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Green Bench, Cigar City, and Tampa Bay's Surging Beer Scene

April 13, 2017

By Justin Grant, April 13, 2017

Foeder for Thought is a specifically education-forward festival,” announced Khris Johnson, as he took the stage at the event with Andrew Hood, barrel-aging manager of Indianapolis’ Sun King Brewing, and Marco Leyte-Vidal of the Craft Commander blog.

The stage set included a pair of sofas, a coffee table, and a shag area rug, cutting a strange image in the beer garden of St. Petersburg, Florida’s Green Bench Brewing, where it remained a focal point throughout the evening during hourly interviews with brewers from Sun King, Blackberry Farm, Black Project, and Jester King.

It was all part of the plan for Johnson, Green Bench’s head brewer. Johnson had the idea for his annual wild and sour ale festival four years ago, after introducing a range of farmhouse-style brews into the local Tampa Bay market – one that, less than a decade ago, was legendary for its dearth of quality beer.

The problem, he found, was that the market was still young, and not many people had developed an appreciation for the exotic, challenging beers that he wanted Green Bench to eventually be known for.

“You couldn't find a 100% brettanomyces beer anywhere in town, so how could our consumer base understand what those beers taste like, how they're made, and what makes them so special?” asked Johnson.

Good Beer HuntingMany of Green Bench's best beers are sours out of barrels like these.

His solution was to throw an annual festival specializing in these types of beers, specifically those fermented in foeders – large wooden vessels used for primary fermentation, often involving a variety of embedded microflora that provide funk, depth, and often sourness.

But pouring the beers wasn’t enough. Johnson wanted attendees to appreciate these styles of beer on a deeper level, so he added another layer last year for the third annual Foeder for Thought: brewer interviews, Q&As, and guided samplings to accompany the more traditional beer festival going on in the background.

“I can't think of another type of beer that attempts to translate passion from the artist to the consumer better than these styles,” said Johnson.

“This is what I get to see all of the time, traveling and spending time with these brewers. I hang out with them at their brewery and we drink their beers and meet with their families, and I listen to the backstory of their life, and their businesses, and their philosophies, and the beers become so much more special. I wanted to give everyone the chance to have those same conversations and experiences to appreciate the incredible work that goes into these brands.”

Foeder for Thought has become one of the high points of Tampa Bay Beer Week, which has grown over a span of five years to include dozens of events all across the Bay Area, several of which draw visitors from well outside the borders of the Sunshine State.

Florida, and especially Tampa Bay, is no longer the butt of any beer jokes.

Good Beer HuntingTampa's beer scene owes so much to the original gangster, Cigar City.

Ask anyone why this is, and there’s a strong chance you’ll hear the name Cigar City. Although breweries like Dunedin Brewery and Tampa Bay Brewing Company predated Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing by over a decade, it wasn’t until Cigar City took off that Tampa Bay started earning some legitimate street cred.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll hear about Hunahpu’s, Cigar City’s infamous and much sought-after imperial stout – flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, cacao, and three types of chili peppers – that has become nearly synonymous with world-class Florida beer.

When the brewery-exclusive Hunahpu’s was first released at Cigar City’s inaugural Hunahpu’s Day in 2010, it was to a crowd of roughly 50 people in the brewery’s modest tasting room. This year, the event drew around 4,000 people to Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park in downtown Tampa. Before attendance was capped in 2015, the event was held at Cigar City proper, where 2014 estimates put the figure at upwards of 10,000.

This, of course, came with a healthy dose of growing pains. What kind?

“All of them,” said Cigar City director of marketing Chris Lovett. “Capacity overages, theft, mini-riots, hours long entry lines, lack of restroom facilities. No one at the brewery was an event planner, so there were pieces we didn't know that we didn't know until it was far too late. But we learned from every mistake and built on every year prior and have ended up with a pretty successful formula.”

Indeed, the scene at this year’s Hunahpu’s Day was remarkably un-chaotic, given that it involved over 130 breweries from around the world pouring 400-odd different beers, a dozen food trucks, an award ceremony, and the aforementioned 4,000 or so attendees, all of whom had to move through a staging area inside an adjacent hotel to acquire their pre-paid allotment of this year’s Hunahpu’s bottles.

Now, Florida is one of the fastest-growing states in the domestic craft beer market and Tampa Bay is unquestionably leading the charge.”

If Foeder for Thought is an intimate (attendance is capped at 400), education-based event, then Hunahpu’s Day is the ultimate Beer Week blowout, where Cigar City and other Tampa Bay breweries take their rightful place alongside the most respected breweries in the country.

Although both events are starkly different in scope, scale, and purpose, they’re emblematic of the tremendous growth that Tampa Bay’s beer scene has enjoyed over the past several years.

Foeder grew from a simple celebration of wild and sour ales into an immersive, educational experience, where one can sample SPON with Jeffery Stuffings of Jester King, or grill Black Project’s James Howat on his approach to spontaneous fermentation 5,000 miles from Pajottenland. Hunahpu’s Day grew from a low-key bottle release to an epic, mega-festival that sells out every year in a matter of seconds and draws visitors from as far away as Brazil, Sweden, and Australia.

Neither of these things seemed especially plausible just a few years ago.

“When we opened the brewery in September of 2013 less than 2% of all the beer sold in the state of Florida was craft beer,” said Johnson.

Now, Florida is one of the fastest-growing states in the domestic craft beer market, according to the Brewer’s Association, and Tampa Bay is unquestionably leading the charge.

Good Beer HuntingGreen Bench has already racked up their share of awards, and Tampa has more coming.

“All of the brewers/owners that were at Foeder for Thought I consider personal friends,” Johnson said. “I think that they all see the value in Tampa Bay Beer Week specifically. That week has grown exponentially over the last five years and the quality of events and beers has continued to rise throughout our area.”

Lovett agrees. “The scene as a whole is very respected in the industry at both the consumer and brewery level,” he said. “There is a ton of great beer being made by some world-class breweries all over the Bay Area and it is resonating well.”

What is it that’s taken the Bay Area from beer wasteland status to unmissable destination in just a few short years? Is it a peripheral effect of general growth in the area, or is it a chain reaction largely set into motion by Cigar City’s early success? Maybe it’s simply the level of ambition and quality of beers that breweries like Green Bench and Cigar City bring to the table.

Whatever the reason, it’s certain that Tampa Bay is a player in the larger beer game that cannot be ignored. If you need convincing firsthand, the seventh annual Tampa Bay Beer Week is only 10 months away.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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