A Rising Tide of Local Beer
Tap Into This: Four Flourishing Local Breweries
Over the last 30 years, homebrewers’ fervor kindled into a raging American craft beer revival, and in 2012, a golden, amber, and inky flood foamed across the country from 1,215 burgeoning craft breweries. But an invisible dam stood somewhere just south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. So it was that Sarasota and Bradenton went to bed with dreams troubled by a peculiar thirst, one that couldn’t be slaked by a handful of brewpubs.
That changed in the waning of 2013 and the waxing of 2014 as, one after another, new doors banged open and a light clicked on: We were thirsting for a craft brewery to call our own.
Sarasota in particular has gained a reputation for clutching pearls and bursting blood vessels upon suspicion that any new event or establishment will devolve the gentle populace into carousing, noisemaking, and having an unabashed good time. But lo and behold, each brewery in its turn has grown from fledgling to thriving, while “craft beer tourism” is a fresh phrase uttered in our visitors bureaus and chambers of commerce.
As they flourish, these breweries lift up a community around them: independent musicians, fleets of food trucks, and deserving causes tap into much-needed sustenance at these energized hubs, where you’re never required to carry a “beer nerd” card to be welcome. The local brewery is a place to gather, play games, make art, converse, connect. It’s a place to bring your whole family—the dog, too. A healthy brewery is the latest sign of a healthy town.
Big Top Brewing Company
Like mushrooms after a rainstorm, the first wave of local craft breweries seemed to spring up all at once, but Big Top Brewing Company lays claim to being Sarasota’s first.
Big Top and those hot on its heels all saw a need for local craft beer, and aimed to put Sarasota on the map in meeting it. Guided by a creative mission to “defy what you thought possible” in beer, Big Top’s flagship brews have thoroughly soaked 70 percent of the state’s beer-drinking market, its cans and tap handles proudly branded with Sarasota’s circus heritage: for instance, its big crowd-pleaser, the Circus City IPA, and the bright, ebullient Trapeze Monk Belgian Wit. Big Top also made key lime pie lovers’ liquid dreams come true (complete with Graham cracker crust) in the Conch Republic Key Lime Wheat, which just brought home the bronze medal in fruit beer during the 2017 Best Florida Beer Championships.
But once Big Top staked down its tent, it immediately put out helping hands, not just to breweries surfacing in its wake—with which they eagerly shared equipment, ingredients, and business advice—but also to the community at large. It turns out that charity is a hallmark of the craft beer movement just as much as the super-hoppy IPA, and Big Top CEO Mike Bisaha says it never ceases to amaze him how far a little beer can go in doing a whole lot of good. Last summer, the city’s Publix stores couldn’t keep peanut butter and jelly in stock as Big Top traded pints of PB&J Pale Ale for donations of nonperishables, collecting around 900 pounds to fight hunger when school—the sole source of a daily meal for too many local kids—was out. The PB&J Pale Ale campaign will return this season to fill glasses and the All Faiths Food Bank’s larder. Keep your shopping basket handy and your whistles parched!
Big Top Brewing: 6111 Porter Way, Sarasota; 941-371-2939; bigtopbrewing.com
JDub’s Brewing Company
Don’t mistake the laid-back attitude of JDub’s Brewing for lackadaisy. When you spot members of the crew strutting around town in cow costumes, or taking a hard rock karaoke break midday in the beer garden, you observe what happens when people decide they’ve had enough of being straitjacketed by others’ standards. Something like JDub’s happens when you decide to take the leap, pursue your passion, and live true to your love.
Lucky for us, Jeremy “JDub” Joerger’s love for homemade beer grew too big to fit into a government job cubicle, and we’re lucky his father-in-law scented a ripening opportunity in Sarasota. We’re lucky that JDubs’ first brewmaster, Tommy Harris, chafed under creative constraints at a large New England brewery and dreamed of a place where he’d be encouraged to push the craft beer envelope. Their growing pains have since fermented into Floridians’ drinking pleasure.
With all its flagship brews now canned and distributed by The Brew Hub in Lakeland, JDub’s current brewmaster, Matt Tucker, is free to keep slightly mad science alive at the Sarasota headquarters. In recent experiments, the Passion Wheat (a passionfruit-mango wheat ale that screams “beach day”) turned sweet and spicy with a habanero pepper infusion, and dandelion greens found their way down the hopper for a Dandelion Rye IPA. JDub’s brewers constantly tinker with the Bell Cow Milk Chocolate Porter, intensifying its decadence with adjuncts such as coffee, hazelnut, peanut butter, and raspberry.
Doubtless there’s method to the madness, but a fair measure of “because we can” also goes into JDub’s concoctions, the majority discoverable only in the taproom. There you’ll mingle on any given day with a multifaceted crowd: hipsters, bikers, yoginis, snowbirds, supermoms, and baseball fans all get drawn in, not just for a pull from their favorite tap, but because JDub’s has always been a place for folks to come as they are.
JDubs Brewing: 1215 Mango Ave, Sarasota; 941-955-2739; jdubsbrewing.com
Calusa Brewing occupies a unique “middle kid” position in the lengthening lineage of Sarasota and Bradenton craft breweries. Calusa opened in the spring of 2016 without a great deal of fanfare, but it didn’t need a big marketing push to get the expansive, airy tasting room buzzing with regulars in no time. Something in the water, you might say, and you’d be on the right track: What’s not in Calusa’s water has made the brewery a big splash among hardcore beer lovers.
Calusa employs reverse osmosis filtration on the water in every batch; the result is a completely spotless slate on which to build each beer’s flavor profile. This makes the brewing process twice as costly, but the team at Calusa finds it well worth the expense when their Lerna Pils tastes like it flowed straight from the mouth of a Bohemian mountain stream.
Calusa has focused on producing stellar examples of traditional brews, seeking to create beers elevated to their functional ideal rather than chasing the flavor of the day. After a full year of refining recipes and methods, Calusa will launch distribution this season, so be on the lookout for taps and bottles to pop up at discerning restaurants and brewpubs around town.
Another labor of love is coming into fruition at Calusa: If you’ve visited the tasting room, you couldn’t miss the oak barrels stacked nigh-to-ceiling (and it’s a really high ceiling). Calusa’s first generation of barrel-aged beer sleeps inside. Some are ready for a spring awakening, while the sour beers will add another three to 12 months onto their year of maturation. To celebrate Tampa Bay Beer Week at the beginning of March, Calusa tapped its first casks of Imperial Dissonance, a super-soaked version of its Breakfast Brown Ale practically vibrating with cinnamon and coffee. At this scale, Calusa’s wood-aging and mixed-fermentation programs set it apart from the pack … though up in Bradenton, Motorworks Brewing has its own modest collection of barrels cooling Harry Potter– style under a staircase …
Calusa Brewing: 5701 Derek Ave, Sarasota; 941-922-8150; calusabrewing.com
From the first rev of its conceptual engines, Motorworks Brewing committed to going big. We’re talking a 27,000-square-foot facility, 30 taps and full liquor, two live music stages, wall-to-wall TV screens, Florida’s largest beer garden kind of big. The story goes that owners Frank and Denise Tschida once ran a liquor store up in Tarpon Springs, and its craft beer selection was a point of pride before craft was the rage, certainly before Florida craft made a drop in the bucket. Though business was good, the Tschidas stocked shelves daily with a nagging feeling: One of those cans ought to carry their own stuff. And if they were going to make beer, why not do it full-time at their very own brewery?
They scoured Tampa Bay for the perfect spot and almost settled in St. Pete, but it was a former auto dealership in Bradenton, built in 1923 and flanking the Village of the Arts, that captured the Tschidas’ vision. They cut 12 inches through the second story’s solid concrete floor to install fermenting tanks; they astroturfed the side lot for cornhole, bocce ball, and putt-putt; they strung fairy lights in the 150-year-old live oak spreading over the whole shebang. Then they set about raking in the medals.
Three years after opening, Motorworks is closing on 40 total awards at state, regional, and national levels, including a National Grand Champion title in the 2015 United States Beer Tasting Championship for the Rollcage Red Ale. Six of those accolades were just added to the wall this year after Motorworks rolled out of the Best Florida Beer Championships, with the Cruiser Kölsch named the number two beer in the state, and the entire operation chosen as Best Large Brewery in Florida. Meanwhile, they’re making plans to punch more holes through the concrete, install even bigger tanks, and hit a production capacity to give Cigar City a run for its money. This end of the Suncoast will never go to bed thirsty again.
Motorworks Brewing: 1014 9th St W, Bradenton; 941-567-6218; motorworksbrewing.com