Let’s face it, you are in Orlando because you are either indentured to a convention on International Drive or you bit the bullet and took the family to visit the happiest place on Earth (shameless plug) or the commemoration of the orphan wizard and Emma Watson. Or both.
But, what if you got in a day or two early to that trade show? What if your spouse gave you a hall pass from family duty? With your rental car or ride-sharing app in hand, you can easily take the day and do something you actually want to do: drink beer.
Sure, you can find cans of Florida-brewed Cigar City or Funky Buddha at every restaurant, bar, or shake joint in town, but why not drink a little more local? Orlando has a small but growing craft beer scene. It’s not Asheville, Austin, or even Atlanta, but it’s not a desert. Decent, if not high quality craft beer, is available if you look beyond the plastic facades and concrete highway embankments.
So, where do you find it? Easy. Look for the only places in town where there are no children.
Dead Lizard Brewing Company
Take Interstate 4 to the exit for The Holy Land Experience; a less than gentle reminder that Jesus, not Walt Disney, is the savior of record. Take Conroy Road west to (I kid you not) President Barack Obama Parkway. Make a right then make a right on 36th Street, following it to Dead Lizard Brewing Company, a family-run brewery focusing on cream ales and hoppy beers.
My Google search indicated the brewery had Monday hours; the locked door proved us all wrong. It turns out they are closed on Mondays.
Thusly, I cannot offer much about Dead Lizard’s beers. Neither can Beer Advocate or RateBeer, which lack enough ratings for a representative, reliable opinion. Untappd raters have awarded it an average of 3.66 stars out of five, for what it’s worth.
Hop back on the interstate, but know that this is probably not the last time you will visit Conroy Road today.
Orlando Brewing Company
John Cheek is quick to remind you of his place in Florida brewing: co-founder of the Central Florida Home Brewers and owner of the sixth-oldest distributing brewery in the state; only the Anheuser Busch plant in Jacksonville, Yuengling brewery in Tampa, Tampa Bay Brewing Company, Dunedin Brewing and Florida Brewing Company (formerly Indian River Brewing) in Melbourne are older.
Cheek will tell you that he got into commercial brewing by accident. He started brewing with a friend in 1987 after doing a turn in the Army. He eventually graduated to a five-barrel pilot system. Financial trouble once hit and the banks seized everything, including Cheek’s brewing equipment. In order to get his equipment out of receivership, he bought a friend’s debt and wound up with rest of the brewhouse to boot. It was the makings of what would become Orlando Brewing Company.
I sipped an I-4 IPA (“It’s easier to drink it than drive it,” Cheek says.) while he worked his way through a mug of tea during our 30-minute long chat about craft brewing in Florida.
OBC has 35 beers on tap, including the remains of its Oktoberfest batch. The IPA (5.8% ABV) had a strong malt bill that put it on even keel with the hops, lending itself to a sweet, fruity flavor. Cheek explained that what sets his beers apart is the quality. Everything is brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot, Germany’s five-century old beer purity laws, and the brewery is U.S.D.A. Certified Organic.
95% of everything we use is supposed to be certified organic, but we’re 100%. We finally found organic yeast.”
Of course, the quality comes at a price.
“We pay double what other people pay for their malted barley and three to four times what others are paying for hops. For a beer like our Old Pelican, we’re using Fuggles instead of Centennials. We’re spending $60 for organic hops versus the $15 that somebody else is spending.”
Higher production costs means higher costs to bars. A keg of OBC is $25 more than a keg of something from Terrapin Brewing Co., according to Cheek, leading to his beers always being 25 cents to a dollar more than other beers.
As I was leaving, he suggested making the 40-mile drive to Titusville on the Space Coast to visit the Playalinda Brewing Company.
“Ron Rake is the brewer. He’s the best brewer I know.”
Since I had to get back to my hotel by dinnertime, the 50-minute one-way drive was out of the question and, really, out of Orlando. Instead, it goes on the checklist for my next trip to the Sunshine State.
Ocean Sun Brewing
Counting Orlando Brewing, there are four breweries located on a looping 20-minute drive within the southwest quadrant where I-4 and Florida’s Turnpike cross each other. Take East Kaley Drive, make a left on South Bumby Avenue, then make a right on Curry Ford Road. The strip mall on the right houses to Ocean Sun Brewing.
The space does not do much to shed the strip mall feel. Don’t get me wrong. The beer is fine and the owner was a pleasant chat, but the space itself has all of the ubiquitous trappings of every other shopping center on the I-4 corridor.
The long, narrow interior is bounded by a short bar abutting the front windows on one side and the brewing area, separated from the rest of the room by a wrought iron railing, sits at the rear. If not for the glistening stainless steel fermenters in the distance, it could be mistaken for a pizza shop or sportsbar.
Steve Wilkerson was behind the bar during my stop. He and his brother Mark make up two-thirds of the ownership. In between growler fills, he mentioned that they just signed on with a local distributor to get its beer into bars throughout the county.
Each of the growlers that left the bar were full of Bumby Blonde (6.7%), a Belgian-style blonde that is spicy and tangy like a farmhouse ale. He said it’s Ocean Sun’s most popular label, likely because it’s the least hoppy beer on the menu and the closest to the world’s most accessible gateway beer, Blue Moon. Steve insisted that I try his favorite, the Mur De Huy (8.9%), a Belgian dark promising complexity. It was a fairly simple, pretty basic Belgian dubbel with a rich malt sweetness.
We chatted as he laminated menus at the bar, proud of the relationship he struck with the Mexican restaurant next door. Patrons of Ocean Sun can order food at the bar and the bartenders can send the order directly to the kitchen next door and it will deliver the food when ready. It’s ingenious, really; all of the benefits of having a kitchen without the overhead and liability.
Ocean Sun runs two nitro lines, one of which always dispenses its Buchi stout (5.0%). It’s a pretty basic milk stout enhanced by a generous helping of Cuban espresso. Buchi has a rich, robust coffee flavor and creamy mouthfeel, like someone had thought to put Cuban coffee on nitro a la Stumptown.
If you can’t grab one of the on-street parking slots in front of Ten10 Brewing, duck around the corner to the lot it shares with an ad agency. It was an unseasonably warm January day (78 degrees) when I visited and the garage doors separating the brewhouse from the street were wide open, affording passersby a strong whiff of the mash boil.
The brewery opened in 2015, and was luckliy able to grab a storefront position in Orlando’s Mills50 District, an emerging neighborhood where local businesses are trying to build a culture beyond the theme parks.
Black Sabbath thumped over the speakers in the snug tasting room, while a black-and-white Annette Funicello beach movie played on the televisions (You do you, Ten10). The beer menu reflected the same eclectic attitude. Sure, there was the standard lineup of hoppy IPAs, a pale ale, and an imperial stout, but you could also grab an altbier, two different styles of milk stouts, and a pair of farmhouse ales. It was the most diverse assortment of beers of any stop I would make that day.
Owner Chris Wallace was behind the bar during my visit and offered up the East West IPA (7.0%) as his bestseller. It was an aggressive hop forward IPA, utilizing Cascade, Centennial, and Columbus hops to construct a west coast flavor profile of bitter citrus and pine. The east coast influences arrive with the sweet malts that kick in near the middle and smooth things out. Bitter hops dry things out towards the end.
The Ebenezer (8.3%) was a bottled abbey ale that fell off the top of the spice rack and hit every shelf on the way down. Cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg are each added, as is Kenyan coffee from roasted at a nearby coffeehouse, before aging on oak.
Is cousin, Yet To Come (8.3%), was an oak-aged abbey that ranks as Ten10’s finest, and possibly the single best beer brewed in the city. The aging imparted a smokey bourbon flavor that was smooth and addicting.
If you’re hungry at this point, grab one of their spent grain pretzels to soak up the beers. It will be enough to tide you over for the car ride.
Crooked Can Brewing Co.
It’s a 20-minute ride and three highway changes from Downtown Orlando to Winter Garden and the Plant Street Market, home of Crooked Can Brewing Company. As food markets go, Plant Street is more Gotham West than, say, Chelsea. with open stalls inviting diners to pull up a stool at their space.
By this point, you should be hungry, so grab a coal-fired pizza, a hunk of quiche, or a sandwich and belly up to the concrete bar at Crooked Can. The bartender won’t mind; as a matter of fact, he’ll watch your seat until you come back.
The main bar faces a faux brick wall and a couple of televisions, but if you look to the left you can gaze into the brewhouse. The 15-barrel kettle sits upfront with a row of 30-barrel fermenters beside it. Though it only opened in 2015, it is already the largest brewery in Orlando, by capacity. In terms of distribution, it battles only Orlando Brewing for shelf space and taps in Central Florida.
The beers remind me of the last time I saw the Allman Brothers Band; the music was great, but they seemed too polished. Gone were the grit and rough edges during their neverending jams. The extended instrumental play felt orchestrated and over-rehearsed.
Likewise, Crooked Can’s beers each start out with big flavors but all smooth themselves out for a well-rounded but predictable finish. The High Stepper IPA (7.0%) hits you in the face with its aggressive citrus hop profile, but finished with a pleasant, but unremarkable, dry hop bitterness. The same could be said for the Cloud Stepper (5%) hefeweizen. Credited by the bartender as the bestseller, it is an unassuming beer with flavors of banana and clove. Even the Black Rye IPA, which promised aggressive hops and a pungent rye malt, went back very smooth and easy.
This is not to say that the beers are bad. There are just no surprises on tap. Each on its own is just slightly above average. Together, they make for a very good lineup of beers.
If you’ve had one Gordon Biersch beer, you’ve had them all.”
So now what? If the mouse (or wife and kids) beckons, hop back on State Route 429 and ride the expressway back to your resort. You can always make a pit stop at Disney’s Boardwalk for a quick one at the Big River Grille and Brew Works, the only brewery on the grounds, though it’s operated by the same company behind mall stalwarts Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom. If you’ve had one Gordon Biersch beer, you’ve had them all. You’re better off grabbing a Jai Ali at your resort’s pool bar.
If you are heading back to International Drive and your hotel, you have two options for souvenirs. Take that Conroy Road exit from I-4 and head to the Millenia Boulevard shopping area to hit up Total Wine & More, the national liquor store chain that devotes about a third of the store to craft beer. There’s a stellar selection of singles, sixers and cases, and the store did not seem to mind people breaking up six packs (though I doubt it encourages the practice). Or, skip down Sand Lake Road to The Gnarly Barley, a beer bar/bottle shop hybrid that gets high marks from the locals.
After all, when it comes to keepsakes from this trip, you deserve better than a set of mouse ears.