On a hot Florida day, a cold, refreshing beverage is a must. One way to satisfy this is with a rich, handmade local craft beer.
The state has taken a liking to its local brews, with about 150 active microbreweries, according to Beer in Florida. In comparison to states like California this number might seem feeble, with the Golden State boasting approximately 550 breweries, according to the California Craft Brewers Association.
But North Central Florida breweries like Swamp Head, Infinite Ale Works and Copp are optimistic about the state’s future, and hope to see it’s numbers grow. And while the quantity isn’t robust, the quality of the beverages is not lacking.
Within the pungent and earthy odor of the brewing room at Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville, the process of making Florida beer begins.
The process of making flavorful products starts with the malts and grains. Swamp Head gets its hops and grains from the northwestern region of the U.S.
Once those two ingredients arrive at the brewery, the handmade brewing process at Swamp Head begins.
Brewing begins with milling the grain and malts into grist in a tiny room before transferring to Mash/Lauter Tuns, machines that mix the grist with hot water. The target temperature inside the machines is set around 150 degrees.
This makes the main brewing room quite stuffy.
After mixing comes boiling. This is when hops are added to the concoction. The newly boiled liquid then leaves the boilers to cool and ferment into a rich, bold beverage. Once fermentation runs its course, the beer is carbonated and ready to enjoy.
“Craft beer is gaining in popularity because it is just overall a more flavorful product,” said Brandon Nappy, the tactical marketing manager at Swamp Head.
A major difference in the craft beer process in comparison to larger brewers such Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors is that small brewers do most of the work by hand rather than relying on a machine, Nappy said.
Nappy pointed out that Swamp Head is brewed and kegged by hand.
In 2014, Swamp Head distributed just under 6,000 barrels of beer. An enormous jump from the measly 700 barrels the brewery shipped out in 2010. Nappy said they anticipate around 10,000 will be doled out across the state this year.
Swamp Head’s Stump Knocker Pale Ale is the only beer the brewery currently distributes in cans. The Big Nose IPA and Wild Night Honey Cream Ale will be available in cans in the Gainesville and Ocala markets this month.
The brewery has a distribution license for every county in Florida except Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe.
Its strongest market is Gainesville.
Burrito Bros. Taco Company in Gainesville has four Swamp Head beers on tap, and their other selections are almost all exclusively Florida beers.
Jack O’Connor, assistant general manager of Burrito Bros,. said they wanted to help neighbors and support local businesses.
“To just come in and get a beer and burrito, people love it,” O’Connor said. “We thrive off local business, and people want to buy those beers.”
Copp Brewery in Crystal River distributes its four core beers in kegs to about 20 counties around the state, ranging just south of their home base to Jacksonville and Tallahassee, said Fran Copp, owner and head brewer.
The Crystal River brewery began as a winery in 2007 and obtained its federal brewpub license in 2012. Copp said the winery/brew bottles about 20,000 bottles of wine per year, but he stressed beer is a different animal.
Copp said plans to expand distribution are in the works as the brewery is currently performing controlled tests on bottling and hope to can as well. When it comes to distribution methods, Copp wants to make sure he’s putting out the best product.
Recently, an Ocala brewery, Infinite Ale Works, also explored distribution.
Jim Ritchhart, head brewer and managing partner at Infinite, said the brewery will distribute in Marion County, and to select locations in Gainesville soon and hopefully Tallahassee. All four of the brewery’s beers are currently distributed in kegs.
Breweries have also started participating in events as a way to increase exposure.
Events like the Hogtown Craft Beer Festival in Tioga, Gainesville, allow patrons to taste local, regional and national brews by visiting different brewery’s tents.
Festivals provide a high-energy environment for people to seek out their favorite breweries and try new ones, Nappy said. Breweries like Swamp Head bring limited amounts of rare batch beers to give guests the opportunity to try something exclusive.
Nappy said the average age group attending festivals is the 25 to 35 age range, but beer connoisseurs of all ages make an appearance. Brewers experience much success in spreading word of their brand at festivals.
A Different Kind of Beer
After drinking craft beer, mainstream beer is for the birds.
Light beer used to reign king in the state, Nappy said. Mainstream beers like Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors were the go-to beers for many people.
Ritchhart said people rarely go back to drinking these beers on a regular basis after trying craft beers. Personally, he said he prefers Belgian-style beers and wants to share his love with the community.
Infinite’s beers are different because they rely heavily on Belgian hops. These hops are not usually sold outside of Belgium because of the limited supply, Ritchhart said. He noted Belgian-style beers have sugars added to them while other styles do not.
With all of Infinite’s beers having some sort of Belgian twist, it makes them intriguing and spark people’s curiosity to try something new.
Copp brewery tends to specialize in English-inspired ales.
English ales range from hoppy pale ale to rich, nutty brown ale. One of the best selling ales at Copp is the Southern Grit, a light pale ale. This beer fits the liking of the boaters in Crystal River who prefer a lighter beer while on the water, Copp said.
Southern Grit won a gold medal in the American light hybrid category, while the brewery’s Apricopp won bronze for a fruit beer at this year’s statewide beer competition, Best Florida Beer Championship. The competition had around 90 breweries participate, and about 40 received medals, Copp said.
Copp’s 1821 English IPA won silver in 2014.
Swamp Head, on the other hand, brews a blend of both English and Belgian beers.
The Cottonmouth Belgian-style Witbier gives drinkers a light citrus flavor, while the Midnight Oil stout is a traditional English-style Oatmeal Stout that blends in a coffee flavor.
Nappy said creating world-class beer is what Swamp Head strives for.
Changes On The Horizon
The beer industry in Florida underwent some changes on July 1 when SB 186 went into effect, which allows customers to purchase and fill 64-ounce growlers, the industry standard nationwide. Before, consumers could only buy 32-ounce and 128-ounce growlers.
Swamp Head held an event to celebrate the launch of the 64-ounce growlers.
“We got a huge response for the event,” Nappy said. “It was just great to see the community and how much they support us and support the legislation that we tried to get passed and ended up getting passed.”
Rep. Keith Perry from the Florida House and Alachua County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson were among some who attended the event, Nappy said.
Some hope the new law will increase brewery tourism in the state.
“There are people that actually create and develop their vacation, or two-weeks vacation, around going to beer areas, beer states and beer cities to enjoy beer,” Ritchhart said.
“I mean I do it, and I know dozens and dozens and dozens of people that that’s their agenda when they go out. They create their vacation to want to go somewhere to enjoy the beer culture.”
He added tourism will likely grow in Florida as craft beer grows. With the increased exposure and promotion of craft beer, people are seeking out the newest flavors and varieties.
“In the state of Florida, especially from North Florida up to the border, I think that the attitudes of people have changed a lot so that people now don’t want just the same all the time,” Ritchhart said.
Editors note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect that Infinite Ale Works is located in Ocala, FL.