The craft beer boom is on full pour across Florida, as the movement continues to gain market share and converts from traditional brews. Maybe the industry's growing heft can lead to a new marketing shtick: This isn't your father's beer. But he'd like it.
One key to the success, of course, is it's local — brought to you by entrepreneurs who can do what they love without worrying about big national and regional operators coming in to step on their success, says Jess Baker, Atlanta-based editor of CraftBeer.com. “I think it would be hard to capture that authenticity of a small independent craft brewery,” says Baker. “That is what is so attractive to beer-lovers.”
There are now some 5,500 brewpubs nationwide. A look inside the operations of Southwest Florida brewpubs reveals there are different strategies to increase market penetration and awareness and do what these proprietors love to do — make and serve beer. A key theme to succeed, and get repeat visitors, is to build a club-, if not a cult-, like following.
Like most brewpubs where the product is made in spaces shared with customers, 1-year-old Millennial's taproom has a warehouse feel. One reason is the 6,300-square-feet downtown Fort Myers craft brewery, at 1811 Royal Palm Ave., was, in fact, a warehouse until former tech professionals Kyle Cebull and Logan Roberts decided it was where they would pursue a passion for brewing beer.
Beyond the obvious goal of making money, the pair sought to build a following that extends beyond typical craft beer enthusiasts. “We want to create a community of people who can get behind us,” Cebull says.
This, he says, explains the focus on accessibility and acquainting customers with the intricacies of craft beer. The seemingly alien offerings can intimidate novices. But that seldom lasts at Millennial, Cebull says. “We want everyone who walks in to be maximum comfortable.”
A start on that can be unlimited samples of Millennial's offerings. Millennial goes through up to 60 kegs a week and keeps 10 beers on tap. “I am more than happy to give it away,” Cebull says. “I would much rather get you a full pint of something you really like.”
Maintaining a wide selection is part of the strategy to build a diverse following. “We brew all kinds of different stuff with a different segment in mind each time we brew,” Cebull says.
Another important part of the build-a-community model is Millennial's membership arrangement, or club. The various levels provide members discounts, growler refills and other perks, creating a sense of ownership among patrons, Cebull says.
The Millennial name comes from the age of the proprietors — not a target market. Cebull is 34 and Roberts is 30.
Millennial's taproom seats 100, but customers can bring folding chairs, their children and pets. The brewery has regular afternoon-to-evening hours and live music some nights. Interspersed are special events like league nights and food truck rallies.
Cebull handles operations, while Roberts oversees brewing, a craft he first took up eight years ago at home. He hasn't looked back after leaving an IT job a year ago to team up with Cebull. “Always something to be fixed and always a new beer to brew,” Roberts says.
Fort Myers Brewing business director Joel Germain says quality of the beer is the key to a successful craft beer operation.
Fort Myers Brewing
Fort Myers Brewing Co. is the granddaddy of Fort Myers brewpubs. It gets that moniker because the craft brewery at 12811 Commercial Lakes Drive will turn 5 in February. That makes it the oldest in the market — and one of the largest, at 12,000 square feet and tops in barrels rolled out to customers.
Fort Myers Brewing's Joel Germain says the longevity stems from simple superiority. “We make good beer and people love it,” he says.
What they love most, he says, are the India pale ales, which include the High 5 IPA coming in at 5.9% alcohol by volume.
For less alcohol, Fort Myers Brewery offers a Gateway Gold, its introduction to craft beer. A light blond with a touch of sweetness, it's 4.1% ABV. Another lighter choice is the City of Palms Pils at 4.2%. Other brews contain a variety of ingredients, from mandarin orange to chocolate.
Meanwhile, the customer count keeps growing, says Germain. “We've seen steady growth year-to-year,” he says.
Like others in the market, Fort Myers Brewery works to develop and keep a demographically varied following, and build a club-like atmosphere. That includes special events, Thursday night parties on the patio and perks for brewery club members. A flow of food trucks in the parking lot helps. “We are a taproom,” he says. “That is the fantastic thing about craft beer. We get each type of customer.”
The industry has noticed, too: Florida brewery operators in 2016 voted Fort Myers Brewing the “Best Large Brewery” in the Best Florida Beer Competition.
Will Lawson says Naples Beach Brewery has been growing rapidly.
Naples Beach Brewery
Growing crowds have erased concerns master brewer Will Lawson and his wife, Rachel, had about opening Naples Beach Brewery in a semi-isolated warehouse district.
Growth over the last couple years has even been enough to end Will Lawson's stint as the main attraction on the brewing side. He's turned over some of the making of 1,250 to 1,500 gallons of beer a week to a pair of full-time helpers.
Will and Rachel Lawson, who keeps the books, started out brewing kegs for drinking establishments in the area. They still sell wholesale to about 100 customers.
In 2015, the couple opened Naples Beach, on Enterprise Avenue, in a warehouse district. Naples Beach Brewery's 4,500-square-foot space has seating for 90 and outdoor seating for an additional 30 to 40 customers. “It's kind of a funky little place,” Will Lawson says, and it's family- and dog-friendly.
To add to the warehouse feel, the Lawsons put tables made from shipping pallets around the inside. Food trucks are regulars, and the bar sells snacks and finger foods.
The brewery is known for having 30 craft beers on tap, says Lawson, who trained as a brewer in Germany and Scotland. “Our best sellers are light beers and cream ales,” along with the Latitude Adjustment IPA.
On any day of the week, people aged 21 to 70 fill up communal tables. Many are regulars, Lawson notes. “We noticed in 2017, especially in the summer, we had a lot of locals coming through, planting the flag and saying, 'This is my hangout.'”
To help cement the following, a potter made 21-ounce mugs for each member of a brew club Lawson established. The big perk is members get refills for the price of a 16-ouncer and first dibs on growler fills when a special new batch comes out. “We have definitely grown our brand name,” Lawson says.
Big Blue Brewery's Phil Brittain says his location has exceeded expectations.
Big Blue Brewing
Cape Coral's JoAnn Elardo uses a one-two punch to put her city on the libations map.
She opened craft rum and vodka distillery Blue Dolphin in 2012 and just celebrated the first anniversary of second creation: Big Blue Brewing, a craft brewery whose lineup of Blue Dolphin vodka and rum cocktails and prepared food offerings such as steaks, seafood, burgers and pizza set it apart from other area brewpubs.
Big Blue Brewery's food and spirits component means no alcoholic beverages can be taken off the premises. But as the Cape's lone craft brewery, Big Blue “has exceeded expectations,” General Manager Phil Brittain says of the combination brewpub and restaurant.
“We're brewing a lot more beer than we anticipated,” he adds. The cooler stays stocked with the seven or eight beers made on site as well as brews from other craft breweries in the region, state and as far away as California, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Big Blue's highest demand comes from its India pale ale selections. These include a high-octane Kicks After 6 IPA at 8.4% alcohol by volume and the slightly lower key Bitter Embrace IPA at 6.4% ABV.
With two bars and a patio, Big Blue seats about 225. It also has a fire pit and a beer garden is opening soon, Brittain says.
Big Blue has followed the lead of other brewpubs that create followings through club membership. The brewery's Mug Club provides members a designated oversized mug that offers refills for the cost of a pint.
Things are going so well, the concept might expand. Says Brittain: “We want to open multiple locations under Big Blue.”