Hundreds of anxious beer enthusiasts huddled closely together in line outside of the CenturyLink Sports Complex this past Saturday. Icy winds whipping their faces, patrons of the 11th Annual Miracle Ballpark Festival of Beers excitedly poured onto the softball field, tasting glasses in hand, ready to sample over 80 types of national and local brews.
“I came here to quench my thirst and seek adventure,” said Danilo Capric, 22-year-old Florida Gulf Coast University alumni. “This is just going to be a good time shared with great people.”
Among the various beer tables lined closely along the fenced-in field, local-craft beers were the obvious favorite of the evening, yet their livelihood rests in the hands of a courtroom.
The Florida Retail Federation is suing the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, with support by the associations that represent Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors distributors, asking to clarify the law that allows craft breweries to sell their products in tasting rooms.
Of the 50 breweries showcasing their signature beers, Fort Myers Brewing Company was a clear favorite, with lines stretching far into the middle of the field. Fred Malone of the Fort Myers Brewing Company swiftly poured one sample after another into four-ounce commemorative glasses for thirsty beer drinkers. “We participated last year, [which was] our first year as an open brewery, so we wanted to continue to have that presence in the community,” he said.
Organizers of the festival approached Fort Myers Brewing Co. to return again since they are so closely tied to the community. The brewery is also partnering up with Miracle stadium to have their beer on tap during sporting events.
Florida breweries operate under a tourism exception that allows them to sell their beers in tasting rooms, which Anheuser-Busch most notably utilized in order to sell their beers at Busch Gardens theme park during the company’s ownership.
“Just because microbreweries or craft breweries don’t have merry-go-rounds or roller coasters on site does not mean that we do not support the tourism industry,” Malone said.
Gateway Gold, a pale honey-blonde ale, was requested for sampling over the other two offerings at their table, and was considered to be one of the best beers of the evening among the thirsty crowd.
“Finding new and unique beers is the reason I am here,” said Neil Curiel, 29-year-old Sales and Marketing Manager at the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau. He heard about the Ballpark Festival of Beers on a Facebook group called the SWFL Hop Heads. “Point Ybel is my favorite brewery in town. Old Soul and Point Ybel are both great venues for craft beers.”
Once the licensing laws for tasting rooms are clarified, and if permission for the breweries to sell their products on site is removed, most small breweries could be forced to shut down completely.
Jason Van Marter, Regional Sales Manager at Fat Point Brewing in Punta Gorda, believes that no matter that the ruling is, their business will push forward and evolve with whatever changes come their way, making sure to keep having fun in the process.
“I do feel that to take away licenses from over 100 craft breweries in Florida would be a major detriment to local economies and jobs,” Van Marter said about the suit. “Despite the politics of the lawsuit and everything that goes along with it, the economic impact would be something that cannot be ignored. “
Fat Point was the only vendor to have a tent adorned with a giant company logo, making their presence stand out against the rest of the plain, white tables stacked along the fences. Van Marter explained that at this point, they have their event preparations, “down to a science.”
From double checking the amount of beer they will bring to a festival with distributors, to arriving at the event’s location two hours before any event begins, Fat Point is ready to serve their cold brews as soon as people arrive. Ballpark Festival of Beer goers seemed to favor Fat Point’s Big Boca Common Ale over the other offerings at their tent.
Dozens of starry-eyed visitors of the festival adorned themselves with homemade necklaces of pretzels strung on neon-green ribbon and were entertained by locally infamous cover band Soapy Tuna. “You guys just cannot lose your [local] beers,” said Natalie Schmidt, 32-year-old snow bird from New Jersey. “It’s one of the things that makes this area cool again.”
For everyone’s dining pleasure, edibles from Stevie Tomato’s, Lobster Lady Seafood Market and Bistro, Papa Murphy’s Pizza and The Poutine Queen were on site to ensure that beer drinkers did not go hungry.
Supporters of local-craft beers need not wait much longer for another sampling to be held at the CenturyLink Sports Complex. The summer Ballpark Festival of Beers it set to be held on August 15th and will feature a Miracle game and a fireworks display to accompany the beer tasting.
“It is hard to measure how [the event] may have increased any sales or interest, but I am pretty confident that people who tried our beer will look for it now when they are out and about in town,” said Van Marter.