Put the days of Pinots and mixed drinks behind you: The drink of choice in Orlando is craft beer.
Just in case you were wondering, the thirsty visitor to Orlando can find, without too much trouble, a few places to get a beer. Make that a lot of places. Orlando is alive with beers, served by a growing collection of ale houses, gastropubs and beercentric restaurants, offering brews from long banks of taps and creating menus pairing food with quaffs from the world’s great breweries. And local craft beers are pushing at the forefront of this foamy-headed explosion. Brew bars have replaced wine bars, which in turn displaced martini bars as the adult beverage location of choice, and it’s still possible and typical to get a pint of craft beer for four or five dollars.
Teege Braune, manager at Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour, is one of Orlando’s local experts. “You don’t have to know a lot about beer, you learn by drinking,” he says. Redlight Redlight is a sort of comfortably worn hangout, where pierced hipsters and grey-haired connoisseurs gather around the 23 drafts and roughly 200 bottle choices to hear live music while comparing notes. Braune’s favorite kind of beer is a sour ale made by Belgium’s l’Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien, highlighting how varied the brewer’s art, and drinkers’ taste buds, can be. “It’s a cross between vinegar and an old boot,” he says with a laugh. “And I can’t tell you how good an old boot can taste.” According to Braune, Orlando is a great beer town. “Craft beer drinkers here,” he says, “have experienced beer from other places and look for them here.”
It’s odd to think that before this craft re-revolution (brewing is one of, if not the oldest, professions), there has been only one brewer in Orlando’s history, a single company producing from 1937 to 1961 under the names Atlantic, Marlin and National. While their cans and labels have become expensive collector’s items, there are no recollections of the beer itself.
Not true of today’s memorable brews. Organic barley from South Carolina, hops sourced from the American Northwest, good old triple-filtered Orlando water: That’s a combination perfect for great beer, created right here by Orlando Brewery.
Known locally as OBrewery, it began operating in 2002 from an industrial-park storage unit about the size of a two-car garage. In 2006, when its current site was opened, the whole business went organic, which was a prescient and smart move that anticipated the current hot trend. Producing more than 62,000 gallons a year, the brewery—situated (literally) on the other side of the tracks near downtown Orlando—has become a destination for locals and brew-savvy tourists. Its 19 taps feature every beer produced at the plant and a few worthy guest brews, such as Chimay Triple Trappist ale.
OBrewery’s drafts range from a quietly refreshing pale ale (I-4 IPA, named after the local highway) to a surprisingly balanced dark Scottish ale (Eminent Domain). Sampler trays, with four or eight mini-glasses of OBrewery’s finest, are available at the bar.
“We have great water in Orlando,” says George Cain, one of the brewing partners. “It runs from the Floridan Aquifer that’s under the entire state, gets filtered through thousands of feet of limestone, and ends up here.”
You won’t find many other breweries that: Send their used grist to a local organic pig farm for feed; have their own band (the Orlando Brewing Choral Society and Jug Band), and host live music on weekends; feature dog-friendly Sundays; and conduct a beer school introducing eager guests to the science of zymology—that’s beer-making to you and me. As they like to say, Orlando Brewery educates the public “one pint at a time.”
The idea that beer has the ability to influence menus speaks volumes to the trend’s staying power. The trend shows no signs of fading, and its impact even has theme parks in on the movement. The Hogs Head Pub at Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Harry's favorite public house) serves up butterbeer, both draft and brain-numbingly frozen, and its exclusive Hog’s Head Brew is a rich red ale made by Florida Beer Company near Cocoa Beach in Melbourne—proving that even wizards prefer their beer crafted. Whether you’re craving a crab cake with an India Pale Ale or a rich chocolate stout with your chicken entrée, beer and food go together. And finding these magnificent combinations is easy in Central Florida.
Big River Grille and Brewing Works in Lake Buena Vista brews hand-crafted drafts, like the award-winning Red Rocket Ale, Sweet Magnolia Brown and the Southern flyer lager in large kettles, then pairs them with a full menu of flame-grilled specialities. Shipyard Brew Pub in Winter Park is the local branch of Maine's famous brewery, serving up its popular varieties along with unique creations and a menu of hand-crafted entrées.
The mix is never more evident than at the Rusty Spoon in Downtown Orlando and the Ravenous Pig’s sister pub, Cask & Larder, in Winter Park. The Spoon’s chef, Kathleen Blake, and James and Julie Petrakis at“the Pig” are leading lights in the local food movement, and both restaurants are nationally recognized (James and Julie have been nominated for the James Beard Foundation award for best chef—as a couple). Beer is part of the experience at these two gastropubs; Rusty Spoon’s taps serve up organic brews from around the country, while brewmaster Ron Raike at Ravenous Pig cooks up exotic formulations such as Ravenous Ruby Red Ale, made with Florida grapefruit, oranges and Indian coriander.
Certified beer sommelier Raike, one of a select group of people who have gone through the Cicerone Certification Program, is brewing in-house at Cask & Larder, which features ales, stouts & IPAs made from local ingredients, with one special beer aged in casks from Florida whiskey distillery Palm Ridge Reserve. “Explosion is a good word to use for the current beer scene,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director of the Brewers Association of America. “Beer is food-forward—it is a food, after all—and goes well with so many things. The craft movement has reclaimed beer at the dinner table.”