It’s not such a small beer world, after all.
By Joe Stange
Florida may bring to mind things like sunshine, oranges and retirees. Orlando conjures up all that plus theme parks, which carry stereotypes of their own: anthropomorphic mice, packs of gleeful tots, financially stressed parents—and the general difficulty of finding a decent drink.
It was not so long ago that the Sunshine State was thought even by native Floridians to be a craft beer desert, to say nothing of the sprawling, modern city that grew up alongside Mickey Mouse. But that’s old stuff, and this is the new America. Orlando now has more quality options for food and drink—including beers of character—than two adults could comfortably explore in a weekend, let alone one night away from the theme parks—say, if a babysitter were found for the tots.
High on the list has to be the bar that’s earned a national reputation among geeks, Redlight Redlight in the Audubon Park neighborhood. Its list of two dozen taps rarely gets boring and, most remarkably, rarely gets expensive. Its new space on Corrinne Drive affords more room to stretch legs and find tables, or watch a kung fu movie projected on the cinderblock wall.
Around the corner from Redlight is an intriguing business that’s tough to categorize: Taps from Scratch, equal parts brewery, beer bar and homebrew club. In practice it is something like a brewing cooperative. Visitors can pay $15 for a month’s membership and a “bottomless” tasting glass for the night. Members can also make appointments to brew original recipes and put them on tap. The upshot: all-you-can-drink beer that is craft in a way commercial beer cannot be. The plan for 2013 is to open a neighborhood brewery called Winter Park Beer Co., “Florida’s first picobrewery,” as owner David Brunson says, “teaching the art of homebrewing one barrel at a time.”
The Winter Park neighborhood is north of there and has some of the city’s finer culinary options. The unmissable one is the Ravenous Pig, a James Beard-nominated gastropub with a thick Southern accent and thicker cuts of meat. Chefs Julie and James Petrakis both grew up in Winter Park but didn’t meet until they attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. The family business cures and smokes its own bacon, sous vides bone-in ribeyes before grilling them, and curates a smart list of eight taps that usually includes something unusual from Florida’s own Cigar City. The chefs Petrakis further underscored the beery side of things in 2012 when they opened Cask & Larder brewpub down the street. House beers emphasize drinkability and compatibility with food but can still get weird—for example, a sour Berliner-Roggen made with rye at 3.2% strength. Long tables in the bar area encourage strangers to chat like old friends while sampling flights and slurping oysters, nudged along by moderate alcohol and Southern hospitality.
On the subject of Southern food and hospitality: Why toss chicken wings in sauce and seasoning when you could do the same with thick strips of pork belly? It’s a rhetorical question since the obvious answer is you wouldn’t. They know this at the Oblivion Taproom, a beer bar in Orlando’s eastern sprawl that looks like nothing so much as a honky-tonk with its packed lot and giant neon sign. Except that instead of PORKY’S the sign says OBLIVION. Which may be where arteries go after attempting to incorporate a $25 Fatass burger whose assets include, among other things, a beef patty and sausage patty, a fried egg and another fried egg, bacon and chopped pork and tasso ham and chicharrones (keeping score? that is a burger with at least five different kinds of pork on it). Oh, and three dozen taps plus many more bottles and an internationally savvy list of ciders. Skulls on the walls, tattoos on the arms.
Nearer to central Orlando, Milk Bar would have been a narrow neighborhood dive specializing in cold longnecks not so long ago. Instead it’s colorful and hip with funky artwork, 90 bottles, and eight cleverly chosen taps. Two TVs are connected to the Xbox. Anyone can ask for a controller and play. Hardcore gamers now have an excuse to leave the house.
North of downtown, the Imperial at Washburn Imports shows that craft beer invades not only old dives but also exotic furniture stores. Furnishings and decor are actually quite nice; the effect is class rather than kitsch. Six taps and plenty of bottles, including interesting Belgians. Warning: Strong ales may weaken the resolve of those trying to resist an impulse buy.
Orlando’s city symbol is the fountain on Lake Eola. Across the road, the Eola Wine Co. has six rotating taps and 30 bottles, often emphasizing Florida breweries. Wine bars that take beer seriously? Welcome to the new America. For beer lovers it’s almost like, er, well, Disney World.