Leaning on a backdrop in a former indie film studio soon to become the Flying Boat Brewing Co., Josh Perian provides a little history lesson. Give him a minute, he’ll loop it back to a craft beer connection momentarily.
The “Flying Boat” was the nickname of the Benoist airplane that Tony Jannus piloted on the world’s first scheduled commercial flight between St. Petersburg and Tampa in 1914.
“At the turn of the century, airplanes were still very much a novelty,” said Perian, the brewery’s director of operations. “They were still trying to find their niche. This guy Tommy Benoist, he was the one pushing how it could be used — he thought passenger flight was a great use of this newfangled machine.”
Perian, owner Glenn Zakany and assistant operations director Tanner Zakany latched onto the name for their St. Petersburg brewery.
“One of the reasons we like the Flying Boat story so much is that these guys were pioneers in their own right,” Perian said. “I think that fits perfectly with craft beer, because craft beer is constantly pushing boundaries, being very innovative, and every brewer is a pioneer in his own right. I think that fits very well with us and this area.”
The Flying Boat pioneers are in good company in the Tampa Bay area. Nearby at 3 Daughters Brewing Co., a new 10,000-square-foot production center has risen behind the original brew- house and will be occupied in a couple of months.
Across the bay, Tampa Bay Brewing Co. just accepted delivery of four new 150-barrel tanks that will ultimately allow the craft brewer to increase production from the current 8,000 barrels a year to 18,000.
And last week came a notable feather in the area’s craft beer cap: USA Today named Tampa the third-best beer scene in the nation, behind only Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fort Collins, Colorado.
“The Tampa Bay area is on fire for craft beer,” said John Erik Savitsky, chief operating officer at 3 Daughters. “It’s really exploded in the last couple of years. We’re pretty excited about what’s happening here. There are craft breweries popping up seemingly on every block, and that’s a good thing.”
There are now more than 50 craft brewers and brewpubs in the Tampa Bay area, up from 15 just two years ago.
A University of Florida study commissioned by the Florida Brewers Guild put the economic impact of the industry at $432 million in 2013, when there were just 50 craft brewers statewide.
“Just the enthusiasm for the beer alone in this town is fantastic,” said David Doble, managing partner and director of brewery operations at Tampa Bay Brewing. “It’s off the charts. People love to hang around people and industries that are having fun.”
There appears to be more good news on the horizon for those who prefer a local beer to a Bud, Coors or Miller Lite. The UF report says the number of planned breweries and the industry optimism suggest growth will continue. Unlike states it considered to have “mature” craft beer industries — California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — Florida is in its craft beer infancy.
The report suggests the state could support nearly 550 craft breweries. That’s nearly four times the 150 now here.
“There’s just so much room for growth,” said Savitsky. “Breweries at this point can still open up at a rapid rate.”
And there’s no fear of the competition. Craft brewers have been known to lend each other tools and equipment, and they share advice on everything from ingredients to distributors.
The brewers are looking to create a critical mass that makes the Tampa area a destination for craft beer aficionados. Currently, just about 3 percent of beer sold in the state is craft brewed; that compares with 13 percent nationally, 20 percent in California and 51 percent in Portland, Oregon.
“We only become a beer destination when there are enough breweries making great beer, and it’s really cool to be recognized as an area that’s doing that,” said Khris Johnson, owner and head brewer at Green Bench Brewing Co.
Green Bench was No. 10 on USA Today’s Best New Brewery list for 2016. It’s on many craft beer fans’ short lists of Tampa Bay area favorites, along with 3 Daughters, Cigar City Brewing in Tampa and Dunedin Brewery, billed as the area’s oldest.
But there are several new breweries making names for themselves on the local scene. An informal survey of some established brewery heads turned up the following up-and-comers:
♦Southern Beer & Winemaking of Seminole Heights, “one of the most underappreciated breweries in the area,” according to Johnson.
Big Storm Brewing Co. in Clearwater and Odessa, a four-medal winner in the 2015 Florida Beer Championships.
SixTen Brewing in Tampa, which “always seems to get lost in the mix, but they’ve really done a good job,” according to Tampa Bay Brewing’s Doble.
Angry Chair Brewing in Seminole Heights, which Florida Brewers Guild president Mike Halker describes as “a cool little spot.”
Rapp Brewing Co. in Seminole, named Florida’s best new brewer in 2013 and home of a mean Chocolate Peanut Butter Stout.
“There are just so many of them around there,” said Halker, who runs Due South Brewing in Boynton Beach.
“Everybody’s doing their own thing, and it’s nice to see a place where everybody doesn’t have to have a big production facility. It’s nice to see these smaller places do whatever they want, and they’re doing some really cool things.”