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Cigar City Brewing — Living the Jai Life in Tampa, Florida

Originally from Pennsylvania, I grew up with a few simple, but distant notions of Florida. Besides it's odd shape and exotic location, Florida was home to Disneyland, retired New Yorkers, hurricanes, and "the other" Yuengling Brewery, which was part of a 1958 expansion during Florida's population swing, coinciding with newly available air conditioning systems for the modern condo. Florida was home to some of the wildest country and wildlife on the continent, the snakes and alligators of the Everglades, as well as the most docile, and geriatric of our own population. Florida was a distant contradiction to me. 

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 While it's still an enigma to me, with its pirate-friendly history, connections to contemporary Cuba, and it's infamous role in our electoral process, it's not as distant as it once was — and that has a lot to do with its beer, and in particular, Cigar City Brewing. In 2009, Joe Redner, a newly inspired beer geek, turned beer writer, turned entrepreneur flipped the switch on a new chapter of Florida's swashbuckling history. 

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A trip to Portland, Oregon in 1994 exposed Joe to the power of craft beer for the first time. Florida's beer market was like much of the East Coast, filled with mass domestics, basic imports, and on the upside, plenty of locally made Yuengling Lager. Ten years later, he turned his newfound passion and expertise into a writing gig for the St. Petersburg Times' beer column. And somewhere along the way, he started wondering why Tampa didn't have its own craft brewery. "Cities the size of Tampa usually have 2-3 breweries. I started gathering all the information I needed to understand what a craft brewery business might look like, mostly because I figured somebody was going to do it eventually and I could go work for that person."

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But Joe became the change he wanted to see in Tampa when all his research, and the awareness he helped create as a journalist, turned into his own business plan for a small brewhouse that put out 1,000 barrels in its first year. And it was Jai Alai, the flasgship IPA named after Florida's favorite gambling sport, that created a customer base that continues to fuel the company's growth year over year. Joe jumped to 3,500 barrels in 2010, 9,600 the following year, to an amazing 17,000 barrels in 2012, making him the largest craft brewer in the state. And that took him to regional status. In April, he underwent yet another expansion, with a new brewhouse, power upgrade, and additional fermenters that give him a capacity of 60,000 barrels. "We brew to demand," says Joe, "and I suspect we’ll be bumping up against that 60,000 capacity pretty quickly." Cigar City is picking up windspeed.

Florida loves its citrus. Anyone who's ever seen an episode of the Golden Girls can usually recall kitchen scenes where the ladies gather around a pitcher of orange juice in the morning the way us northerners lust after a pot of coffee. "Tropical-accented hops get a lot of play here, which makes sense," explains Joe. "Berliner Weisse with fruit brewed into it, rather than added as syrup, has become a very popular style in the state. Some have taken to calling it Florida Weisse and there is even a Florida Weisse Fest put on by Cycle Brewing every year."

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While Jai Alai has been the brewery's best-selling beer to-date (as is the story with most craft brewers introducing the first locally made IPA to new audiences), it's been Cigar City's vast array of specialty beers that have made them famous far outside the state. The Humidor Series — beers aged on Spanish cedar wood — has created a Pavlovian response among beer geeks, with aromatics and flavors you can't find in any other wood-aged beer on the market. And these are the beers being shipped around the country in bottle trades. Last year Joe offered the Humidor Peach IPA  at Chicago's Festival of Barrel Aged Beers (FoBAB) to an audience largely unfamiliar with the Florida brewery (they don't distribute in Illinois yet). It took gold.  

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The Cigar City portfolio grew to include lager beers as well. "We have really good lager water here. We have to treat our water a little bit to make our IPA, but it’s perfect for lager," explains Joe. And it's been their venture into other approachable styles, with a little tweaking, that has kept Cigar City from becoming a one-hit-wonder brewery like so many others.  

"We don’t want to be dominated by an IPA. It’s now less than half our sales, about 45-48%, which isn’t bad. Most people would be happy with that. I’d like it to be a little bit less. We have others beers we want to grow and introduce to our customers, and get those up near Jai Alai numbers. Our Maduro Brown, Tacobaga Red, and Cracker White Ale are getting there together."

The huge variety in the Cigar City portfolio has become the standard in the state, and it's creating a demanding customer. Whenever Joe travels, it's a chance for him to compare notes with other breweries and regions, and after three years of surprising and delighting the Florida craft consumer, sometimes he's a bit surprised by how much things have already changed. 

"In many ways Florida craft breweries have strayed further from the way things used to be than any other state. Most breweries in Florida are quite prolific in the variety they produce. They do many versions of different styles, sometimes all with the same base beer. I think our lack of production gave many the attitude that we needed to make a lot of interesting brews to plug the gaps and catch up to the rest of the country. But there's a downside to being prolific. I went to Vermont for vacation this summer and quality of the beer in Vermont is very high. But variety-wise most breweries had 1 to 5 beers on. All well made, but not that many different beers at each brewery. No one complained — in fact people waited in lines to get growlers of them. Back in Florida though, I have literally gotten an email from a person upset with our tap selection because when he visited and we only had 15 different beers on tap." 

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So much of what Joe and his team are doing as a rapidly growing craft brewery feels like building a boat as you sail it. And that's not unusual in craft brewing. Brewing every day barely keeps up with demand, as new equipment rolls in on trucks, new processes are learned, and priorities shift to long-term infrastructure like larger glycol systems, laboratories, and new power and water supplies. Many small producers have a simplified understanding of what growth is about, assuming that more production capacity means more beer, means more customers. But as an operation like this scales, you start introducing new staff, more unfamiliar equipment — and problems that might have been manageable in a 15BBL batch are now in showing up in bottles across multiple states months after they start. You're suddenly powerful enough to do some damage if you're not on the right trajectory. Joe gets this.

"The growth for us has been so fast that we haven't been able to slowly build towards things that other breweries do over 10-15 years. We have to call them up, begging, and ask “how do we do this? " We’re putting a lot into our lab right now. We’re a small brewery that’s growing fast, so it’s kind of the last thing we gave our attention to, but that’s changing now."

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A number of other would-be brewers are watching how Joe grows, even as they contemplate opening their own humble operations. Florida is currently ranked 47th in breweries per capita, remarkably low, with one brewery for every 329,000 residents (not counting the massive tourist influx every year). That's roughly half the saturation of a state like Illinois. But on the whole, it actually produces slightly more beer than Illinois, and Cigar City makes nearly 20% of it all. For a brewery in only it's 4th year of production, that's an astonishing position to occupy. 

The original 15BBL brewhouse, only a few years old, is essentially just serving the taproom at this point. And Joe's opened another brewpub just north of the city on Dale Mabry Highway that's connecting with new audiences through craft beer and cuban food. But Joe's not the only one looking to grow in a lagging market. 

"In Florida we're starting to see breweries open that have a little capacity behind them — more of a business and less a side project or hobby. It's been very nano-driven for the most part, up till very recently. You also see these breweries upgrading their brewhouses, like Cycle, Funky Buddah, Tequesta, and Proof. And now you see even start-ups coming in with large production systems. That is a new wrinkle. When we started brewing in 2009 we had all of 75 barrels of fermentation capacity, and at 15 barrels, our brewhouse was considered fairly large. Coppertail is starting in Ybor with a 50 bbl system out of the gate. Green Bench in St. Pete is a 15 bbl, JDub's in Sarasota will be a 15 bbl and Angry Chair in Seminole Heights will be a 15 bbl or larger. That said, we still lag the national average in craft share here in Florida so we have lots of room for growth. The plus is for the most part everyone is making good beer. And good beer will convert new craft consumers."

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Joe is a 5th generation Floridian, a rarity in a city of transplants like Tampa. And it's that connection that makes the Cigar City Brewing feel like a natural outgrowth of the region. It's not just filling a gap in Florida's beer market. It's telling a story about a place and people. The Spanish cedar wood used to age some of their greatest beers is the same wood used to pack Tampa's famous cigars. Many of the beers are namesakes for Cuban and Floridian historical figures, or recall the people of the pre-Spanish era. It makes them more than another craft brewery start-up. It's made them Florida's craft brewery. 

As Cigar City grows, Joe looks to others for guidance, but ultimately wants to ensure that the beer geek/writer/risk taker he was when he started Cigar City, is still the heart of the culture. 

"Sierra Nevada is the gold standard for me. I look to a lot of breweries in a general way and try to adopt best practices. You never want to be exactly like another brewery, but I certainly admire a lot of breweries, and I have consciously tried to instill the essence of some of my favorites into our approach. I also look to the early Cigar City to make sure we don't stray from why it all got started in the first place. It is important to me that we get better at executing in everything we do, but I never want why we do it to change. It's corny, but there really is a lot of passion and love behind it, and the reasons why the naive idiot that started Cigar City did so, needs to stay part of the Cigar City DNA." 

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With Joe's beer geek past, it makes sense that he still looks at the industry through those eyes — always exploring, always critical. You get the sense from Joe that he's still the reluctant entrepreneur he once was, wishing someone would open up a great brewery that he could go work for. By like so many great leaders, that initial reluctance drives them to be better than even their high standards would dictate. And he can hear the voice of the beer geek pushing him to get better.  

"One of the biggest things I look to is beer websites. Beer geeks (like myself) tend to be very promiscuous, which means we're not necessarily loyal (at least in the traditional sixer a week model). They have their finger on the pulse of craft, and they act as beer experts in their circle of friends and family. So craft consumers' opinions, contrary to the belief of some brewers, are certainly not their own. It is an opinion formed in social circles. So if someone is concerned about product dating, price, quality, value, lack of variety or anything legitimate I have the power to change, I tend to do what it takes to address their concerns. I look at it as free market research from the most engaged segment of the market. There is always debate about issues on beer websites, but when that debate starts to coalesce into consensus, it's wise to listen."

Sitting on a barstool facing an unending wall of taps, flanked by the brewhouse and bottling operations, the Cigar City taproom in the Northwest of the city takes you on Joe's regional and personal journey — driven by creativity, wonder, and a little healthy anxiety. The pungent scent of hops lingers in the air, the soft chopping and pressing of Cuban-style cigar-making at the end of the bar lulls you into a calm, and the sunlight cuts through the room at inescapable angles. One could be forgiven for forgetting about the brewery that spins and builds all around at an unnatural pace, as though you're floating in the eye of a storm. But then, that's what craft beer always feels like. This wonderful, industrious thing. 


 

Michael Kiser