The west coast of Florida is a popular destination spot for out-of-town tourists and South Floridians alike. Just follow US 80 west and you'll hit Fort Myers, a city that has a revitalized downtown, access to beautiful Gulf beaches, the Boston Red Sox spring training facility nearby, and now it's home to the Fort Myers Brewing Company.
Only open since March 2nd of this year, the brew house is relatively new to the Florida beer scene. Operated by owners Jennifer Gratz and Rob Whyte, the brewery has been oh-so-busy keeping up with the demand at the small taproom. They currently produce the only local craft beer for the area; even placing their kegs in the nearby World of Beer at Bell Tower.
Situated in a bleak industrial park on the edge of town, somewhere past Jetblue Park and the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, the brewery and taproom might be difficult to find for anyone not familiar with the area. It's a little, how do you say, out of the way?
We reach our destination just before noon on Saturday, one of the only two days that the taproom is open (Yep, just a few short hours on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. Rob has a day job -- yeah, we know, crazy). Already there are a few people coming in to fill up growlers.
Inside is a bright, cool, and cheerful atmosphere. Although just opened, a couple of residents of the nearby housing development and employees of the surrounding industrial complex stop off for a snifter of this weekend's release: a smoked vanilla porter.
Brewmaster Rob keeps the patrons happy with a stream of beers produced with a seemingly small system. He produces four standards and some rotating specials with only two 20bbl fermenters. Oh, and the brite tanks are put to double duty as well.
"We're brewing every Sunday right now, and doing it to keep up with the demand," he says.
Rob started out making homebrew in the 90's, attempting to create something that would really just get the job done. Flavor and quality weren't a big factor.
"Our beer was awful," he admits.
That experience might have put him off to brewing for a while, until a lonely stretch of time 8 years ago put him back on track.
"I was bored," he said, simply. He was living in San Diego at the time. "My wife was out of town for three weeks, and the idea came back up to brew again." So when she returned home from Michigan, "there was a hose coming in the front door. I think she initially thought the house had turned into a meth lab... there were carboys all over the place, in the fridge, in the cabinets..."
That love turned into a business, when, on March 2nd this year they opened their doors. After moving to the Fort Myers area two years ago, their dream was starting to take shape.
"We vacationed here," Rob said. "So we thought it was the best place to start up."
Now, he can barely keep up with making sure the tasting room is stocked, and for good reason. These are great beers.
The Honey Blonde starts with a luscious grape and fruit juice aroma, yet has a bready body and perfect finish. A growler for the afternoon, check!
The Tamiami Tan reminds me of a fixed-up Newcastle. A brown ale with the same body and hint of chocolate malt, but without the funk that permeates the British beer.
Or there's the Cypress Strong Ale, what would be considered an American-styled strong ale: dark cherry aromas, but with a creamy mouthfeel and light carbonation and hopped finish. The malt grain pulls through fantastically.
The small taproom is packed heavily now, and the regulars start pouring in. Everyone is excited to be there. Eventually, someone convinces Rob to pull a sample of the kolsch currently fermenting in one of the tanks. He obliges and hands over a glass.
"It's still a little yeasty," he warns me. "Still needs some time to settle out." It's not bad at all, and not too bready for the style. It'll do great on the taps once it's ready.
Speaking of upcoming beers, what's in the future for the team?
Rob smiles, "I'd love to do sours and build up a barrel aging room."
For now, though, he says, "we're happy to be in the right place at the right time."
So if you ever head over to the west coast to that spot between Naples and Tampa, make a stop in at the Fort Myers Brewing Company and grab a growler. No sense in drinking 'chain' beer away from home.
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