American Craft Beer Week is May 13-19, giving discriminating drinkers across the country a chance to celebrate their tastes and "draft" rookie palates into the fold.
As a (semi-) reformed Pabst Blue Ribbon drinker, I understand the need for the hoopla. We all spend our early years drinking the cheap stuff, but at some point there comes the realization that not all beer tastes the same, that perhaps an extra dollar is a small price to pay for something with a little character (and typically, a much milder hangover). Budweiser and Miller still can afford those flashy NFL commercials, but the growing number of microbreweries since the 1980s is a sign that America has less reason to believe the hype.
Central Florida is more than doing its part. The proof? I can't possibly list all the local craft-beer pubs in this column, which is something I couldn't say five years ago. But let's make a start with my favorites.
First, let's just get Redlight Redlight (2810 Corrine Drive, Orlando) up at the top of the list where it belongs. It's hard to believe this pub has grown from a tiny Winter Park nook into one of Draft Magazine's top 100 beer bars in America. Its selection of 26 drafts may not hit the quantity of our local World of Beer macropubs, but the quality is key here. With two hand-drawn casks and a bottle selection full of hidden gems, Redlight is for aficionados only — but the staff will get rookies up to speed in two beers or less.
My favorite downtown craft-beer spot? Tap & Grind (59 W. Central Blvd., Orlando), which quickly made me a fan of Sixpoint Brewing's Bengali Tiger IPA during the brewery's "tap takeover" of the bar last week. If you like variety, there's ample reason for return trips to T&G, including house-infused beer selections and a staff that gives you a knowledgeable walk-through without the snobbery. The vibe and decor may be surfer chic, but the selection is as cosmopolitan as it gets.
Elsewhere downtown, my hopes are high for Eternal Tap (116 W. Church St., Orlando). Tucked away by the train tracks in one of the last secret corners of Church Street, this year-old bar is a great place to woo your Bud-drinking football buddy over to the dark side — and by dark, I mean a Swamp Head Midnight Oil stout ($5 on draft). The place features brick-oven-fired pizza and enough televisions to satisfy any sports fan, but the 45 drafts on tap will up your beer game. The selection doesn't run as deep as some, but Eternal Tap gets extra points for individuality with a menu that eschews bottled beers in favor of a wide array of crafty cans.
Kudos to Belle Isle locals for supporting the Gnarly Barley (7431 S. Orange Ave., Orlando), though it's mighty easy to support. Pair up one of its 16 drafts with a beer-friendly sub such as the Johnnie Mac n' Cheese ($8), and you'll see why craft beer isn't just a downtown indulgence. Not sure what to order? Drop by after 6 p.m. Saturdays for the "Kill the Keg" special, featuring three different beers for $3 while they last.
And now, for a little controversy. By name alone, I should be a stronger cheerleader for Orlando Brewing, but I'm more apt to pick up one of Tampa's meatier Cigar City beers if I see them on sale. Luckily, there's another hometown hero to support: Hourglass Brewing has been growing a steady crowd at its Longwood taproom (255 S. Ronald Reagan Blvd.), thanks to a laid-back atmosphere and a small but adventurous rotating menu of homegrown brews such as Sabor de Bandito ($5), a jalapeno-infused pale ale.
Lastly, here's to the one-two punch of Will's Pub and its mellower younger sister Lil Indies (1036 and 1042 N. Mills Ave., Orlando). Despite the presence of delicacies such as Bells Java Stout on tap ($5), few people think of these joints as craft-beer emporiums. This is mostly because of Will's larger rep as a music venue, but partly because using the word "emporium" will get you laughed at. Whether you're cheering on the band at Will's or keeping it low-key at Lil Indies, this remains the spot where your craft beer doesn't come with an aftertaste of judgment.
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