A Brief History of Florida Beer
This past weekend, I had the privilege of speaking to a great crowd at the All About Beer Magazine World Beer Festival in St. Petersburg. My topic was the history of beer in Florida. I had a lot of fun researching this presentation, and learned a lot. During the talk, we sampled Dunedin Brewery’s Oktoberfest, Tampa Bay Brewing Company’s One Night Stand Pale Ale, and Seventh Sun Brewing’s Intergalactic Pale Ale. I have attached the text of my talk below. Enjoy.
Thank you. I want to start off by thanking the folks at All About Beer Magazine and the World Beer Festivals for inviting me to speak today. It’s an honor and a privilege. My name is Sean Nordquist, and I am the founder and owner of Beer for the Daddy, as well as a contributing writing for Creative Loafing. If you were here earlier you heard Gerard Walen talk about some of the history of a few great Florida Beer names. I want to take it a step further and talk about the history of beer in Florida.
Over the past few years, as craft beer has taken the U.S. by storm, we have all seen various tellings of The History of Beer. How Beer Saved the World. Beer Wars. American Beer. We’ve read Brewing Up a Business and The Beer Hunter and Red, White, and Brew. We know about the ancients revering beer in Egypt and Sumeria, the history of the India Pale Ale, and how our founding fathers all brewed their own beer. America’s connection to beer and brewing is as much a part of our history as the Declaration of Independence. It is not hard to find a brewer just about anywhere you travel who would love nothing more than to tell you about his or her journey into the art of fermentation. And it is no different here in Florida.
In just the past three or four years, craft brewing has exploded in the Sunshine State, nearly doubling the number of breweries since 2010. But I don’t need to tell you all that. You know it. It’s why you are here. From the newest breweries like Big Storm and Rapp and Barley Mow, to the “old timers” like Dunedin and Tampa Bay Brewing Company, and arguably the catalyst for the rapid expansion, Cigar City, there has never been a better time to be a beer lover in Florida.
But you don’t have to go too far back to remember a time where Florida was a wasteland for beer lovers. I remember it well, moving here from California in 1994. I was shocked to find very little in the way of craft beer in my new home state, and blown away by the laws that prevented it from even getting here. While a lot of the rest of the country was experiencing a renaissance of great beer, unlucky Floridians could only watch and wish.
But it wasn’t always like that.
In fact, before (and in some cases during) Prohibition, Florida had a thriving, rich brewing industry. Now, since civilization began, brewing has been a part of any settlement and town. It was one of the only ways known to purify water and prevent diseases. Beer was a staple of life. So I am not talking about the first settlers to come in to Florida, or even the oldest city in the country, Jacksonville. I am talking about production, commercial breweries. While many of us only think back as far as maybe the 1950s and ‘60s – the beginning of the Anhueser Busch days – Florida brewing history goes as far back as the late 19th century.
The oldest brewery on record in Florida was the aptly named Florida Brewing Company. It was opened in 1896 by a group of cigar industrialists in Ybor City. In fact, the brewery they built still stands, and is the tallest building in Ybor to this day. The Florida Brewing Company made La Tropical Ale and Bock, and was the leading beer exporter to Cuba in the U.S. At their peak, they were producing over 80,000 barrels of beer a year.
Up in Jacksonville, Jax Brewing opened up in 1913. Their “Jax Beer” was described in advertising as “tangy and zestful”, “smooth”, “mellow”, as well as “fine”, “full-bodied”, and “refreshing”. I guess they wanted to cover all of their bases! At their peak, Jax Brewing was putting out over 200,000 barrels annually, and were distributed well through the South.
While national prohibition began in 1920, Florida actually implemented it earlier, in 1918. Many smaller breweries were faced with a choice: adapt or close down. Sadly, most chose the latter. Jax Brewing survived by changing their model to making ice and near-beer products and changing their name to Jax Ice & Cold Storage Company. Florida Brewing Company took a different approach: ignoring the law. In fact, the brewery kept making beer up until 1927 when they were finally raided and shut down.
Florida was not exactly the mean streets of Chicago or New York or even the “wild west”, but it was home to the two “wettest” cities during Prohibition: Tampa and Miami. Bolstered by corruption at every level, law enforcement sympathetic to their cause, and supported by a thirsty public, the illicit brewing, distilling, transport and consumption of alcoholic beverages continued.
Luckily for all of us, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1933, effectively ending Prohibition the following year. Some states were quicker to ratify than others, but Florida was an uninspiring 31st of the 48 states to do so. Mississippi was the last, taking no action to ratify it at all. They finally complied in 1966.
What the passing of the 21st Amendment did, aside from allowing alcohol to be made and sold, was give individual state enormous control over their own laws regarding the business, from the manufacturing to the distribution to the sale of anything alcoholic. In Florida, things were great at first. Immediately after repeal, the Florida Brewing Company ‘reopened’ as the Tampa Florida Brewing Company and remained in business until 1961. Jax Brewing reopened under their original name and became one of the largest employers in the Jacksonville area. They closed down in 1956 and sold their naming rights to Jackson Brewing in New Orleans.
From the 1930s until the 1950s, breweries came and went. DeSoto, Atlantic, Marlin, National… There was Southern Brewing Company that opened in 1934 and was acquired by International Breweries, Inc. in 1956.
It was in these years… the late 50’s and early 60s that things start to change again, and this time not for the better. Large commercial breweries were gobbling up the smaller breweries and building plants in Florida. Schlitz Brewing moved in to Tampa in 1958 followed by Anhueser Busch in 1959. In 1961, the Tampa Florida Brewing Company closed for the last time. The same year, National Brewing closed its doors. In 1963, International Breweries shuttered up.
The post-World-War II preference for lager beers was in full swing, and what better place to sell light lagers than in Florida? While AB closed the large production side of the Tampa location in 1965, Busch Gardens had already become a hospitality park with fine dining, animal viewing, and free beer! They opened up a large production plant up in Jacksonville in 1969. The park remains a huge tourist attraction, although the free beer sampling was ended in 2008 and the park is now owned by another company.
An interesting thing happened around this time as well. Lured by the potential of the hot South, Miller Brewing began looking to open another plant, this time closer to the Southern markets. They were offered the usual incentives from the state, but eventually decided on a plant in Georgia. Furious, the Florida legislature retaliated by passing the infamous bottle-size law in 1965, making any bottles that were not 8, 12, 16, or 32 ounces illegal. Miller had a very popular brew sold in 7 ounce bottles.
The other effect this law had, though, was to block many imports (since most are in metric units) as well as the now-ubiquitous 22 ounce bombers and 750ml bottles. That is not to say that there were not already some great beers being brewed right here in Florida. Dunedin Brewing, the oldest microbrewery in the state and the Tampa Bay Brewing Company fought the odds in the 1990’s and laid the groundwork for those that followed. Even Disney saw the wisdom of it and opened Big River Grill and Brewery. But because of the bottle size laws, and the strict distribution laws that had been put into place to favor the big brewers, growth was limited for Florida breweries, and they had to scratch and claw for every gain they made.
Any of you who were born after 1980 or moved to Florida after 2001 probably don’t remember or even realize that we have only been able to legally get many beers in the past 11 years. After a hard-fought battle in the Florida Senate, the good guys won, mostly doing away with the bottle size limitations, and suddenly we had an influx of great beers, both domestic and import. Bombers and Belgians, great beers from California and Germany. To those of us who had been making do with an anemic selection, it was like Christmas. However, this same law that allowed for these great new opportunities and choices of beer left us with the craft beer black hole: no containers between 32 ounces and 128 ounces can be sold. That means no 40s, and no 64-ounce growlers, the standard in every other state.
Many people see this bottle-law change as the catalyst for the craft beer culture exploding in Florida, however. With access came appreciation, and with appreciation came more demand. Breweries began opening and the first decade of the 21st century saw a whole slew of new beers brewed locally. Saint Somewhere, the Lagerhaus, Sarasota Brewing and Cigar City Brewing all came into existence during the years following these changes. Bars started opening that offered beers we had never seen before, and restaurants opened with great beer lists as well as wine and spirits. The Oak Barrel Tavern and the New World Brewery in Ybor. Mr. Dunderbaks in Tampa. The Independent in St. Pete. Recently the opening of breweries everywhere from Pensacola to Key West, Jacksonville to Boca Raton, and everywhere in between is earning Florida the reputation as a beer destination. With more appreciation comes more demand again, so we are seeing another rise in interest at bars and restaurants in offering interesting beers to their customers. Tampa Bay had its first Beer Week this year, and more and more people are uttering the words “Drink Local”. Establishments like the Ale & the Witch, the Pour House, Willard’s Tap House, the Mermaid… they are thriving because Floridians are getting it. Peg’s Cantina is rated one of the top brewpubs in the country. Even Orlando, a city that is as homogenized in the food and drink space as any, now has several breweries and a brand new brewpub, the Cask and Larder, and one of the top rated craft beer bars, Redlight, Redlight. These are exciting times indeed.
Florida may lag behind other states like California, Oregon, and Michigan when it comes to recent brewing history. They have a rightful claim to being at the forefront of the “microbrew” movement in the 1980’s and early 90’s. We certainly have a ways to go to catch up with those states whose elected officials are supportive of the craftsmanship and dedication of their local breweries like Colorado and New York. The economic impact of locally owned and operated craft breweries cannot be understated, and eventually, those at the top – legislators, city officials, and investors – will get it. More breweries mean more jobs, more jobs means more money spent locally, and that’s just good for everyone. Obstacles to growth like our ridiculous growler size laws, some of the issues on the distribution side of things, as well as taxation and local education can all be overcome in time.
In many ways, Florida is simply a microcosm of what is happening across the country. Passionate men and women chasing their dreams. Young, eager brewers like Justin and Devon at Seventh Sun, just going for it. Idealists who strive to make unique, quality beers like Jay and Colleen at Barley Mow. These entrepreneurs are all over the country trying to make it happen in their town. Not to be the “next Stone Brewing”, but to be the first Funky Buddha. At the same time, education is key. More and more, people want quality in their lives. Better food, better drink. But they don’t always know where to look. So while we have tremendous growth in brewing, it is being matched with events and articles and teaching moments everywhere you look. From big events like this one to smaller, more intimate settings like Peg’s Cantina doing tastings and pairings with new and interesting beers, the more exposure and access people have to great brews, the more they will want them. If a light-lager drinking state like Florida can suddenly produce sixty-plus breweries, it is an indication that there is a fundamental sea-change going on across the country.
With a history of over a century of brewing, the Sunshine State is still on the rise in this industry. But Florida is on the map in the craft beer world now. Everyone is watching, and they like what they see.