Crystal River, Florida: Come for the Manatees, Stay for the Craft Beer

Harris King, December 22, 2014

I am often on the road in South Carolina and Georgia and one of the things I like to do is to stop at bottle shops on my way to see if the selection is different from what I can get at my go-to beer store, Green’s Beverages, in Greenville, SC. And it's repeatedly surprising to me how many different beers I can find on the road (Five Points Bottle Shop in Athens, GA, for example) compared to home.

My most recent trip has taken me down to Florida to see my sister and mother in North Pinellas County for holidays. I will make a trip to the Luekens Liquors package store to see what I can find from Cigar City and other local brews, but what’s exciting about the Tampa Bay area is how many breweries have opened here in the last several years.

The trip from Cuthbert, GA to Palm Harbor, FL takes about six hours, the drive down US Hwy 19 is rural North Florida, and I had never given much thought to stopping along the way until I discovered last year that there is a brewery in Crystal River called Copp Winery and Brewery, which is pictured in the header photo.  Copp is run by a husband and wife duo with Fran brewing the beer and Donna making the wine.  

When I talked to Fran last year, he told me how the winery was opened up in 2007 and the brewery in 2011 after making it through legislative red tape to become the first winery/brewery in the same location in the state of Florida. It’s a great story and you can read more about it on the brewery website.

After talking to Fran last December and sampling a couple of his beers, I got a 32 oz. growler fill of his 1821 English ESB, which is described on the menu at the bar as being brewed “using ingredients available in 1821 England at the same proportions as recorded back then. Unfiltered, this beer has bold citrus & pine flavors with a slightly dry finish but not taste bud numbing.” I’m a big fan and got another growler fill of it on this trip.

Fran was still as welcoming as he could be when I visited on Friday. But he was busy, which means I didn’t get too much time to talk to him. As he explained:

“Once we got the [legal situation] taken care of, it’s just been trying to keep up. I retired from teaching in May and that’s when I started the distribution. We just started pushing out the beers, and [regarding bottling or canning] I am just having a hard time trying to keep up right now.”

It’s a nice problem to have.  He is now a full time brewer/bar owner and it is testament to his high quality, innovative brews. 

My first stop in Crystal River on Friday before revisting Copp Brewing was at Nature Coast Brewing Company, which is located inside the pub Burkes of Ireland. When I discovered it using Google, I didn’t have high expectations but the Citrus Avenue IPA did catch my eye as a West Coast IPA fan. My skepticism was quickly turned to genuine excitement after stepping into Burkes and discovering that it is a true craft beer bar. Of the 14 taps, three were dedicated to Guiness, Harp and Smithwick’s with the rest being devoted to local brews including 4-5 made there on site by the brother duo of James and Jake Stevens. In the following picture, we see the front of the pub and James behind the bar pouring a Harp, but he is also framed by the manatee tap of one of his local brews.

I met James behind the bar and he agreed to let me record his story of how get got into brewing outstanding beers in the home of the Manatees on Florida’s Nature Coast. And it’s a great craft beer story:

“We’re a craft beer bar. That’s what we’re all about. We don’t carry Anheuser-Busch [or] any of that kind of stuff …A friend of mine was brewing beer for twenty years when you had to brew beer to have good flavor, and he really inspired me to start brewing. We started the Crystal River area brewing society, and it really took off.”

Ultimately, in this rural, slow-paced setting, it’s about educating taste buds. As James explained:

“We are definitely teaching people you don’t have to get the two for one 8oz. glass of light beer. You can drink one good beer for $4 or $5 and just sit and enjoy the beer. You don’t have to pound beers. We have taught a lot of people how to drink. It was amazing when people came in and [they ordered] a Harp or a Smithwick’s. But now they don’t even touch it because they are so interested in what’s the new American craft beer. What’s the next one? It’s not what do you have on tap right now, it’s what are you getting next.”

After sampling the Crabby Paddy Stout, Peat Smoked Caramel Wee Heavy and the Squirrel Master Peanut Butter and Chocolate Brown Ale, all of which were good, I got a pint of the Citrus Avenue. I loved it! I was drinking a Citrus Avenue IPA brewed on Citrus Ave. in Citrus County, Florida. It all made sense to me. I also enjoyed being the 25th person to check in with it on Untappd, and as far as I can tell, it is not yet in the BeerGraphs data base, all of which made me feel like a cutting edge craft beer drinker.

James explained the connection between the name of the brewery to the location:

“We are the Nature Coast Brewing Company. We are the Nature Coast. This is considered old Florida here. It’s a small town, and the people are just great here. There are [also] a lot of visitors. We are the Manatee capital of the United States or of the world actually. There’s a little bit of everything. We have fresh water fishing, great salt water fishing. If you want to see Manatees, we have a park down the road where you can go under the water and see the manatees. We also have a 100-mile bicycle trail, paved the whole way. There is a lot to do around here. It’s a great vacation spot for sure.”

There you have it. Crystal River, Fl. There are 3,000 inhabitants from May through December and 7,000 from Jan through April. It’s a small town based on tourism where the locals have a long history of drinking macros. Yet, there are now two high-quality craft breweries which are more educating taste buds than they are meeting market demand. As I said on more than one occasion on Friday: it’s an exciting time to be a beer drinker! 

Harris King can be found on twitter @ohkiv, where he is doing his best not to worry about the Braves lineup construction until Spring Training.