Raise a mug to the first Tampa Bay Beer Week

It’s all about the beer.

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From the tapping of the first firkin of ale at the Florida Brewers Guild Festival on March 3 to the release of a world-renowned stout at Cigar City Brewing on March 10, this week is all about the beer. Following (hopping?) in the footsteps of more than 50 other U.S. cities, Tampa Bay Beer Week will be the region’s first united effort to showcase its burgeoning beer culture. And it all began with an email.

The message from Cigar City Vice President Justin Clark, sent to every brewer and distributor he knew in the Tampa Bay area, was headlined “Tampa Bay Craft Beer Week” and included a two-page attachment that outlined the rationale for a week of beer-related events. The tone was respectful and informative. But to some recipients, the real message lay between the lines: OK, everyone, you’ve all talked about creating a Tampa version of Philly’s big blowout, but nothing’s ever come of it beyond the usual bluster. So, Clark seemed to be saying, it’s time to put up or shut up: Are we serious about having a Tampa Bay Beer Week? Or are we just a lot of beer-fueled talk?

The concept of a Beer Week began in 2008 in Philadelphia, where it has grown into the largest beer celebration of its kind in the country, a 10-day event featuring hundreds of festivals, dinners, tours, pub crawls, tastings and meet-the-brewer nights throughout Greater Philadelphia. Since then such cities as San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, and New York have followed suit, and earlier this year the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Boca area was the site of Florida’s first beer week, organized by Fresh Beer Inc.

But Tampa Bay was late to the party. What seems to have tipped the balance this time is the realization that such a celebration could serve not only to attract local residents; it could also be a valuable marketing and tourism vehicle, showcasing the fact that, after years of being perceived as a beer wasteland, the Bay area was emerging as a vibrant craft and specialty beer destination.

Not that it would be easy getting all the disparate parties together. After all, the two biggest distributors, Pepin and J.J. Taylor, are under ordinary circumstances about as friendly to each other as the Hatfields and the McCoys.

But, as J. Paul Pepin said at an early planning meeting, “I box with Matt [Abdoney of J.J. Taylor] every day out there. But this is about the Tampa Bay beer scene. It’s good for all of us.”

Justin Clark’s email drew an impressive response: Everyone who received it got back to him, and everyone agreed to a meeting at Cigar City. That gathering was a milestone in itself, recalls Dave Doble, owner and head brewer of Tampa Bay Brewing Company. “It was the first time we had all ever sat down serious and sober together.”

Local beer lover and event organizer Ben Mills agreed to coordinate efforts. Distributors directed their sales staffs to organize events and promotions, including brewers from across the country, rare kegs and bottles, and beer and food pairing events. Home brewing clubs got on board with educational events for both beginner and advanced home brewers. Their unified single mission: to celebrate Tampa Bay beer culture.

The next meeting, which I was invited to attend, was held at Dunedin Brewery; the discussion was both eye-opening and exciting. Imagine, if you will, the “Five Families” of the Tampa Bay beverage distribution sector having a sit-down, joined by representatives from 10 different breweries and one independent retailer. In an unprecedented show of community, these powerhouses united to make this event happen.

In light of so many strong personalities, there was bound to be some disagreement. Everyone had a different idea of what a beer week would be.

Greg Rapp of the soon-to-be-opened Rapp Brewing in Pinellas Park was excited about the big picture. “This is about our love of beer — all kinds! And it’s an opportunity to share that love with others.”

Matt Abdoney was more pragmatic. “This is a chance for us to educate beer drinkers. Showing them that not all beer is the American Light Lagers they are used to. We can introduce them to some of the great craft beers that are available, including some brewed right here.”

But not everyone was cool with using the term “craft beer,” as opposed to, well, just “beer.”

“We don’t want people to think this is a beer snob event,” said J. Paul Pepin.

“We should not have to apologize for being craft beer,” retorted Bob Sylvester, owner and brewer of Saint Somewhere Brewing in Tarpon Springs.

Tom Barris of Florida Beer Company, based in Melbourne, chimed in: “It doesn‘t have to be either/or… There will be events for the full spread: the novice beer drinker and the hardcore beer geek. There is something for everyone.”

“We’ll handle the hardcore geeks,” laughed Justin Stange of Seventh Sun Brewing in Dunedin. The newest brewery in Tampa Bay, Seventh Sun is known for its envelope-pushing styles.

In the end, everyone was in agreement. Somewhere along the line, the “craft” came out of the title, and a week was designed that would appeal to all, not only to the beer cognoscenti. The geeks wouldn’t be ignored; for them there would be be special releases, limited release beers, and beer pairing dinners in abundance.

But Tampa Bay Beer Week would be an event for anyone who likes beer, period.

For many in attendance, myself included, Tampa Bay Beer Week will be about more than great beer, parties, and having fun. It will be about validation. It will be a big, delicious, tangible reminder of how far we have come in Tampa Bay — and in Florida — in a relatively short period of time. Many factors have played a part in building and growing the beer culture here, not the least of which has been tireless, and often thankless, work done by the brewers themselves. Combined with an increasing demand by locals for better quality and more local goods, and the national explosion of craft breweries, Tampa Bay was poised to make a huge splash in the beer community, and we have.

Tampa Bay Beer Week will not only showcase local beers, but restaurants, hotels, museums, and the cities themselves. As Ben Mills put it, “Visitors already know that we have the best weather and beaches in the country. Most know that we have baseball spring training and great theme parks. But what they don’t know is the one-two punch we have when it comes to beer. Tampa Bay Beer Week will let the world in on our secret. Not only do we have incredible breweries making startlingly delicious and complex beer, we have distributors that bring in rare beers from every corner of the globe, many which are never seen outside their local range of distribution.”

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