The Dish with Brendan O’Connor: It’s an Orlando Brew ha-ha
The beer scene in Central Florida is relatively new, when you consider the history of those succulent suds.
I’m writing this on the tail end of Orlando Beer Week, a week-long marathon of local beer that’s left me bloated, extremely content, a confusing mix of hydrated and dehydrated and a little impassioned about the state of the Central Florida beer scene. A scene which is still relatively new when you consider how long beer has been around.
The first barley beer back in the Cradle of Civilization days was more like a soggy bread juice; a fermented barley beverage, a beer adjacent concoction using soggy rye bread as the base. It was chunky and earthy and most probably pungent and came in simple categories: golden, dark, sweet dark, red and strained (I’ll take strained and pulp-free, please). We know this because the Mesopotamians and Sumerians loved keeping track of everything on their tablets. Theirs didn’t have apps because they were rock or something but tablets, nonetheless.
Beer has obviously evolved over time, just like tablets, and while there are only two main types of beer—lager and ale—there’s a whole smorgasbord of subcategories out there, hundreds in fact. The popularity of those different types ebbs and wanes with the seasons and tides and whatever else is pulling the strings of pop culture, but I’ve done my research, and I’m going to gaze deep into my magic crystal ball, albeit through my prescription beer goggles, to try to predict what 2023 will look like in the local beer scene.
Taprooms Are Hot Right Now
Every neighborhood in Orlando either has a taproom or is getting one in the next year, and they were some of the first places to really see a return to normal traffic post-pandemic. Young parents have somehow convinced themselves that breweries and beer-centric venues are family-friendly, and they’ve been embraced as community centers and third-place gathering spaces for large-scale events. You can throw a dart at a map of local breweries and you’re guaranteed to trip over something fun happening, whether that’s a run club or a drag queen bingo night (see me in a dress every Tuesday at Tactical Brewing), or a food truck rally or a movie screening. Ivanhoe Park Brewing Co. has made a name for itself by allying with event producers like MAM Events to host regular programming that draws in thousands of people on the weekends, some of whom aren’t even drinking beer. Taprooms are where the party is at; albeit a party that ends at 10 p.m. and doesn’t give you a hangover at work the next day.
Lagers Are Back
2023 is going to be the Year of the Lager. Doug Meyer, CEO and founder of Tactical Brewing in Baldwin Park shared with me that he’s seeing a lot of breweries across the country circling back to traditional beers as fancier things like sours start to take the back shelf. More easy-drinking lagers are cheaper to produce and have a longer shelf life than fancier fruit-based beers that stole the scene in 2022, and as supply chains and prices continue to dance around and frustrate producers like Meyer, the “Keep It Simple, Stupid” approach will likely reign supreme for the next 12 months, a sentiment echoed by Alexander Sarames, the head brewer at Deadwords Brewing, who railed against the utility of turbid beers in favor of more golden recipes.
Czech lagers in particular seem to be making a splash this year too. They’re crisp, tangy and easy to drink and more importantly, they don’t need as many ingredients, which means they’re a more reliable brew to have on your menu right now.
Not everyone who goes to a brewery likes beer. Sometimes they’re there for the vibe, or the company, or for the hot bartenders. Brews with soft, fruity, people-friendly aromas are on the rise and something that will definitely trend into 2023 is the Smoothie Sour—a fruited sour that’s juicy and sweet, and maybe a little viscous/thick, without that slap-in-the-face-hoppy-taste that usually comes with beer. They’re usually colorful too and look great on your Instagram. Expect every brewery to have at least one on tap.
Beer Goes Better With Food
A few years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a local brewery that also served food but that has completely shifted since the pandemic. They’re embracing really good food too. Sidewards Brewing in the Milk District is cranking out some memorable sandwiches and plant-based Reubens that I crave every time I’m in the neighborhood and Deadwords Brewing, which is more of a destination brewery due to its location on the edge of West Lakes and Parramore, has a full kitchen cranking out some amazing wood-fired pizzas, poutine and pretzels. With more breweries on the horizon, you can bet your hat that they won’t be opening their doors unless they have some sort of food program to keep you in their taprooms for a few extra rounds. Especially the guests that roll in with their strollers.
Special shout out to Redlight Redlight which is opening a fancy kitchen this year headed by the always amazing Chef Jes Tantalo and Broken Strings Brewery, which just welcomed new resident food truck, Brock’s BBQ.
Hoppy H20 And Na Beer
The non-alcoholic beer scene has grown way past O’Doul’s and is really coming into its own. In fact, it’s estimated to be a $25 billion per year industry right now. Something else to keep your eye on is the new Hop Water product scene, like Sierra Nevada’s recently released Hop Splash: an IPA-flavored sparkling water out of California. It’s a step up from selling a “near beer” which is trying to fool you into thinking you’re drinking something you’re not, and rather embracing something new. Brands like Liquid Death have been raking in cash from the Gen Z festival scene by gussying up water and putting it in a fun-looking can. Hop waters will likely be the next big thing to try this summer.
More Bang For Your Buck
While some people are looking for beer-adjacent beverages, others want to double down and get more booze in their beer than the average brew.
Higher-ABV products are a great way to drink less but still get more of a buzz without filling up on liquids. Maybe you were late to trivia night and your friends are already a round in and you want to catch up, or you just want to fill up on tacos from the food truck outside. Expect to see more higher-ABV options on tap for thrill seekers looking for a quick buzz with less investment.
Less Variety, More Core Beers
Distribution is a big deal for smaller breweries looking to maximize their profits, but as more breweries flood the market locally and abroad, it’s harder and harder for them to compete. Walk down an aisle in the grocery store and count how many different Hazy IPAs are taking up space and consider how different they all really are. Breweries are starting to scale back on having too many options out in distribution and really lean into the recipes that make them special. Expect less canned options outside of the taproom in the stores and more variety and small in-house batches on the tap.
List of Local Breweries to Visit
Orlando area breweries are starting to gain national attention, as local brewers rake in awards at prestigious competitions. More than 25 breweries and even more specialty beer bars can be found in Central Florida, with some of the notable highlights including Ivanhoe Park Brewing Company, Crooked Can Brewing Company in the Plant Street Market, Sideward Brewing Co., Persimmon Hollow Brewing Company in DeLand and Deadwords Brewing on Orange Blossom Trail.
28 Beer Company
Broken Strings Brewery
Dead Lizard Brewing Company
Gatlin Hall Brewing
Half Barrel Beer Project
Ivanhoe Park Brewing Company
Persimmon Hollow Brewing Co.
The Ravenous Pig Beer Garden
Sideward Brewing Co.
Sanford Brewing Company
Tactical Brewing Co.
Ten 10 Brewing Company
Windermere Brewing Company