When Cigar City Brewing was founded they began with two simple goals in mind. The first goal is obvious, set out to make the world’s best beer, but the second is what sets them apart from the rest of the craft brew pack. The owner and brewers set out to infuse their beer with the flavors and heritage that represented their home town, Cigar City a.k.a. Tampa Bay. In doing so they somehow managed to infuse Tampa’s cultural melting-pot into an incredibly tasty and award-winning line of beers. While Cigar City Brewing is only four years old, they are rapidly becoming a legend in the craft beer world. We took a Cigar City Brewery tour to find out what makes them so hot and to sample a few (ok maybe a more than a few) of the beers that make them so famous.
It all starts with a name...
Cigar City Brewing selected their name to reflect a cherished portion of Tampa’s past. Back in the day, Tampa was a little unknown Florida town until a cigar tycoon moved his factory to a small city named Ybor. Over the years, Tampa became a cigar making hub, and drew a large cuban and hispanic population to the area. Over time the cigar industry collapsed leaving behind only small shops and a local culture of high quality hand crafted goods. It’s this culture that inspired the brewery’s founders to develop some of the most unique and complex beer flavors that I’ve ever tasted.
Then a fantastic beer…
A tour of Cigar City Brewing takes you to the heart of Tampa. Contrary to popular belief, they are not and have never been in Ybor city. Our first stop on the tour, and ultimately our last, took us to the very large (and perpetually full) tasting room.
Staying true to their Cigar City heritage, there is even a man hand rolling cigars that you can enjoy with a fine brew on the patio outside.
Our Cigar City Brewing Tour then took us to where the magic all started, brewhouse #1. A warning if you are planning on taking the tour yourself. Wear closed toed shoes, otherwise you’ll be forced to wear little blue booties and be mocked by all the other members of your party.
Home to their original brewing equipment, this small warehouse space is where the first batches of their most popular beers (Jai-Alai IPA and Maduro Brown) were brewed.
You can still see remnants of a process that was once done completely by hand.
One of the facts we found most impressive about Cigar City was that even though they are relatively small, they employ 6 full time brewers. What makes this really cool is that several of them were local “home-brew” champions and are allowed to produce small-batch concoctions on their own. This fosters a highly creative environment that produces fantastic and unique flavors like Cafe’ Americana Stout or their Jose Marti’ American Porter. They are so committed to the experimentation process that they even put together a line of beers called the Torcedores Series, where each batch is named after the brewmaster and their name is printed on the bottle.
Keep it super fresh…
As we continued touring the Cigar City Brewery, we came across a very small building, took a peak inside and were shocked. This little building is the only cold storage facility on-site. Now it’s not that the folks at Cigar City don’t like to keep their beer cold at all times (they do) it’s just that it’s so darned good they can’t keep it in stock!
As a matter of fact, Cigar City just went to a dating system for all their brews to guarantee you get the freshest & tastiest beer out there. Every beer they produce is labeled with its bottling date. If a beer sits on the shelf longer than it should (90-days for most) it’s yanked off the shelf so no one ever get’s to taste a funky-skunky Florida Cracker or Maduro. Each one of their beers should taste the same exact way it did when coming off the line in a bottle or can.
Speaking of cans…
As our Cigar City Brewing tour continued into their much larger second brewhouse and bottling section (creatively named brewhouse #2) we noticed something interesting. Giant walls of empty cans.
Now, when I started drinking beer many moons ago I was taught a basic rule: bottles good, cans bad. Apparently that rule is all wrong. Think about it, beer’s #1 enemy after heat is light. Even the darkest bottles are translucent and let light in, a can on the other hand is completely opaque. That means when you pop open a can, you’re getting the freshest beer possible. It’s like each 6-pack is a collection of mini-kegs.
and what’s with all the barrels…?
The other thing we noticed when entering the brewhouse was a large amount of barrels in use. Barrels are for wine and liquor right? Not any more! Cigar City Brewing uses a large variety of barrels from different sources to produce their small batches and custom brews. The barrels are made of different woods and have been used to make different wines and liquors before aging the beer, so they infuse each batch with a unique flavor profile.
What the heck is that?!?
As we were wrapping up our tour of Brewhouse #2, we came by a contraption we had never seen in a brewery before. Tucked away in a room between brewing and bottling was a large machine with pipes running each and every which way. Turns out it’s a centrifuge. Cigar City Brewing uses it to filter out all the little particles and nonsense that would sneak into your beer and ruin it’s otherwise fine hand crafted flavor. It’s just another sign of their commitment to doing everything they can to produce a superior product.
Wrapping it all up…
The last stop on our tour was right where it all began, the tasting room. There’s no way to spend that much time surrounded by beer without stopping and taking a taste or two or three… It’s a good thing that you can put together your own sampling flight so you can get a taste of exactly what suits you.
So how was the beer?
In short? It was excellent. Between our party we tasted about 15 different brews ranging from the uncommonly hoppy chocolate and espresso laced Jose Marti to the crisp and fresh Florida Cracker. With too many varieties to list and describe here I’ll say this; each beer had a distinctive taste and represented it’s style well. Between our group we each found a favorite that was easily drinkable and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s impossible to try all of the beers Cigar City Brewing makes because many of them are on a limited release calendar. The most famous of these limited releases is called Hunaphu’s Imperial Stout.It’s named after Hun Hunaphu, who according to Mayan mythology was turned into a cacao tree. This brew is so unique it’s only available one day a year (in early March) and is guaranteed to sell out. What make’s it so special? I’ll let their Head Brewer describe it in his own words:
“Pours extremely dark in color with a brown head with notes of big chocolate and espresso, moderate notes of vanilla and cinnamon and a mild tinge of tobacco and chilis. The flavor opens with a big blast of chocolate and moderate espresso with elements of dark toffee and interjecting threads of vanilla with lingering hints of cinnamon and tobacco and chillies notes with a mild scoville heat in the finish.”
-Head Brewer Wayne Wambles
If you are interested in any other of Cigar City Brewing’s limited releases here’s the 2013 schedule.
So how do I get my hands on it?
Well…. that’s the tricky part. As of this writing, the beers from Cigar City Brewing are only officially distributed in Florida. Due to their commitment to sustainable growth, fine handcrafted beers, and an insanely high level of demand, that’s as far as their distribution reaches at this point. In Florida, you can find CCB brews in many liquor stores, bars, and grocery stores. If you’re visiting the state, you’ll be thrilled to know you can also find it in the Mecca of the Mouse, a.k.a Walt Disney World. Once just a popular feature during their Food & Wine Festival it will soon be available year round. If you’re not so fortunate as to be passing through the Sunshine State, you’re in luck. Sierra Nevada is soon releasing what they call the Greatest 12-Pack ever, featuring one beer from 12 craft breweries nationwide. Cigar City Brewing is one of the selected 12.
Oh and one more thing…
As if all this beer goodness isn’t enough, there’s one more place to find the delectable beers from Cigar City Brewing. At the recently opened Cigar City Brewpub.
Walking into the brewpub brings you into a world dedicated to just one thing: beer.
The brewpub features many of the classic Cigar City Brewing beers, plus one pleasant surprise. 7 different beers that are only brewed and served at the pub.
In case you need something to soak up all that beer you’re going to be enjoying, I guess the pub does do one other thing pretty well, serve food. Featuring a mix of classic pub food, there’s one thing on the menu you certainly don’t want to miss. The classic Cuban Sandwich with a side of malanga chips.
Whether you’re sitting down at the tasting room after your Cigar City Brewing tour or sitting at the new brew pub, I can assure you that once you are done, you’ll be one happy camper.
For more information on Cigar City Brewing or to schedule your own tour browse on over to the CCB Website.