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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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Cigar City And Bern’s Steak House Join To Make Legacy [Tampa Brewery Builds On Its Successes]

Posted Feb 16, 2013 by Jeff Houck

Updated Feb 16, 2013 at 12:33 PM

Bern's Steak House / Cigar City Brewery Legacy Tasting

It was a small moment with huge resonance. A meeting of old brand and new.

Inside the empty kitchen at Bern’s Steak House on a Wednesday afternoon before dinner service, owner David Laxer sipped a snifter with the new Legacy beer brewed for the restaurant by Cigar City Brewing.

Brewery vice president Justin Clark was there, as was head brewer Wayne Wambles. Kevin Pelley, wine director at Bern’s Fine Wines, cradled a glass of the new English barley wine. Director of spirits Dean Hurst did the same.

It was Hurst who suggested that Cigar City take a whiskey barrel belonging to Bern’s and “play with it” to see what kind of beer could be made using it. Four Roses had used the barrel to make a private label whiskey for Bern’s. Now the barrel’s flavoring could be used to brew. If all went well, perhaps a small-batch private label beer could be served at the steak house and at sister restaurant SideBern’s.

Bern's Steak House / Cigar City Brewery Legacy Tasting

As Wambles poured samples into glasses on the kitchen’s stainless steel countertop, he noted the beer’s flavors – warm notes of caramel, chocolate – as well as the nearly 13 percent alcohol content. The beer could be paired as a sipping beverage with dessert in the Harry Waugh Dessert Room.

The project produced only 16 cases. At Laxer’s urging, bottles of Legacy will be poured only at the two restaurants. But partnering with Bern’s, one of the nation’s most highly regarded steakhouses, is another landmark moment for Cigar City.

In February 2009, I talked with Wambles and founder Joey Redner in the warehouse at the newly formed Cigar City to talk about how in only their first year of existence, the brewery won a gold medal at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival in Denver for its cedar-aged India Pale Ale.

Cigar City Brewing

Back then, they were distributing only in kegs. A pile of bottling equipment sat in the corner waiting for assembly—or at least waiting for money to pay for the assembly. Redner, son of Tampa businessman Joe Redner, worked for Dunedin Brewery and Shelton Brothers distributors before opening Cigar City Brewing in 2008. His father’s money got the project off the ground, but the gold medal and the incredible beers Wambles was producing with Tampa-themed names were what turned the corner for them.

The progression came quickly. First, Cigar City showed up in such places as Total Wine & More and Rolling Oats Market in St. Petersburg. Then, as the craft beer trend went mainstream, Publix came calling.

“Enough people went to Publix asking for our products, and they got tired of special-ordering it,” Clark says. “That was an amazing step for us.”

Eventually, the brewery expanded to include a tasting room for fans to gather. It became a mecca of sorts, especially when the Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout was released each year. I noticed the tremor in the beer world when friends in Miami and Jacksonville would message me on Twitter to say they were driving to Tampa for the release. The style became so popular, bottles started being limited per customer. (The fourth annual Hunahpu’s Day is March 9 this year.)

Other signs of Cigar City’s impact beyond Tampa came in more subtle ways. Like the night I had dinner at The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park two years ago, and the bartenders there did everything but genuflect when I mentioned I was from Tampa.

The Ravenous Pig

“Cigar City,” one of them said with a wide grin. “We love Cigar City with a hot, burning passion.”

Last summer, right before the Republican National Convention, Cigar City opened a pub inside Airside C at Tampa International Airport, becoming the first in the country to make beer on location at an airport. Friends flying through for the convention raved to me when they got home about the beer they enjoyed.

Tampa International Airport local food

In November when Whole Foods opened in Carrollwood, one of the towering displays near the deli included a small fortress of Veuve Cliquot Champagne. Ten feet away, a mini-castle of Cigar City stood in cans, another important step. Cans are lighter. Cans cost less than bottles. Cans don’t break. Cans appeal to more than just craft beer nerds. (You can see the designs of all of Cigar City’s six cans by clicking here.)

Whole Foods Carrollwood

In a few weeks, the brewery moves into uncharted territory again with the opening of a brewpub on North Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood. It’s one thing to run a tasting room for devotees. Doing a restaurant for the general public adds a new level of complexity.

Cigar City Brew Pub

“Joey’s always wanted to have a chef-driven concept,” Clark said. “We’re going to carry some of the ones we make at the production facility, but we’ll brew beers that will be unique to that location and tailored to the menu. It’s something that couldn’t happen at the production facility.”

Earlier this month, rated Cigar City at No. 4 in their list of the Top 100 Brewers in the world.

Cigar City Brewing - RateBeer

Not bad company to keep.

And now, for a limited time, there is the Legacy label at Bern’s and SideBern’s. I think founder Bern Laxer, who had a long history of boosting all sorts of local businesses through the restaurant, would have gotten a kick out of the local beer upstart being served at the steakhouse with the world-class wine collection.

Bern's / Cigar City

The label on the back of the Legacy beer bottle sets the tone.

“The legacy of a place is its ability to maintain a standard of excellence over a tried and true length of time,” it reads, alluding to the steakhouse.

Cigar City is building its own legacy for Tampa. One sip at a time.

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