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Craft Beer Business Booming in Southwest Florida

Microbreweries keep popping up along the Gulfshore—and have established a loyal following along the way.

Vanessa Rogers

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What are you drinking?

Miller Lite?

OK. But how about a Paddlepuss Blonde Ale? Or a Keewaydin Crusher? Have you tried the City of Palms Pils yet?

They’re local. They’re good. They may just be your new favorite beers.

So, you ready to try something new?

Southwest Florida is in the middle of a beer boom. As of press time, there were 17 craft breweries between Punta Gorda and Marco Island (and potentially two more on the way). Just five years ago, there was one.

These are microbreweries, producing maybe a few thousand gallons of beer each month. You can get a glass of their goods at dozens of restaurants or bars in Southwest Florida. Some have started canning and getting their product on store shelves. Most have taprooms, where you can sip a cold one right next to the giant metal drums where it was fermented. Chances are if you do visit, there’ll be a crowd. It’s not just about the beer, after all. It’s about the atmosphere. A craft culture has started to emerge, where beer-minded people come to try out new concoctions.

When Bone Hook brew master Josh Deitner first arrived, he was unsure what he was getting into. Would people be receptive to something new? Would they order beers that played up ingredients like hot pepper or chocolate? “They warned me: It’s not like elsewhere,” he says. “But I’m seeing it change before my eyes.”

Related: The Must-Have Beers in Southwest Florida

What’s happening here is a reflection of what’s been happening beer-wise across the country. The number of breweries nationwide has doubled since 2012, according to the Brewers Association, which represents independent beer makers. The growth in the industry has been tied to the growing popularity of beer coming from small breweries. Long and short of it: Sales of Big Beer (Miller Lite, Coors, Bud and that ilk) are falling; sales of craft beer are rising. In 2016, while overall beer sales were flat, craft beer was up about 6 percent. 

Beer drinkers are showing that they’re willing to pay more for something that tastes a bit more interesting than the usual mass-produced varieties. With how fast Southwest Florida has been growing, it’s no surprise that microbreweries are cropping up. But, let’s face it: Florida is a bit behind the trend. The state has only about one brewery per 100,000 people. That ranks it in the bottom 10 nationwide, according to the Brewers Association. “There’s still plenty of room for growth,” says Gerard Walen, author of Florida Breweries.

Will Lawson started Naples Beach Brewery, the first microbrewery in Southwest Florida. 

Earlier this decade, Will Lawson was brewing up batches of beer at home, but something bugged him about the Naples beer scene. Mainly, there wasn’t one. “There’s this huge, growing population,” he recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘How are there no breweries?’” So, he opened one in 2012. Naples Beach Brewery was the first in Southwest Florida.

The brewery isn’t in an expected location. It’s in an industrial plaza behind Naples Municipal Airport. During the day, you’re more likely to take your car there for repair than to sit down for a beer. But in the late afternoon, you’ll find a mix of people—retirees to recent college grads—mingling under the lit tents, grabbing a bite from a food truck and choosing from among Naples Beach’s 31 beers on tap. Like many breweries locally, it’s got an urban feel, similar to something you’d find in a larger city. It seems worlds away from Fifth Avenue South or Mercato. Naples Beach Brewery doesn’t get the foot traffic it would in a strip mall or downtown area. But being the first brewery in Naples, it’s generated a solid following of those who come for the beer and the atmosphere. It’s been quite the climb to get where they are now. In the beginning, they just brewed and sold to local bars and restaurants—because that’s all they could do. Collier County didn’t allow for a taproom, meaning a brewery couldn’t sell beer for consumption on-site. After working with the county for about a year, they got approval and moved to a bigger space a few doors down in 2015. Lawson’s initial thought was that the larger space could also mean they would brew and sell more to local establishments. He expected to double the amount they distributed. It’s been only about 50 percent growth, in part due to the flood of craft beer locally. “There’s a ton of breweries,” he says. “And that’s great. But there’s a saturation in the distribution market.” 

But the success of the taproom is what’s really driving business. He estimates that the taproom sold about 1,500 gallons per month for the last half of 2017. (Distribution accounted for about 1,200 gallons.) “Clearly, people want to go to the source,” he says.

View Southwest Florida Breweries in a full screen map

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