Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Visit to Cigar City Brewing!

Without a doubt, one of the beer highlights of the trip to Florida was our trip to Cigar City Brewing, one of Florida's up-and-coming new entrants to the brewing scene.

And I mean new. Like 2008 new.

Hoping to challenge Florida's reputation as a "beer wasteland", CCB owner Joey Redner built upon the Tampa region's rich Hispanic heritage, and the expertise of head brewer Wayne Wambles, to help bring new focus to the Florida brewing community. Indeed, Spanish and Cuban culture is a big part of what CCB is all about. The brewery's name reflects Tampa's former status as the nation's largest manufacturer of cigars, no doubt a consequence of Tampa's sizable Cuban population. Many of the brewery's flagship beers have names with a Hispanic origin (Jai Alai, Maduro, Chaveta, Bolita), and patrons are encouraged to pair these offerings with traditional Cuban cuisine.

Despite only being in production for just over two years, Cigar City has generated a great deal of enthusiasm and anticipation amongst the craft beer community. In June of 2010, Entrepreneur Magazine rated CCB 1st of their list of 10 "Hot Startups", a rare feat for a craft brewery. Wambles' brews have initially received high marks from both online reviewers (like yours truly) and award-givers, giving craft brew aficionados yet another reason to be excited. As is the case with most new craft breweries, the development of a strong bottling distribution system takes time (requiring not only the bottles, but a delivery system and a retail market), and so a great deal of CCB's focus is on its in house brews. Though their distribution range is small now, it's optimistic that this will increase in the near future.

According to Beer Advocate Magazine, one distinguishing feature of CCB's brewing vision is their flair for revisiting their standard brews, especially their IPA, Jai Alai: "Wambles does a lot of experimentation with his flagship recipes. He's fond of blending his staple IPA with fruits like pineapple, papaya, mango and coconut," and aging these brews in differing wood barrels to achieve unique and tasty results.* Other experimentation has been done with their other flagship brews with many successes; Hunahpu Imperial Stout (based off their original Marshal Zhukov RIS) has quickly become a beer community favorite.

Sounds like a worthwhile trip to me!

The only problem with such an adventure is not having a working GPS in state I've never driven in. So naturally, I typed in 'Cigar City Brewing' into GoogleMaps, only to be directed to Ybor City Packing. Another GoogleMaps fail. 30 minutes later, we managed to find the brewery. Turns out I arrived on the busiest day they've had in months....just my luck.

Like many a brewery, Cigar City is housed in what could very well pass as a seatbelt factory. Just a large, nondescript grey building in the middle of nowhere. And yet, when I walked into the tasting lounge, I was floored. The place was hopping, absolutely packed with folks slugging pints and chowing down on shrimp and vegetable cocktails. My initial fears that I had wandered into a private party were quickly allayed by the bartender (one of three) who said that earlier that day, they had released their bourbon-barrel aged edition of their Marshal Zhukov Russian Stout, and were serving both draught pints and growlers to a select few. Only I was about 3 hours too late for each. Damn. Despite the chaos, I was still able to swing a seat at the bar and arrange for a sample flight of four brews. I would have gladly stayed for more, but somebody had to drive the chariot home, and Matt's Beer Den is all about responsible drinking! With my lady at my side ready to partake in her half of the sample glasses, I was ready to roll!

They are, from L-R: Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale; Humidor IPA; Marshal Zhukov Russian Imperial Stout; Jai Alai IPA (White Oak Barrel)

Beer: Jai Alai IPA (White Oak)
Type: American IPA
ABV: 7.5%

The original Jai Alai is truly their flagship brew, an above average American IPA, of which I picked up a few bottles at a liquor store across the street. Yet the IPA style has become somewhat overdone by American craft breweries; pretty much every brewery has one, making it hard to distinguish them from each other (at least I find it to be the case). By aging his standard recipe in a white oak barrel and adding local fruit and flowers, Wambles was able to take the IPA to a new level. This stuff was all kinds of terrific - in addition to the citrussy and earthy hops and malt character, the White Oak version was delightfully tropical, with notes of vanilla, grapefruit, orange and even coconut. Crisp and satisfying, a treat to drink. An absolutely perfect Floridian beer, and a great start to the sample flight. (Michelle's favorite too!)

Beer: Marshal Zhukov Russian Imperial Stout
Type: RIS
ABV: 11.5%

The reason for the night's festivities, although this was their standard version and not the barrel aged fare my seat-neighbour from Atlanta was raving about. A typical Russian stout - high in alcohol, thick n' hearty, and bursting with roasted malts, coffee and dark chocolate - but easier to drink than some of the others I sampled on the trip. Like the IPA, American breweries are OBSESSED with Russian stouts, almost to the point of over-competitiveness. It's a great style to be sure, but it's not my favorite - it can be hard to drink, particularly in the summer, and the ever increasing alcohol content and robustness (two big points of competition amongst brewers) can be a bit daunting. This one I found a great deal more reasonable, and a real pleasure to drink, so much so that I helped myself to a Marshal Zhukov shirt (as seen in the pic above). Now, no matter where I go, Komrade Zhukov has got my back.

Beer: Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale
Type: American Brown Ale
ABV: 5.5%

Reminded me a great deal of Fuller's London Porter. Instead of a nutty, malty brew like other brown ales I've had before, Maduro was rife with dark chocolate, caramel and coffee notes. Finished with a slightly hoppy bitterness and a touch of roasted coffee bean. Similar to the Zhukov, I suppose, but a great deal thinner and less potent, as a brown ale should be. Indeed, after the Russian Stout, this brew felt quite mild so it may not have been the best tasting pair, but the Maduro was still a fine brown ale - a brew you could have three or four of in an evening and not feel bloated.

Beer: Humidor Series IPA
Type: IPA
ABV: ?

I'm a bit confused about this one. According to the tap label, this was "Humidor IPA", but according to BeerAdvocate and the brewery itself, there is no such brew with that exact name. There is a Jai Alai Humidor Series (two of them), but I can't state with confidence which version this was. In either case, it was earthier than the White Oak, with juniper berries and a more aggressive hop character. After falling in love with the White Oak Jai Alai, I can't say I was too impressed with this one, but it certainly weren't bad neither. Smooth and drinkable, just not as invigorating as the White Oak.

Based upon the flight I was able to sample, I can safely say that the hype surrounding Cigar City was fully justified. With so many American craft breweries offering overly-potent Russian Stouts and hyper-hopped IPAs, it's wonderful to see a new brewery explore and expand the possibilities for each style. Although I didn't take pictures of the inside (too many drunken patrons in the way), it was certainly a fine tasting room as well. While I didn't get the personal experience I had hoped for, the bartender did his best to chat me up about the brews and offer me samples despite the increasingly frenzied crowd. With two new T-shirts and a souvenir snifter glass in hand, I left the CCB tasting house feeling elated and excited, ready to take on the rest of the samples awaiting me at the hotel room. Well done, lads, well done.

*P. McMorrow, Beer Advocate Magazine, Issue #42 (July 2010)

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