"It was a craft-beer wasteland down here," said Jeremy Joerger, founder of the newly opened JDubs Brewing Co., in Sarasota. "Now, we're possibly the hottest state in America."
Indeed, this is the land of Hooters, overpriced cigar lounges and beachfront bars serving umbrella drinks. The clientele was gorgeous, but if you were looking for a decent beer you were lucky to find a Sam Adams amid a sea of BudMillerCoors.
Today, about 20 small breweries (not counting Yuengling's Florida plant) dot the vicinity, and new bars devoted to locally brewed beer are cropping up.
Where'd they come from?
Local brewers and enthusiasts credit the growth to Tampa's highly regarded Cigar City Brewing, located in an industrial park near the airport. Founded in 2008, the brewery has built a devoted following attracted to its full-flavored ales, including a Cubana-style espresso brown ale and a series of sour beers aged like cigars on Spanish cedar. The annual release of Hunahpu's Imperial Stout (slated for March 8) draws a circus-like crowd to its tasting room.
"Cigar City showed everyone down here that there is a huge market for craft-centric niche beers," Joerger said. "They led the way, to open up a big opportunity for other craft brewers."
The opportunity for growth (not to mention the warm temps) caught the eye of Casey Hughes, former brewmaster at South Jersey's Flying Fish brewery. Last summer, he moved south for a job as head brewer at the new Coppertail Brewing Co., in the Ybor City section of Tampa.
"What I've seen in the past six months is amazing, with everyone embracing good beer," Hughes said. "It's crazy, it's just blowing up like nuts."
Though Coppertail isn't expected to open till April, word about the new guy in town has spread quickly, as Hughes has introduced his lineup at pop-up tastings in bike shops and other locations.
"We sent out a Facebook notice 24 hours ahead of time, that we would be pouring in our tasting room," Hughes said. "We went through everything."
Hughes is especially taken by the fast-growing scene just down the coast from Clearwater, in St. Petersburg - a town that The New York Times travel section recently highlighted because it is in the process of reinventing its reputation as a dowdy home for senior citizens. The Times noted that its historic Central Avenue - once known for its thousands of green benches - is attracting a lively crowd thanks to new breweries, including Cycle Brewing and Green Bench.
A little farther south in Sarasota, another Philadelphia-area transplant, Jim Keaveney, has been organizing events and support of new breweries through a craft-beer club. In just two years, it's attracted 300 members who attend bottle and can shares on sunny beaches.
"When I first moved here a little over four years ago," Keaveney said. "I used to say we were 20 years behind Philly. These days, it is closer to five. . . . Many of the towns down here are stocked by expats from all over the country who developed a taste for good beer up north, so it is natural that we are starting to catch up."
For snowbirds headed to spring training, here's a quick layout of the region's beer scene. And to the rest of you, what are you waiting for? Spring training games started this week, and Tampa Bay Beer Week begins Saturday.
_ Clearwater (home of the Phillies): Sea Dog Brewing, 26200 U.S. 19; Pair O'Dice Brewing, 4400 118th Ave. N.; Barley Mow Brewing, 518 W. Bay Dr., Largo.
_ St. Petersburg: Cycle Brewing, 534 Central Ave.; Green Bench, 1133 Baum Ave. N.; 3 Daughters Brewing, 222 22nd St. S.; Brewers' Tasting Room, 11270 4th St. N.
Also nearby: Peg's Cantina, 2038 Beach Blvd. S., Gulfport; Rapp Brewing, 10930 Endeavor Way, Seminole; BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse, 3800 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park.
_ Dunedin (home of the Blue Jays): Dunedin Brewery, 937 Douglas Ave.; Seventh Sun Brewing, 1012 Broadway.
Nearby: Saint Somewhere, 1441 Savannah Ave., Tarpon Springs.
_ Sarasota (home of the Orioles): Big Top Brewing, 6111 Porter Way; Darwin's on 4th, 1525 4th St.; Sarasota Brewing, 6607 Gateway Ave.; JDub's, 1215 Mango Ave.
_ Tampa (home of the Yankees): Cigar City, 3924 W. Spruce St. (Note: Cigar City operates a separate brewpub at 15491 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., and an outlet at Tampa International Airport, Airside C); Tampa Bay Brewing, 1600 E. 8th Ave.; Florida Avenue, 4101 N. Florida Ave.; Six Ten Brewing, 7052 Benjamin Road; Three Palms Brewing, 1509 Hobbs St.
Nearby: Wild Rover, 8740 N. Mobley Road, Keystone.
_ Bradenton (home of the Pirates): Motorworks Brewing, 1014 9th St. W.
"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: email@example.com.