The Orlando craft beer zeitgeist, which propels a flourishing subculture spanning from Shipyard Brew Pub to Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour and beyond, may not have hatched in a snifter or pint glass. That inaugural spark may have been struck in a more roundabout way, the mood captured in a 2006 interview with Orlando Brewing president John Cheek.
“Right after we opened [at Atlanta Avenue], the Orlando Sentinel did an article on me, calling me a ‘tree-hugging capitalist,’” Cheeks recalls. “And I actually hold that to my chest with pride.”
It is difficult now to appreciate Cheek’s entrepreneurship, determination and audacity, with new craft beer joints seeming to sprout up on a weekly basis today. But the city’s first microbrewery had been out of commission for 15 months in 2006, their old Huey Avenue location taken by eminent domain during the I-4 renovation project, and the very concept of “gourmet beer,” as Cheek calls it, was still largely foreign to the clientele he and brewer Ed Canty hoped to build. In addition to that, the brewery would make no concessions, even where they could’ve helped slash operational costs or woo customers. Only organic ingredients would be used. All beers would adhere to the “Reinheitsgebot,” or German Purity Law, barring adjuncts like rice or additives like fruits and spices from being added to the brews.
“When we first opened up, there was no beer scene,” Cheek says. “That was really the impetus [of Orlando Brewing], from my personal standpoint – ‘Geez, how do you get a good beer?’”
So like a good tree-hugging capitalist, Cheek made it himself – and as luck would have it, a bunch of other people dug it, too. Cheek’s wasn’t exactly a flexible business model, but armed with his principles, his four original brews and a passion for craft beer, he began tilling the Orlando soil, breaking ground for craft breweries and bars to come.
Orlando Brewing now boasts 21 in-house draughts at their Atlanta Avenue tasting room and distributes eight flagship beers across the city. Shadowboxes of Florida Brewing Festival medals aplenty hang by the front door. They will participate in American Craft Beer Week this month with several events at the brewery, including beer-and-chocolate pairings and special lessons on beer science led by Cheek.
It’s all part of further cementing Orlando’s beer cachet – just eight years ago many of his patrons didn’t even know what a stout was, Cheek says. Now, Orlando Brewing has to make sure, on busy Friday nights, they don’t run out of it.