The former celery capital of the world may soon be the Beer Capital of Florida

A resolution by the Sanford City Commission in 2005 made Budweiser the official beer of Sanford, but the city is quickly becoming the king of the craft beer scene.

By the end of 2015 Sanford will have three craft beer breweries, a Belgium beer bar, a craft beer bar and restaurant with more than four dozen microbrews on tap, a store selling home brewing equipment and supplies, and a bar that serves sour beer – all within a three block radius.

“There hasn’t been this much excitement about beer in a long time,” said John Williams, president and COO of Wayne Densch Inc., which distributes Anheuser-Busch products and craft beers from national, regional and local craft beers, as well as niche soft drinks. “Sanford is a perfect example. Who would’ve thought five years ago that you would have a bar that serves nothing but sour beer on Sanford Avenue?”

Aaron Libera and his business partner Gary Holmes might not have envisioned a sour beer bar on Sanford Avenue, but the owners of the Sanford Homebrew Shop certainly hoped to change the local beer options when they opened their business four years ago in the back of Magnolia Square Market (the partners have since expanded into their own store).

“The beer scene was pretty bleak back then,” Libera said. “We thought that if we taught enough people how to make beer at home that in 15 years there would be some good local beer.”

cutline: Chris Mann of Celery City Craft pours a beer for a customer. The bar's name pays homage to Sanford's history as a major celery producer, as do the celery stalk tap handles for the 51 different craft beers. Photo by Dan Ping
Chris Mann of Celery City Craft pours a beer for a customer. The bar’s name pays homage to Sanford’s history as a major celery producer, as do the celery stalk tap handles for the 51 different craft beers. Photo by Dan Ping

Libera and Holmes’ vision is well ahead of schedule thanks in part to the rapid growth of the craft beer industry. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of breweries has doubled in the last five years, and there are now 1.2 breweries per day opening somewhere in the United States. Craft breweries – defined as those that brew less then 6 million barrels per year, though most never come close to that capacity – produced 22.2 million barrels of beer in 2014. One barrel equals 31 gallons, so that’s nearly 700 million gallons of craft beer.

Groups like the Central Florida Home Brewers and the Brew Club of Seminole County have served as a breeding ground for this new batch of local entrepreneurs.

“A lot of the people who are opening breweries are people who took classes in our store and have become active in the brewing community,” said Libera.

Still, craft beer’s popularity and a strong home brewing community don’t fully explain why Sanford will soon be home to one of the most diverse and walkable beer districts in Florida.

“I can’t think of another town in the state that will have three breweries within walking distance, and I am hearing there may be more on the way,” said Ron Raike, considered by many to be the unofficial “godfather” of the craft brewing community in Central Florida. “Why is this going on in Sanford? I don’t know. I’ve been trying to make this happen in Orlando for years. Tampa has 40 breweries and Jacksonville has 20 to 25 breweries. If you count what’s going on in Sanford, Orlando has maybe six breweries at the moment.”

Bob Turk, the city of Sanford’s economic development director, credits the availability of reasonably priced property in the downtown area as well as the millions of dollars the city has spent in infrastructure and beautification projects on 1st Street and Sanford Avenue.

“We also have some strong local businesses that have shown you can be successful downtown, and they are attracting other business folks,” Turk said. He noted that Theo Hollerbach (Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe),  Paul Williams (The West End and Celery City Craft) and Paul Buster (Busters Bistro) have been successful drawling customers from Orlando and West Volusia County.

Turk said a delegation from Sanford is planning a “best practices” tour of either Tampa or Asheville, N.C. to “find out what they are doing to be successful” with their thriving craft beer community.

Raike knows what it takes to be successful. He was the brewmaster for Portland, Maine-based Shipyard brewing Co. for 10 years and oversaw the brewing operations for the critically acclaimed Cask & Larder in Winter Park. He won best of show in the 2012 Best Florida Beer Championship, he is a certified cicerone (the beer equivalent of a wine sommelier) and recently helped start the Playlinda Brewing Co. in Titusville.

The challenge for any craft brewer, Raike said, is to consistently produce good tasting beer and maintain a diverse selection of beers for both the beer enthusiast and the novice beer drinker.

“Beer guys are willing to experiment,” Raike said. “They want to try the funky beers, but their wife or girlfriend may be used to drinking what the big beer companies offer, so you need to have something less adventurous.”

Successful craft breweries will not only improve Sanford’s nightlife, but will drive more customers to downtown shops and restaurants as well as attract new businesses, beer enthusiasts say.

“A lot of our customers are driving more than an hour to come to our shop to get their supplies,” said Libera. “They’re already going to the Willow Tree and other restaurants. They will check out the breweries as well.”

Turk said he has already received inquiries from three business owners looking to purchase city-owned buildings on Palmetto Avenue (“Lake Mary restaurant eyes downtown Sanford“).

Williams, the beverage distributor, says the excitement generated by craft beer is good for Sanford.

“I think it’s a testament to where downtown is going that you have these businessmen looking to invest dollars in the community,” William said. “Sanford is becoming the place to be.”

What’s on tap:

Wop’s Hops Brewing Co.
419 South Sanford Ave.
407-878-7819
Type: Brewery and tasting room
Tasting Room Hours: Wednesday through Friday 4 PM to 11 PM, Saturday 1 PM to 2 AM, Sunday 1 PM to 7 PM

Buster’s Bistro
412 S Sanford Ave
407-732-6880
Type: Belgian beer bar
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 4 PM to 10 PM, Friday 4 PM to 1 AM, Saturday 2 PM to 1 AM, Sunday 2 PM to 10 PM
Extra: Buster’s is moving to a new, larger location at 300 S Sanford Ave., one block north of its current location, later this spring

Celery City Craft
114 S Palmetto Ave
407-915-5541
Type: Microbrew bar
Hours: Sunday through Wednesday 11 AM to midnight, Thursday through Saturday 11 AM to 2 AM
Extra: Celery City has 51 beers on tap and offers homemade soups and sandwiches

Sanford Homebrew Shop
115 S Magnolia Ave
407-732-6931
Type: Retail store, home brewing supplies and equipment
Hours: Monday and Tuesday 10 AM to 7 PM, Thursday through Saturday 10 AM to 7 PM, Sunday 10 AM to 2 PM, closed Wednesday

What’s fermenting:

Sanford Brewing Co.
400 S Sanford Ave.
Type: Brewery and tasting room
Owners: Chris and Robyn Esser
Opening Late Summer 2015

Inner Compass Brewing Co.
300 E 2nd St
Type: Brewery and tasting room
Owners: Dylan Bashore and Robert Turner
Opening Fall 2015

Wild Tangy Funky
412 S Sanford Ave
Type: Sour beer bar
Owner: Paul Buster
Opening Summer 2015
Extra: When Buster’s Bistro moves to its new location, owner Paul Buster will open Central Florida’s first bar dedicated to sour beer, which has an acidic, tart or tangy taste.

– by Dan Ping

An earlier version of this story published in The Current incorrectly stated the volume of craft beer brewed in 2014. It is 22.2 million barrels, not 15.6 million.

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