Until recently, if you wanted a beer brewed in Southwest Florida, your best bet was to ask around the neighborhood to find a hobbyist who homebrewed.
Those days are gone, with two local breweries and a brewpub already open and at least two more on their way. Naples Beach Brewery opened in East Naples late last year, and the Fort Myers Brewing Co. held a grand opening in March. The Marco Island Brewery, open since 2010, serves its craft beers from its restaurant.
A fourth operation, Point Ybel Brewing Co., has plans to open just off Sanibel Island at the end of May, and a fifth, Beecher Brewing Co., is renovating a spot in the downtown Fort Myers River District for a grand opening in September.
Unlike other industries, the owners say they abide by a “the more, the merrier” attitude.
“The pie down here has plenty of pieces,” said Will Lawson, owner of the Naples Beach Brewery. “The Southwest Florida area is prime for several breweries.”
Lawson, whose craft brewery has been open the longest, said business has been better than he anticipated. He said the next year could bring a major expansion or possible move to a larger location. Bars have been eager to get their hands on his beer, he said.
“Every drop of beer that I’m making, I’m selling,” Lawson said.
While Naples Beach Brewery, Fort Myers Brewing and Point Ybel Brewing will operate as craft breweries, Beecher Brewing Co. owner Bill Frazer said his establishment will be a brewpub that will serve lunch and dinner.
Frazer and co-owner Duncan Scarry have plans to serve their own beer as well as craft brews from elsewhere — including those from the Naples, Fort Myers and Point Ybel breweries.
“The focus is to carry the local beers as much as possible and also carry some of the bigger names, like Rogue, Stone and Lagunitas,” said Frazer, who added that Beecher won’t be serving labels like Miller or Coors.
Frazer said he isn’t worried about taking the focus off his own beers by serving other local brews.
“If they succeed, then I succeed. If I succeed, then they succeed,” he said. “I want our whole industry down here to take off. In five to 10 years, I want Fort Myers to be a destination for the craft beer scene.”
Another restaurant serving craft brews, the Marco Island Brewery, has been open since September 2010. Owner John LaCava said it’s a small operation, with the five beers brewed on-site available only in the restaurant.
LaCava, who owns the restaurant with his father Frank, said there are tentative plans to distribute the beer to a larger audience in the future, although financing such a move is not presently in the cards.
Although the owners of the local breweries are optimistic, one project has not been as successful as hoped.
For more than three years, brothers Ernest and Curtis Sittenfeld have been planning to build Southwest Florida Brewing Co. in Ave Maria, even meeting their $40 million fundraising goal last summer. The brothers envisioned a 40,000-square-foot brewery that would brew 100,000 barrels per year, the equivalent of about 15 million bottles of beer.
The Sittenfelds now say the project is kaput, and the money raised has since been returned to investors.
“Basically, it was too difficult to get financing and there was little encouragement from the community,” Curtis Sittenfeld said.
But those planning smaller operations believe their business plans show Southwest Florida can support their product.
Walt Costello said he and his wife, Amy, have been working for more than three years to make Point Ybel Brewing Co. a reality. Costello, a former fishing guide and boat captain on Sanibel, said his goal is to eventually market to a tourist-driven market like that on Sanibel Island.
Costello said he noticed a “huge surge” of interest in his company when Fort Myers Brewing Co. opened this spring and hopes that’s a sign of future camaraderie and collaboration.
“There’s a lot of breweries in other parts of Florida, like Tampa. They feed off each other,” he said. “The more breweries that open, it allows more people to get into craft beer.”