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Craft Beer Reigns On The Treasure Coast With New Breweries Stepping Outside The Box

We can tip one, pound some or knock a few back. A draft when out to dinner on a date. A pint in the pub with close mates. A tall one at the tavern after a tough day on the grind. Or a cold one after cutting the grass on a summer afternoon. 

No matter the location or occasion, from celebration to commiseration, from the mundane to the monumental—right this very minute, in fact—someone is uttering those three special little words: 

“Beer me, bro.”

Americans can drink more than 6 billion gallons of beer annually, according to the Beer Institute. And we’re just the latest in a long line of imbibers. Dating back to Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago, the discovery and development of beer are credited by some anthropologists with nothing short of transforming civilization—necessitating the invention of essential agricultural tools and practices, shaping how and where societies settled, and inspiring some of the most fun and memorable television commercials ever created. 

Ah, beer. Now, it’s undergoing a new transformation. No, not “red beer,” “ice beer” or “gluten-free beer.” (Yuck.) No, this is as big as when hops were first added to beer back in, oh, 1060-something. This is as big as when Prohibition-era watered-down beer spawned the ever-enduring light beer. This is craft brewing. 

“It’s a big deal everywhere,” says Philip Busch, president of Southern Eagle Distributing in Fort Pierce. “It’s exploding all over the nation. You go from having no local breweries to all of the sudden having six...Sailfish Brewing has more tap handles on the Treasure Coast than Sam Adams does.”

Brotherhood Of Brewers

craft beer
Fort Pierce-based Sailfish Brewing Company has brewed more than 200 different beers.

Since opening in April 2013, Fort Pierce-based Sailfish Brewing Company has brewed more than 200 different beers and opened more than 60 accounts on the Treasure Coast, says Al Beltran, head brewer and general manager. 

“We’re blessed to be able to be a big part of history being made,” says the 36-year-old Fort Pierce resident. “We love what we do. It’s hard work, but everyone who’s in this business loves to work hard. I thank God every day. There’re not many lives I could ask for that’s better.”

Sailfish’s fan favorites, Beltran says, include White Marlin, a Belgian-style wheat beer; Sunrise City IPA; and Tag and Release Amber—“my football beer, just malty enough, just hoppy enough.” 

A strong current of camaraderie unites craft brewers. They share—rather than safeguard—tips and techniques, operating with an open-source mindset that seems to believe that a rising craft-beer market lifts all glasses.

“It’s an abundance mentality instead of a greed mentality—and it works,” Beltran says. “The more teachers we have to show people what it is we do and how to appreciate it, the better that all the brewers do, the stronger the market’s going to be. We want the market to be strong to give people a good taste in their mouth about craft beer.”

Former front-of-the-house manager for Hurricane Grill & Wings, Beltran, who predicts as many as 10 craft breweries on the Treasure Coast in the next five years, credits Matt Webster and Fran Andrewlevich, founders of Tequesta Brewing Company, for guiding his growth.

“They’ve always been helpful to the other guys coming along,” says Jason Hutton, who handles sales for Tequesta Brewing. “It just helps everyone out.”

Just celebrating its sixth anniversary, Tequesta Brewing is found in more than 300 restaurants and hotels from Fort Pierce to Key West and its Der Chancellor brew, a German Kölsch, is available bottled. Despite the span of reach, Tequesta Brewing still caters to its loyal base of locals with a variety of seasonal flavors exclusive to its Tequesta tap room. 

 “We have such a great local following,” Hutton says. “We have regulars, and we’ve built that up over the last five years.”

Local, Local, Local 

For all the qualities explaining the appeal of craft brewing—a vast variety of flavors, DIY nature of origin, the independence, even defiance of its success in a corporate-dominated market—one word captures it best: local.

As a distributor, Busch works with both major brands as well as national and local craft brewers. Although he says the desire for Bud Light and “traditional beers that everyone knows” will always persist, “a lot of these breweries are locally owned,” Busch says. “We are local, and we have true love for the Treasure Coast.

“For me, it’s a natural thing to want to support our partners on the Treasure Coast,” he adds. “We go the extra effort to make sure they’re as successful as possible. We feel that craft breweries are good partners. They’re here for the long haul. That’s the future of beer. It’s going to be a good variety with lots of flavor that pairs well with food.”

Perfect Pairings

craft beer store
Orchid Island Brewery owners, Alden and Valerie Bing

Side Door Brewing Company in Port St. Lucie opened in December 2015. Although drafts are available in about a dozen local restaurants, like many upstart breweries it doesn’t bottle yet. Customers simply belly up to the brewer’s bar where owner Dwayne Buchholz pours out pints and advice on flavor pairings. 

His Mango Salsa wheat beer nicely complements fish dip and Captain’s Wafers. The Castronovo Chocolate Porter includes Stuart-made chocolate. The Jamaican Me Jittery coffee porter includes beans from Culinary Coffee Roasters in Stuart. 

“Everything we can source locally,” he says, “we source locally.”

Orchid Island Brewery does the same. Open since September 2014, the Vero Beach brewery showcases Indian River County’s famed citrus, which particularly shines through in its Star Ruby Imperial IPA—whose 8.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) is a fan favorite.

“It’s extremely aromatic,” explains Brandon Lojewski, 28, head brewer, “with hints of resin, citrus and pine. We try to highlight the agricultural history of the county in our brews. We call it ‘grove to glass.’”

As ambassadors of the beverages, craft brewers guide newcomers through the forest of flavors, genres and alcohol contents. Lojewski demystified IPAs, notorious for hoppy bites yet immensely popular. There’s the session IPA, whose hoppiness and alcohol level is lower, around 4 to 5 percent. Single-session IPAs run 5 to 7 percent in ABV, while double IPAs run 7.5 to 10 percent ABV. 

“Annually, we do a triple IPA—11.4 percent (ABV),” he says. “That’s kind of the apex, the highest level of strength.”

Lojewski was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Central Florida when he started working part-time at Orchid Island Brewing. Tired and burned-out from his studies, he realized his sincere passions lay in engineering recipes for craft beer. He now brews full-time for Orchid Island. 

The owners, who started in homebrewing, remember jumping from making 10-gallon batches to 200-gallon batches. It was “a big step in getting all the flavor palates down,” Lojewski says. “With my technical background, I was able to help fill in the gaps.”

Different Direction

Islamorada Beer Company
Islamorada Beer Company opened in the Keys in 2014, and it has since expanded to Fort Pierce

The flavor palate of craft beers is primarily populated with bold, heavy, heady flavors. Recognizing this, the creators of Islamorada Beer Company deliberately chose a different direction. 

“We completely went against what the whole market told us to do,” says Jose Herrera, one of the co-founders who now runs sales and marketing. “When everyone was brewing IPAs, we decided to go light.”

First opening in the Keys in 2014, Islamorada Beer Company recently expanded with two 25,000-square-foot buildings in Fort Pierce. If running at full capacity (all day, every day), its 30-barrell system could produce 65,000 barrels of craft beer a year. 

Among the largest craft brewers in the state, Islamorada Beer Company—which employs 19—is a stunning success story. The founders started by hiring an out-of-state contractor to brew 90 barrels of its Sandbar Sunday, a wheat ale. A hired consultant predicted a six-month span to sell out. Relying on only a billboard and social media, they exhausted the entire supply in three weeks. 

“I left my job,” Herrera says of his former career as development director for a private school.

After opening a small brewery on Islamorada, they picked up distributors throughout South Florida and on the west coast of the state before landing in Fort Pierce, allowing them to cut the contractor and brew themselves on a larger scale. 

Islamorada’s brews include Channel Marker, a lighter IPA; and No Tan Lines, a combination of Islamorada Ale and Sandbar Sunday, which includes hints of Key lime, lemon and orange.

“It’s our version of a black and tan,” Herrera says. “We’re from the Keys, so we don’t like tan lines.”

The decision to brew lighter beers sprang from a mix of personal preference and market savviness. 

“If you look at the scale of people who buy beer and what kind of beer they buy, about 85 percent of the people are still drinking Bud Light,” Herrera says. “We wanted to create that session-able beer for craft beer drinkers. When you’re done with your craft IPA or your stout, I want you to switch to my beer.”

Brewing Begins At Home

Southern Eagle Distributing in Fort Pierce
Philip Busch, president of Southern Eagle Distributing in Fort Pierce

A gift of homebrew inspired Dwayne Buchholz of Side Door Brewing. Living in Portland, Oregon, and California—areas of early craft beer adoption—he owned a construction company. When he sold it, the buyer gave him a six-pack of homebrew.

“He called it a Russian lager,” says Buchholz, a 55-year-old father of five and grandfather of five. “I’m not ever sure that exists, but it was so good. I decided, I’m going to learn how to make beer.”

His first homebrew batch “came out perfect,” Buchholz recalls. “That’s all it took. I started buying up equipment and looking for a location.”

For most homebrewers, “perfect” only comes after lots and lots of practice, Jeff Bowers says.

“Lots of trial and error and lots batches that you thought were kind of good,” says the president of Treasure Coast BrewMasters Club. “But when you have people with expertise critique them, there were flaws in the process that people with experience had to help me work through.”

Bowers joined the homebrewers club in 2011 and saw membership jump from fewer than 15 to today’s 70. A tasting club (not a drinking club), the BrewMasters swap tips, sample submissions and celebrate each other’s achievements—like when Bowers’ chocolate-maple porter won a medal for a First Coast Cup in a St. Augustine tournament. 

Bowers brews on a one-barrel system, producing up to 33 gallons. An eight-hour day of brewing, two-to-three-week fermentation process and about six-to-eight weeks unfold before it’s ready to pour. The size and quality of equipment and refrigerator can easily cost as high as $10,000.

“But you can get started for few hundred bucks,” Bowers says. “Craft brewing, it’s a science. Learning the science and creating the recipes, it’s intriguing to a lot of people. People like the diversity and variation of styles.”

Whether brewing at home or for the growing audience of a new brewery, a common trait, Bowers says, unites all beer lovers working to master the craft. 

“We’re all trying to brew the perfect batch,” he says.

Portion Control

The risk-taking that abounds in the craft beer craze extends beyond the breweries. Crafted Keg in Stuart doesn’t brew beer onsite, as doing so could threaten its bar status. But at least 10 of its 64 taps feature local flavors. 

“Our motto is: Drink local, think global,” owner Matthias Piasecki says.

Piasecki is responsible for another motto: “Fought the man, ended the ban.” The battle cry emblazoned on all Crafted Keg growlers—64-ounce bottles previously made illegal due to never-repealed laws dating back to the Prohibition-era. (The 32-ounce and 128-ounce sizes, nevertheless, remained legal.)

Piasecki teamed with libertarian-oriented law firm Pacific Legal Foundation and signed the lawsuit that successfully overturned the regulation in 2015.

In his former career building software for hospitals, the 30-year-old Piasecki—who grew up in Stuart—was on an out-of-state business trip when he stopped for a beer at a venue filling growlers from several taps. 

“I’d never seen a growler before,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Dude, this is awesome. This needs to exist in Stuart.’”

Repealing the regulation meant bumping up against the industry’s storied three-tier system, or “competitive/license” model. Tier one represents the beer manufacturer/brewer/importer. Tier two is the distributor, which sells to retailers (tier three), who in turn sell to consumers. 

Created to combat pre-Prohibition scandals that controlled all channels of delivery, this separation of powers ostensibly promotes a more competitive free-market environment. The brewers can’t directly retail, save a limited provision in Florida called the brew-pub law, which allows brewers to sell on premises from up to eight different retail locations. To sell to patrons at a bar or grocery, the beer must go through a licensed distributor. 

Although the three-tier system remains intact, the growler ban was lifted.  

“I didn’t care about the three-tier system,” Piasecki says. “I wanted to sell growlers. They ended up pulling the law apart, and repealing the 64-ounce prohibition. And now we can sell growlers, and it’s awesome.”

Crafted Keg growlers