronic stimulation, no animal byproducts, no hormones, and no pesticides.
Our tour host, owner John Cheek, gave a crotchety but passionate presentation not only on his beer but about his commitment to a healthy lifestyle. He uses only organic hops, which are twelve times more expensive than a conventional crop, and he’s only reluctantly moving toward pasteurizing to distribute beyond the immediate area. Orlando Brewing is truly grassroots craft brewing. Cheek has a day job – in the engineering department at Disney World – and he invites local home brewers in to help out and clean the tanks. They are “paid,” he says, with a brush in one hand and a beer in the other.
They’re not much for cutesy beer titles at Orlando Brewing: Blonde Ale, Red Ale, Pale Ale, Brown Ale. I tried the last one. I swear that of the few organic beers I’ve had, they’ve all been very creamy with a soft mouth feel. No matter what, you feel a little better about yourself (and the world) when you drink an organic brew.
Well, beer and I had fun in Florida but we’re looking forward to reuniting with baseball. It’s sooner than you’d think. I hear there’s a winter league in Palm Springs and it starts in January. Who’s up for a road trip?
1 In my defense, Marshal Zhukov was a general in the Russian Army, probably one of the best ever (which pissed off Stalin, who felt threatened by his success). Anyway, I have no idea why a place with a cigar theme going named the beer after an obscure general of the Red Army. Ask them: firstname.lastname@example.org