In the midst of a scene full of brewers scrambling to expand and take full advantage of the local (and national) craft beer boom, Brian Fenstermacher and Seminole Heights’ Southern Brewing & Winemaking are happy to stay small.
“I was able to circle back around to what I liked,” he says. “We don’t distribute. We have no interest in distributing. We do small batches and we’re proud of it.”
Fenstermacher’s done the “big small beer” thing. He’s been in brewing for nearly two decades, first in Atlanta, then with Tampa’s first homegrown microbrewery, Ybor City Brewing Company (you might remember their once-ubiquitous Ybor Gold lager). After his stint there, he, his wife and partner Kelly and some backers planned to open a new brewery in association with well-known Portland, Maine, brand Shipyard. The financing fell through, however, and the Fenstermachers found an alternate business plan in opening a wholesale business providing grains, hops and other supplies to homebrewers all over the Southeast.
“We grew that company and sold it three years ago,” says Fenstermacher. “Toward the end, the other local homebrew shop closed, and we started selling supplies [locally] out of the warehouse. Part of the plan with selling the wholesale business was building a nicer homebrew shop with a brewery attached.”
That plan found its fruition in Southern’s beautiful, still-evolving space on Nebraska Avenue. Part homebrew shop, part taproom, part brewery and part spacious biergarten, it’s a one-stop shop for Tampa Bay craft brew lovers, featuring a large, ever-changing lineup of beers.
“People really enjoy [getting beer available nowhere else],” Fenstermacher says. “The variety that we have for the size we are is, I think, more than any other brewery in the area. We have 24 taps, we have house-made root beer and sodas, and we have a winery license, we can make ciders and meads, so we have those as well.”
What Southern also has is a staff of knowledgeable and helpful employees, many of whom have worked their way up from retail to become brewers themselves. Many senior Southern employees still put in time on the sales floor, helping customers with equipment and insight.
The dedicated staff, and Southern’s antipathy toward any ambitions for global domination, allow the Fenstermachers more freedom than the average commercial brewer. But while Brian is passionate about aviation — like Tampa Bay Brewing Company’s David Doble, a close friend, he’s a licensed pilot — beer is truly his life, and occupies as much of his off-the-clock time as it does his working hours.
“My job has always been my hobby, beer, brewing, visiting breweries, that’s pretty much what I do,” he says. “David and I go flying quite a bit, to beer fests, up to Asheville [N.C.], that’s a nice trip. That’s a lot of fun, getting out and seeing what other breweries are up to.”
His dedication to staying small doesn’t necessarily mean resting on his laurels, though. Southern continues to tinker with small-batch beers, meaning there’s usually something new and different on tap every time a drinker wanders in.
“I love IPAs, but we’re getting a lot more into sours, and we’re going to start barrel-aging quite a bit more, that’s a whole new world that’s exciting to me,” says Fenstermacher. “The great thing about brewing is that there’s always new styles, new things to try, it never gets dull. And we’re set up to be able to experiment and try different things, given our batch size and our brewing system.”
He admits that he’s not immune to the temptations of expansion, and that it does creep into his thoughts from time to time. But, having worked at every level of commercial brewing over the course of his career, he’s happy with Southern’s size and continuing evolution.
“I have no aspirations of getting bigger than we are,” he says. “Just getting better at what we do.”
Favorite local beer that’s not his: “Tampa Bay Brewing Company’s Reef Donkey. It’s an excellent, excellent pale ale.”
His signature Southern beer: “One beer can’t capture the philosphy, the vibe of what we do. But that said, the West Side IPA is probably my favorite beer. It’s one that we developed here [since Southern opened], and one of our past brewers had a hand in developing it — that always happens, our brewers are always a big part of it. One person will write a recipe, and then everybody brings in their ideas and we tweak it. It’s very collaborative.”
Southern Brewing & Winemaking
4500 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa