Breweries Find Sun-Drenched Success by the Beach

Photo courtesy of Pelican Brewing Company.

Packing for a day at the beach isn’t always a day at the beach.

You need sunscreen and folding chairs, blankets and books, food and maybe a Frisbee, and let’s not overlook umbrellas and cold beer. Commonwealth Brewing, situated a slow 10-minute stroll from the soft sands of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach, Virginia, makes sure no coolers arrive empty.

On weekends, the brewery’s doors open at 11 a.m., enticing the armada of families, couples and friends to park their wagons and pop inside the former Chesapeake Beach Fire & Rescue Station No. 4, all weathered wood and warm sunlight. They grab four-packs of the brewery’s sought-after hazy IPAs, facilitating surfside fun and repeat business at Commonwealth—often during the same day. “When they’re done at the beach they’ll come back and have a few pints or make a night of it,” says owner and brewer Jeramy Biggie. “You get people on the way there, then you get them on the way back.”

Beer and the beach have always been good buddies. As the sun casts rays, a crisp sip of beer removes salt from parched lips, refreshment served in a koozie. You don’t think much of beach beer until it’s missing, the cooler barren and your mind topped off with a thought: Where’s the beer? Restocking once meant running to the closest grocery or convenience store and buying Mexican imports (remember the limes!) or light lagers, likely made by some distant industrial brewery. Now, beachgoers can take in the crashing waves while crushing cold ones brewed near their preferred patch of sand.

A brewery near a beach is a different beast than one planted in an old factory or industrial park. Brewery owners must balance the breakneck production demands of high season’s fun in the sun with the doldrums of winter and drizzly afternoons, keeping anxious eyes on the Weather Channel for hurricanes that could wash business away. Some breweries embrace the coastal abundance to brew beer with local sea salt, beach plums and seaweed, while others seek inspiration from their beach surroundings.

Commonwealth’s Mano del Puma, a Blonde Mexican Lager. | Photo by Kate Thompson.

Sun’s Out, Fun’s In

Opening a brewery by the beach requires, first and foremost, a fierce affection for the sand, water and weather. Commonwealth’s Biggie arrived in Virginia Beach right out of college, working hard as a nuclear submarine engineer and easily fitting into the laid-back lifestyle. “There was a tight-knit community of people that love to get together and get out on the water,” he says. Engineering took him away to northern Virginia, where he started homebrewing, Virginia Beach never sailing far from his mind. “I always thought it would be a great place to open [a brewery],” Biggie says.

Upon his petitioning, the city gave him the go-ahead to convert the old fire station into Commonwealth Brewing, which opened on Labor Day weekend 2015. Like a fast-moving submarine, it’s been full speed ahead ever since. “Right now, we’re probably the only brewery in the state, if not the whole country, that uses valet parking on weekends,” Biggie says.

Sales for the brewery’s lagers, Belgian-style beers and juicy IPAs have been so berserk that Commonwealth expanded this year by buying every building on its block, including small residential homes that’ll be torn down and transformed into needed parking. Even with extra square footage, Commonwealth still can’t make enough beer. “We have a demand that exceeds our ability to produce the beer, even in the slow season,” he says. “During the summer, the supply-demand gap grows even larger.”

Beer and the beach have always been good buddies. As the sun casts rays, a crisp sip of beer removes salt from parched lips, refreshment served in a koozie.

Summer is eternal in the Florida Keys, a strand of tropical islands that extend some 120 miles from Florida’s southern edge, terminating in Key West. During college, Tyrone Bradley started traveling to the Keys with buddies from Florida Atlantic University, catching fish and a business opportunity. “All the craft beer on the market was too heavy and hoppy and dark for us,” Bradley says. “We were drinking mainstream beers because there were no craft beers that we could drink all day fishing. They didn’t match our lifestyle.”

In spring 2014, Bradley and friends founded Islamorada Beer Company, named after the village of four islands famed for sportfishing. “Our focus is the island-lifestyle beers—sessionable, easy-drinking, fun-in-the-sun beers,” Bradley says. None of Islamorada’s packaged beers, including the No Wake Zone blonde ale flavored with coconut and key lime, are stronger than 6 percent ABV. Though a stout or two have made the brewery’s tap list, Islamorada skews toward brews that jive with weekend boat rides to a popular gathering spot on a sandbar. “You sit in pristine waist-deep water and drink beer all day,” Bradley says. To complement the occasion, the brewery created Sandbar Sunday, a pleasantly low-alcohol wheat ale suited for sipping ’til sunset.

A few pints at Bagby Beer Company. | Photo by Gary Allard.

The beach lifestyle isn’t just about the water, says Jeff Bagby, the head brewer and an owner of Bagby Beer Company, located in Oceanside, California, about 40 miles north of San Diego. “On the coast here, it’s an active spot,” he says. “People are running, swimming, riding, surfing, skating—all those outdoor things that really go with beer.”

The California native grew up in beachy Encinitas and was formerly the head of brewpub operations for four locations of Pizza Port, a chainlet of shore-adjacent brewpubs with a hang-ten vibe, and the head brewer at the Carlsbad branch. Bagby, who’s one of America’s most medaled brewers, selected Oceanside as his brewery’s home partly due to the town’s potential. “Oceanside hadn’t been fully developed yet,” Bagby says.

In 2014, he converted a midcentury BMW dealership into a sunny, spacious two-story brewpub and beer garden that seamlessly transitions from indoor to outdoor, windows rolling up to welcome salty breezes and customers, whether they’re in flip-flops and bike shorts or pushing strollers. “You can just kind of come as you are,” he says. The brewery turns five this September, and its success mirrors a larger Oceanside revival. Now, the town has new restaurants, a distillery, a climbing gym and coffee roasters, the brewery anchoring the town’s rising tide. “Beach culture and beer really go hand in hand.”

A Salty Salute

Modern brewers regularly incorporate native flora into beer to create a drinkable sense of place. Pacific Northwest spruce tips pop up in pale ales, while Michigan-grown cherries appear in beers both sour and stout. Beach breweries also have a distinct pantry to pull from.

New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Brewery favors ocean-grown sugar kelp to flavor Selkie, a Scottish red ale with a lip-smacking briny finish that’s beachgoers’ Proustian moment. As head brewer Matt Gallagher recounted for the brewery’s website, he drew upon childhood memories of swimming in the ocean and, hours later, still tasting salt on his lips.

Patchogue, New York, on Long Island’s south shore, is both home to and inspiration for Blue Point Brewing. “It’s about being open to all your senses when you’re out by the beach,” says Blue Point brewmaster Mike Stoneburg. He’s taken a shine to beach plums, which flourish in the sandy seaside. The tart purple fruit star in the invigorating, pink-tinted Beach Plum Gose, finished with seaweed and locally harvested sea salt.

The savory seasonings have become go-tos in numerous beers including Macho Muchacho, a Mexican-style lager flavored with lime zest and sea salt, and the small-batch Prop Stopper Seaweed IPA that earned its salinity from kombu and kelp. “Salt does really cool things with hop bitterness,” Stoneburg says. “That chloride ion can block bitterness receptors on your tongue, so the perception of bitterness from the hop compounds might not be as strong or sharp.”

For beach breweries, creative whims can also come from human razzle-dazzle. To which I say, ladies and gentlemen, step right up to Coney Island! At the watery edge of Brooklyn, where the city meets the sea, you’ll find the fabled amusement district’s freak shows and roller coasters, twinkling neon, and foods designed for maximum pleasure, minimal nutritional value.

Coney Island Brewing, located in a baseball stadium off the boardwalk, complements its quenching, cooler-stuffing Beach Beer with sideshow-styled limited releases like Cotton Candy Kölsch and Kettle Corn Cream Ale. “I get to draw inspiration from things I get to see on a daily basis,” says head brewer Matt McCall, who last summer spotted a kid’s colorful snow cone. “That screams ‘beach.’ Why not make a snow cone–inspired beer?” (It became Snow Coney, tarted up with lactose, raspberries and lime peel.)

McCall also looks beyond the boardwalk to local residents, in particular the Russian enclave of neighboring Brighton Beach, where tarragon soda is a grocery staple. He formulated a gose flavored with sea salt, coriander and the herb, creating a “really nice, soft, kind of herbal thing,” McCall says of Tarot Gone Gose. “I think there’s room for beers like that.”

The beachside patio at Pelican Brewing. | Photo courtesy of Visit Tillamook Coast.

Instead of Ferris wheels, the beach in Pacific City, Oregon, offers Instagram-worthy sunsets over the 327-foot Haystack Rock, best served with patio pints at Pelican Brewing. The brewery was founded in 1996 in a wind-beaten, salt-sprayed old building by the Pacific Ocean, the beach in its DNA from day one. “The sense of place really informed the decisions we made,” says brewmaster and co-owner Darron Welch, who came onboard as the brewery’s first employee.

Take the brewpub’s concrete floors, which make it easy to sweep off sand. An entrance facing the parking lot and a patio overlooking the beach entice people strolling to and from the ocean to pop in for a beer, perhaps one inspired by the surroundings. “As we’re imagining a summer seasonal, we’ll start the process by thinking about the setting, the circumstances, and how you feel when you’re sitting on the patio on a sunny day, or you’ve hiked a couple miles down the beach and are having a picnic in the sand,” Welch says.

This summer, there’ll be an IPA on tap, right around 6 percent ABV, heaped with Oregon’s Strata hops, a new variety with a dank fruitiness. “We try to be very thoughtful and make sure that there’s an intention and a purpose behind what we make,” Welch says.

Storm Warning

On cloudless summer days when the mercury hits the mid-80s, a cool breeze keeping bugs at bay, beach breweries basically mint money. But beaches typically offer seasonal, weather-dependent business. Summer’s warm kiss fades to winter’s cold embrace, driving down crowds and purchases of pints and six-packs. January and February were cold and wet around San Diego, sending sales at Bagby Beer skittering south. “I don’t know what it is, but San Diegans don’t go out when it rains,” Bagby says. “It seemed like every week it would start raining on Thursday or Friday, and it would rain through the weekend.”

Some storms inflict more lasting impact. Last September, Hurricane Florence destroyed Tidewater Brewing, in Wilmington, North Carolina, one week before the brewery was scheduled to open.

Hurricane Sandy flooded Coney Island’s future ballpark home in 2012. The same tempest sent four feet of storm surge into Barrier Brewing, located in Long Island’s nearby Oceanside, devastating delivery trucks and tanks alike.

Photo by Kate Thompson.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew hammered Hilton Head Island, off the coast of South Carolina, wrecking Hilton Head Brewing. “The whole inside of the brewery was floating—tanks and kegs and coolers,” says John Rybicki, the brewer at the time. Flooding gut-punched Rybicki, who had developed a following for his hazy IPAs, drawing fans three hours away in Columbia, South Carolina. “I had it going for a minute then, blammo, it’s a natural disaster,” he says. “What do you do?”

He left brewing and went to work in construction while plotting his next steps, eventually partnering with a friend to open Lincoln & South Brewing Company. It’s slated to open by summer’s end in an air-conditioning contractor’s former headquarters that’s pretty flood-proof. “It’s one of the highest elevations on Hilton Head Island,” Rybicki says, reciting the exact height: 13.1 feet. “That wasn’t done by accident.” The brewery’s been in the works for several years, partly delayed by a housing search. “Finding a home for what you do, on an island that’s 12 miles by 6 miles wide, is difficult,” he says.

Islamorada Beer also discovered the difficulty of building a large brewery in the Florida Keys, where construction permits are tough to wrangle. The company, which operates a smaller brewery for specialties and one-offs in Islamorada, planted its main production facility in Fort Pierce, on the Florida mainland. The continental outpost packages the brewery’s beer, meeting demand except when there’s none.

After Hurricane Irma blitzed the Keys in 2017, the brewery didn’t bottle beer for almost a month and a half. “Overnight, all our retailers shut down,” says co-founder Bradley, noting that 70 to 80 percent of Keys resorts closed, sending hospitality workers elsewhere. The local workforce dispersed, and the hospitality labor pool remains shallow today. “Bartenders and servers can’t afford to live in the Keys,” he says.

Some of these bummers are just the bumps of running businesses, reality encroaching on endless summer. There’s a calculus to consider, a calculated risk to having one foot in the water, the other on land. A single rogue swell could sweep everything away, sure, but for every destructive wave there are thousands of delightful ones, the water as cool, frothy and refreshing as a beach day’s beer.

“It’s a risk I’ve always been willing to take to live at the beach,” says Commonwealth’s Biggie. “It’s certainly worth it to work, live and play this close to such a great resource as the beach and the ocean.”


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