Tampa Bay Beer Week is just six months away, and to mark the occasion organizers threw a fund-raising beerfest Saturday at the Cuban Club in Ybor City featuring rarities and one-offs. The selections were impressive in scope and quality.
Halfway There: A Rare Beer Festival offered plenty of barrel-aged this and Berliner Weisse that. It wasn’t crowded, didn’t have any long lines, and samples were served in tiny glass snifters. “An absolutely quality beer festival,’’ wrote Cajun Cafe owner Paul Unwin on Facebook, who knows a thing or two about quality beerfests.
The festival was also a coming-out party of sorts for three of the area’s newest breweries. And the way two of them got there says a lot about the collaborative nature of Tampa Bay’s burgeoning craft beer scene.
Pair O’ Dice Brewing Co. in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg Brewing Company haven’t opened yet, which poses a dilemma if you want to show what you can do.
Enter Barley Mow Brewing Company in Largo, which offered its brewhouse to the newcomers, “I’m on the board of Tampa Bay Beer Week and wanted to be sure all the new brewers could be here,” explained Barley Mow co-owner Jay Dingman as he poured Barley Mow samples beside a beaming Ken Rosenthal, co-owner of Pair O’ Dice.
Dingman even helped out Big Storm, Pasco County’s only brewery. The year-old Odessa brewery wanted to make a barrel-aged version of its Oats in Hose stout for the festival but was in the midst of upgrading its brewhouse. So, Barley Mow to the rescue.
Can you imagine a new grocery store chain in town getting an assist from Publix? Yet that collaborative spirit has distinguished the Tampa Bay craft beer scene for years.
All had solid offerings on hand. While St. Pete Brewing has been in the market for a couple years with a beer contract-brewed out of state, the 6.5 percent Milo’s IPA it was pouring Saturday was the first batch brewed in Pinellas County (by its new head brewer, John McCracken). It was a well-balanced and promising debut.
Pair O’Dice’s Come Out Roll pale ale stood out as a flavorful session beer, with citrus and pine notes.
The beerfest also saw the premiere of Coppertail Brewing Co., which plans to open next spring in Ybor City. It offered samples of a collaboration farmhouse ale made at Oxbow Brewing in Maine, made with experimental hops, and a solid, citrusy 5.5 percent IPA made on the pilot brewing system in Ybor that had the hoppiness of West Coast IPAs with an East Coast maltiness.
A few out-of-towners also had some intriguing beers on hand. Due South Brewing of Boyntong Beach poured an apple brandy barrel-aged stout; Funky Buddha of Boca Raton served its legendary No Crusts brown ale, which tasted like liquid PB&J; and Sarasota’s Darwin’s on 4th offered samples from six different styles.
Homebrewers were there in abundance as well, from the old standby Tampa Bay B.E.E.R.S to the new Suncoast Barley Mashers. The Mango Berliner from Special Operations was a homebrew standout, and the Pink Peppercorn Saison by the Brandon Bootleggers took local to the extreme with the use of peppercorns from invasive Brazilian Pepper trees.
A personal favorite was the well-balanced Bananas Fosters Flambe by Angry Chair, the Seminole Heights brewery planning to open in January.
There were so many good beers it was easy to forget that Cigar City was pouring Brandy Barrel Aged Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, which would be a draw for beer geeks across the country.
The high quality of the festival is a good sign of the maturity of Tampa Bay Beer Week, which came on strong this year after a last-minute debut in 2012 and is poised to really flower six months from now.
Editor’s Note: Tom Scherberger also worked as a volunteer at the Halfway There Beer Festival.
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