Signifiers

Aiming for the Stars — 7venth Sun in Dunedin, FL

Craft brewing often requires outsized ambition and vision. (Some might even replace “outsized” with “unrealistic” or “borderline insane,” but that’s a thinkpiece for another day.) After all, opening a brewery is an impossible task for many. But for two people who cut their teeth making beer at places like Anheuser-Busch InBev and SweetWater Brewing Company, maybe thinking big comes naturally. As the market shifts, and big plans become harder to deliver on (especially in sleepy Floridian towns of 35,000 like Dunedin), operations like 7venth Sun Brewery are finding success on a smaller scale. It's a bit like aiming for the moon. As the adage goes, even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.

For 7venth Sun co-founder Devon Kreps, that interstellar journey began at Oregon State. It was there, browsing through the course catalog at Oregon State, that fermentation science jumped off the page. “Beer is science and creativity,” Kreps says. “I fell in love with both of those aspects.”

After OSU, Kreps took on a one-year residency program at AB’s pilot facility in St. Louis, serving as Research & Development brewer for one of the giants. She moved on to a three-year stint at AB’s Georgia facility. Her time with the King of Beers taught Kreps plenty—management skills, problem solving, planning, quality control.

I worked with a lot of smart and amazing people at Anheuser-Busch InBev. They saved my ass many a time and made my job fun. It was a cornerstone of the foundation for my own brewery.
— Devon Kreps

“I’ve incorporated all of the skills that I learned at AB into my day-to-day at 7venth Sun,” Kreps says. “I worked with a lot of smart and amazing people there. They saved my ass many a time and made my job fun. It was a cornerstone of the foundation for my own brewery.”

She’d next turn that experience and those lessons learned toward the craft side of the industry, when she was hired on at Atlanta’s SweetWater as production manager. It was there that she’d meet her eventual business partner. But first, he had some drinking to do.

“I fell in love with beer from the consumer end,” Justin Stange says. “Drinking beers in the Midwest and then moving out to Florida.”

His humble professional beginnings in the industry saw him as a transient of sorts, volunteering at a few spots in Ft. Collins, Colorado. He finally landed a paying gig at SweetWater, as a shift brewer. He and Kreps hit it off over conversations about beer and brewing, and it became clear they had to open something of their own. “We thought about where to do this, and Florida always seemed like a great place to live and be,” Kreps remembers.

So they started building a brewery in The Sunshine State.

Outdoor lifestyle and a vibrant culture drew Kreps and Stange to Dunedin. “It’s a really cool little waterside town that has one zip code and an awesome community of people,” Kreps explains. “This town has always been a place where people are active, friendly, and love to have a good time and drink good beer. It still is today.”

When 7venth Sun opened up, Dunedin Brewery was already established there, which was important. It meant that people there were familiar with the idea of a local brewery. They understood beer. And the folks at Dunedin Brewery welcomed Kreps and Stange. Despite all that, opening a brewery in Florida in 2009 wasn’t easy. You could have all the support and beer drinkers in the world and it wouldn’t matter if you can’t pay to open the thing.

“This was right at the time of the housing bubble—banks sure as hell weren’t lending,” Stange remembers. “Breweries were not a popular thing.”

The process would take a lot longer than the pair originally imagined. But pursuing a passion is like that sometimes. Sometimes you need dynamism and flexibility. Sometimes you need to adapt and reinvent. “We initially wanted to be a large brewery, but it was obvious we needed to do something else,” Stange says. “We looked at this as a small-scale passion, instead of pushing beers out by the case, we’d focus on creating beers that we really loved.”

We looked at this as a small-scale passion, instead of pushing beers out by the case, we’d focus on creating beers that we really loved.
— Justin Strange

Working interim jobs to stay afloat (both Kreps and Stange spent time at Brewers Supply Group, and Stange picked up a third-shift brewing gig at Cigar City), the two finally pooled enough funds to open up. They were small (like, 3.5 BBLs small), but open. The name 7venth Sun came together from an array of inspirations. There was “Seventh Son,” a little-known reference to a folklore concept about special powers bestowed on such a child, “Sun” as a reference to Florida in general, and “7” as a tribute to the special meaning for a number Kreps has always loved.

Brewing began in late 2011, but fittingly, the grand opening happened on January 7, 2012. For the big day, they took a unique idea and spun it into a word-of-mouth marketing gimmick to help tell their story. “We decided to auction off the first pour of our very first beer at our grand opening,” Krep says. “And then donate the proceeds to a local charity called the Homeless Emergency Project.”

It was a small-but-important demonstration to the community that 7venth Sun cared about being a part of it and planned to be an active contributor. “We raised over $200 from that first pour,” Kreps says. “It was actually purchased by Joey Redner and Justin Clark of Cigar City and Zach Schuster of Brown Distributing.”

From the beginning, Kreps and Stange focused on beers that were progressive. Sometimes, especially five years ago, that also meant unpopular. “The beers we made weren’t typical,” Stange says. “Saisons and berliners are now more popular, but that wasn’t always the case.”

“Also, back when we opened, it was uncommon to have more than one IPA on a beer board,” Kreps adds. “People didn’t understand the nuance that the style category can carry. We’re an old-world, farmhouse-style brewery. But we also brew session IPAs because that’s a thing.”

7venth Sun brews beers to drink. Complex, but not gimmicky. Beers that beg you to have one more of the same. “We’re often told that 7venth Sun is a brewer’s favorite brewery,” Kreps says. “We like to keep things pretty approachable.”

Right around the time they opened, something was happening within their brewing community. “Florida Weisse,” as it would eventually be called, was a collaborative experiment from a group of brewers—Kreps and Stange at 7venth Sun, Wayne Wambles of Cigar City, and the folks from Peg’s Cantina and Brewpub. The idea was an informal, organic concept—a Floridian take on a classic example of the style: Professor Fritz Briem’s 1809 Berliner Weisse.

“It's a light and refreshing tart beer that pairs perfectly with our hot, sunshine-y state,” Kreps says. “As we each took a stab at different ways to brew [a Berliner], we would call each other up or just bring it up as we saw each other out having a beer and start talking about what was working and what wasn’t. We all experienced successes and failures in the various attempts, and we would pass along what worked until we were all brewing it in a fairly similar manner as far as basic process is concerned.”

Low ABV, light bodied, tart, often fruited, and often brightly colored, these Floridsa Weisses are ridiculously crushable, but especially in the South’s hot, humid climate. They’ve become the regional beer for the state and the area, and with more and more breweries opening up in Florida, the popularity and notoriety for these beers has only continued to rise.

“It was a collaborative, collective series of trial and error of learning to do Berliner Weisse,” Stange remembers. “We were all on the front end of kettle sour testing. We brought together a lot of folks, who all had a very similar process, and we’d been trying it this way and they’d been trying it that way. We compared. We developed these beers as a community.”

The Florida Weisse evolution continues, with a concerted focus on the bugs that make the style come to life, creating the complexly puckering, funky, compelling flavors. “We’re digging into working with specific house lactic strains and seeing how they continue to evolve in acid and flavor production,” Kreps elaborates. “Everyone does that a little bit differently and it's interesting to see the different methods or strains that people use and how it offers a great and wide variety.”

“There’s been a dramatic change to the scene in Florida over the past five years,” Stange explains. “Banks now want to finance new projects all the time. New breweries open every week. There’s constant change, and it’s hard to keep up.”

Change can be good, but it can also be bad—or downright ugly. Take Tampa as an example. “The most important thing is quality, and we’re not seeing it all the time,” Stange says. “You see people without the experience opening up and not doing the right things. It’s frustrating. The ‘90s taught us this—the quality of beer is the largest portion of success.”

With so many new entrants, the community is not a tight and close-knit as it once was. Florida is old-school, and pay-to-play happens. Competition is real. But, there are pockets of good beer people that stick together. “There are a lot of former Cigar City brewers who all stick together and are still really good friends,” Stange says. “It’s almost like Goose Island in Chicago, where you see so many alumni go off to do great things in the area, like John Laffler at Off Color.”

“We’re currently expanding in Tampa, and this facility will be significantly larger,” Stange says, when asked what’s next. “We’re going from a 500-square-foot brewery in Dunedin to an 18,000 square foot brewery in Tampa.”

But along with that huge space, and a new 10 BBL system (with the option to upgrade to 30 BBL), a larger wood program (Kreps envisions a “huge magnificent barrel cellar”), and the retained Dunedin location as a showcase for the beginnings of 7venth Sun, this new location comes with a couple caveats.

“We’re not looking to change and we won’t be the next AB acquisition.” Kreps adds. “We want to maintain our identity, and we’re not going to churn out volume just to meet demand. We’re going to have more draft product to have at accounts other than our tasting room, but we are not going to push volume.”

Words by Mike Sardina

Mike Sardina

Mike is a GBH storyteller who reports on the West Coast, most specifically his hometown of San Diego and his home state of California. Mike is the "Ruler of the Underworld" at Societe Brewing Company, where he does a little bit of everything for the brewery. Mike also currently serves as the President of the San Diego Brewers Guild.

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