This has been the best year ever for craft beer in Florida. As 2013 winds down, I'm looking back and forward. Here are my Top 10 trends of the year:
1. Explosive growth. The number of craft breweries in Florida easily doubled this year, with major growth in the greater Tampa Bay area. For example, St. Petersburg went from zero to four breweries this year.
2. Sarasota-Manatee gets its first production brewery. Big Top Brewing Co. became the first local production brewery when it opened last month in Sarasota County. And several more are in the works in both counties.
3. The Sunshine State gets its own beer style. Florida Weisse, a low-alcohol, tart and thirst-quenching beer brewed with tropical fruit, continues to grow in popularity.
4. Beer gets political -- brewers. As the industry grows, its different sectors are pushing their agendas in Tallahassee. Craft brewers want to legalize 64-ounce growlers (to-go containers filled at the tap; currently only 32- and 128-ounce sizes are allowed), bringing the state in line with almost every other place in the nation. They would also like for Florida to lower the taxes on beer.
5. Beer gets political -- distributors. Some distributors want the regulations over brewery tasting rooms to be clarified, arguing that the lines have been blurred between brewers and retailers.
6. Beer gets political -- retailers. On the retail front, a beer distributor group says small breweries are unfairly competing with retailers by selling beer from other breweries and beer to go.
Along with the distributors, the Retail Beverage Council, part of the Florida Retail Federation, argues that bars, restaurants and stores have to follow regulations that brewery tasting rooms don't, putting them at a disadvantage.
"The retailers are not on a level playing field when they compete with the breweries," RBC lead lobbyist Scott Dick wrote in an email. Dick is confident that the brewers, distributors and retailers can work something out.
7. More craft beer in more places. I'm seeing good brews at gas stations and bigger selections in groceries. More restaurants are carrying craft beer, with some making a point of serving Florida beer.
8. Florida's reputation is growing nationwide. While we haven't been a beer wasteland for years, this myth persists outside the state. But it's getting busted as breweries like Cigar City and others are drawing some of the longest long lines at preeminent fests like the Great American Beer Festival. (Side note: Sarasota brewpub Darwin's on 4th received kudos from the media for its spiced porter at the GABF)
9. U.S. breweries see Florida as a great place for beer. Colorado's New Beglium, the brewer of Fat Tire, entered the state in 2013 after years of demand. Another big player to come to the Florida this year was heralded Michigan brewer Founders. A research firm listed three Florida regions among the fastest-growing markets. And many of the nation's brewers name the Sunshine State as an emerging market.
10. Rumblings of a bubble. I hate to end on a down note, but with all the growth, both locally and nationwide, comes inevitable worrying that the current craft beer situation isn't sustainable. I have these worries myself. Is there enough demand in Sarasota and Manatee counties for all the breweries that are in the works? Are beers getting too expensive? These worries are countered by arguments pointing out that no one worries about a "restaurant bubble." Businesses come and go, but hopefully craft beer is here to stay.