Why Tampa Is the Best Beer City in the USA

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[Illustration: Zac Overman]

I know, I know. You're thinking: Tampa Bay? For beer? Really? Isn't it known more for its sunny beaches than its sour ales? For its sweaty, humid, cigar smoke–filled steakhouses and strip clubs rather than its breweries and craft beer bars? For its harbors and marinas more than its helles and Märzens? Yes, you're right. It is, to an extent.

But, even though Tampa isn't nearly as well known for beer as certain overexposed and perpetually hyped cities, like, say, Portland or San Diego, what it lacks in publicity, name recognition, and number of breweries, it makes up for in concentrated quality and unexplored coolness. And I'm letting you in on the secret: The greater Tampa Bay region—including the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, as well as surrounding counties—is the best destination for beer in the US that hardly anyone knows about.

Before Tampa became a world-class beer city, it was, admittedly, a craft beer backwater, its beach coolers perpetually stocked with flavorless macrobrews. But that all changed about a decade ago thanks to Cigar City Brewing, Tampa's largest and most revered brewery. (Over two dozen of Cigar City's beers score a perfect 100 on RateBeer, and another hundred rate 95 or above.) As the cornerstone of Tampa's beer scene, Cigar City is best known for the juicy, tropical Jai Alai IPA and the boozy, chocolate- and chili-packed Hunahpu's Imperial Stout, a beer so big and breathtaking, it has its own friggin' day. To get their hands on any of it, patrons have to buy a ticket to the Hunahpu's Day festival—clocking in at $200, but including four bottles to take home—where they can taste more than a dozen different variations on the stout and sample beers from more than 150 guest breweries. (Cigar City implemented this festival-only release after a disastrous event in 2014, when too-eager patrons used fake tickets to purchase the beer. That's how awesome this beer is.)

Head brewer Wayne Wambles describes Hunahpu's as an imperial stout aged on cacao nibs, Madagascar vanilla beans, ancho chilies, pasilla chilies, and cinnamon. That sounds like a lot, sure, but the beer is balanced and creamy, with the peppery spice well integrated with the oak tannins, chocolate, and vanilla. It's hands down one of the best imperial stouts in the world, up there with 3 Floyds' Dark Lord and Foothills Brewing's Sexual Chocolate.

But even if you're not lucky enough to end up at the once-yearly release of Hunahpu's, Cigar City's tasting room is a beer lover's dream. Featuring more than two dozen of their own beers on draft, including many one-offs and specialty brews that aren't available anywhere else in the world, it also serves as a retail store, with cans, bottles, and Crowlers to go. And on most days, it serves as a pop-up cigar shop, offering hand-rolled cigars stuffed with aged Nicaraguan, Honduran, and Colombian tobacco. Where else in the world can you pair a rich, cedar-aged pale ale (CCB's Tony Jannus) with a freshly rolled stogie, both made under a single roof?

While most beer nerds know about Cigar City, many out-of-staters are missing out on some of Florida's under-sung beer heroes, including Coppertail Brewing in Ybor City. Brewmaster Casey Hughes, formerly of New Jersey's Flying Fish Brewing Co., makes pitch-perfect American- and Belgian-inspired flagship beers—don't miss the Unholy trippel or Free Dive IPA—as well as fruity Floridaweisses.

What the heck is a Floridaweisse, you ask? It's a somewhat tart German-style Berliner weisse, spiked with Florida's local fruits and vegetables. Tampa brewers are particularly adept at selecting beer styles that are appropriate for the steamy Florida climate, and the Floridaweisse is a prime example. The traditional version is super low in alcohol, making it suitable for all-day drinking sessions. It's also puckeringly sour, which is why sweet syrups are commonly added to counter the beer's bite.

But in Florida, instead of adding sugar in fruit syrup form, the idea is to ferment the beer with whole and puréed fruits. The style came about at suburban Tampa's now-shuttered Peg's Cantina (RIP). Former Peg's brewmaster and current Cycle Brewing proprietor Doug Dozark called his Berliner weisse "Ich Bin Ein Rainbow Jelly Donut," and fermented it in a wooden barrel with limes and raspberries. Beer geeks went absolutely bonkers for it (it's now retired, but holds a legacy 99 rating on RateBeer). Now, nearly every brewery in Tampa Bay makes several delicious varieties of Floridaweisse, a true local beer gem.

In addition to Floridaweisse, Tampa specializes in gose—another low-ABV German-style sour ale. A trip to the region isn't complete without trying the version from Rapp Brewing Company in Seminole. The beer is crisp and chuggable, with just a hint of brininess from the salt that's added. While many American goses are heavy on the salt and other additions, Rapp's is remarkably balanced, the perfect thirst-quencher for Tampa's humid, sticky clime. Rapp's other beers are also worthy of a pint, including nearly forgotten styles like Broyhan-bier—a dry wheat ale that's hoppier than a gose—and Graetzer, a refreshing Polish-style ale brewed with lightly smoked malt and wheat.

Tampa Bay is also home to some of the most outstanding saisons and funky sour ales in the country. In St. Petersburg, Green Bench Brewing's Khris Johnson has a knack for foeder-fermented farmhouse ales. Foeders are towering wooden vessels set on end that allow for long, mellow fermentations with impressive consistency. Pick up bottles of Johnson's flagship Saison de Banc Vert (a 2014 gold medalist for barrel-aged pale ale at the US Open Beer Championship) and Florida Poster Girls, a tropical fruit–laden ale aged in both foeders and Chardonnay barrels. Johnson and Green Bench host the Foeder for Thought festival each year, celebrating beers conditioned in these huge wooden tanks. This year's festival featured visiting dignitary brewers Jester King, Side Project, and Fonta Flora, to name just a few.

Up the coast, in Tarpon Springs, Bob Sylvester of Saint Somewhere Brewery crafts a line of bottle-conditioned farmhouse saisons that are just as good as the originals from Belgium and France. Sylvester is the country's preeminent wizard of saison and farmhouse ales, expertly dispensing a conglomerate of Brettanomyces strains to coax complex but subtle barnyard funk into his beers. His best are structured and balanced—seek out the fruity and heady Saison Athene and the Cynthiana, brewed with Southeast US–native Cynthiana (a.k.a. Norton) grapes.

Sylvester and Green Bench's Johnson recently collaborated on a foeder-fermented saison called Monsieur Ed, brewed with "horse feed" (actually just a combination of various grains) and, of course, Brettanomyces. Crisp, light, and slightly tart, it's the epitome of a crushable summer saison.

Okay, but what about hoppy ales? You may see Cigar City's Jai Alai outside of Florida, but you have to come to the Sunshine State to taste many other piney, fruity, resiny specialties.

You should definitely check out the offerings from Devon Kreps and Justin Stange at Dunedin's 7venth Sun Brewery, a tiny brewpub just one block inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The duo make everything from low-alcohol session IPAs to dank and heady imperial hop bombs, and they've collaborated with cool-kid breweries like Evil Twin, Other Half, and Creature Comforts. The tap list is ever-evolving, but don't leave without trying a Mangrove Double or the Time Bomb Session IPA.

Want to bring back some crazy-rare beer to impress your beer-nerd friends? Head to Cycle Brewing in St. Pete for a ridiculously awesome assortment of bottled imperial stouts. Seek out anything from the Pallet series or the Nooner releases—the most recent batch included a Neapolitan ice cream–inspired brew called Rare Scoop, created in collaboration with 3 Sons Brewing. They make only a few hundred cases per release, so these beers, which often score perfect 100s on RateBeer, command high values in beer-geek trading circles.

Tampa Bay is a damn fine beer destination, and, given its underexposure, you can visit a ton of fantastic brewery tasting rooms without ever dealing with a crowd. Or you can pick up Crowlers or to-go cans to take to one of many gorgeous white-sand beaches along the Gulf Coast barrier islands or inner bay. Sit back, dig your toes into the sugar-fine sand, and take a sip. There's nowhere better in the world to drink a beer.