For those of you lucky enough to head to Florida for the College Football National Championship game, I’ve got good news: Tampa is an unexpectedly great beer town. I was recently in the Tampa-St. Pete area and was pleasantly surprised to find a vibrant local beer scene. While I didn’t get a chance to visit any of the area’s local breweries (next time), I was impressed that every restaurant and bar I dropped in on during my short stay — even the hotel bar — featured local brews on tap, and they were all good.
Cigar City Brewery, founded in 2007, is the best known of Tampa Bay’s breweries, and perhaps the most respected in Florida. Food & Wine named its Jai Alai India Pale Ale the best IPA in the state, and I readily agree, as it was by far the best local beer I had during my visit. It was tasty and bold, but also, at 7.5% ABV (alcohol by volume), sneaky strong. Don’t drink too many of these if you want to make it to the fourth quarter.
If you’re in town for a couple of days, the brewery is located at 3924 W. Spruce St. in Tampa, right off Interstate 275, and has a tasting room open every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 1 a.m.), offering more than 20 different styles on tap. If you’re so inclined, for $8 you can tour the brewery, including a souvenir glass and tastings. Tour dates and times are listed on calendar on the brewery’s website (cigarcitybrewing.com).
Cigar City is not the only game in town, and I found a number of other really fine beers in the Tampa-St. Pete area. Tampa Bay Brewing Co.’s Reef Donkey American Pale Ale was exceptionally good. If you like IPAs but want something a little lighter, or if IPAs are too robust for you but you still want a beer with some flavor, APAs are a great choice. Another find was Big Storm Brewing Co.’s Wavemaker Amber Ale; it was a little too malty for my taste, but very flavorful.
I don’t usually go for fruit in my beer, but who could pass up a citrus brew in Florida? St. Pete Brewing Company’s Orange Wheat was excellent. It had a darker color than most wheat beers, and even though it is a “fruity” beer, it had a lot of good beer flavor with only a hint of orange. We often think of fruit beers as summer offerings, but this would work any time of the year, although certainly great at the beach. St. Pete Brewing Co. (stpetebrewingcompany.com) and Big Storm Brewing Co. (www.bigstormbrewery.com) have taprooms where you can sample their beers, while Tampa Bay Brewing Co. (www.tampabaybrewingcompany.com) operates two restaurants that offer its brews.
If you’re not fortunate enough to travel to the game, you can still soak in some of the Tampa experience while watching at home in Lower Alabama. Cigar City beers are the easiest to find in our area. In addition to the Jai Alai IPA, which is available in cans at Callaghan’s and a number of grocery and package stores, I also found Cigar City’s Invasion Pale Ale and Florida Cracker Belgian White Ale at my local Rouses. Both were very good; the Invasion Pale Ale was similar to the Jai Alai but not nearly as strong, and the Florida Cracker was a traditional Belgian white. If you like Blue Moon, you’d really enjoy the Florida Cracker.
Enjoy the game!