St. Pete Brewing Company to open at last

It was supposed to be the first brewery in downtown St. Petersburg.

click to enlarge BREW THE DREAM: Michele Williams, Jon McCracken, Tom Williams, and McCracken’s fiancée Aida Rivera. - Kevin & Lisa Tighe
Kevin & Lisa Tighe
BREW THE DREAM: Michele Williams, Jon McCracken, Tom Williams, and McCracken’s fiancée Aida Rivera.

Tom Williams is a patient brewer. 

Three years ago his St. Pete Brewing Company debuted its signature beer and seemed poised to open in downtown St. Petersburg. But his plan to open at Baywalk went belly up when the downtown shopping plaza switched hands, and finding a new spot proved as elusive as finding the right head brewer.
“It’s tough,’’ he says. “We thought we were going to be the first ones.”

Four breweries have opened in St. Petersburg since then, three of them downtown, part of a craft beer explosion in the area so remarkable that even the New York Times has taken notice. All the while, Williams has helped fuel these developments through the financing company he owns.

But now, at long last, with a building of his own and the right brewer as a partner, Williams is ready to go from concept to reality.

click to enlarge OPENING SOON: The brewery hopes to open in time for Tampa Bay Beer Week next month. - St. Pete Brewing Company
St. Pete Brewing Company
OPENING SOON: The brewery hopes to open in time for Tampa Bay Beer Week next month.
Any week now — in time for Tampa Bay Beer Week, he hopes — Williams will roll up the garage door below the hop-draped banyan mural of his new space in the 500 block of First Avenue North. With 12 taps, a 10-barrel brew-house he bought from Big Storm Brewing in Odessa, 50 barrels of fermenter capacity, an 850-square-foot tasting room built in the same room as the brewhouse, a chalkboard menu made of skateboards (a nod to a previous tenant), glass growlers and mason-jar pints in hand, Williams is finally ready.

But what kind of craft brewery is he opening? It’s a bit of a mystery even to him, he admits, and he can’t wait to find out.

Three years ago, Williams and his wife/business partner Michele debuted their St. Pete Orange Wheat at the Ale and the Witch, an American craft beer tavern that Williams’ company, e-Lease, helped finance. That beer has been contract-brewed and bottled in Maryland from the start, so while the business was based in St. Petersburg the beer was brewed many states away. And that will continue even after the brewery opens. It’s a marketing strategy to keep the brand in the public eye. The draft version will be made in St. Petersburg by head brewer Jon McCracken, an experienced brewer whose tastes lean more toward West Coast IPAs than a sessionable orange pale ale.

Which he hasn’t even tried to make yet.

“If we had our druthers that would not be our signature beer,” Williams says. Williams is confident enough in McCracken’s brewing chops to let him do his thing, make his own recipes, create his own brand. Besides, McCracken, who spent the past two years brewing at Tampa Bay Brewing Co. and years before that in California and Vermont, is used to making other people’s recipes. He’s done it his whole career.

But he’s eager to start making his own. While other new Tampa Bay craft breweries like Rapp, Green Bench, 7venth Sun and Angry Chair grew a following at local beer festivals or pop-up tastings, St. Pete Brewing has offered up only one example of its beer, a solid, well-balanced 6.5 percent IPA, served at the Halfway There Festival in September. McCracken says he’s thinking his first batch will be a stout. The Orange Wheat will wait.

Williams says to expect a wide range of styles, from blondes to stouts. “We want to be very user-friendly.”

Years of waiting while he looked for the right site were followed by still more delays. Bankruptcy issues prevented occupancy of the building. Then the government shutdown slowed his federal permit, which he didn’t get until January. Even after the brewhouse was installed he was forced to reconfigure the ventilation system, which took weeks.

In an odd way, the delays worked out, Williams says. “It’s taken an extra year but if we hadn’t waited a year we wouldn’t have found Jon.”

Their neighbors have been waiting, too. The pizza joint (Angelo’s) and art gallery flanking the brewery are hoping the new brewery will draw customers from busy Central Avenue one block away. It won’t hurt that Cycle Brewing, already a magnet for beer geeks, is located right around the corner.

The tight confines of the craft beer world mean that Cycle and St. Pete Brewing are both competitors and collaborators. Not just by geography: e-Lease helped Cycle finance its new brewhouse. And in the usual spirit of craft beer collaboration, Green Bench Brewing's Khris Johnson and Steve Duffy helped install the brewing system.

Williams’ experience helping to finance breweries taught him to be cautious. He didn’t want to find himself in the same situation as a brewery client in Chicago that lost its lease and was left homeless for a while. So he waited until he found the right building he could buy. “I want this business to be here for 100 years,” he says.

He expects to sell the vast majority of his beer initially on site, with a canning line in year two.

“Distribution is a bonus for us,” he says.

He’s shooting for 1,000 barrels of production, year one. He also has his finance company e-Lease next door.

But he has long-range plans for that space: Move out and make room for the brewery.

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