South Tampa’s first craft brewery, 81Bay Brewing Co., will open next month if all goes according to plan.
Stepping into 81Bay is a bit of a magic wardrobe experience. What looks like a small storefront in a bland strip mall from the outside reveals itself as a nearly 18,000-square-foot space with high ceilings and technicolor walls.
With most of its walls knocked out, the space is fitting for what will be an entertainment hall as much as a brewery. Table games, live music, movies and video games are planned for the amusement of drinkers.
81Bay was founded by entrepreneurs and friends Keelan Cottle, Michael Beard and Shawn Bowman. Cottle and Beard were roommates and fraternity brothers at Florida State University who always hoped to work together someday.
After graduation, Beard settled in San Diego and soon started homebrewing as a pastime with Bowman. Opening a brewery started to sound like a good idea after about four years, so they spoke to a consultant; conveniently enough, they learned Texas and Florida were the strongest emerging markets for craft beer.
This led Bowman and Beard to relocate last June to the Bay area, where Cottle had scouted out the perfect place for a brewery. At 4465 W. Gandy Blvd. and South Manhattan Avenue, 81Bay is at a heavily traveled crossroads, and it’s the only brewery in the vicinity.
They don’t mind being on their own island in South Tampa, though, where the closest brewery is across the close-by Gandy Bridge.
“We know that a lot of craft beer drinkers and brewers are in South Tampa,” Cottle told CL. “They need a place to go in the neighborhood.”
The trio’s brewer, Stephen Foster, hails from Pennsylvania, but has international experience.
Foster has 24 years of professional brewing under his belt, including formal education at the Bavarian State Brewery Weihenstephan, a 1,000-year-old brewery in Germany once run by Benedictine monks. He was the master brewer of Indiana’s now-defunct Four Horsemen Brewing Company, and he’s also made beer in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and South Africa.
“He was interviewing us as much as we were interviewing him. It turned out to be a good fit,” Cottle said.
While Foster is practiced at German styles, 81Bay patrons can expect a lot of diversity.
The taproom will launch with at least eight offerings, including an Irish stout, porter, pale ale, lager, raspberry ale and IPA. Cottle says they’ll focus on serving beers in their proper glassware, explaining to those who are interested why different shapes work for different styles of beer. They’ve ordered 14 variations of glassware so far.
Another kind of craft is at work on the brewery’s vivid walls, painted by St. Petersburg muralist Sebastian Coolidge. The imagery suggests the tundra, a cooling mental respite from Florida’s heat. The murals will eventually include 3D elements and light projections.
As long as construction is completed on schedule, 81Bay will debut in early June; initially, the taproom will operate Thursday through Sunday.
According to marketing director Briant Mertz, who also attended FSU with Cottle and Beard, being in the company of friends has made the hurdles of opening easier.
“A lot of people say it’s hard to work with your friends,” Mertz said. “But for us it’s worked really well. We know each other’s strengths.”
Editor's note: The print version of this story said 81Bay will open "at the end of the month" and "on a Saturday at the end of May." It has been updated to reflect what the founders told CL Thursday afternoon: the opening will now take place in early June due to construction.