Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Brew Insight: Q&A With Justin Clark of Cigar City Brewing

Cigar City's Justin Clark.
Happy New Year, everyone! South Florida Beer Week is fast approaching, and we've got some exciting beers that will be on tap from local brewers. Stay tuned for more on that, as we'll be announcing some tap lists at the end of this week. Needless to say, we're super excited to be featuring a slew of local beer during Beer Week, including a few breweries that have yet to be tapped in the South Florida market.

But of course, you can't talk local beer without mentioning Cigar City Brewing out of Tampa, FL. Perhaps the most buzzed about craft brewery in Florida, Cigar City has made a name for itself nationally thanks to innovative new beers aimed squarely at the beer geek in all of us. That's to say nothing for it's flagship beers -- Maduro and Jai Alai chief among them -- that are quickly becoming go-to favorites for folks across the state. Add to that a slew of recent announcement from the brewery, and Cigar City is quickly becoming one of the most talked about breweries in the southeastern United States.

In preparation for Cigar City's big splash during Beer Week, we spoke to Vice President Justin Clark, who told us a little bit about the brewery's upcoming plans.

SFBW: First off, 2011 had to be a banner year for the brewery. Tell us a bit about that.

Justin Clark: Well, we just got the numbers back and we did right around 9,500 barrels of beer last year. The year before we were at 3,500, so it's been a big increase. And the goal next year is to do 20,000 barrels, so just over double the amount.

That's a crazy amount of expansion in such a short time. How difficult has it been to keep up?

The thing is we've constantly been under crazy expansion since the start. I guess that's all we've ever known. The good news is selling more beer has given us the opportunity to make puchases to increase our efficiency. The [recently announced] canning line will help dramatically. We've never met demand [for our beer] yet. There's always been this crazy push to make more.

To help meet that demand, you guys recently started construction on a new brewery. Tell us about that.

The new brewery is actually in our current facility. We just took over a few more buildings here, and the actual production line where the canning line will go is located a few doors down at the opposite end of the complex. We're getting a new roof installed there as we speak. When all is said and done, we'll have the capacity to do 60,000 barrels a year right where we're at. If we decide to grow beyond that, which isn't the plan at least right now, then we'll have to add more buildings.

So is that kind of capacity the goal?

Our goal is to be a South East regional brewery, but Florida will be first and foremost.

You mentioned the new canning line. Some of our readers might not know this, but you made the decision recently to move your flagship beers to cans. How did you arrive at that?

At the end of the day, it's better for the beer. Cans take light completely out of the equation, so we'll have a more shelf stable product. Cans are also more recyclable, and they're lighter, so its cheaper for shipping. But a huge factor is that Florida is an active lifestyle state. We have golf, boating, beaches; the outdoors are really in focus. And that makes cans a better container for the consumer, since it's something they can enjoy with all those activities. Also, cans make labeling easier in the long run, since they already come in labeled and ready to go.

With the switch to cans, there has been some mention of Tocobaga Red Ale, Florida Cracker, and Hotter than Helles all joining Jai Alai and Maduro as year-round products. Which brands will we see launching in the cans?

Nothing's confirmed 100% yet, but the ones you mentioned are great candidates for sure. Our big push this year will be Hotter than Helles. It's currently only available on draft, but it will be in cans first once that's up and running. It's crafty enough for beer geeks, but approachable enough that it's suitable for beer notices. It's a German Helles lager, 5% alcohol, just a good, refreshing, drinkable beer.

When can people expect to see cans on store shelves?

I'd love to see cans on the shelf in Tampa in June, and then expand out from there. South Florida should definitely see cans in 2012.

Also, to backtrack on the cans thing, we're definitely making the commitment to support local business, and there's actually a Ball plant in Tampa. It hasn't been determined 100%, but if it goes that way, we could be getting 100% of our cans from them. It would be such a great story to say that we get 100% of our cans made in the city of Tampa. It would be local business supporting local business, which is always great.

Speaking of Tampa, there beer scene there seems to be exploding lately, and you guys seem to be at the center of it. How important is Tampa in the Florida beer scene?

Tampa is definitely the number one city in the state in terms of craft beer. Miami has all the tools to be a great beer city -- the population, the income -- but it's really an import heavy market. Here in Tampa, I think we can support a ton of breweries here. And you're right, there's been a lot growth. If you count Yuengling, they're the largest in Tampa, we would be the second. But you have Tampa Bay brewing that just switched over their license to manufacture. Dunedin is more of a brewpub, and they manufacture, but they sell most of what they make on site. You also have Pegs and St. Somewhere. Seventh Sun too... we were just there for the grand opening. They use a four barrel system, so most the beer will be gobbled up on premise, but they do have plans for distribution. But even with all that, Tampa has room for more. And more breweries means more education on craft beer, which is ultimately how the scene grows.

How about Florida as a whole? How do you think the past year has been for beer down here?

It's improving daily but we've got a lot of work to do. We're at about one percent market share [in terms of craft versus macro beer]. You look at somewhere like Portland, Oregon, and it's 28 to 29. Bu there's been a lot of growth, and there are plenty of great breweries opening in the state and a lot in planning to come, so that's hopeful.

Anything you want to tell our readers, Justin?

Drink local! Beer in the state is getting better all the time, it's exciting to see all these new brands come to fruition.


  1. Justin, I just moved from Tampa to Key West and miss hitting the Tasting Room after work so much! You guys have been producing some amazing beer, and I'm so happy to hear that you're keeping it local while expanding.....kudos for watching out for the fellow locals! If you can, send some Oatmeal Raisin Cookie and Puppy's Breath down here to Key West, my all-time favorites.....so far! Good luck this year!

  2. Shro. You look different then I expected.