Lake and Sumter Style Magazine
6:44 pm EDT
Friday, September 18, 2020

Hops are hip

Cheers! Lake County is enjoying a growing craft beer scene.

From the long, chrome tap, a golden liquid cascades into a glass with milky white bubbles rising to the top. Craft beer enthusiast Gary Ashcraft brings his nose to the glass, inhaling the wonderful fruity aroma. 

For Gary, a resident of Eustis, there was a time when Miller Lite and Busch Light were his go-to beers. But since being introduced to craft beer in 1999, he typically shuns anything produced by big beer companies. “There are so many more flavors with craft beer and, unfortunately, name-brand beers lack those flavors,” says Gary, a mortgage broker with Homespire Mortgage. “Most craft beer costs $5 or $6 a pint, so you really have to enjoy it to spend that much.”

Tapping into craft beer

Like Gary, countless Floridians have no qualms about shelling out that kind of money, which is why the state’s craft beer industry has enjoyed increasing popularity. The Sunshine State is home to 243 craft breweries that produce 1,408,032 barrels of craft beer each year, according to the Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade association for small and independent brewers. The industry contributed more than $3 million to Florida’s economy in 2017.

In Lake County, craft beer’s popularity is hopping equally well. With four microbreweries, several tap houses, and a festival all dedicated to craft beer, connoisseurs can soak up camaraderie with like-minded people and have a world of creative flavors and innovative ingredients at their finger—and tongue—tips. 

There are no signs of the local craft beer wave fizzing out anytime soon. 

More than 900 tickets were sold for the 2018 Leesburg Craft Beer, Wine, and Food Festival, an annual event staged in November by the Leesburg Partnership. Festival visitors such as Meagan Sullivan, of Eustis, sampled various styles of craft beer produced at breweries throughout Florida.

“I go to different breweries and events like this one because I love trying new craft beer,” she says. “In fact, I have a beer date once a week with my lady friends because we’re always looking for ones that are richer and more complex. For me, craft beer is a hobby.”

It’s a hobby for many others, too. That’s one reason why owners of the 24 Tap Room in Leesburg are expanding the existing facility and opening a brew house, Mammoth Oak Brewery. The expansion will allow the company to offer an even larger selection than the 24 draft beers currently on tap daily. 

Having more options is attractive to beer geeks, a term describing anyone open-minded enough to try any beer at least once. 

“My doctor tells me to quit drinking. I tell him as soon as he makes something as good as craft beer is the day I’ll quit drinking,” says “Biker” Larry, a 70-year-old regular customer of the 24 Tap Room who declined to share his last name. “I’m always trying new styles of craft beer because you never know what you’ll like until you find one and drink it.”

Finding a new craft beer is an easy task. With 6,300 breweries in the United States, the styles and flavors are endless. Hearty stouts. Fruit- and herb-infused ciders. Citrusy pale ales. No two beers have the same aroma, body, flavor, and finish, making diversity one of craft beer’s biggest appeals. 

Chris Roeder, a bartender at the 24 Tap Room, embraces that diversity with weekly rotations of his beer selection. 

“There are not as many people who drink the same beer day in and day out,” he says. “People’s palates are really changing, and it is exciting that so many people are being exposed to all these different flavors. For some, finding a new craft beer is one of life’s greatest pleasures.”

There’s also a sense of pleasure in being one of a select few craft beer drinkers to enjoy a certain brand. For instance, one that is locally brewed, such as Rumberra at Wolf Branch Brewing Company in Eustis, might be sold only at a limited number of venues. 

“It’s really cool when you’re drinking a beer that only 200 other places have,” says Matt Eastwood, a bartender at Wolf Branch Brewing Company. “It’s a proud moment to hold that beer, and you won’t get that same feeling and experience by purchasing a 12-pack of Budweiser.”

That experience is further enhanced when brewing is done with carefully timed and executed precision. While there are many types of craft beer, the process involves four main ingredients: malt, hops, yeast, and water. Using different amounts of those ingredients determines the variation in flavor, aroma, bitterness, and taste. 

Todd Nystrand is head brewer of Great Chicago Fire Brewery and Tap Room in Leesburg. His most popular craft beer, a house India Pale Ale, harnesses the power of a super-specialized instrument: the human nose. 

“That beer is in high demand because it has a nice, tropical, floral smell,” says Todd, a self-taught brewer who learned the craft in the garage of his Minneola home. “A good amount of what you perceive as good or bad taste comes from what you smell beforehand.” 

Jose Villafana Jr., owner and brewmaster of Wolf Branch Brewing Company, uses a hybrid of creativity and technical skill. Some of his distinctive creations include an eggnog-based craft beer and an India Pale Ale milkshake. 

Michael, bartender at Wolf Branch Brewing company serves a patron. Photo: Anthony Rao

“Being a small company gives you more room to be creative and take more risks,” says Jose, who in 2015 completed the master brewer program at Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. “Here, I use real ingredients. There are no shortcuts like the big breweries.”

Socialization: Another important ingredient 

Of course, there’s more to the craft beer scene than merely trying palate-pleasing flavors. The local tap rooms and breweries are gathering places where strangers can pull up a chair or barstool, order a drink, and socialize with fellow craft beer enthusiasts. 

Forget the traditional bar mentality. Patrons are not hypnotized by their cellphones or giant television screens blaring a big ballgame. Nor are they there to get hammered. They banter about work, families, local music spots, and, of course, craft beer. 

Gary, the mortgage broker from Eustis, makes occasional after-work visits to Brü Tap House in Tavares, Mermaid Juice in Mount Dora, Wolf Branch Brewing Company, and the 24 Tap Room. 

“The tap rooms and breweries are like coffeehouses except you order beer,” Gary says. “I enjoy drinking craft beer better at one of these venues instead of a restaurant because the culture goes along with the beer. People frequent them so much that you get to know each other well. You feel like Norm walking into Cheers. Things are laid back and people are open to conversation.”

Some venues go above and beyond to help strangers come into contact with people they might never have met otherwise. At Wolf Branch Brewing Company, employee Victoria Rooney coordinates special events such as trivia night on Tuesday, bingo night on Thursday, occasional yoga sessions on Saturday, and food-and-beer pairings with local chefs. 

“It’s important to us that everyone feels comfortable and cozy—like they’re a part of our family,” she says. “It’s all about everyone having a good time.”

The dimly lit Brü Tap House incorporates that same philosophy. While patrons can order one of 200 craft beer styles readily available, they also are encouraged to participate together in board games and video games.

“We want people to socialize when they come here,” says Craig Williamson, who opened Brü Tap House three years ago with his wife, Rebecca Doherty. “It’s like a piece of home—sitting, playing games, and drinking beer.”

Flavor. Variety. Social time. 

Craft beer is more than a trend. It is becoming part of Lake County’s culture.

Local breweries and tap rooms

Wolf Branch Brewing Company

119 N. Bay St., Eustis


Chicago Fire Brewery and Tap Room

311 W. Magnolia St., Leesburg


Rocking Rabbit Brewery

405 S. Highland St., Mount Dora


Suncreek Brewery

790 W. Minneola Ave., Clermont


The 24 Tap Room

1107 W. North Blvd., Leesburg


Mermaid Juice

458 N. Highland St., Mount Dora


Brü Tap House

143 E. Main St., Tavares