It’s been a long time coming, but Florida is finally catching up with the rest of the USA in brewing beer worth getting excited about. In most of the years I’ve been coming to Tampa to visit relatives and then living here, there was only one craft brewer in town that got people excited: Cigar City. The scene was even worse in South Florida. There’s no Rocky Mountain spring water here, for a start, plus you have an inept state legislature that just this year started allowing fill-ups of the most popular growler size to go.
The brewpub scene has exploded in the past two years though and now there are ample choices in each metropolis. If you come here and hook up with the Brew Bus people, you can find the best spots and also drink well on the way. I recently did a brew cruise around Fort Lauderdale and was happily surprised by what we found.
We boarded the Brew Bus and were quickly assured that we wouldn’t get thirsty. The company driving the bus also has its own line of beers in cans. When I first took a tour with them in Tampa a few years ago there was just one option–the Rollin’ Dirty Irish Red Ale. Now it’s a whole spectrum to sample in transit, however, with six rotating brews including an IPA, a porter, a hoppy wheat, and a surprisingly good blueberry wheat. “Most guys assume this is a ‘girl beer’ our guide says, “but then they say, ‘Hey, I’d actually order this!'”
This was the most social-savvy travel tour I’ve ever been on: giant signs in the front of the bus have the company’s handles for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. So no matter how many drinks you’ve had, you can still manage to tag them in your mug shots with mugs.
Well, not really mugs. You get a little five-ounce glass that gets filled twice at each of four stops. So you’re trying eight beers in all, which is quite a nice flight range. Plus three or four more on the bus.
Craft Beer Cartel
Our first stop had a terrific name and the coolest store floor ever. The Craft Beer Cartel on 12th Avenue in Fort Lauderdale is really a take-out place, filled with a huge variety of bottled beers and home brewing supplies. It has growler refill stations, however, and when the Brew Bus pulls up they pour samples of their own Native Brewing beers.
We started out with a bang, sampling a Red Ale that was 8.2% alcohol and an Imperial Stout that was 10%. Both were bursting with flavor. While we sipped we wandered the store and checked out the floor, which is a real work of art. There are tens of thousands of beer bottle caps arranged in different designs, embedded in concrete. The project pulled in lots of different volunteer artists and took three months to finish. That’s one little section of it pictured at the top.
Funky Buddha Brewery
We had a long ride to the next stop, but that was okay because we were drinking on the way. When we arrived at the Funky Buddha, it was clear that this was a bigtime operation, with a massive space that gets filled on weekends and a long row of in-house taps. The owners would get arrested in Southeast Asia for putting Buddha on beer taps and all their merchandising, but in Florida anything is fair game (except gun control).
I tried a few hoppy ales from this brewery at a beer expo in Tampa a couple weeks later and found them consistently good. They got all esoteric with us on this stop though, starting out out with an unfiltered wheat ale. Then we went straight to dessert: a Bonita Applebum that was no parts Tribe Called Quest and 10 parts apple pie. It was hard to get past the feeling that someone spilled vanilla and cinnamon in my beer while doing some baking. It could have been worse though: other special releases have combos like ginger/lemongrass, cherry/chocolate, and rasberries/lemon. Hey, who needs a food menu?
The Mack House
This little joint in a nondescript Florida strip mall is the kind of watering hole you would normally find out about by word of mouth. Their website looks like it was built by an 8-year-old in 1998 and the directions say it is in the “same plaza as the Round Up Country Western Club.” You probably don’t want to come the The Mack House if you’re drinking alone because in the afternoon it might just be you, the bartender, and the pinball machine.
They have their own Holy Mackerel small batch brews on tap, as well as a rotating cast of others from Florida and beyond. We sampled their Belgian Mix and their Imperial Stout and pronounced them yummy.
The name is brilliant and easy to remember, plus the warehouse location in a port area makes you feel like you’ve stumbled upon a secret beer hideout. While the Funky Buddha is actually pretty corporate looking inside, Lauderale is truly funky looking. They served us some pretty offbeat beers as well: a pumpkin ale that got mixed reviews (and facial expressions), plus a coconut porter that made use of a prevalent local ingredient. It worked better than I expected, but I wouldn’t want to have more than one. Maybe for dessert, with an Almond Joy.
Perhaps sensing that we were hankering for something more conventional, they pulled out a third pitcher and poured a great red ale all around. The beer menu here made me salivate and this is the one I’d head to first when coming back to the area.
After that, it was back on the bus for a taste of Last Stop IPA and we stumbled our own separate ways at the drop-off point. Thankfully, it’s easy to get around Fort Lauderdale without a car.
The Brew Bus company also runs tours in Tampa and Jacksonville and on Sundays in the former they run a cool hop-on, hop-off service between four brewpubs that are not too far apart. Get more info here.
Story and photos by Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel, who was hosted on a Brew Bus tour by Fort Lauderdale Tourism as part of the Travel Bloggers Exchange conference (TBEX). He has paid for Tampa Brew Bus tours and guzzled their beer on other occasions on his own tab. And sometimes on a friend’s tab. He’s a little fuzzy on the details…