LAKELAND - Florida's young but fast-growing craft beer scene is about to get an accelerant.
Construction is underway on the 50,000-square-foot Brew Hub on South Frontage Road.
The St. Louis-based company plans to offer a model similar to contract-brewing, in which growing breweries use manufacturing capacity at another company to meet demand. The concept allows craft brewers to grow steadily without incurring the debt that comes with building new facilities.
The plan is to build Brew Hubs across the United States that will provide brewing operations along with a new twist: marketing, sales and distribution consultation in a partnership with craft labels. Brew Hub aims to reach 70 percent of the U.S. population by building six regional operations.
Craft brewers, defined generally as small, independent companies that produce fewer than 6 million barrels of beer annually, supply 6.7 percent of the domestic market. Brew Hub CEO Timothy Schoen said the goal is to tap into a growing beer trend that is projected to reach 15 percent of U.S. beer drinkers within the next few years.
"To get to that critical mass, the current craft infrastructure can't handle that," Schoen said. "It's called leverage and scale. They have little and none."
Craft beer producers also struggle with quality control as they brew in larger batches and their equipment is pushed to the brink of its capacity.
"The challenges become exponential, and that's really where we come in," Schoen said.
Lakeland was chosen as the launching spot after the company surveyed 40 sites during the past two years. Access to a major highway was key, as was water, and large populations within 400 miles. Lakeland was within a 100-mile radius of 8.5 million people.
Realizing that craft brewers come in different sizes, Brew Hub plans to target three segments: large breweries that produce 70,000 barrels and above, mid-size brewers making between 20,000 and 70,000 barrels, and small-batch operators who make fewer than 20,000 barrels. Brew Hub is starting with a 75,000-barrel capacity, as well as a 100-barrel brew house and an eight-barrel pilot brewery where small-run products and barrel aging can be done. If the company decides to expand, the Lakeland plant would have a 180,000-barrel maximum.
Schoen says Brew Hub has signed six clients to the first runs at the Lakeland brewery. He declined to give their names.
"The smaller guys who can barely get out of their ZIP code need all of our services, and even some of our liquid development and sales, to expand their footprint and go into new geographies within their own state and into other states," he said.
Schoen knows the area well. His first job out of college was working for Anheuser-Busch in Tampa.
"Who was my running mate back then?" he asked. "None other than (Tampa beverage distributor) Tommy Pepin."
Schoen spent three decades in the beer industry with Anheuser-Busch, managing products such as Bud Dry, Bud Ice, Red Wolf, Michelob Ultra and Michelob AmberBock. When he left the company following Anheuser-Busch's merger with Belgian-Brazilian beverage and brewing company InBev, he was global vice president of the company's sports and entertainment division.
Joining him in the Brew Hub management is chief brewer Paul Farnsworth, who will oversee operation of the new facility, including a tasting room. Farnsworth is best known for owning Pedernales Brewing in Fredericksburg, Texas, and for being brewmaster at Nexus Brewing Company in Albuquerque, N.M.
For a fast-growing brand like Cigar City Brewery, the Brew Hub is an attractive facility for keeping pace with customer demand. Vice President Justin Clark says the company will reach fermentation capacity by the end of the year, tapping out at about 60,000 barrels annually.
For Cigar City, a decision is fast approaching: Spend millions building a new facility or borrow capacity from another brewery?
"If Brew Hub was open and ready to brew now, we'd probably be making some beer there," Clark said.
Proximity is a huge issue, he said. Contract brew with a company on the other side of the country and the beer's quality might suffer. The expense of shipping thousands of barrels of liquid also adds up.
That's why brands such as Sierra Nevada Brewing, Oskar Blues and New Belgium Brewing have opened facilities on the East Coast.
"Brew Hub will be 25 exits up from us on I-4," Clark said. "They're in our area. We could literally go brew at their facility and it still would be beer from Cigar City Brewery."
The brewery has struggled to meet demand for its Jai Alai IPA as the brand has moved into grocery stores such as Publix and Whole Foods.
"You've seen our struggles with being out of stock," he said. "They're going to have all this built-in capacity already. If you start too small, you're going to be catching your tail forever and not be able to gain any traction."