America the Beer Wasteland: Not Anymore!

One of the first things Mr Fueled by Beer wrote when he started this blog back in Seattle was to refer to south Florida as a beer wasteland. This was really a misnomer – even for the Florida he left behind in 2008 – because by then America’s craft brewing revolution was well underway in all 50 states. It’s time to set the record straight…

One thing’s for sure though: when Mr Fueled by Beer’s stint in the former colonies began in Ohio in the mid-80s America was most definitely a beer wasteland. The craft brewing revolution that began in California, Oregon and Washington was barely five years old and it was still confined to a handful of start-ups strung out along the Pacific coast. On the other side of the Sierra Nevada/Cascade Mountains, a thirsty continent patiently waited.

Even after almost a decade, things hadn’t changed all that much. When Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer loaded their moving truck and headed south to Florida in 1994, only the first murmurs of local brewing were being heard in Columbus. The L Hoster Brewing Company had been revived. Well, in name at least: in the form of a 20 BBL brewpub. But it was a far cry from the brewery’s pre-prohibition peak annual production of 500,000 barrels, although it was a start. Then, in 2001, it was gone again – and not because of some constitutional amendment.

American Craft Brewing Pioneers

Pete’s Wicked – an American Craft Brewing Pioneer

Thinking back it would be wrong to suggest that Mr Fueled by Beer was oblivious to America’s growing craft beer movement. In addition to hearing talk about a rebirth in Columbus’ historic brewery district there was, from around 1990, until the move to Florida, a favorite tipple in the form of Pete’s Wicked Ale. This was arguably the first craft brew to reach the enormous landmass between the Rockies and the Appalachians. Born in California, eventually contract brewed in New York, and killed in Texas, Pete’s Wicked was, in its heyday, widely available in Ohio – but it is sadly no longer with us.

Now we move on to Florida, which was not entirely devoid of craft beer either, but it might as well have been. There was the Tampa-based Hops brewpub chain, and in our home town of Boca Raton there was Brewzzi. Hops is long gone but Brewzzi, an Italian-American bistro and brewery – an odd combination – is still going strong. Nevertheless the fact remains that Hops ales were affordable but uninspired, and Brewzzi lagers could be good but were obscenely overpriced – typically Boca.

Church Beer Works

Church Beer Works

So the next decade: mid-90s to mid-noughties; passed in Florida during which time the only thing that kept Mr Fueled by Beer sane was the generosity of a good friend sharing the fruits of his home brew labors (and damned fine beer it was too). Until the move to Washington in 2008, for Mr Fueled by Beer at least, America in general, and Florida in particular, remained a beer wasteland,  a veritable Bud/Miller/Coors hell.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the first brief glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel occurred back in Columbus in 2000. This was during Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer’s aborted move from Florida back to the Buckeye state, and it happened ironically at the previously mentioned Hoster brewery just one year before it closed. Unknown at that time was the existence of Barley’s and Columbus Brewing – two of the city’s elder statesmen of craft brewing today.

Hofbrau Premium, a classic Munich style lager - at Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh

Hofbrau Premium, a classic Munich style lager – at Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh

Happily the craft brewing revolution did eventually make it all the way to Ohio, to south Florida, and even to Pittsburgh, the city that still venerates Iron City, a beer only marginally less nasty than Bud/Miller/Coors. So, after 25+ years our story comes up to date in these three former beer wastelands, that are very definitely wastelands no more.


At the Hog’s Head

First up was Florida in 2012; our first visit back since the 2008 move to Washington. This was a real eye-opener. Craft beer was everywhere – and much of it coming from now well established local breweries like Cigar City (Tampa), Florida Brewing (Melbourne), Funky Buddha (Boca Raton/Ft Lauderdale) just to name three of the more than 45 now in operation across the Sunshine State (source: Florida Brewers Guild).

Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer at the Hog's Head

Mr & Mrs Fueled by Beer at the Hog’s Head

Hey, there’s even a specially brewed ale at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter inside Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando. Brewed in Melbourne by Florida Brewing, Hogs Head Ale, along with Butterbeer,  draws hordes of pasty-skinned, sunburned, holidaying Brits like flies to a dungheap. This very respectable brew is poured at the Three Broomsticks pub just like in the books and movies.

Down south in Boca we stopped in a couple of bars that four years earlier would have been Bud/Miller/Coors hell. We found plenty of Florida craft brew plus all the major names from the east coast like Magic Hat, Dogfish Head, Terrapin, Abita, Brooklyn, Harpoon,  etc.

Pittsburgh craft beer overlooking the Steel City skyline - perfect!

Pittsburgh craft beer overlooking the Steel City skyline – perfect!

Now fast forward to the present, to our recent trip back to retread some of our earliest steps in America. We were back in Columbus and Pittsburgh and our eye-opening experience there was just as dramatic, if not more so than the previous year in Florida. Those first murmurs I referred to have blossomed into an extremely healthy craft brewing culture in central Ohio.

PA brewing: the old (Yuengling) and the new (Penn & East End)

PA brewing: the old (Yuengling) and the new (Penn & East End)

Columbus now has more than a dozen operating breweries, with more in the planning stages (source: Ohio Craft Brewers Association). Two hundred miles to the east Pittsburgh is equally healthy beer-wise and the Steel City boasts a similar number of breweries as Columbus (source: Pittsburgh Craft Beer Alliance).

Church Brew Works

Church Brew Works

One of the highlights of our visit to Pittsburgh was the Church Brew Works. At the 2012 GABF Church Brew Works received the “best brew pub of the year” award. It is well deserved – it is quite possibly the most beautiful brewpub we have ever seen. And the beers – a 50/50 mix of 4 ales and 4 lagers, plus a Belgian sour, a whisky barrel aged brew, and a cask IPA were all superb.

At the Pittsburgh airport: Oktoberfest Märzen from Penn Brewery

At the Pittsburgh airport: Oktoberfest Märzen from Penn Brewery

Based on our visits to Barley’s in Columbus and the Church in Pittsburgh I think it’s fair to say that the range of craft beers on offer, the imagination that goes into their creation, and the quality of the brewpubs – both food and beer quality – would not be out of place in Seattle, Portland or San Francisco.

No, America is definitely not a beer wasteland anymore. 🙂


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