Florida recently broke the 17 Million population mark placing it among the elite in terms of the sheer mass of bodies living in the state. Currently Florida is the fourth most populous state in the nation with some 5 million more souls than sixth place Illinois and the humid swarms of the Sunshine State are nipping at the heels of third place New York.
Yet for all the copious multitude of inhabitants, Florida continues to lag behind far less populous states in terms of quality locally produced beer. Iíd always chalked that up to Floridians not having a tradition of brewing, but it turns out that is not the case. Florida once had a thriving brewing community. Tampa was the epicenter of what was once a flourishing local brewing culture.
Tampa Florida Brewing Company operated from 1896 to 1961. Then there was the De Soto Brewing Company and the Southern Brewing Company both of Tampa, operating during roughly the same time. Southern Brewing Company could crank out 3,600 pints an hour at their Downtown Tampa brewing location. Just like brewpubs of today all the brewing equipment was on display and viewable through glass from the street.
Southern brewed a Dark (probably a Schwarzbier or Dunkel) a Bock and two Pale Lagers. Through most of the 40ís Southern cranked out 90,000 barrels a year, about how much Alaskan Brewing and Boulevard Brewing make in a year right now.
There were also other small regional breweries: Spearman Brewing Company in Pensacola, Jax Ice and Cold Storage in Jacksonville, Wagner Brewing Company/ American Brewing Company in Miami, Atlantic Company in Orlando, Miami/Flamingo Brewery in Miami, The Hialeah Brewing Company of Hialeah (near Miami) and Sunshine Brewery (near West Palm).
These breweries sold their product almost exclusively in local markets so never saw much distribution outside the cities they were based in. When Schlitz and A-B set up shop in Florida during the 60ís, replete with million barrel plus brewing facilities, vast amounts of money for advertising and lower prices the decline of the smaller Florida regionals began. Some got bought out by larger breweries while others just closed their doors after years of declining sales.
The Florida Brewerís Association was founded in 1934 by the major players at all the above mentioned breweries. Most of these breweries brew masterís were Bavarian immigrants and their wares were reported to be of high quality, but obviously Iíve never had the pleasure of sampling them.
So there was a history of locally produced regional beer in Florida. Why then has Florida lagged so far behind much less populous states that have shown a resurgence of regional breweries? Iíve mulled this question over for years and am still at a loss as to an answer.
Florida is a mirror of the United States in that it is populated by scores of immigrants. Many of these more recent transplants would have brought an appreciation for better beer with them and while there is plenty of quality craft beer to be found in Florida very little of it is produced here. Currently Florida only has two regional breweries that bottle and only one, Dunedin, has shown any interest in experimentation or acknowledgement of the growing trend toward bigger beers.
Floridaís slow climb back to appreciating good beer is in some ways indicative of the general lack of appreciation for better beer found throughout the south where craft beer has always lagged behind the Northeast and Western states. Yet in Florida the near lack of regional breweries is more acute. While there has been a steady growth of brewpubs; Florida is still a redheaded stepchild among larger states in the area of craft beer.
Iíd like to say that the future looks bright, but from where I stand itís still very dark and dusk is hours away. Perhaps while I write this there is some unknown brewer, with real talent and a dream, rustling up funds to found what will one day be a source of pride for Florida beer lovers. I hope this is true, but in the meantime Florida occupies that curious position between a good state for brews produced elsewhere and a bad state for beer period.