It’s 10 to 6 on a Thursday night at Tampa Bay’s newest brewpub and the bar is already thick with diners, mostly older, white-haired regulars tucking into the all-you-can-eat special. Tonight it’s snow crabs, tomorrow catfish. Sunday and Monday, fried chicken.
The scene repeats itself seven nights a week at the R Bar, a former A & W root beer stand along a curving road leading to the beach in what passes for downtown Treasure Island.
To call it unpretentious would be putting on airs.
It’s not a concept. It’s a dive.
Now it’s the first brewpub along the Pinellas beaches.
The R Bar is about the last place anyone would expect to join Tampa Bay’s craft beer revolutiony. Like most places along the Pinellas beaches, it used to serve mostly pitchers of Miller Lite, Bud Lite and other mass-market beers.
Then Bob Hughes bought the place 18 months ago and started changing things. He fixed the ventilation in the kitchen so it wasn’t 110 degrees all the time. He replaced the chicken — pre-breaded and frozen fried stuff that tasted like a TV dinner — with fresh. He started offering all-you-can-eat snow crabs four nights a week instead of two. And he started selling Jai Alai and Maduro by Cigar City Brewing.
Then he tasted his cook’s homebrew. He’s no beer geek, but he likes a good beer. And this was good — an American IPA made with Amarillo hops, a porter with notes of coffee and caramel, an amber that veers toward red ale.
Hughes wanted to expand his customer base, bring in a younger crowd before his regulars die off. Maybe beer made in-house would do it.
So he bought a 10-gallon brewing rig online, set it up in a crowded corner of the kitchen, spent three months applying for a brewpub license, and let Eric Richardson do his thing.
Richardson, 38, couldn’t be happier. He’s been brewing at home for 13 years, starting with extract kits and working his way up to all-grain. He’s been working the grill at the R Bar for a decade and trying out his home brew on his friends. He thought it would be great to brew for a living, but didn’t think it would happen.
“It wasn’t my idea," he says. “He offered to let me do it and I couldn’t say no.”
So once a week Richardson ditches the apron and makes beer. Brewing once a week on a 10-gallon system is a challenge. It’s a tight space, there are only three taps, and it takes time to brew. He is having a hard time keeping up with the demand. The porter proved so popular it ran out quickly, and it will be a couple more weeks before another batch is ready.
Besides a small ad in a beach paper and a sign over the bar, Hughes hasn’t spread the word yet. His customers have taken to it well enough, even if it is $5 a pint.
“It’s quite good,” said Fred Dowson, a British tourist on holiday with his wife, Valerie, who has been coming to the R Bar for five years. “A little strong.”
The IPA is 7.5 percent a.b.v., nearly twice what Dowson is used to back home. “I’m a volume man,” he explains. “I like to have a pitcher of beer, maybe two, and still walk home.” Still, Dowson treats himself to the occasional R Bar IPA or porter. That’s fine with Richardson. After all, he’s living every home brewer’s dream: He can look down the bar every night and watch paying customers enjoying his beer.
The R Bar, 245 108th Ave., Treasure Island, 727-367-3400, rbarti.com.
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