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Beer gardens at the head of the class

In Gulfport, a funky little town just outside of St. Petersburg, Peg’s calls itself a cantina and serves tortilla pizzas and tacos, but it looks more like your artistic neighbor’s back yard — odd trellises and pergolas, gauzy curtains blowing, more plastic chairs outside than wooden stools inside, even a tile tabletop perched on an old oak stump.

Something else is outside — the brewing and fermenting tanks of coconut porter, weissbier and a dozen more. If you thought the beer boom was a fad gone flat, you need another pint. Fact is, 20 years into the beer revolution, enough change is foaming to fill a growler, one of those half-gallon jugs folks filled up at saloons in the Depression.  

Florida’s fascination with craft-brewed beer, ale, porter, weissbier and more has grown so much that the state now boasts more than 70 breweries from the Panhandle to the Keys, with the biggest clusters around Jacksonville and Tampa. That’s perhaps 30 more than last year, making Florida more beer-savvy than most states and starting to catch us up with the Rockies and the West Coast.  

The craft beer revolution in Florida started with Irish pubs like McGuire’s in Pensacola, the Hops chain and the Dunedin Brewery, which opened in 1996. Today, little Dunedin also boasts a second brewery, 7venth Sun, and the House of Beer taproom plus a half-dozen more nearby.

Styles are more diverse than ever, from summery sessions (known as saisons to Belgians) to dark-hearted Russian stouts. Food served with beer is more elaborate than the old staples of pizza, burgers and wings. (Peg’s serves seared tuna sliders with wasabi guacamole.) And fine American craft beer now comes in cans around the country, and at Intuition Ale Works in Jacksonville, eco- and beach-friendly.

Today beer gardens/biergartens distinguish themselves with high-end craft beer and an atmosphere that’s goofy, geeky and gastronomic. The pub clubbiness of “Cheers” has been replaced by a foodie palate and a low-key aesthetic that’s art-student Bohemian.

Hofbrau Beer Garden
Panama City

Hofbrau Beer Garden replicates the Munich biergarten and places it smack in the equally classic Florida sun and fun of the Pier. The setting is beachside, but servers are in Old World dresses and lederhosen aprons, not short shorts and cutoff T-shirts. The brew is pure Bavaria, the original Hofbrau beers plus dunkel, maibock and more.

Beyond Beer Nuts

Beer food is casual, meaty and spicy and increasingly sophisticated. The more common flavor is that of the gastropub, which gave comfort foods chef-ly care and bolder rustic flavors. This summer, Mr. Beery’s in Sarasota celebrated Bacon Happy Hour with candied bacon biscuits from an artisan baker. The Ravenous Pig, Winter Park’s pioneer gastropub, will get deeper in beer when it opens Cask & Larder this month, brewing its own beer and pairing it with barbecue and old-school Southern supper dishes.

The English Tap & Beer Garden in Palm Beach has one of the finer menus, as much Mediterranean as British — the “English” in the title belongs to Todd English, the energetic celebrity chef. Shepherd’s pie, of course — and asparagus frites.

The most exotic beer and food pairing is in Sarasota at Darwin’s on 4th. Peruvian chef Darwin Santa Maria opened his newest restaurant in space where the previous tenant had been a microbrewer. So to his signature style of ceviches, tiraditos and updated Latin grills, he has added a dozen brews and ales with flavors of Peru, including chicha, the thin native home brew.

Lou’s Beer Garden
Miami

In Miami, the biergarten concept goes retro and MiMo cool around the pool at Lou’s Beer Garden. Installed at the boutique New Hotel refashioned from a forgotten ‘50s motel, it feels like a back yard, but of the midcentury modern style, a patio for cool cats. Nothing old-fashioned about the menu of Kobe burgers, charcuterie, risotto and frisee.

Barkeeps

A new connoisseurship of beer is present on both sides of the bar. Barkeeps, men and women, are often as geeky on IBU (bitterness units) as the drinkers they serve. They must be able to guide customers through constantly changing beers on tap.

Beer-smart staff is as essential as hops to today’s beer garden, and the best proprietors see the knowledge of bartenders as more important than how fast they pour a pint. World of Beer, which started out with one wildly popular watering hole in Tampa’s exurbs five years ago and now has two dozen stores, is so keen on savvy barkeeps that it set up “Beer School.”

Locations across Florida, in the Carolinas and as far as Ohio will have very different beer lists but always many, many beers and smart service. WOB’s founders and a new top management group that includes Outback veterans want bartenders to fancy beer as much as the customer.