Real Beer Returns to the Florida Keys
by Scott A. Williams
Beer geeks once described the American South as the “Great Beer Wasteland.” But Key West, Florida – the southernmost city in the 48 states – need not be included in that vast expanse where craft brewed beer can be as hard to come by as Yankee Pot Roast or New England Clam Chowder.
Since I was a kid, Florida has been my home-away-from-home. A good chunk of my Dad’s family lived there since long before I was born and the allure of the subtropical climate has made treks to the Sunshine State part of my annual holiday tradition. In an economy built on tourism, opportunities for eating and drinking are everywhere and my friends and family seek out spots where the ocean is warm, the sun is hot and the food is satisfying.
For many years, our annual trips were missing one key ingredient: good beer. To people in South Florida, “dark” beer meant anything without the suffix “light.” During the low-budget years of graduate school when we drove the 1500 miles from Massachusetts, we’d pack the car with cases of microbrews we’d grown to love in New England. Then a couple years ago we found Samuel Adams in a Deerfield Beach supermarket, and we rejoiced. Now the local Winn-Dixie and Publix markets also stock beers like Miami Brewing Company’s Hurricane Reef, Pete’s Wicked Ale and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Last winter’s Florida excursion included a three-day side trip to Key West, a tiny resort island 157 miles southwest of Miami. Beer has been part of the local culture since the days of rum runners and privateers. Dive to the bottom of the harbor and you’re likely to come across old sunken beer bottles. The island’s beer drinking heritage is revealed in bottles raised from the depths and bearing names of extinct New York City breweries, pre-Castro breweries from Havana, and brands like C.C. Conrad’s Original Budweiser which eventually sold the rights to the Budweiser name to August Busch.
The Key West economy lives on tourists who worship the sun, shop, boat and dive, but the overriding theme can be summed up as “eat, drink and be merry.” Much of the crowd seeks out trendy spots with famous names:
- Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffett’s place)
- Sloppy Joe’s (where Ernest Hemingway hung out)
- Captain Tony’s (the “original” Sloppy Joe’s)
- Kelly’s Caribbean Bar & Grill (where owner Kelly McGillis sometimes tends bar)
On this island paradise at the southern terminus of U.S Highway 1, we discovered that craft brewing is alive and well at continental America’s lowest latitude. That happened when we stumbled upon Hammerhead’s Sharkbite Brewery and Restaurant.
Opened in space previously occupied by a T-shirt shop and, ironically, the Budweiser warehouse for Key West, Hammerhead’s sits at 211 Duval Street in the heart of Key West’s Old Town. The brewpub’s slogan – “Best Head in Town” – reflects the community’s open-minded party atmosphere.
Hammerhead’s brew master Shaun Ryan acknowledged that Florida, often a trendsetter, is behind the times when it comes to beer. “Customers come in here to have a beer and don’t realize – or won’t believe – that this is a working brewery,” he explained. “They think the brewing equipment is just for show.” It doesn’t help that the customers Ryan calls beer geeks (the dedicated craft beer enthusiasts found especially in New England, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon) are in limited supply in the Keys. “A lot of people down here still aren’t used to beers with full flavor, plus people vacationing in Key West don’t tend to come in from the hot sun to drink dark, high gravity beers.”
A market that calls for lighter bodied beers can still benefit from fresh beer with character, however, and Hammerhead’s has the products brewing on the premises. During our three days in Key West and four visits to Hammerhead’s, the beer menu included five options:
- Lazy Lizard Light (very light in body but not absent a bit of hop character)
- Duval Street Gold (light bodied and a good introduction to brewpub beer)
- Raspbeery (sic) Wheat (brewed with whole berries)
- Paradise Pale Ale (smooth and very hoppy)
- Pappa’s Porter (redder and lighter than most porters but with solid malt character)
Our favorite was the Pale Ale, though the Porter was a fine choice to accompany steak or grilled fish. A sixth choice not on the menu but which was available for the asking was Winter Warmer, spiced with ginger, orange peel, honey and cinnamon. With dozens of recipes for Ryan to work with, the beer selection is designed to be constantly changing.
To make things more interesting, you can order your brew in honest-to-England yard glasses and the bartenders offer quick lessons in how drink without soaking your shirt in beer. Hammerhead’s also offers an enthusiast’s variety of bottled beers including Old Peculiar and Belgian doubles and triples, plus a full bar if you feel the need for an umbrella drink or martini.
Ryan’s taste for fresh beer was formed in Oxford, England, where coincidentally he and I were students at different times. English craft beers enjoyed in the many pubs around the University inspired Ryan to become a home brewer. He got into the brewpub business in Washington, D.C., and then attended the University of California at Davis for the seven-month brewing course to prepare for the Institute of Brewing exam. Now, with the assistance of his fiancée, he directs Hammerhead’s brewing operation, an all-grain process with on-site milling and 200 barrel-per-month capacity.
Hammerhead’s is owned by Hugh Niall, an Australian who also owns a biotech business in his home country. General Manager Dawn Richards directs day-to-day business operations.
To succeed in a market where competition is shoehorned in next door and across the street, management is banking on the brewpub to succeed primarily as a restaurant, with fresh beer as the point of differentiation. If the two dinners and one lunch we enjoyed over three days are representative, Hammerheads has the high grade pub grub to make it happen. Consider some of the offerings:
- Chewy, cheesy Asiago bread (a nice accompaniment to the Raspbeery Wheat)
- Fresh salads (dressings made with beer)
- Hand cut French fries (skins on)
- Grilled dolphin (the fish, not Flipper) with spicy jerk seasoning
- Strip steak marinated in Bourbon
- Catch of the day choices including grouper, wahoo and black fin tuna
All of our entrees were nicely prepared, attractively presented and reasonably priced – no small accomplishment in trendy Key West. Looking for extra value at the bar? Happy Hour features $1.50 mugs. Fortunately, you can get around Key West on foot.
Key West is a small island that attracts a lot of people, so space is hard to come by and costly. Necessity has forced the locals to use limited space with creative efficiency, in much the way for which the Dutch are famous. Hammerhead’s uses its 5,000 square feet effectively by situating most of the brewing process overhead. Counters run alongside walkways to provide additional seating and an ideal vantage point for people watching.
Table tops feature copper sheeting and hops and barley grains entombed in clear polyurethane. Brightly colored shark kites hang from the ceilings. The feeling is clean and close, but not cramped.
Key West was once a major center for cigar makers. When a hurricane wiped out the island, most of the cigar business relocated to Tampa, but hand-rolled cigars still enjoy a prominent place in the culture of Key West. Hammerhead’s adds to the tradition by offering porter-dipped cigars.
Just around the corner from the brewery you’ll find the workshop of an elderly Cuban gentleman who has been hand-rolling cigars since he was ten years old. Every so often, Ryan sends over a few containers of Pappa’s Porter to the cigar roller. The beer is reduced then used to soak the outer leaf wrapper, which curiously is grown in my region of New England. The chocolate notes of the porter lend a distinctive quality that creates a connoisseur’s smoke.
The first Hammerhead’s employee we encountered, a friendly and lanky waiter named Ben, went a step further than asking the typical “Is everything OK here?” Instead, he sought out our thoughts on the specific beverages he had served us. Clearly our opinions mattered to him. I asked him why.
“Fresh beer is the ideal product for customer satisfaction,” Ben explained. “We get direct feedback, right where we make it and right from the people we make it for.” In Ben’s experience, the locals go for “more chew in their brew,” favoring the pale ale and porter, whereas the tourists favor the lighter bodied beers.
We side with the locals, but whether you’re a resident or a visitor to Key West, you’re sure to find the best head in town at Hammerhead’s Sharkbite Brewery and Restaurant.
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