Craft beer is usually not what comes to mind when thinking about Orlando. Walt Disney World, Universal Studios or another splashy theme park, yes, but not beer.
Today, however, this landlocked central Florida city is getting a reputation for its growing craft beer scene. In the past few years, locals in the Orlando area have opened bars offering a wide selection of beers from small producers, and some are even opening spots that serve ales brewed in house.
The Florida Brewers Guild, a nonprofit association, said there were now 20 to 25 breweries and craft beer bars in the Orlando area compared with five years ago when there were fewer than 10.
The roots of the growing culture date to the opening of beer-centric bars like Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour. This casual and large bar, housed in an industrial-looking space, was a novelty when it opened in 2005. It has a menu of 26 rotating drafts, as well as 300 bottles from small producers around the world. It also has more than 50 varieties of sour wild beers from countries including Switzerland, Italy and Belgium, offering a flavor profile that can taste at times like sour candy. Another spot spearheading the movement is Milk Bar, about a 10-minute drive away. A local restaurateur, Bret Ashman, opened the 750-square-foot space, named after the milk factory across the street, because of his longtime passion for smaller niche brands. The menu at the 3-year-old bar has 90 options, and there are two 42-inch televisions connected to Xbox and Sega gaming systems that customers are encouraged to use.
“We’re trying to be a user-friendly version of your best guy friend’s house,” Ashman said.
But the interest in beer has become even more specialized with establishments selling varieties crafted onsite like the year-old Cask & Larder. The lively restaurant and bar has a menu of nine rotating ales that Ron Raike, 48, brews in a glassed room so customers can watch the process. A highlight of a Cask & Larder visit is a meal in which his beer is paired with Southern-influenced cuisine such as a fish fry with okra and hush puppies or chicken and biscuits.
“You don’t hear about food and beer complementing each other the way you do about wine, but we want to show our guests that it can work just as well,” he said.
Food isn’t offered at all at the year-old Hourglass Brewery, which was started by two high school best friends, Sky Conley, 31, and Brett Mason, 32, who home-brewed for years while they had other jobs. The 900-square-foot venue is only large enough for a small brewing area and tap room and has a mural of space-themed movies like “Star Wars” adorning one wall and mixed media, pencil and canvas works from local artists on another. Conley makes 60 kinds of beers such as an India Pale Ale and Mocha Imperial Stout and usually offers nine at a time, weaving in seasonal varieties like one for autumn using butternut squash and Brazil nuts.
Orlando Brewing, which bills itself as the only USDA-certified organic brewery in Florida, has a lively ambience in a roomy 7,000-square-foot setting. Local bands play styles like bluegrass and country music on weekends, and food trucks come out for special events, but beer has always taken center stage since the bar opened in 2006.
It’s taken a few years to get a collective sense of Orlando’s beer culture because the area, and the ale houses, are so spread out. Mount Dora, for instance, is a 45-minute trip out of the city. Jeff Herbst, 59, opened the brewery and restaurant in 2011 in three small early-20th century houses that were his workshops when he was a furniture builder. He brews his six ales including the rich and dark Pistoville Porter in one building; a restaurant serving bar food and a tap room are in the other two.
Raike, the brewmaster at Cask & Larder, remembers the days when the only place he could find craft beers was his home.
“It used to be a beer wasteland,” he said. “Now, that’s finally changing.”