With the sun shining and cool breezes blowing, the breweries of the Florida Keys are sailing away from the devastating hurricane season of 2017. Slammed by the winds and waves of Hurricane Irma, one of the Atlantic’s strongest storms in a record breaking hurricane season, the Keys were left in ruins.  But slowly the rebuilding came.

Located on the sunny strip of sand and palms that is Islamorada, the Florida Keys Brewing Company claims the title of being the first microbrewery in the upper Keys. Owners Craig and Cheryl McBay felt the storm coming before it made landfall.

“I had to let all my people go and get their homes ready and evacuate,” Craig said. “That’s when our effects really started. My wife Cheryl left that Tuesday and took the kids up north. So I spent the entire week getting the brewery ready, getting our house ready.”

Most breweries down in the Keys shared a similar story.

Hurricane Irma damaged cars and trees in the Florida Keys
Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP/Getty Images

 

Islamorada Beer Company’s President Tyrone Bradley described the business impact even before Irma’s first gusts.

“The storm shut us down for the extended period that the Keys were required to evacuate,” Bradley explained. “We were shut down the entire week beforehand and we didn’t reopen for almost a month. We didn’t even get power back for about a month.”

For what they missed in physical damage, the breweries are facing challenges in other ways.

Yellow pickup used to haul supplied during Irma relief efforts in the Florida Keys
A pickup used to haul supplies during Irma relief efforts. //PHOTO- Jose Herrera

“Our brewery as a whole, there was no structural damage. We didn’t have any permanent damage, but we had a little area out back with trees and picnic benches,” Bradley said.

“But our sales are down and our distribution numbers are pretty rough. The majority of the resorts are still closed. When we spoke to our city officials, there’s somewhere over a thousand rooms in Islamorada, and only a small percentage of them are left available for rent.”

Forced to spend weeks without their regular distribution base, the breweries of the Keys are branching out to stay afloat. Not necessarily a bad thing for the folks in South Florida who have yet to try these refreshing local brews.

Craig McBay, owner.

“One of the main things that we’re doing is distributing further north. We’re a Keys-based brewery,” McBay said. “My wife was born and raised here. We’ve tried to keep our beers here. We just started distributing into the next five counties in south Florida. We’re having our first big roll out party in Miami soon. That’s one of the ways that we’re trying to overcome things.”

After the waves subsided, the business of the breweries was pummeled with negative, tourist-deterring media coverage of the island’s devastation.

“The brewery survived which is good,” McBay said. “The brewery was basically closed for about two weeks. Our distribution, which up until now we’ve only done throughout the Keys, just got decimated. Surviving the storm is one thing but surviving the aftermath has been another thing entirely.   Our tasting room, of course, got devastated business-wise because there aren’t any tourists here.”

The Beer Bus complete with taps on the side. //PHOTO - Florida Keys Brewing Company

Recorded estimates by the Federal Emergency Management Agency stated that as of November, “more than 1,800 homes in the Keys were destroyed and 3,000 more had major damage.” While reports like these keep many people away, Bradley asserts that there are still places to savor on the islands and places to stay.

“Accommodation is a high issue. Hawk’s Cay is closed until further notice. It’s one of our larger accounts,” Bradley said. “And then it’s covered negatively by the media. There are definitely places that people can stay and the news needs to be out that we’re open and everyone is back online. I would definitely recommend people coming back down as soon as they can.”

In a string of islands that thrives off of tourism income, what the Keys needs now is people. And what the breweries need now? People drinking.

Rio Campbell at the Florida Keys Brewing Company explained that the drinks were flowing as soon as the doors reopened.

“We hit the ground running!” Campbell said. “We were back open and a bunch of breweries were making charity beers, even though we breweries were the ones needing charity!”

Mcbay’s brewery made proverbial lemonade from the storm’s lemons.

“We have actually brewed a beer made with rain water from the hurricane,” McBay said. “It’s hard to explain how chaotic it has been trying to get back on track. But we had some captured rain water that we brewed with. It’s going to be a Belgian strong, a big high alcohol beer.”

Before the Keys were officially reopened, some of the breweries were already open with beers flowing.

“The storm hit Saturday night, one of my brewers actually stayed here,” McBay said. “He actually opened the brewery Monday night and we just gave out beer. They didn’t even open the Keys till Tuesday. Starting Monday, we were opened every single night, because anybody who was down here was spending all day working and clearing stuff. We weren’t charging, just giving it out.”

With the storms gone, breweries open and accommodations slowly becoming available, these island-bound beers are worth both an airline and a tasting flight.

Light and refreshing like a dip in the Gulf, Bradley describes their brews designed especially for long days of seaside fun.

“Our focus is really session drinking beers,” Bradley said. “We really started it because we’re in the sun. We’re constantly boating, fishing, paddle boarding. Really specialize in easy drinking great tasting beers. We want to complement that we’re sitting on the beach and you don’t want to feel like you’ve had a whole meal on the beach. We do in our tap room a few high ABV beers, we try to do fun-in-the-sun beers that complement the Keys.”

Just a couple of the landlubber’s concoctions on tap at the Islamorada Beer Company are the Sandbar Sunday, an American Wheat ale just perfect for some Key Lime and seafood on the side, and the citrusy Islamorada Ale, meant to refresh after “a long day of island running.”

Back at the Florida Keys Brewing Company, McBay and his team are incorporating local treasures, and pests, into their brews.

Iguana Bait, a honey hibiscus kolsch made of the flowers and the sweet stuff from the Keys, is named in honor of the creatures that intrigue tourists and annoy the locals.

Iguana Bait and a couple of other selections from the Keys //PHOTO - Florida Keys Brewing Company

“Iguana Bait is a honey hibiscus kolsch,” McBay mentions. “Tourists love iguanas, cool, but they’re pests. We’re overrun with iguanas. And they eat hibiscus. They’re really pests.”

Hence the name. And according the brewery’s site, their kolsch-style is a little different from the norm, “Kolsch is a traditional German-style beer hailing from Cologne, made using only barley, hops, water and yeast. We completely destroyed the purity law and complimented a German-style kolsch with honey and hibiscus.

At a time when the rest of the country is facing winter storms, it seems that the rebounding breweries of the Florida Keys are done with their own, offering a place to escape with gently lapping waves and fizzy beers on tap.

“We’re hoping that things are going to open back up as quickly as possible,” Bradley said. “Some of the resorts aren’t even reopening until February. So the restaurants on the weekends and the tourist places are quiet.”

The time is now to escape the snow to the quiet Keys, and have some Iguana Bait.


Breweries and restaurants are open in the Keys.  Islamorada Beer Company is open daily noon-9pm and the Florida Keys Brewing Company is open daily noon-10pm.  While the need for relief has slowed, the Keys still need the one thing that will keep them going, tourists.  

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