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In a small industrial park near downtown Tampa, a buzz continues to grow louder, emanating from the stainless steel tanks of a tiny Florida brewery. The hype about Cigar City Brewing started long before it even brewed its first batch. Run by a beer columnist for a local Tampa newspaper, Cigar City’s founders started a blog in which they expounded about all things related to getting their operation going. They talked about their eclectic test recipes, posted about their plans for unusual beers, complained about local industrial regulations, and generally built a connection with their audience –  especially with beer geeks around the world. By the time the brewery released its first beer, a little over a year and a half ago, the buzz was a full-blown primal scream and anticipations were high. Predictably, some geeks complained that the beers did not live up to their incredibly elevated expectations, while many others lavished praise on the little brewery.
With a year under his belt, I sat down with brewery founder Joey Redner to discuss experimentation, how beer markets around the country compare with one another, and the value of using scarcity as a marketing tool.
ANDY CROUCH How did you get your start in beer? Was it through your writing for the local newspaper?
JOE REDNER No, actually my real start in beer was that I owned a little place on Davis Island here in Tampa that was sort of a traditional English pub. I started bringing in a lot of craft beer – six or eight when I bought it and then expanded it up to 22. This was in 2OO3 and 2OO4 and when I left, I think we were carrying 12O different kinds of bottled beer and had twenty-two taps – in this area at the time, that was almost like being a multi-tap. There weren’t a lot of places like that here. After I left the pub, I started writing the beer column, beginning around 2OO5. I then worked for Dunedin Brewery doing sales and some special events with Shelton Brothers, mostly on a volunteer basis. I answered a lot of emails for them and helped people find beer. Then I worked at a local beer specialty store, Beverage Castle. I was just trying to stay in and around the beer industry.
AC How did you transition to the idea of starting your own brewery?
JR I just kept thinking, “Man, how come no one has done this yet?” You go to any major city, especially a city the size of Tampa, and there are four or five breweries. And we had only one brewpub and because of the laws here, the beer that you make has to be served on site. So Tampa didn’t really have a craft brewery. The closest thing we had was Yuengling, which is near the university. It has been in the back of my mind since I owned the pub but it was something that financially I couldn’t make happen.
AC How did you get hooked up with your brewer, Wayne Wambles?
JR I had been interviewing a lot of people. I found one woman but she ended up taking another job and she told me about Wayne. I was still trying to find the right person who could do some of the things I wanted to from my homebrewing but I knew I didn’t have the requisite skill-set to do in a larger brewery. So I was introduced to him and we did an hour long interview that ended up being more about music and philosophy and I just felt really good about him. So I made an offer and he loaded up his truck and came down. And we basically built the brewery together, spending a year working side by side.
AC What were you looking for in a brewer?
JR I actually had a very good idea of what I was looking for. As a homebrewer I was very experimental. The first beer I ever tried to make was a saison. So I needed someone both detail and process oriented but who also believed that my crazy ideas had some merit but could realize them better that I could. And I also wanted someone who could bring really cool ideas and recipes of their own. And Wayne did that. He has done things here that he tried to do for other employers and couldn’t. And I just thought, “That’s awesome”.
AC How many barrels did you make last year on your fifteen barrel system?
JR We were right around 1OOO in our first year and we expect 25OO this year.
AC What markets are you in right now?
JR We are pretty much in all of Florida, most strongly of course in the Tampa Bay area, except the Panhandle. That’s just because Florida so large that it is difficult to get distributors who can cover the whole state, so we have three distributors here. We’re also in Pennsylvania (but primarily around the Philly metro area) and in New York (all five boroughs, and pretty far out into Long Island).
AC How has the expansion been for these new markets?
JR Very good. The cool thing about the Philly and New York markets is that they are so much more mature than anywhere in Florida. And where we’re at here in Tampa is sort of the core of the craft beer scene in the state. Even though Tampa is the best beer market in Florida, it still pales in comparison to what you have in a place like Philly in particular, but New York as well. We just did an event at a bar in New York and even though Tampa is our home base, I’m not sure that we could get as many local people  to show up as we did for that New York event.
AC Are you looking at expansion into any other markets or are you planning to play it a little closer to home?
JR We’re really looking to lock Florida down at this point. Going into those markets has been great but it has taken away from the beer that we should be selling here. It took our local market a while to respond, but when we went into New York and Philly, the demand was there immediately. It was strong, intense and it never wavered. It took time for us to build up some momentum locally. But it’s definitely there now and it’s to the point that we don’t have enough beer to give to our local distributors.
AC What are the flagships that you are focusing on – basically the Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale and the Jai Alai IPA?
JR Those are the only two beers that we have done year-round so far. We are going to start doing our Humidor Series IPA year-round, which is our regular Jai Alai IPA aged on Spanish cedar. The demand for that beer has been very intense and its never gone away. We won a Great American Beer Festival medal for it. It’s a beer people want and it will be available in 75Oml bottles. Far and away, we brew more IPA than anything else and have almost become an IPA only brewery. In the off season, we tend to brew a lot of higher gravity dark beers. As we grow, we hope to fill out that line-up a little bit more.
AC Tell me about the Humidor series.
JR I actually got the idea from another local homebrewer. He used cedar inserts from cigar shops. He let me try one of his beers and I was blown away by the flavor. I had three or four of them before I told him, “Man, I’m stealing this.” I love that this has a local feel to it and is an organic flavor point that stands on its own. I knew that if I ever opened my own brewery, I would use the idea.
AC Cigar City is known for doing some more experimental beers and has used these beers to build hype for the brand. Talk to me about how that approach developed and what your aim has been.
JR The core craft consumer likes variety and wants to see breweries playing around with different ingredients. You really never know what is going to stick – you look at what has succeeded and some of it is pretty non-standard. The entire sour category for example, where most people look at it and think, “There’s something wrong with that.” They have now been embraced. Coffee beers are big sellers today but five or six years ago they were nothing. Even high gravity beers are a fairly new phenomenon. I am a beer geek and I know what appeals to me and I think, “Well, what if we tried this with this beer or did that to that beer, how would it turn out?” For everything we put out, there is some stuff that doesn’t work and is straight crap and we either try and drink it at the end of the day or we dump it. But it definitely appeals to the person who wants a lot of variety. In everything we do, we’re generally working with a base beer. I think we do four different versions of both the Maduro and the IPA. A lot of it is experimenting and we let the market tell us what it likes and it has responded very favorably. With that said, I think we’re going to move away from that approach. The first year was about experimentation and it was a calculated thing. We’re now going to be busting out a new treatment every week. We’re going to get away from some of the experimentation, not to the delight of a lot of the people who like to stop by and find out what we’ve got that is new. Well, that’s not true, we’ll probably still do these beers, they just won’t see the light of day. We’ll still experiment, but the problem with doing five to fifteen barrels of a particular beer is that a lot of people won’t get to try it, and some people take that personally. That was a real shock to me. We’ll probably keep some of our experiments a bit more behind the scenes.
AC Scarcity is starting to become a bigger issue for the craft beer industry. In New England, we recently saw the release of the Kate the Great Russian Imperial Stout by the Portsmouth Brewery and people lined up on the street over night to get access to that beer. I know your brewery has also had to deal with, as you note, having limited amounts of certain beers. How have you dealt with this issue and what has been the public response?
JR I took a vacation recently, the first since I opened the brewery, and I took my wife up to North Carolina. We went there because of the Sexual Chocolate release [from Foothills Brewing]. So I took my day and went in there and I hang out and enjoy it and be the beer geek I used to be. I understand that because I am that guy and will still continue to do those type of things. When I take a vacation, it’s going to be beer oriented whether I’m selling beer in that market or can time them around happenings that are going on. So if I can make it up to Dark Lord Day [at Three Floyds Brewing], I’m going. We have a Hunaphu’s Imperial Stout release and I’m really trying to take what I’ve learned from other events and make it less of a hassle for the people. I don’t want anyone waiting overnight. With some of our special releases, we don’t really announce when they are available. With Hunaphu’s, I didn’t want to have a release until we had enough that we could hopefully service everyone. If more people show up than we have beer available, I’m going to be upset because I don’t want that. If people want to come and spend a lot of money on your beers, I think you should be able to help them out.