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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 27, 2019 7 months ago

Brew and improved: With land deal, beer maker takes next big step

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Going from hobby to award-winning, thriving brewery in six years is only the first pint for an ambitious couple. The next year holds even more promise.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

In 2019, Fort Myers Brewing found a new gear, went to the next level, cleared the last hurdle or whatever metaphor you can think of for a company that experienced transformational, positive change.

The biggest win of all: the six-year-old brewery, owned and operated by Rob and Jen Whyte, won unanimous approval from Lee County Commissioners to build a 40,000-square-foot brewery, office, tasting hall and beer garden on land previously owned by the Lee County Port Authority.

The Whytes acquired the 23-acre vacant parcel, near Southwest Florida International Airport, for $2.05 million.

“It’s going to take a couple of years to build out,” Jen Whyte says. “We’re going to build on about 7 acres of it. But there are wetlands on the parcel, and we’re going to impact a very small amount of those wetlands.”

“It makes more sense at this point for us to be in a standalone facility.” Jen Whyte, co-owner of Fort Myers Brewing

That wetlands impact means the Army Corps of Engineers will be involved. Because of the additional steps in the permitting process, the Whytes have been told to expect an 18- to 24-month delay before they can break ground.

But the wait, they believe, will be worth it. And besides, the Whytes are accustomed to waiting for FMB’s ideal home, having first approached port authority officials about the land three years ago.

When complete, the new facility will allow the Whytes to fully capitalize on the momentum they’ve built up since opening FMB in 2013 as a hobby business. In 2016, FMB was named Best Large Brewery in Florida at the Best Florida Beer Competition, while its chocolate stout, called Somebody Else’s Dream, won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival — a competition in Denver that drew nearly 9,500 entries but handed out just 318 medals.

“That means that, overall, a beer had a 3.3-3.4% chance of winning a medal,” Whyte says. “That’s about the same probability as flipping a coin and getting the same side five times in a row. Winning a GABF medal is hard, and the beers that win are clearly marked as exceptional.” 

Awards like that have been a great help to FMB because its current home, a 20,000-square-foot space at 12811 Commerce Lakes Drive, Suite 28, north of Southwest Florida International Airport, is a wee bit off the beaten path. “People seek it out,” Whyte says, referring to Somebody Else’s Dream, “and then stay for the other beers, as well.”

When FMB first opened its doors at its current space, the location was labeled incorrectly in navigation apps like Google Maps. Yet craft beer fans flocked to the brewery in droves — solid early validation. 

“Right now, you have to park across the street and then walk through an entire industrial park to get here,” Whyte says. “I think that says something about the beer quality and the experience people are having once they get here. Getting here is difficult, and it's an industrial condo complex, so there's a lot of other tenants and businesses. It makes more sense at this point for us to be in a standalone facility.”

FMB’s new home looks to be a massive upgrade. It will feature a beer hall, commercial brewing facility and tank farm surrounding an event lawn. There will also be a food truck rally area, offices — including a co-working space — and ample parking.

The Whytes have not yet finalized a budget for the new facility but plan to take out a business loan from FineMark National Bank & Trust to pay for it. They’re still in the site-planning process and say the project could be developed in phases, though they would prefer to do it all at once.

While they wait for the gears of the government permitting process to turn, the Whytes aren't standing still. They plan to bottle Somebody Else’s Dream for wide release in 2020. They’re also working on a spiked seltzer product and have added a new canning line that can handle the slim cans used by popular national spiked seltzer brands, such as White Claw.

“There are a handful of Florida breweries that have been packaging their seltzers, but we spent two years working on ours,” Whyte says. “It took us a few months to get about 95% of the way there, but we didn't want to release a product that was 95% of what we wanted it to be. Getting that last 5% made it crystal clear and clean. And we didn't add any artificial sweeteners. That's what distinguishes us from most of the other products on the market.”

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