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Beers of Paradise

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From Key West to Hawaii, craft beers are veering to tropical and fruity flavors that are light enough to be enjoyed throughout long summer days.
By Jim Galligan June 2014 Beer

Key West, Florida, is a very particular kind of paradise. It’s a place where people seek an escape from the confines of everyday life, a place where equal parts creativity and hedonism come together with an always-sunny climate to create one of America’s most fun-loving and colorful subcultures.

With the weather getting warmer and days growing longer, Key West serves as a model for the kinds of fermented beverages to offer customers who are looking for a little break from the ordinary.

Travis Doll is the general manager and tends bar at The Porch, a craft beer bar on Key West’s legendary Duval Street. The Porch makes its home in a building that was constructed in 1838, a well-preserved island house with a generous front porch that overlooks Key West’s main thoroughfare.

“The Porch opened about three and a half years ago, at a time when the closest thing you could get to a craft beer in Key West was a New Castle or a Magic Hat,” Doll says. “We have 18 tap lines, and about 80 beers in bottles and cans, so we have a lot of the beer lovers come down.”

While Doll says the bar has an eclectic beer selection, a few offerings stand out as warm-weather favorites.

“My local customers tend to like a nice light IPA, with those wonderful citrus notes they carry,” he says.

A customer favorite is Founders All Day IPA, which has most of the flavor of a full-bore India Pale Ale, but with less alcohol and a lighter body so people can enjoy more than one without getting bogged down. It has an ABV of 4.7 percent, closer to that of a Red Stripe or a Pabst Blue Ribbon than a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA.

“Most people are on vacation when they come to Key West—and the locals work and party like they’re on vacation—so a lot of people are drinking all day long,” Doll notes. “You can’t drink a regular IPA all day, but you can drink this.”

Stone Brewing Company recently released its own lightweight ale called Go To IPA, which features Stone’s signature West Coast hop profile, with big juicy notes of grapefruit, peach, and orange, and a low ABV of just 4.5 percent.

Outside of the IPAs, Doll says ciders and meads are becoming more and more popular at The Porch.

in key west, florida, where locals imbibe with as much gusto as tourists, the porch has 18 tap lines and about 80 beers in bottles and cans. travis doll, general manager, says beer-loving locals are partial to light ipas.

“If you’re looking for the trendy summer drink, I think you’re going to be looking at lighter meads and ciders—especially the ciders,” he says.

Ciders and meads aren’t just refreshing alternatives to beer, they’re also a welcome sight for people who suffer from celiac disease or who simply avoid gluten because most of these beverages are gluten-free.

“The ciders are usually on the tart side,” Doll says. “They have a range of flavors like pear, strawberry, lime, or raspberry. Some people say they’re just for women because they can be sweet, but that’s ridiculous—everyone down here thinks they’re delicious.”

The Porch offers Angry Orchard Crisp Apple on tap, a hard cider from the makers of Samuel Adams that provides lots of fresh apple flavor and manages to be both sweet and tart all at once.

The Porch has also found a crowd pleaser in Zombie Killer Cherry Cyser from B. Nektar Meadery. A cyser is a type of mead where apple juice has been added to the traditional honey during fermentation. This one’s also been concocted with cherry juice to create a 6- percent-ABV beverage that features a delightful blend of tart cherries, sweet honey, and apple cider.

“We are huge fans of nerdy pop-culture, so the Zombie Killer has been a big hit here,” Doll notes, “but we’ve also had a whole host of B. Nektar Meadery’s drinks, and they’ve all been extremely popular.”

Another bright spot for The Porch has been fruit beers.

“The whole family of fruit and vegetable ales is getting quite large,” Doll says. One favorite is Liefmans Fruitesse, a 4.2-percent-ABV ale that’s aged for 18 months on cherries in oak casks. It’s then blended with the natural juices of elderberries, bilberries, strawberries, raspberries, and more cherries to create a beer that’s tart, sweet, and refreshing.

“Stiegl Radler is another fruit beer that’s been really popular lately,” says Doll. Radler is a 50/50 blend of Stiegl’s Goldbräu ale and grapefruit soda, creating a beer with the refreshing qualities of a citrus soda.

“We have a lot of professional drinkers in Key West, as you can imagine, and that’s their breakfast beer,” says Doll. “It’s only 2.5 percent ABV, perfect for guys who are saying, ‘Just let me get my head straight for the morning!’ You serve it with a straw, on ice, and it’s delicious.”

Hawaii’s Spin on Brews

Of course, people are doing more than just drinking in paradise; they are brewing as well. Kona Brewing Company was started in 1994 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, and has since taken the mainland by storm, providing beer lovers across the continent with a little taste of the tropics.

“We put our own uniquely Hawaiian spin on the beers we brew,” says Mattson Davis, Kona Brewing Company’s president and CEO.

“In March of 1998, we launched a beer called Longboard Island Lager,” he recalls. “People asked, ‘Why would you launch a lager in the craft beer world? That’s a fizzy macro style from the big brewers.’

“What we recognized is that it’s 80 degrees 360 days a year here with a light breeze, and this is the kind of beer that will quench your thirst,” Davis says. “You’re going to want a beer that’s flavorful but light, so you can drink more than one without feeling groggy.”

Since the launch of Longboard, which was Kona’s first big-seller outside of Hawaii, fans of the island brewery have come to expect their beers to have a certain Hawaiian vibe, like Kona’s Big Wave Golden Ale, which was launched on the mainland last year.

“Big Wave has flavors that are given towards the tropics, with great fruity notes like mango coming out of the Citra and Galaxy hops we use to brew the beer,” Davis says. Smooth, and having just a touch of fruit essence, the 4.4- percent-ABV Big Wave can satisfy a summer thirst.

Kona’s newest taste of paradise is its Castaway IPA, which just rolled out in April. Available on tap in Hawaii since early 2000, it was brought to the national stage because, as Davis notes, its popularity simply could not be ignored.

“We felt it was important for us to get into that category, but we didn’t want to do it like a Northwest IPA or a Northeast IPA—we wanted to make sure that it would resonate with our consumers. I think we’ve cracked the code for a tropical-style IPA with Castaway,” he says.

“We started by asking, ‘What kind of IPA would you want to drink in Hawaii?’” Davis recalls. ”You want something that’s a little lighter in alcohol, so instead of a 7 percent ABV maybe it’s a 6 [percent]. You want something that’s got some fruity notes coming from those hops that are going to help to quench your thirst, and that’s what you’re going to see with Castaway.”

Kona has two restaurants, one on Hawaii’s big island and one on Oahu in Koko Marina, where they serve a variety of pub-only beers and artisan pizzas.

“Both restaurants have large outdoor seating areas [where] customers are feeling the breeze ... and saying, ‘Wow, I’ve got a cold tropical beer in one hand, a great slice of pizza in the other, and I’m in the middle of paradise—how does it get any better than this?’”

Whether looking for beers that come from paradise or just something refreshing to quench summertime thirst, the variety of craft beers, ciders, and meads promise something interesting and delicious to satisfy just about anyone.