With its postcard-ready crescent of sand framed by palm trees, St. Pete Beach looks like the sort of spot where fluorescent Scorpion Bowls and Mai Tais sprouting paper umbrellas would abound. Yet this stretch of Floridian coastline remained curiously behind the tiki times—until the crew at Mastry’s Brewing Co. decided to take matters into their own hands. After drinking his way through slick tiki spots in Denmark during the Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen, Micheil McElvey, head brewer and certified cicerone, decided to bring some of those tropical vibes back home.
“I thought how crazy it was that they had all these great tiki bars way over in Copenhagen and here we are in Tampa, where you have tiki historians and experts well-versed in the culture,” says Micheil McElvey, head brewer and a certified Cicerone. Every Friday this summer, Mastry Brewing Co. is releasing one-off Berliner weisses inspired by Singapore Slings, Hurricanes, and Mai Tais.
“We wanted to bring the tiki influence here down to St. Pete Beach and incorporate some of that feeling of escapism into our beers,” he says.
That escapist quality is a core part of tiki’s revival, as Shannon Mustipher, author of Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails, has pointed out. We live in anxiety-riddled times and just as the demand for comfort foods surged during the 2008 financial crisis, in our current hellish news landscape, people are more interested in luminous, orchid-garnished daiquiris than in broody speakeasies. It’s why bartenders everywhere from Bali To Bangkok are sprucing up kitschy classics with premium ingredients.
Now, brewers are taking a cue from bartenders and getting in on those vacation-in-a-glass vibes. Off Color's Spot, a Berliner “tiki” weisse loaded with passion fruit, Funky Buddha Brewery’s Huki, a double IPA also dosed with passion fruit and lime, and Peak Organic Brewing Company’s Tiki, an IPA with a whiff of cherry and coconut, are just a few of the fruit-forward beers to take off.
In reinterpreting tiki tropes, this new generation of brewers is taking care to steer clear of some of the über-boozy, saccharine associations that gave the cocktails a bad rep in the first place. Each of the Berliner weisse tiki series at Mastry’s Brewing Co. clocks in at just 3.8% ABV.
“The idea is to keep it sessionable, to keep it refreshing,” McElvey says. “We want something that embodies the tropical vibes and romanticism, but will still get you home safe. It’s not like some of the more potent traditional tiki cocktails.”
Another critical difference from the Scorpion Bowls of ye olden days is the conspicuous absence of neon-hued mixes. For a twist on the Zombie, McElvey incorporated a house-made cinnamon grapefruit simple syrup, while a Painkiller-inspired beer got its luscious flavor profile from coconut cream, pineapple juice, and a dash of nutmeg.
We wanted to bring the tiki influence here and incorporate some of that feeling of escapism into our beers.”
“It’s all about fruit. Making fresh fruit purées and simple syrups in-house makes a world of difference,” McElvey says. “We’re very much influenced by the old rhyme, ‘One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak.’ Obviously, we won’t have any of the ‘strong,’ since there’s no liquor, but getting the right balance of sweet and sour is critical.”
While McElvey leans heavily on fresh juices to establish that coveted sweet-sour equilibrium, other brewers channel the tiki spirit without using any fruit at all. For the Stone Scorpion Bowl IPA, brewers turned to the tropical trio of Mosaic, Mandarina Bavaria, and Loral hops. Meanwhile, at Founders Brewing Co., the 11.1% ABV Barrel Runner gets its sweet, boozy notes from a rest in rum barrels.
“I’m a big tiki drink lover and we're always messing around and trying different things,” says Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders Brewing Co., who developed a taste for the guilty-pleasure cocktails at a Chinese buffet restaurant he and his wife used to frequent in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “We got our hands on some rum barrels and I put this tropical, hop-forward IPA in there. When it came out of the barrels, it really picked up those coconut notes and it reminded me of a Mai Tai.”
Executing the idea turned out to be an ordeal, since finding rum barrels in good condition is something of a challenge. Unlike bourbon barrels, which are often only used once, rum distillers tend to reuse their barrels to the point of near-disintegration. The fact that many are coming from hot, humid Carribean climes doesn’t help. Still, Kosmicki thinks the results were worth the hassle. The boozy Barrel Runner may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s mellowing beautifully with age and developing a cult following.
“It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it beers,” Kosmicki says. “Some people found it was just too rum-forward, but others really appreciated the innovation. I would imagine they’re tiki drink lovers themselves.”