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Visiting the aley everglades

Suddenly, Florida offers beer with character in some unlikely surroundings

Old Thumper seems an unlikely candidate for an international beer, but that is the way it is going. This strong (5.8-6.0 alcohol by volume) ale, a mainstay of the pioneering micobrewery in Ringwood, Hampshire, has for some years also been produced by the Shipyard brewery in the northeastern U.S city of Portland, Maine. Now it is additionally being made at a smaller Shipyard brewery in the southeast: in the tourist city of Orlando, Florida.

Odder still, the Florida brewery is in the ticketing and check-in area of Orlando International Airport. It is among the perfume, book and souvenir shops where passengers in moving walkways glide between the "people-mover" trains and the airport's Hyatt Hotel.

The brewhouse is clearly visible, in shop-like premises, behind glass. Next door is a bar serving half a dozen Shipyard beers, including the beautifully-rounded Old Thumper, the dry-hopped Fuggles IPA (5.75 abv) and a charcoaly but smooth stout (5 abv). Five other bars at the airport and one in the Hyatt each serve a couple of the Shipyard beers: often Old Thumper and a lighter, crisper, drier, perfumy, Export Ale (5.1 abv). There are about 30 Shipyard taps elsewhere in Florida, including one or two at the airport of the more northerly major city of Jacksonville.

Old Thumper's creator, veteran British brewer Peter Austin, has consulted for micros all over the world.

Old Thumper's creator, veteran British brewer Peter Austin, has consulted for micros all over the world. His chosen successor Alan Pugsley, also British, bases himself in Portland, Maine. Pugsley's Shipyard Brewery there is partly owned by the national giant Miller, which also controls Celis (making Belgian wheat beers in the southwest) and Leinenkugel (lagers in Middle America).

To make the beer in Orlando, Pugsley recruited Ron Raike, winner of countless awards in Florida homebrew competitions, recently for a superb ale in the style of Rodenbach.

The Shipyard brewery was the first in an American airport when it opened in March of 1997, and is still the only one. The Munich Hofbräuhaus has since the summer of 1996 had a brewery adjoining the airport at Bangkok, Thailand, with a beer restaurant in Terminal Two.

The Orlando brewery was inspired by Host Marriott, the company that has a concession to run bars at airports in many parts of the United States. Host Marriott has a deliberate policy to make available local brews, and has about 40 airport bars strong featuring micros. Some of these have brewing equipment as decor.

The beers are usually unpasteurised, though typically chilled and served under pressure - but what a welcome change from the very recent past, when anything other than Miller Lite or Bud was utterly unthinkable at airports.

The news from downtown Orlando is less encouraging. Two southeastern brewpub chains, Hops and The Mill, have branches in the city but neither is very committed. Hops makes relatively mainstream beers, and neither of The Mill's two outlets had any of its own beers on tap when I called. Downtown, I most enjoyed the Go Lounge (25 Wall Street). It's not a brewpub, just a hole-in-the-wall bar that does not open until 8.0 in the evening, but it features jazz, offers the odd Belgian on tap, and has a big selection in the bottle.

Another unlikely spot for a brewery is Walt Disney World, also in Orlando.

Another unlikely spot for a brewery is Walt Disney World, also in Orlando. To be precise, Disney World is almost a county in its own right, on the southwestern edge of the city. Each attraction within it is like a small town: the Magic Kingdom, the Animal Kingdom, the Epcot Centre, and so forth. One of these mini-towns is a totally artificial resort, with hotels, set on a boardwalk promenade round a huge, man-made lake.

The resort, called Boardwalk, has for two years had among its restaurants a brewpub called the Big River Grille. This is operated by the Big River brewpub of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in association with the national chain Rock Bottom.

At Disney World, the Big River is a cafe-style brewpub, in a curiously angular, post-modernist building. A "river" is described across the ceiling in blue lighting. At one end of the room, the copper-clad brewhouse is behind glass.

The beers are by no means huge in flavour, but are much bigger and hoppier than the national brands normally found in such locations. Despite its being a small brewery, three yeasts are used, for lagers, wheat beers and ales. Products include the nutty Angler's Amber; the malty, fruity, Rocket Red; the dry Tilt Pale Ale; and the fruity Wowzer's Wheat.

For all that it is a family entertainment complex, and as squeaky-clean as anything created by Disney, the beers seemed to be going down well on the night I called.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist," observes Mac Monroe, explaining that home-brewing is not necessarily difficult. Are we to believe him? He is a rocket scientist: a specialist in systems that detect the source of missiles.

These Space Coast Associates for the Advancement of Zymurgy use the acronym SAAZ, after the Czech hop variety.

He made his comment as we toured the "rocket farm" museum and visitor centre at the Kennedy Space Centre, at Cape Canaveral, abbout 70 miles east of Orlando. There are enough home-brewers professionally involved in rocketry to have their own club. These Space Coast Associates for the Advancement of Zymurgy use the acronym SAAZ, after the Czech hop variety.

While putting his four children through college, Mac lives in a house lacking a suitable space in which to brew, but he did find me some good local beers south of Cape Canaveral, in the town of Melbourne.

This straddles a lagoon known in part as the Indian River, which provides an appellation for the most famous of Florida oranges. The Indian River Brewing Company is a micro, founded in June of 1977, in a 1960s warehouse building (2500, S. Harbor City Boulevard). Free beer is offered in a tasting room, where the bar-counter comprises half of a 1930s mahogany boat.

A beer called Shoal Draft, described as a Kšlsch, has a slightly syrupy start and a crisp, dry finish. I much preferred the tastier, nutty, Amberjack Alt.

We had lunch at Charlie and Jake's Brewery & Grille (6300 N. Wickham Rd), in a shopping strip at the Sun Tree development, on the north edge of Melbourne. This brewpub grew out of an earlier, "hole in the wall" pork-barbecue restaurant run by Charlie Johnson and his then girlfriend Jake (Jacqueline).

Prospective visitors should be warned to order only the small plate of barbecue. It is a hefty portion, and comes with hush puppies (corn fritters, flavoured with onion) and a choice of two vegetables, ranging from black-eyed peas through okra to turnip greens.

In the Florida heat, I appreciated the crisp but tasty Wickham Wheat, made with an American ale yeast. I loved the flowery, perfumy, appetising, dry-hopped, pale, Anniversary Ale; and enjoyed the malty dryness of the Indian River Red (made with an Irish ale yeast); but was less impressed with a chocolatey, raisiny, rummish, Brown Ale, which seemed a little thin for a beer of a 1060 original gravity. The seasonal beer, made with a lager yeast, was a deliciously malty, biscuity, Maibock of 1064 (6.25 abv).

Nicaraguan-born brewer Kavanaugh Farr has Irish and British family connections, but was disappointly vague about his namesake Tommy, Wales' most illustrious boxer.

Spot the double and he might buy you a pint, or even a litre; his decor also includes about 500 glasses.

Evening found us in another part of Melbourne, on Barrier Island. In another shopping strip, the oddly-named Darrel Doll has a pub called Coasters (917a E. Eau Gallie Boulevard). The pub takes its name from Darrel's collection of 735 coasters (bar mats). His idea was that each should be different, but somehow one was duplicated. Spot the double and he might buy you a pint, or even a litre; his decor also includes about 500 glasses.

Three years ago, he added a tiny brewhouse, with a batch size of one and a half barrels. His beers include a very English-tasting bitter of 1057, earthily hopped with Fuggles, and a peaty, chocolatey, Porter of 1060.

There was a time when my every venture into the United States provoked protests from xenophobic British ale-lovers. "Why do you go there?" they would demand. "Because the selection of beers is so interesting," I would respond. "We did not find anything worth drinking when we went, " they would protest. "Where on earth did you go?" I would inquire. "To Florida," they would vouchsafe, as though that were typical. "Serves you right," I would assure them.

In those days, Florida was long on tourist attractions but short of decent beers. Now, this beer desert is turning into an aley everglades.

Published Online: AUG 14, 1999
Published in Print: JULY 1, 1998
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Review - Brewery Review

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