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Soaking up the craft beer scene in Jacksonville, Florida.
Even in a town with as much history as Jacksonville, it’s refreshing to find such a direct connection between the past and the present.
And that’s “refreshing” in the tastiest sense of the term, because I’m sitting in a completely renovated former 1930s ice house sipping an icy cold beer fresh from the tap of the Aardwolf Brewing Company. Stripped and redone in preparation for its 2013 opening, Aardwolf retains a sparse, bare-brick atmosphere that practically screams that it’s all about the beer – which includes small pilot batches released every Wednesday and varieties like Hop Up the Wolves, a double IPA, and the entertainingly named Styrofoam Pony, an American Stout.
Aardwolf is just one of seven Jacksonville taps known collectively as the Jax Ale Trail, a collection of relatively small batch breweries that together tackle the big job of slaking the thirst of local brew-fans and the many out-of-towners drawn by the booming Jacksonville tourist trade.
For local beer and brewing fans, the popularity of the trail comes as no surprise. “We’re probably one of the best brewing locations in Florida,” David Rigdon tells me. As president of CASK, a Jacksonville home brewing club, David shares a taste for the kind of small batch, craft beers that the breweries on the Ale Trail specialize in.
“We have right now about seven different breweries with a couple more coming on line,” he says, “We have a great beer culture here, and all of the breweries are making great beer.”
Aardwolf was a great place to start, but beer’s a wasting. It’s time to hit the trail.
Not far from Aardwolf’s downtown location, Bold City Brewery taps into the no-frills culture of craft beer production. Its functional bar service area offers a bare floor and an unusual brick foot rail for my bar leaning comfort as I sample favorites like Duke’s Cold Nose (named for a canine mascot) and Killer Whale. The brewing tanks make a great backdrop for musical acts, and in good weather, folks spread the fun outside as they perch on a pleasantly mismatched collection of folding chairs around tippy tables as they wile away the hours.
Heading east toward the ocean, I find Green Room Brewing in a little storefront just a gull’s glide from the beach. Great beer as usual, and there’s nothing small about the fun on offer. There’s a relaxed bar service area in front, and the back room is filled with games like Connect Four and Jenga, except they’re life size, with Jenga tiles the size of cricket bats. Make a wrong pull here and you’ll need to step lively to get clear! But it’s all in fun. And the dogs get to take part, since patrons’ well-behaved pooches can join them in the taproom – and even take care of their own thirst from a big doggy water bowl. But only humans can sample the offerings like Head High, Green Room’s leading brew, or the delicious roasted tone and creamy feel of their dark stout, Shaka. No food on site, but plenty of great nearby restaurants are more than happy to deliver to the taproom.
It’s not too long before I have to answer an emergency thirst call at Engine 15 Brewing, along U.S. 90 just a mile from the ocean. Named for a vintage 1962 fire engine that sits on the parking lot outside – it used to be the owner’s football tailgating vehicle – the brewery’s casual mood matches the area’s laid-back beach atmosphere, but goes into overdrive every year at Oktoberfest, when the men don lederhosen and the women sport traditional German beer maid rigs as they serve favorites like Route 90 Rye, (904) Weissguy, and the rather deliciously labeled Old Battle Axe IPA. Flat screen TVs display descriptions of the brews on offer, all the better to make informed choices.
In a leafy block of Jacksonville’s popular King Street district, I find the second craft brewery to open in Jacksonville, Intuition Ale Works. Back in 2010, Intuition started small and keeps to that pattern. The brewery’s Cari Sanchez-Porter calls their “small-batch, handcrafted approach” ideally suited to modern consumers who have “more sophisticated palates and appreciate a variety of flavors.” Intuition is settled comfortably in the Riverside neighborhood, listed on the National Registry of Historic places, and taps Belgian, German, English and American style brews crafted by founder Ben Davis, who spent time making wine in California’s Sonoma region before hopping back to hops in his native Jacksonville. Patrons in the know love the Knot Head Ale, a dark copper-colored ale and the smooth and aromatic Turn Down For Wit, an Imperial Belgian Wit.
Beer drinkers with an attitude will find their natural home at Pinglehead Brewing Company, sharing space with Brewers Pizza, where beer flavor is big enough to tempt the most powerful of palates. From their scary-clown tap handles to their anything-but-shy approach to brewing, Pinglehead serves the beer fan who has worked up a thirst – maybe at the nearby Westside Rails and Trails system – who wants to taste his or her brew, not play guess-the-flavor. Offerings like Black hOPs, an India Black Ale that drinks surprisingly easy, or Mind Drive, an Extreme Imperial Porter that even Pinglehead describes as “robust,” are perfect samples in the genre.
It’s not every day that you get to feel patriotic about lifting a cooling mug of top quality craft beer, but when my march around the Jax Ale Trail winds up at Veterans United Craft Brewery, I’m more than happy to be counted present and fit for duty. This Southside Jacksonville destination is owned and operated by veterans of military service who consider great beer taste their crucial current mission. Varieties like Raging Blonde Ale with its late process hopping or the honey and orange peel accents of Buzzin’ Bee Honey Rye Wheat Ale earn service stripes and fly out the door on the company’s winged logo. Visitors to the neighborhood enjoy specialty restaurants, impressive Avenues Mall, and the new St. John’s Town Center, 1.1 million square-foot cultural center offering residential, shopping and dining options galore.
Rounding out my Jax Ale Trail outing, it turns out that these uncommonly good breweries are just a part of the community’s full menu of master-class attractions.
“You could fill two whole days just touring breweries alone,” David Rigdon tells me. “But the brewing culture is just part of a bigger culture here in Jacksonville, the kinds of things that attract so many people to the area, like local music, artisanal cuisine, farm to table food, all of that is growing here as well.”
Few people have a more acute view of that local scene than Regina Heffington, a beer blogger and owner of the King Street area eatery Silver Cow. “It is getting more difficult to find an establishment in Jacksonville which does not have at least one Jacksonville-based microbrew on tap,” she tells me. “The Jax Ale Trail is the perfect venue for craft beer lovers to experience what the passion and talents of Jacksonville brewers bring to the ‘brews and chews’ tables in the city.”
For me, that experience means I’m already chewing over my great memories and brewing up my next visit to Jacksonville.
Get your Jax Ale Trail Brewery Passport stamped, and find out what other brewery activities Jacksonville has on tap.
Blog written by Danny Lee.
Local Expert Guest