My elbows are comfortably resting on the bar at the Gainesville House of Beer as I sip a hard-to-pronounce but easy-to-enjoy Weihenstephaner Hefe Weiss brew.
Happy customers are settled in all around the room, bursts of laughter rising to the high ceilings of this iconic old downtown Gainesville building, decades ago the home of a landmark local shoe store.
Soccer banners and posters decorate the walls, shelves are lined with out-of-service tap heads of every shape and character. At least one price inscribed on the wall—”3 quid”—puts one in mind of far horizons. Someone has chalked “Sarah (heart) Eddy” for posterity. Nearby there’s a bulletin board covered with exotic beer coasters. It’s a pleasant place to learn the delights of small-batch beer.
And lots of folks have been doing just that in Gainesville lately. A small but growing group of local craft beer specialists is tapping into the university town ambience—Gainesville is home to the University of Florida—and finding plenty of customers unsatisfied with the same old major label beers.
“Craft beer people always want to find out what’s next,” says Mark DeNote, author of The Great Florida Craft Beer Guide. “Having two pints of the same beer on the same night is pretty rare.” With a cluster of downtown brew pubs and a couple of brewery taprooms on the south side of town, Gainesville is developing the kind of A-to-Z-and-back-again spectrum of choices beer drinkers demand.
“I have definitely seen a huge upward trend of people seeking craft beer,” House of Beer (HOB) General Manager Alex Whelpton tells me. “There are more and more bars in town that refuse to serve any macro beers such as Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. Not to mention the breweries that were founded here in Gainesville, such as Swamp Head and First Magnitude, which seem to be thriving.”
A guy down the bar finishes a mug of Siren Blonde Ale from First Magnitude. He whoops, then pulls out a couple of “Rail Cards.” He has a “beer-tender” named Megan punch the last of maybe 40 holes on one. The other is already all punched out, meaning he’s in line for HOB swag like t-shirts or free beer. “Do ‘The Rail,’ yeah!” he hoots.
More to Explore
Stepping out onto University Avenue on a warm Florida evening, I make my way between groups of students on the lam from the campus right down the street. Around the corner I find Tall Paul’s Brew House, home to Alligator Brewing. Opening in 2011, Tall Paul’s has already claimed a towering place in the Gainesville brew scene. The owner, Paul Evans, stands 6 foot 7. Hence the name.
Here, it’s all about playful irreverence. I choose a Squirrel Wrangler Nut Brown ale from a hand-slate with a shaky chalk drawing of a squirrel and check out a poster with rules for a Sharknado drinking game. Rule 2: “Begin drinking when a shark goes airborne; don’t stop ’til it’s back in the water.” Seems reasonable. Nearby, customers play life-size Connect Four games or send multi-colored weights sliding down the surface of a shuffleboard table. Overhead an enormous stuffed and mounted Florida ‘gator surveys all with an unblinking gaze. Probably afraid he might miss something.
Gainesville is quickly making the move to a bona fide craft-beer town, says Ron Minkoff, who laughingly introduces himself as the “dis-organizer” of Gainesville’s annual Hogtown Craft Beer Festival. This April event regularly draws thirsty crowds of beer fans, adds to the local craft-beer momentum, and supports local charities.
“That’s a transition that’s starting to pick up some steam in the past few years with the addition of some excellent pubs,” Ron says, mentioning the Brass Tap, Loosey’s, Midnight, and stores like Tipples, Gator Beverage, and Dorn’s that offer craft brews. “At Lucky’s Market and Tipples, you can shop while having a beer,” he grins.
The downtown pubs are in the middle of a handful of tasty food options, including a seafood bar and grill, a New York style pizzeria, and The TOP Restaurant. Ron Minkoff says The TOP is also a decent craft-beer stop.
Inside, it’s plain that the TOP is a restaurant with two distinct approaches to life. There’s a refined, cultivated side with graceful decor and offerings like an artfully plated miso glazed local chicken with jus, sweet potato mash, and bok choi.
And then there’s the other side. This is where you’ll find brick walls, yard-sale lamps, pro-wrestler action figures, a busy $2 photo booth leaking near-constant squeals and laughter, a new Bonzini Foosball Table (made in France!), and strangely Buddha-like “Gold Babies,” good for free entrées and other goodies.
The TOP is just a part of the near downtown beer scene that also includes The Copper Monkey, an intimately comfortable pub known locally as a top burger destination after U of F football home games, played right across the street at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Night on the Town
A bit farther out from central Gainesville, the brew mood turns more pastoral, with two craft breweries committed to environmental stewardship, Swamp Head and First Magnitude, both located on the south side of town.
First Magnitude hosts tastings outside beneath a shady canopy of Spanish moss-draped trees in addition to its indoor tap room, The Source. You can meet the brew dog, Suki, carefully disassemble a person-sized Jenga tower, even enjoy a session of brewery yoga at the base of a gleaming clutch of brand new beer-making tanks.
By Gainesville standards, Swamp Head Brewery is nearly a senior citizen, having sold its first beer in 2009. But they just moved into a new purpose-built facility where their large malt-silos painted with a cypress tree logo overlook treasured wetlands spreading out adjacent to the property. Owner Luke Kemper says the new, larger brewery actually tripled their former capacity.
“Katie, my wife, came up with our name,” Luke says. “We’re located in an area with a lot of springs and swamps. And everybody likes a good head on their beer.”
Sitting in their new tap room—The Wetland—I savor a glass of Swamp Head’s Cottonmouth Belgian Style Witbier and admire the beautiful back-bar made of interlocking old-growth cypress, pine, and wild black cherry. These are salvaged from Florida waterways by scuba divers, believe it or not. Less noisily undergraduate in atmosphere than the pubs in town, the crowd at Swamp Head and First Magnitude shows up in beards, yoga pants, hiking boots, and trail-spattered cargo shorts.
“The craft beer drinker is oftentimes a runner, a biker, a hiker, someone who enjoys getting outdoors,” Luke says. “A community filled with progressive, creative people who pay attention to what is going on in their environment is a community filled with craft-beer lovers.”
I ask Luke if there is competitive tension between Gainesville’s beer makers. He laughs. “There’s so much tension that the last time we saw any of the local brewers, it was at our brewery for a beer,” he says. “We visit each other’s places often. We trade war stories, help out with advice, problem solve together, and, of course, drink beer together.”
It’s a growing tradition he obviously enjoys.
I’ve enjoyed taking part, too, in the last couple of days, sharing suds and smiles with people who really know their beer. And if the scholars are right and Ben Franklin never really said that famous quote about beer being God’s way of making us happy, I’m sure it only means one thing: He never visited Gainesville.