14 AUG 2019: Who better to serve beer drinkers in the steamy Florida Keys a cold one than a guy from the Great White North who turned a love for suds, “as required by any good Canadian,” into a passion to elevate the Sunshine State’s craft beer scene “one beer at a time.”

Craig McBay, 41, who hangs onto his hoser roots from Burlington, Ontario, (look for the Canadian flag in the company logo), relocated to Florida’s southern island chain 13 years ago, and started the Florida Keys Brewing Co. (FKBC) with wife Cheryl in 2015 as a response to the devastating effect Hurricane Irma had on the area.

But it was also as a natural extension of a love of brewing that blossomed through the gift of a home brewing kit by his mother-in-law.

“She told me, ‘You like to drink beer!’” he laughs. “She didn’t know what she was starting.”

What she started was a “slowly growing empire” that evolved from a single apartment in Islamorada to a small brewery, adjacent drop-in tap/tasting room and beer garden that is open to the public, and even Flakeys, a two-bedroom apartment for rent above the tap room.

McBay’s beers are also served locally and in bars and restaurants steadily reaching up the east coast of Florida as the brewery’s volume increases.

“Florida has been behind the rest of the US (in craft brewing) and the Keys has been behind Florida,” says McBay. “But it’s growing.”

FKBC is one of three local breweries operating in the Keys, but none are like the McBays’ operation, which boasts colour and quirk commensurate with its “Conch Republic” home.

Start with the beers, with names like Stoned Iguana, Grapefruit to be Alive, and even Smelly Butt. There was She’s a Lass after an employee’s baby daughter, and some with a nod to the Canadian roots – Cold Front Ale and Green Card. “Every name has a story,” says McBay.

At the same time, FKBC is no typical pub or drinking establishment. Fueled by Cheryl, the “creative powerhouse,” the bar is made of lobster traps, there’s mermaid beer taps and a wall mosaic made of bottle caps that says I (heart) (beer glass). There are also board games and a TV with movies for patrons to enjoy and the outdoor beer garden has picnic tables and hula hoops and is the setting for fun events like tie dye parties – all of which foster a family atmosphere that, not surprisingly, suits the couple’s five-year-old twins. Meanwhile, Purr Monster, a cat with her own Instagram account, keeps an eye on any wayward iguanas and wondering chickens.

FKBC is also a solid corporate citizen, quick to promote neighbouring galleries, restaurants and businesses in the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District of Islamorada.

But despite the kooky beer names and vibrant Keys colour palette, the beer brewing is serious business, based entirely on “authenticity,” says McBay, whose base is three core beers and up to seven specialty beers. There are IPAs, reds, ambers, browns, blondes, stouts and wheat beers – usually about 20 brews on tap at any one time, though FKBC has stirred up around 70 over the years.

“It’s hard work,” McBay says, noting the 16-hour brewing cycles. “But,” he quickly adds with a twinkle, “what would you rather be doing than brewing beer in the Keys?”

For a guy from Burlington, absolutely nothing.

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Michael Baginski

Editor, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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