September 24, 2009 Written by satan165
River Grove, ILLINOIS -
2009 marked the seventh consecutive year I have visited Orlando for a week’s vacation in late summer. Since 2003 I have been slowly investigating the area more with each season. In the past couple years, my growing interest in beer has taken my travels of the metropolitan area many miles further in search of not only great beer, but great people involved in its manufacture and even simple consumption.
My first destination immediately after the airport runway and automobile procurement was Knightly Spirits Metrowest. Last year was my first visit to this venerable mecca of beer drinkers globally and I easily dropped $150 on a weeks’ worth of rare brews. I still returned for more on my last night and was able to scoop a Fantome Brise-BonBons from one of the helpful employees ‘personal’ cellar in the basement. I didn’t catch his name but I have not forgotten his good tidings. This year I was greeted with another unfamiliar but just as helpful employee. Just as my first time setting foot in the place, my eyes began to roll back like an ancient console television with the V-Hold busted. After regaining my composure I started small – with a swingtop of Uerige Dopple Sticke I’ve been on the lookout for. From there it was all Cigar City -- I wanted anything and everything they had on hand. I saw Humidor Series Jai Alai and Bolita Brown on two endcaps. I grabbed them and quickly realized I was going to need a large box, because I was just getting started. At this point the local help realized my obsession and offered me Campeador Series Fergus Mor. A brief argument/discussion ensued between my helpful servant and a much less helpful customer regarding if there were 200 or 400 produced of this exclusive Knightly Spirits 750. (the number is 200, as correctly stated by the employee.) I brought my case to the counter to check out and he offered me first Guava Grove from his own personal stash secured beneath the counter. As if that were not enough, he then remembered Improvisación which was still in a sealed case not yet stocked on the shelves. I made it out the door for under $100 and blazed a trail to my living quarters to cool a bottle down and prepare for the nights drinking.
In 2008 I visited Orlando Brewing Partners for the first time. Located just off Orange Blossom Trail, you veer through an industrial area, past the meat packing plant and find yourself in the parking lot of an aluminum building with the brewer’s name stenciled upon it. They run specials daily and even larger discounts of their wares on select dates. I visited early in my week and made acquaintance with their lovely barkeep, Cat. We spoke at length about their beer as well as the subject in general. After hearing her recommendations I sampled their Dry Hopped Red, amber ale generously given the treatment described in its moniker. After a pint of their English Pale (Olde Pelican), Cat convinced me to return on Thursday for a tour with one of the founders, Gene. I agreed and was off.
The following day I made the 50 mile jaunt east to the coast and Cocoa Beach Brewing Company. I arrived early and scored a parking spot directly in front of the establishment, then quickly jogged across A1A for a brief dip in the Atlantic. I returned (still early) and took a seat in the shade next to their front door, notebook in hand. Brew master/owner Chris arrived soon after and we made our entry to the tasting room. I took a seat at the bar and within moments Chris and I had a serious rapport. We waxed endlessly about beer styles, his recipes and life in general. He shared some hilarious tidbits with me, like a tale about an attempted pineapple beer theorized by a relative with the clever name of “Jeannie Juice”, a reference to nearby Cape Canaveral, home of “I Dream of Jeannie”. The yeast easily attenuated all the sugars from the juicy fruit – leaving nothing but a raw acid bomb of a beer. He shot it sky high (literally) from the lot behind the building and claimed the geyser was nearly visible from the beach. His recently successful “Matt’s Bitter” was a recipe recommended by local Matt (Ratebeer member McBackus), but their second batch of the stuff nearly ruptured a tank when Chris forgot to open the blowoff valve! Foreshadowing something I’d find at Lagniappe Brewing days later, his wife and son even made an appearance at the bar, showing this truly was a family affair. Chris followed a path from Arizona to his beer destiny here on the east coast of central Florida, where he brews his “Lime Cerveza” with real limes and allows his customers to dry hop their beers with Crystal hop pellets at the bar. I tried this with an extremely warm (and flavorful) pint of his pale ale and was amazed at the esters before it became an undrinkable mash of hop soup. The 80 year old building was once a Navy barracks before he remodeled it into a modern but homey room that could have easily felt awkward but instead is a comfortable room reminiscent of a good friend’s living room.
Clermont is home to the Rusty Fox, a restaurant and bar I’ve been visiting annually since 2003. Their prime rib is both generous and cheap and I never miss it. The only thing I can think of to make it more enjoyable is to devour it while half in the bag, fresh from a local brewpub. Brad Banker of Lagniappe Brewing in nearby Minneola has helped to realize this dream. His easygoing, clean and comfortable tasting room shares a wall with his impeccable brewhouse. As you sit at the bar you can browse some of his tanks while you dig into him over his hop choices and overall recipes. At least that’s what I did. I was greeted at his bar by a number of local regulars including a gentleman with a bow tie named Phil who was just as welcoming as Brad. I sat adjacent to an older fellow whose name I missed but whose military record I shall never forget. His Marine t-shirt, hat and Marine riddled jeep in the parking lot I will not soon lose sight of. He told me that he visits Lagniappe every Wednesday on his way to a local market where he picks up a pound of alligator – or buffalo…or elk…. His drinking is as regimented as the discipline he learned as a leatherneck – he drinks exactly two and one half pints of Brad’s Locomotive Breath Porter; then makes his way onto wild game and his home in a nearby senior’s community. Brad’s daughter was the only pleasant interruption between our lengthy discussions on some of the more obscure hop strains that Brad uses in his brews. His hand forced by recent shortages, he has gotten creative with some types I had never heard of; he admitted he was also unaware prior to their introduction to him by an intelligent brew supply distributor. (Don’t worry Brad – I won’t give away your secrets here or anywhere else!) I inquired regarding his sharp tap handles which carried a Fleur de lis – more evidence of Brad’s interest in Cajun culture – and found that he manufactured them himself both for his tasting room and the local pubs that carry his beer. After my own two and a half pints (of his IPA, weizen and porter respectively, amounts no doubt subliminally inspired by my military minded friend) I moved onto a 10oz portion of bloody rare beef and two Heinekens at the Rusty Fox. The second was free as the rewards of Happy Hour, a benefit unknown to any Illinois resident of drinking age of at least the last quarter century.
The most anticipated event of my week was to be the ride westward to Tampa and Cigar City Brewing. They do not have a tasting room so I knew my visit would be brief. But the hype surrounding this young start-up fueled (literally and figuratively) by my nightly intoxication of their products at my villa in Orlando was too much to bear so the following morning I shook off my hangover with a star fruit and kiwi smoothie and put the pedal down on I-4. I drove past the place the first time as their main sign faces the opposite direction but then pulled into a parking space. I cautiously walked into their quiet brewhouse and was greeted by Doug. I selected an empty 32oz growler from a shelf and had him fill it with their Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale. He handed me the medicine bottle style growler and we spoke for a couple of moments before my true beer nerdery kicked in and I begged him to snap a photo of me in front of one of their brew tanks. My camera had fogged from the condensation caused by my highly air conditioned rental but the picture survived. I mentioned that I had come from Chicago, by way of Orlando and he replied “Hang on, I’ve got something for you”, as if our meeting had been prearranged and I just whispered the code word. After rummaging around in some nearby boxes, he produced a 12oz bottle which he carried over and handed to me while thanking me for my support. I was aghast – I was only attempting awkward small talk with a brewer I highly respect when words failed me otherwise. I neither expected nor deserved any reward for my drive and would have done double or triple the mileage to visit their facility. When I asked him how much the bottle of Capricho Oscuro (batch #2) would cost me he shrugged it off and refused payment. I gushed praise and made my way out with a demented grin on my face. That smile would return the next night when I sampled its contents and it shot to the top 5 beers I have ever sampled. Doug – thanks again! As I promised, I’ll see you in a year. Complimentary blended barrel-aged beers are optional; a hearty handclasp is not.
Winding down my seven day stretch I returned to Orlando Brewing on Thursday as promised and ordered a Doble IIPA (by far the best of their 8 beers I have tried so far) while I waited the tour to begin. It soon did and I was accompanied by two others of quite different ages and levels of knowledge in beer, but none in their zest for the topic. I picked up a number of insights about their beers from Gene. The Doble IIPA I sipped as we wandered around the brewhouse is named for the Doble family of Tampa Bay Brewing, early inspirations and friends to Gene as he started his brewery. In a technique underused in today’s breweries, Gene uses the second runnings from the Doble to brew his BVC IPA. This beer is named for the ‘Brewery Volunteer Corps’: a group anyone with a willingness to help out, learn about beer and scrub the place down regularly has this beer devoted to them. A rack of oversize shaker pints sat on the wall just inside the brewhouse with the names of the members of this fine group, awaiting their next visit and session of beers at the bar on the other side of the wall. We spoke at length about the bottling process. Gene disclosed that he basically breaks even on bottling, as his machinery requires the labor of three individuals to run it. He only runs it once every two weeks, in doing so bottling enough product for the same amount of time’s supply for local bars and other locations. We touched on his general dissatisfaction for Belgian beer, his interest in carefully controlling the temperatures of his kegs for proper serving temperature and more as we stood briefly in a cooler filled with cases containing hundreds of bottles of his brew. He nonchalantly cracked a bottle of his Blackwater Dry Porter from one of the cases and filled our glasses as we spoke, then made out way back out to the bar. I sampled their Dopplebock and Maibock (two interesting styles for a brewery of this scale to attempt), bid farewell to the lovely Cat and made my way out.
2009 held a number of new beer opportunities for me. As I have begun to master the geography of the area, I continue to increase my beer destinations in my home away from home. I will continue my quest next year and no doubt it will remain unfinished. I hope it does, for the friends I’ve made and the beers I have sampled are too good to be a finite thing, even if life is as such. There may be better destinations but even if an area is devoid of physical breweries or tap rooms, I have learned there are many fewer places that lack people such as me and the Orlando area residents with a real excitement for what they choose to drink. See ya in 2010, Florida.
Very nice article...I like how you focused on teh experience and the people and less on the qualities of the beer...Orlando Brewing doesnt get a lot of love...But when I visited last year I was super impressed with the friendliness of the staff and their EFFORTS of producing interesting beer...
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He shared some hilarious tidbits with me, like a tale about an attempted pineapple beer theorized by a relative with the clever name of “Jeannie Juice”, a reference to nearby Cape Canaveral, home of “I Dream of Jeannie”.