Which city in Florida has more than 70 breweries, has a bike trail that connects more than 20 of them, and has one that’s a top-50 brewer in the USA? It’s not big Miami, tourist magnet Orlando/Central Florida, or even the home of the Jax Ale Trail. No, it’s Tampa Bay, an unlikely king of the Florida brewing scene.
It seems unlikely because when I first started coming to this city in the 1990s from Nashville to visit my in-laws, it was a beer wasteland. “Tampa Bay Breweries” was an oxymoron. There was one brewery with distribution that struggled and eventually went out of business, then Dunedin Brewery stood alone for years as a neighborhood brewpub that attracted craft beer fans from all over the region. It now has the dubious designation as Florida’s oldest microbrewery since nobody else in the state has survived from that era of stifling state regulations.
Besides the hurdles put up by Florida’s notoriously bone-headed legislature, the prevailing wisdom at the time was that it was too hot here for people to drink heavy beers, that the old guys with boats just wanted their Bud, that Florida tastes weren’t sophisticated enough, and on and on.
Eventually, Cigar City Brewing and Tampa Bay Brewing Company (TBBC) proved them wrong and were suddenly selling craft beer by the truckload. The head start they’ve gotten has made them two of the biggest in the state. If you want to try their best sellers, that would be Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City and Reef Donkey APA (one of my store buy favorites) from Tampa Bay Brewing. Both are widely available in stores around the state, both companies run brewery tours, and have great taprooms. Neither is playing it safe though: the two champs release a wide variety of seasonal and experimental beers, some ending up as collector’s items.
Other well-funded startups with business-minded owners have come on strong in the past decade, such as Coppertail Brewing in Tampa, 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg (Beach Blonde Ale is another big seller locally), and Big Storm Brewing Company in Clearwater. All of these have distribution in big grocery stores, liquor stores, and discerning bars in the region–including a lot of the Clearwater Beach resorts now, thankfully. “We wanted to scale fast,” says 3 Daughters co-founder Leigh Harting. “We called ourselves ‘a beverage company’ from Day 1 and hired people who understood business.”
The thing is, Tampa Bay is one spread out metro area, thanks to all the water. You’ve got Tampa proper and its suburbs like Brandon, Westchase, and Oldsmar, then on the other side of the bay in a different county you’ve got lots of towns and another big city–St. Petersburg–with an array of brewpubs and craft beer production facilities. North to south on the Gulf side, there’s Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor, Dunedin, Clearwater (and its beach), and St. Petersburg (and its beach). See the pub crawl section further down for where the clusters are. Here’s a quick rundown though of what to expect in each area.
The brewpubs in Tampa are more spread out than on the other side of the water, with 81 Bay being the only one in South Tampa for now. It has lots of games to make it worth the trip to its strip mall location next to a gym. (Hmmm, exercise or happy hour?) Hidden Springs in Tampa Heights near the Water Works and Late Start in Channelside’s Pour House are the only ones near downtown and the River Walk, though Ulele Restaurant does brew its own beer, with the Heifweizen being especially good.
Hop the historic trolley train to Ybor City, however, and you’ve got more choices. Coppertail Brewing Co. may just have the nicest tap room in the city, with its dreamy artwork used on its labels featured prominently. This is clearly a brewery where the design aesthetic was a core part of the brand from the start. Also in the Ybor nightlife district you’ll find Rock Brothers Brewing, with beers named after musical groups, and Zydeco Beer Werks, one of the few on this list I haven’t tried.
The area with the highest concentration, however, is Seminole Heights, where all the cool kids live. This rapidly gentrifying area has some of Tampa’s best restaurants and a whole lot of great breweries, from Southern Brewing–with its great shady outdoor garden–to Angry Chair Brewing to 7venth Sun Brewery. This is also the home base of the Brew Bus, which is a means of transportation (more on that later), a taproom, and a commercial brewer with can distribution in stores. All of these have been around for years and have a steady clientele.
Breweries in St. Petersburg, FL
The biggest concentration of places to go have a craft beer is downtown St. Pete. If you’re staying at a hotel there and seeing the sites like the Dali Museum and Chihuly Glass Museum (available on the Tampa Bay CityPass), you could hit two brewpubs every day and it would take you a week to visit them all. That’s not taprooms, mind you, but actual breweries making beer on site.
The one that does the most volume is 3 Daughters Brewing, so named because the couple who founded it wondered how many beers they would have to sell to put their three kids through college in the ever-more-expensive USA. “We keep trying different things to see what resonates,” says Harting. “We weren’t sure we should go to the expense of putting out cans, but then our sales doubled. We decided to start having local bands in here some nights and our taproom sales doubled. We had to get a wine license to make hard cider but it might become our #2 seller this year!” None of this was done without making sure the liquid part was right, however. Their lab is so fancy it has a nutrition and calorie analysis machine that costs $13,000.
One of the originals and still the most popular is the brewer that’s generic in name, but certainly not in selection: St. Pete Brewing Company. Serious beer fans also sooner or later gravitate to Green Bench Brewing, which is putting out some of the area’s best beers in a city with heavy competition. They have a great indoor/outdoor seating space for plenty. People with dogs gravitate to pet-friendly Pinellas Ale Works, also known as P.A.W. Try their Piddle Pils, Milk Bone Stout, or Play Dead Barleywine.
You can play pinball or video games at Right Around the Corner or drink in an open-air industrial-looking space at Cage Brewing. Then there’s Cycle Brewing, Avid Brewing, Overflow, Flying Boat…it’s getting hard to keep up.
Head to St. Pete Beach and you’ve got two choices: Mastry’s Brewing and Mad Beach. The former is a short drive or a long walk from some beach resorts such as Postcard Inn and Guy Harvey Outpost. Mad Beach is on and named for Madeira Beach, a few miles north by the St. John’s Pass retail and dining complex.
Tarpon Spring to Dunedin Breweries: The Gulp Coast
Sometimes tourism boards can actually be clever in their slogans and the one the St. Pete and Clearwater people came up with for the Pinellas County craft beer scene is pretty good: The Gulp Coast. They even put out a free booklet that guides you to local breweries and brewpubs. If you visit enough of them and get stamped, you can get a free t-shirt or other prizes.
It’s no secret to locals that the best place to go beer sampling outside of downtown St. Pete is the small town of Dunedin, Florida. This is actually where my mother-in-law lives, so I’ve spent a lot of time on, ahem, research. The original, Dunedin Brewing Company, is still one of the best, but now they’re joined by Dunedin House of Beer, the original 7venth Sun, Soggy Bottom Brewing, Caledonia, Woodwright, and Cueni. Go to HOB for the games, 7venth Sun to challenge your palate with strange fruity flavors, and Cueni to taste some English ales and Belgians brewed locally.
Although seven brewers within a few blocks in a town of 37,000 people might seem cutthroat, Cueni Brewing partner Bren Cueni says it’s a welcoming environment. “We have a great community of brewers here that really willing to help each other out with materials, reporting paperwork, or whatever we run short of all of a sudden.”
You can reach all of these Tampa Bay Breweries from the Pinellas Trail, a paved bike path that runs for more than 30 miles between Tarpon Springs and downtown St. Petersburg. Apart from about 10 times where you ride up and down a bridge over an overpass, it’s flat and easy. To hit the biggest concentration of brewpubs, bike any combination of Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor, and Dunedin. Tarpon has three breweries in town: Two Frogs, Silverking, and new entry Unrefined Brewing. (Unrefined replaced Saint Somewhere, a farmhouse saisons brewer that now just has erratic hours now and then in its commercial building.)
Palm Harbor has The Stilt House, Two Lions, and one of my personal favorites, de Bine Brewing Co.
Being by this long bike trail has major advantages. “Some weeks we get 60-80% of our customers from the Pinellas Trail,” says Bren from Cueni in Dunedin. “There will be a wall of bikes outside and people having a beer or two before they move on to another spot.”
It’s a long stretch of not much beer heading south from Dunedin though if you’re covering the whole trail, so hydrate with water and get a workout. For now, there’s just one relatively new brewpub called Clearwater Brewing Company that’s on Ft. Harrison near the water and then the Pesky Pelican right off the trail many miles south of there as you get closer to St. Petersburg. That one makes for a good lunch stop if you’re biking. In a car you could hit Big Storm instead on the way south down the peninsula.
Visiting Tampa Bay Breweries Without a Car
Alcohol and driving don’t mix of course, though getting tanked on a bike following the above itinerary is probably not a good idea either. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get around Tampa Bay without a car and there are brewpub clusters that lend themselves to a good old pub crawl.
As mentioned earlier, the biggest concentration of Florida breweries anywhere in the state is downtown St. Pete. You could literally hit 10 breweries within 10 blocks if you started off at 3 Daughters and ended up at Cycle Brewing. And that doesn’t even count the taprooms like Pour and Hofbrauhaus. If you’re going to a baseball game at Tropicana Field, you’ve got plenty of choices for where to go for craft beer before or after without even calling an Uber or Lyft.
In Dunedin, you could stay at either The Fenway, Best Western Plus on the Marina, or Holiday Inn Express hotels in town and go beer sampling to your heart’s content. All seven breweries are walking distance from each other and Dunedin Brewery has a full food menu as well. If you’re in Tarpon Springs or Palm Harbor, you can easily walk between the breweries there.
On the Tampa side, hop on the Brew Bus! They run themed events and you can charter their beer bus, but the easiest option is just to join them on Sunday when the bus makes an ongoing loop between Ybor City, Seminole Heights, and places in between. Get tickets in advance for just $10, or day of for $15, and you can hop on and hop off wherever you’d like. There are 12 stops to choose from between Coppertail in Ybor, Pour/Late Start in Channelside, Hidden Springs a bit north of downtown, and a whole slew of places around Seminole Heights. Get a ride home after or start near your hotel–remember, there’s a trolley that runs between downtown and Ybor and one of the Brew Bus stops (Franklin Manor) is near the downtown Tampa hotels. See the map here.
One last bit of advice if you’ll be in the area for a while: save yourself a few bucks by buying a Tampa/St. Pete PubPass. It’s $25 and gives you a “free” beer of your choosing at 25 Tampa Bay breweries. Yeah I know, you won’t get to all of the places and you still have to tip, but with craft drafts often starting at 5 bucks these days, it’s not hard to get your money back if you only make it to a third of them. I managed to make it to 16 places when I lived there, so it was a no-brainer. Get one here.
After all the craft beer samples, take a break for the day and check out 5 under-the-radar things to see in Tampa Bay.
Tim Leffel is the editor of Perceptive Travel and will be speaking at the Beer Marketing and Tourism Conference in early 2020. He spent many years sampling beers in Tampa Bay before relocating to Mexico. A few breweries mentioned in this article may have poured him a free pint here and there but he is a little hazy on the details.