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Cigar City Brewing Lights Up Tampa

Once upon a recent time in Tampa, there was a homebrewer anticipating the opening of a local craft brewery so he could get his dream job by working there. Finally, Joey Redner took matters into his own hands in 2009 and started his own brewery. The result is a paean to Tampa, the cultures surrounding the Gulf of Mexico and craft beer.

Even the most veteran of beer tourists would find a trip to Cigar City Brewing unique. It’s not just the ability to learn firsthand how cigars are rolled at the tobacco table in the tasting room – or the eclectic array of items on the wall behind the bar and broad variety of well-crafted in-house brews on the electronic chalkboard. For the alert traveler, there’s a breadth of opportunity to engage the history of Tampa.

I happened to be traveling to the brewery on the same Monday when President Obama was paying tribute to Jose Martí in Cuba during his historic state visit. The poet who helped inspire revolution and the fight for independence in Cuba, Martí was a frequent visitor to Tampa. Several years before hailing Cuba and Martí was cool, he was commemorated in one of the early releases by Cigar City. An 8 percent ABV porter with a strong hop kick, this beer was typical of the early high-gravity brews that fueled Cigar City’s meteoric growth.

The signature big beer, Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, one of the early arrivals to the chili pepper-infused beer phenomena, is a tribute to a mythical Mayan god of the sun and is released once a year at the brewery. Given that demand continues to outstrip supply, Hunahpu’s is also a tribute to Redner and head brewer Wayne Wambles, who introduced the beer in the Atlanta Cask Ale Festival shortly before opening the brewery in 2009.

Consider a can of Tocobaga Red Ale, which is ultra-malty with a hop profile to match and easy-drinking – like so many of Cigar City’s traditional styles despite their decided twists. The back of the Red Ale can recalls the history of the Tocobaga Native Americans who built platform mounds in the Tampa Bay area that still exist. “Climb to the top,” goes this trip advisory, “and with a little imagination you can see Tampa Bay as they did.” The Tocobaga were the only original residents of what is now Florida to grow maize, or corn (we learn from the can), although it’s likely honey that helps supply sweetness and smoothness. In any event, this reddish-hued amber ale has really got it going on.

During my visit, the tasting room featured El Lector, a very engaging example of an English Dark Mild and another indicator of the eclectic nature of the beers available in the tap room, where Belgian and German styles are also found. Low on ABV and carbonation, El Lector was still deep in roasted richness, which seems appropriate. “The reader” was a man who held forth on a centrally located stand in the cigar-making plants in nearby Ybor City. These lectors could spontaneously translate into Spanish from a variety of languages while reading newspapers and literature to the Cuban-born cigar makers as they labored at the benches.  No doubt some of the poems read to the rollers needed no translation and were written by Jose Martí.

Just in case this cultural pursuit seems to be getting too far afield (especially if one includes the eminently drinkable Jai Alai IPA, named after the game imported to Florida from the Basque country and played in frontons with cestas and pelotas), consider the Belgian Witbier that goes by the name of Florida Cracker. That name is a tribute to the Scots-Irish herdsmen who used bullwhips and cracked them above the heads of driven cattle. This beer, too, is a subtle departure of what one might expect from the style, with the signature smoothness helping to push the beer’s thirst-quenching aspect forward in such a hot climate.

So a trip to Cigar City is an opportunity to engage more than beer. It turns out to be a window on the melting pot that is Tampa. “The two are irrevocably tied together,” wrote the ever-busy Redner during an e-mail interview following my visit. “It was my love for this city that drove me to want to make Cigar City Brewing exist here. I wanted to share what I love about Tampa with the rest of the world via the vehicle of beer.” 

All this keeps Redner, who has four daughters, very busy. The goal of Cigar City from the outset was to provide what craft breweries were doing elsewhere in the current beer revolution. If it’s a typical craft brewer activity, then Redner and his staff, which now includes 10 brewers who put out 60,000 barrels a year, are...

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