Some teenagers put together garage bands. Michael Bryant put together a garage brewery. The owner of Dunedin's only microbrewery took his first steps toward becoming a brew master when he was just 13 years old. He'd stumbled on a small paperback book that contained simple recipes for homemade fruit wines and used his family's garage for his first experiments in fermentation. After sneaking a bottle of orange wine out of the garage, Michael's older brother woozily encouraged his little bro to persevere in perfecting his new craft. Before long, Michael had progressed to the home brewing of beer. Wine was left behind, and Michael never looked back. Home-brewing beer became a fulfilling hobby, one he pursued even as he built his own business, Bryant Construction.
Renne Basagic, the queen of confections at Diadre's Fine Chocolate By Design, had her first shop next door to Bryant Construction, and fondly recalled Michael brewing small batches of beer alongside his construction equipment: "He was always coming into our store with glasses of beer, saying, "Here, try this!' The beers were always really dark and foamy, and because they were unfiltered, you could see the yeast floating in the glass. It didn't look at all appetizing, and I never really wanted to taste them, but we always did, just because Michael was so excited and enthusiastic about them. He's that kind of personality. He just bubbles over when he's excited about something, and he carries you along with him."
Bryant Construction grew, and with ever-expanding garage space available, so did Michael's home brew production. Nine years ago, a friend who was a commercial brewer convinced Michael he should go commercial, and in 1986 Dunedin Brewery was formed, opening in a small 1000-square-foot space with a seven-barrel system. It was then that Michael discovered the other side of the equation. "I had a handle on what style of beer I wanted to brew, and which of my beers people seemed to like best," Michael told a crowd gathered at his brewery. "What I didn't know was that brewing would seem easy next to the difficulties of handling distribution."
Stores weren't eager to carry a small, unproven brand their customers had never heard of, and were intimidated by large brewers who told them they'd stop delivery of the most popular brands if the stores carried small microbrews. It took persistence and perseverance to get a foothold in the market. "What really made the difference for us," said Michael's wife, Candy, "was the support we got from the other businesses here in Dunedin. Every restaurant on Main Street carries our beer, and they're enthusiastic about introducing it to people. Once people had tasted it in a restaurant, and developed a liking for the flavor of fresh beer, they began asking for it in stores. That's what really opened the doors for us — customer demand."
Candy says that today the beer is carried in stores as far away as Jacksonville and Palm Beach. "But don't get the idea this is a big business," Candy said with a laugh. "Our entire distribution system is two men and a truck! We have one full time employee, Jim, our brewer".
Candy said they use their children Traci, 16, and Michael, 17, as part-time "slave labor" when they're bottling. Plus, they help bottle and paste the labels on. "My husband Michael is the brew master," she said, "and I help out on Friday nights. Bryant Construction is our full-time occupation, so the brewery is still what Michael does for fun. But he's taken it a long way from the family garage."
A long way, indeed. Dunedin Brewery recently moved into a brand new 20-barrel brew house — custom-built, of course. And this time around, the "garage" is large enough to host a keg party. Every Friday night, from 5 to 11 p.m., the doors of the brewery are propped open and the neighborhood is invited in for beer and live music. The place is always packed. There's no food, just the chance to taste Dunedin Brewery's seven or eight fresh beers and meet the friendly folks of Dunedin as you listen to live music. The staff from many of the local restaurants, like Casa Tina Vegetarian Mexican Restaurant, often drifts over after their kitchens close. "Sometimes," said Candy, "we're having too much fun to close the doors!"
To provide folks a close-up view of the brewing process, Candy and Michael give guided tours of the brewery at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. "We used to give folks the tour anytime someone walked through the door, but now that we're bigger, we need it to be a little more structured," she said. "Still, if someone wants to bring a group through on Saturday, heck, they can just call."
In addition, the brewery can be rented out for the ultimate keg party. You cater your own food, and either set up a cash bar or have the brewery run a tab for you. I recently had the pleasure of attending the birthday bash Renne Basagic hosted for her husband, John. Friends and family gathered at Diadre's chocolate shop for cordials and rum-soaked cherries, then paraded behind 17-year-old Michael Bryant as he played the bagpipes, leading us through the streets of Dunedin and into his parents' brewery.
There we found Renne creating a lavish banquet of all John's favorite gourmet foods, from chilidogs to Spam. The beer taps were already flowing, and Candy was setting out pitchers of the brewery's best-sellers like Piper Pale Ale and Red Head Red Ale, named after vivacious redhead Kelly Carlson from the popular Dunedin eatery Kelly's ... for Just About Anything. Candy's own favorite, for its smoky flavor, is Dunedin Highland Games Ale. "It's the best thing you ever tasted with barbecue!" she enthused.
At evenings end, we paraded under the stars, following the sound of the bagpipes past coffeehouses and bed and breakfasts, where guests came out on their porches to cheer and wave us by. "What's the occasion?" one of them yelled. "Just seemed like a nice night for a walk," I replied. "I love Dunedin!" he yelled back.
So do I. So do I.