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Until about five years ago, Sarasota-Manatee beer heads sang the same sad song: You have to drive north over the Skyway to find fresh craft beer. But now they’ve happily changed their tune. The 941 area code now sports six craft breweries, each with excellent products and a distinct, Southwest Florida style. Now some Pinellas/Hillsborough residents are traveling south for a taste of our beer scene.

For the true craft beer experience, visit their taprooms, where each unique environment sets the perfect scene for sampling some exceptional brews. And while these breweries produce only liquid sustenance, in true craft beer tradition, each site is frequented by food trucks that offer a variety of options to hungry customers.

Let’s pull up a stool, order a tasting flight, and start sipping.

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3 Keys Brewing & Eatery

2505 Manatee Ave. E., Bradenton
(941) 218-0396
3keysbrewing.com

Taproom hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-midnight

Origin story: Like many breweries, 3 Keys started with a home brew kit. A decade ago, Jeff Douglas whipped up his first batch, using a hot tub stocked with ice to keep it cool. He and his wife, Cathy, later bought an RV and spent two and a half years cruising the U.S., visiting 126 breweries in 49 states. The couple’s son, Scott, also caught the craft beer bug and began making his own beer. The three eventually teamed up and set out to open 3 Keys, with Cathy in charge of food and Jeff managing things. “I clean a lot of toilets and bus a lot of tables,” Jeff says. Scott is responsible for making the beer. “He’s well surpassed me,” Jeff says.

Setting: The main attraction here is the giant, red-awninged deck out front. On a cool afternoon, it’s an ideal place to loll away the day, with long picnic tables, a foosball setup and the suddenly ubiquitous giant Jenga set. Bring a book, bring a friend. There are way worse ways to spend an hour. Or three.

Customers: Friendly camo hat-wearing neighbors, young women playing in The Bachelor's fantasy league.

Extracurricular activities: Foosball and oversized Jenga.

Breweries bigtop dab5si 

Big Top Brewing Company

6111 Porter Way Sarasota
(800) 590-BIGTOP
bigtopbrewing.com 

Taproom hours: Monday-Saturday, 2-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-8 p.m.

Origin story: Sarasota native Mike Bisaha and a friend dreamed of adding a beer of their own to their expansive bottle collection. They recruited Josh Wilson, three decades a home brewer, to man their operation. Bisaha, a history buff, honors his hometown with a circus theme, and hired a Ringling College grad to design the nostalgic but edgy branding.

Setting: Artsy lighting over high tables made of 80-year-old pecky cypress railroad ties, custom circus-themed beer posters and a gift shop, plus an L-shaped bar and, of course, the requisite windows looking out to the sunlit brewery warehouse.

Customers: Lakewood Ranch regulars and all sorts of inquisitive beer lovers, from hipsters to bikers, drawn in by the sign facing I-75.

Extracurricular activities: Creating mind-blowing flavor combinations inspired by Facebook competitions and local partnerships (Walt’s Fish Market once helped them make a blue crab and Old Bay stout).

Soundtrack: CCR, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton—bluesy Southern rock.

Overheard: “Beer has food value, but food has no beer value.”

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From left to right: Calusa Brewing founders Vic Falck, Geordie Rauch and Jason Thompson

Calusa Brewing

5701 Derek Ave., Sarasota
(941) 922-8150
calusabrewing.com

Taproom hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 2-10 p.m.; Friday, 2 p.m.-midnight; Saturday, noon-midnight; Sunday, noon-8 p.m.

Origin story: Calusa co-owners Geordie Rauch, 35, and Vic Falck, 34, started talking about opening a Sarasota brewery back in 2011. Sarasota natives, the brothers-in-law both fell hard for craft beer while stationed with the Navy in San Diego—or “beer mecca,” as Rauch calls it. “The scene was exploding,” Falck remembers. “I loved the variety craft beer offered.”

Setting: Calusa is located inside a 9,500-square-foot warehouse on almost on acre of land just north of Clark Road. The warehouse includes a production facility stocked with a grain mill, a 15-barrel brew kettle and a series of towering fermenters that allow Calusa to crank out 465 gallons of beer in a single batch. The taproom has sky-high ceilings, lots of high-top tables and a rotating mix of mobile food vendors.

Customers: Beards galore, plus young parents who let their kids scamper about.

Extracurricular activities: Not much. The focus here is on high-quality beer and food truck cuisine.

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JDub's Brewing Company

1215 Mango Ave., Sarasota
(941) 955-BREW
jdubsbrewing.com 

Taproom hours: Wednesday-Saturday, noon-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-8 p.m.

Origin story: California native and former government employee Jeremy Joerger always dreamed of a business in beer. After falling in love with Sarasota and moving here in 2013, Joerger recognized a demand for locally made beer, then tackled the legal roadblocks that were impeding opening breweries in Sarasota, paving the way for those who followed. Joerger used his own rugby nickname for the branding.

Setting: Industrial-size doors open up to a long, funky-friendly interior, with tables alongside brewhouse windows opposite a small bar and ordering station. There are several flat-screen TVs and a large, drop-down projection screen for sports, etc. Out back, a popular patio, deck and grassy, dog-friendly yard offers picnic tables and games.

Customers: Bearded, tattooed young guys and yoga-toned gals; relaxed retirees and everything in between.

Extracurricular activities: Yoga in the yard; a “street team” performing popular community service events like beach cleanups. JDubs also partnered with Sarasota’s own Drum Circle Distilling to create an entirely local, rum barrel-aged Scotch Ale, Esperanza.

Soundtrack: The Pixies, Gorillaz, Springsteen, etc.—college radio, trip-hop and classic rock.

Overheard: “This Poolside [kolsch] would actually be perfect poolside. I could drink this all day.”

Breweries motorworks sssea5

Motorworks Brewing

1014 Ninth St. W., Bradenton
(941) 567-6218
motorworksbrewing.com

Taproom hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

Origin story: Business owners and longtime Palmetto residents Denise and Frank Tschida saw major opportunity in Manatee County’s lack of craft breweries. They set their enterprise in a sprawling former car dealership near downtown Bradenton, undertook extensive renovations (an actual grain silo lets them order ingredients by the truckload), and staffed the place with like-minded “gear heads and beer heads.” Hence the name, which refers to the setting as well as employees’ passions for cars and racing.

Setting: A spacious indoor area featuring clean and contemporary wood-topped tables, living-room-style seating areas and plenty of flat-screen TVs; a long bar sits opposite a wall of windows. Outside, Florida’s largest beer garden (seriously), centered by an old, beautiful oak, includes a putting green, cornhole, bocce and a giant projection screen for movies and sports. (Worth noting: Motorworks serves wine, liquor and guest beers alongside its own brews.) 

Customers: Bradenton beer snobs and curious newbies; competitive cornholers and other bar-sporting types, plus just about anyone else who can fit (the place is huge).

Extracurricular activities: You name it—live music, movie screenings, beer-and-painting nights, beer pairing dinners, SoCo Sports leagues, and on and on. 

Soundtrack: Bon Jovi, Blue Oyster Cult, Dave Matthews Band—sports bar rock.

Overheard: “Let’s play darts—but after the Bucs game.”

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Darwin Brewing Co.

803 17th Ave. W., Bradenton
(941) 747-1970
darwinbrewingco.com

Taproom hours: Tuesday-Wednesday, 4-10 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, 4 p.m. -midnight; Saturday, noon-midnight; Sunday noon-8 p.m.

Origin story: Restaurateur and chef Darwin channeled his penchant for innovative Peruvian cuisine into this beer-making enterprise. Though Santa Maria is no longer involved in the operation, founding brewmaster Jorge Rosabal continues to combine local flavors with ingredients indigenous to the wildly varied environments of the Andes. 

Setting: Beyond the red brick façade, the contemporary/industrial-style taproom receives lots of sunlight from many windows. High tables of wood and lead pipe surround a U-shaped bar, all atop untreated concrete floors. (Flat-screen TVs and a window into the brew room, of course.) When the weather's right, two rolling garage doors allow the taproom to open up to a manicured outdoor seating area.

Customers: Laid-back young and beautiful Southwest Floridians, plus businesspeople and international types.

Extracurricular activities: Food truck-and-beer pairings, organized after-work runs, live music.

Soundtrack: Classic rock to New Age alternative—chill mood music.

Overheard: “That’s really good. I wonder what that flavor is. Probably some herb I can’t pronounce.”

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Daniel Firrell, Chris Ferro, Derek Anderson

 

Best of the Brews

We taste—and tell.

 

Sarasota/Manatee is suddenly home to dozens of locally created beers, some flagship standards and others small-batch experiments.  To help beer drinkers find their way to the best, we asked local breweries to send us their top products in four beer categories:  lager/pilsner, wheat/witbier, porter/stout and IPA. Motorworks, Darwin and Big Top accepted the challenge. Then we hosted a blind tasting at Growler’s Pub on the North Trail to determine Sarasota-Manatee’s best beer per category.

 

Our judges were expert beertenders Daniel Firrell of Growler’s, Chris Ferro of Mr. Beery’s and Derek Anderson, owner of Shamrock Pub. Here’s what they had to say.

 

LAGER/PILSNER

The Contenders:

 

Motorworks’ Cruiser Kolsch, 4.8 percent ABV

 

Judges noted pleasant aroma and a little bite up front, clean mouthfeel with a lingering hint of hops. “It’s classic. Old school,” said Ferro. Added Firrell, “It’s drinkable. I can enjoy that.”

 

Darwin’s San Juan Helles Tropical Lager, 4 percent ABV

 

Anderson immediately noted the sweeter nose, with Ferro adding that there was more honey to the flavor. Judges agreed that it was more approachable, but not as complex as the kolsch.

 

The Debate:

 

Though both technically under the lager/pilsner umbrella, these two styles proved difficult to compare. “It’s not quite apples to apples,” said Anderson. “And I prefer oranges.” Judges were torn between the Cruiser’s complexity, well representing the kolsch style, and San Juan’s sweeter, sessionable approachability, more typical of a lager. “They’re both very good,” they agreed. Then they talked some more.

 

The Verdict:

 

Motorworks’ Cruiser Kolsch wins a split decision.

 

IPA

The Contenders:

 

Big Top’s Circus City IPA, 6.8 percent ABV

 

“Earthy,” “balanced” and “lingers.” Ferro declared, “From the nose, I wasn’t expecting what I got. But then when you taste it, it’s really nice.” Anderson compared it to an English-style ESB, which presents with more malt and less hops.

 

Motoworks’ Indy IPA, 6.5 percent ABV

 

“Hop forward,” said Ferrill, noting the initial flavor. Ferro agreed that it tasted like a lot of a single type of hop, with less balance and more floral flavors.

 

Darwin’s Summadayze, 6 percent ABV

 

Judges picked up on the piney-ness. Anderson declared, “As a West Coast IPA fan, I’m leaning toward [this one].”

 

Wildcard entrant: Big Top’s Mango Jalapeño IPA

 

Without knowing specific ingredients, judges called it “intriguing.” Ferro asked, with some admiration, “What in the [expletive] is going on here?”

 

The Debate:

 

IPAs are a darling of the craft beer world, and the judges loved exploring the varied combinations. It came down to battle of styles: Circus City representing the maltier, more resinous East Coast style, with Summadayze the hop-loaded West Coast style.

 

The Verdict:

 

Darwin’s Summadayze—“That’s the one that I would drink” was essentially everyone’s conclusion.

 

STOUT/PORTER

The Contenders:

 

Big Top’s Sixty-One Eleven Porter, 5.6 percent ABV

 

“Whoa” was everyone’s the first response. Judges picked up a burnt/smoky coffee flavor, with one even comparing it to liquid smoke. “It’s got all this stuff going on,” said Ferro.

 

Darwin’s Charapa Spiced Porter, 7 percent ABV

 

Judges loved the appearance of the foam, with Anderson agreeing that a porter “should look like hot chocolate,” though they also noted its light body. They picked up a mild, earthy fruitiness, with Firrell noting the “interesting bite at the back.”

 

Motorworks’ Pit Crew Porter, 5.5 percent ABV

 

“This has a much thicker mouthfeel,” said Firrell. “It’s the most like a porter.” They loved the roasted coffee flavor with a chocolate bitterness, but wished for more carbonation.

 

The Debate:

 

The judges found things to love and things to lament in each contender. Big Top’s and Darwin’s selections took risks with unique recipes, which may have split the judges’ opinions. Though they noted Motorworks’ lack of carbonation, they declared it the most classical representation of the style.

 

The Verdict:

 

Motorworks’ Pit Crew Porter wins unanimously as “a solid-ass porter.”

 

WHEAT/WITBIER

The Contenders:

 

Motorworks’ Grapefruit Heffeweizen, 4.85 percent ABV

 

“Smells like bananas, like almost bubble gum notes,” said Ferro. The judges noted an initial presentation of flavor that falls off quickly, then lingers subtly.

 

Darwin’s Tangerine Wheat, 5.2 percent ABV

 

Not as much aroma presented at first, with the judges pulling out flavors of orange, coriander and other spices. “I can definitely taste the darker malt,” said Firrell. For this style, they noted a good deal of balance.

 

Big Top’s Trapeze Monk Belgian Wit, 5.1 percent ABV

 

“I’m kinda lovin’ on the wit. It’s got a little lemon,” said Anderson. Ferro added, “It’s perfumey. Almost shandy-esque.” The citrus flavors were a hit.

 

The Debate:

 

Judges were torn between the Heff for “overall everything” and the unique complexity of the Belgian witbier. Darwin’s clean use of tangerine flavors won attention, too. The three struggled (and often changed their minds) before the final decision.

 

The Verdict:

 

Big Top’s Belgian ekes out the win in a contest almost too close to call.

 

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Around the World in 80 Beers

“I’ll drink to that,” I said. And I did.

 

In my fridge sits a bottle of Samichlaus, a 14 percent ABV doppelbock from Austria. I’ve had it for six years. I will not be drinking it. Ever.

 

That über-strong beer is one of three trophies I earned for completing Shakespeare’s Pub’s “Around the World in 80 Beers” challenge: If you drink each of the 80 different beers Shakespeare’s stocks, on draught and in bottles (and never more than two or three in a sitting, of course), you win a mixed 12-pack, a T-shirt and your picture on the wall.

 

Shakespeare’s beer menu is labeled by country. Feeling Scottish? You might try an 8.5 percent ABV Skull Splitter Wee Heavy from Orkney Brewery. Longing for a taste of the Rockies? High-five a Left Hand Milk Stout from Longmont, Colo. All the beers are numbered on the menu, so at the end of the night, your server checks off the latest conquests on your personal Shakespeare’s card. (The beer selection changes periodically, but there are always 80 beers to be accounted for.)

 

I am far from a beer head. I started the around-the-world trip mostly to force myself into trying new things; I stayed in it for the challenge. While I was introduced to dozens of fantastic beers, I also encountered several that, to put it mildly, did not appeal to me. Regardless, I powered through, knowing that I was crossing things off the list, moving closer to my goal.

 

Samichalus is scored 89 by Beer Advocate—a B+, if you will. But for me, that beer was so kick-you-in-the-teeth sweet, so strong that it tasted like a preview of the hangover it would give me, and even its 14 percent ABV could not erase the intense experience from my memory.

 

A year or so later I finally completed my tour. When the bartender had snapped my picture for the wall and it came time to choose my trophy 12-pack, among the IPAs and Trappist selections I adored, I knew which demon brew needed to be included.

 

In the twisted logic of someone who’s just reached the summit of an 80-beer challenge, I told myself, “I’ll take that Samichlaus, so that I never have to drink it again.”

 

And I never will. —Hannah Wallace

 

Beer Here

Where to find great craft beer and savvy staff.

 

Cock & Bull Pub

 

Local legend known for its selection (40 draughts, nearly 1,000 bottles) and live music.

 

975 Cattlemen Road, Sarasota

(941) 363-1262

 

Growler’s Pub

 

Dim and eclectic tavern popular with the college crowd—from students to professors.

 

2831 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

(941) 487-7373

growlersonline.com

 

The Lost Kangaroo

 

Expansive downtown Bradenton icon with an equally expansive selection of beers.

 

406 12th St. W., Bradenton

(941) 747-8114

lostkangaroopub.com

 

Mr. Beery’s

 

Destination for “nerding out” with other beer heads.

 

2645 Mall Drive, Sarasota

(941) 343-2854

mrbeeryssrq.com

 

Sarasota Brewing Company

 

The area’s oldest microbrewery serves its own creations, like “Midnight Pass Porter.”

 

6607 Gateway Ave.,

Sarasota

(941) 925-BEER

sarasotabrewing.com

 

Shakespeare’s English Pub

 

Laid-back English pub with awesome burgers to go with your beverage.

 

3550 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota

(941) 364-5938

shakespearespubsarasota.com

 

Shamrock Pub

 

Tiny downtown neighborhood mainstay with superb beers and an all-inclusive attitude.

 

2257 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota

(941) 952-1730

shamrocksarasota.com

 

Tavern on Main

 

Intimate downtown standout with serious beer chops—50-plus rotating draughts.

 

1507 Main St.,

Sarasota

(941) 953-6777

sarasotacraftbeer.com

 

World of Beer

 

The famous international franchise is set to open a second local location on Main Street, downtown Sarasota, any day now.

 

8217 Tourist Center Drive, Bradenton

(941) 306-5868

wobusa.com/locations/sarasota

 

Have your own favorite local beer? Leave a comment below and tell us about it. >>

 

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Sarasota Magazine. Click here to subscribe. >>