Swamp Head Brewery

By Brendan Farrington

The Germans clearly didn’t envision the type of beer Swamp Head Brewery would be making when they enacted the Reinheitsgebot, the 1516 law that stated the only ingredients allowed in beer were barley, hops and water (no one was aware that yeast was a key ingredient).

Clearly the fast-growing Gainesville, Fla., brewery isn’t paying attention to the beer purity law. Unlike 16th century Bavarian brewers, Swamp Head is playing around with ingredients like Thai chili peppers, roasted coffee and honey.

The brewery is gaining attention in Florida and beyond—bottles of Saison du Swamp will be served at an upcoming New York City beer dinner being covered by national media ranging from Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine to The New York Times—but it’s taking a measured approach to its growth. The goal isn’t to build a market in New York, or even in neighboring Alabama and Georgia, it’s to be Florida’s beer.

The Focus is on Florida

“Buzz is always good,” said owner Luke Kemper. “We don’t have the capacity to come close to even servicing Florida right now, but more people knowing about it and talking about it helps everything. As far as leaving Florida, right now I don’t plan on it.”

Kemper looks at Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing as an inspiration. Despite clamoring for New Glarus outside The Badger State, particularly in Chicago, the brewery chooses to stay within its home state. And it’s still selling 100,000 barrels a year. Likewise, Swamp Head sees a business model where it can do well just being a Florida beer. Wisconsin has a population of under 6 million while Florida has 19 million residents and brings in another 75 million visitors each year.

Swamp Head opened in 2009, just as interest in craft beer around Florida began growing rapidly. In downtown Gainesville, a city that’s home to the University of Florida, a cluster of craft beer bars has opened and the hometown brew is prominently featured. There are about 250 tap handles serving Swamp Head in Gainesville and nearby Ocala, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a local favorite. The beer is also popular in Tallahassee, which is home to UF’s rival, Florida State University, and cities like Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. 

Inherently Floridian

Swamp Head has adopted the slogan “Inherently Floridian” and its beer names and logos are inspired by Florida’s heritage. Wild Night, their honey cream ale, isn’t some sort of ode to spring break, but rather shows two bees with mugs of beer under a starry north Florida night on the lable. For this beer, Swamp Head uses Tupelo honey, which is only commercially produced along northwest Florida rivers. The other four year-round beers are Big Nose IPA, Cottonmouth Belgian wheat, Stump Knocker American pale ale and Midnight Oil oatmeal coffee stout. Swamp Head also has seasonal and occasional beers, including Smoke Signal smoked porter and a 10-10-10 imperial IPA.

Ephemeral Series

Swamp Head started its Ephemeral (short-lived) Series to have fun with non-traditional ideas that would be impractical to brew in a 10-barrel batch. These beers are brewed on a pilot system that produces about 1/6 of a barrel (5.16 gallons). The idea isn’t to use the Ephemeral Series to test brews for mass production, but rather to try ideas in a way that doesn’t require a lot of resources. And who knows, if something is incredible, or if there’s a huge demand for a repeat, a bigger batch can be brewed. 

“To me, it’s somewhat of an R&D experiment; messing with that [system] and seeing what we can and can’t do,” Kemper said. “We have a couple of weird things that we’re trying to do that we haven’t heard of anyone else doing. It allows some creativity from the brewers.” 

One recent beer was called My Thai Pale Ale and used lemongrass, Thai chile peppers, ginger and kaffir lime. Once tapped, these special beers only last about an hour or two in the Wetlands tap room—not that they all make it there. If the experiment doesn’t work, the beer gets dumped.

Swamp Head’s Recent Expansion 

Until capacity grows, Swamp Head isn’t reaching places like Pensacola in the Florida panhandle or Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Not that there isn’t an interest, proven by the recent Twitter conversation between PensacolaBeer.com, Hopjacks Pizza Kitchen & Taproom and Swamp Head: 

@PensacolaBeer: “Patiently waiting for them to reach P-Cola,”

@HopJacks: “We have 230 #taps, between 3 Floridian locations, at your disposal.”

@SwampHead: “We’d love to see Swamp Head handles up there. Right now we just don’t have enough beer… “

That, however, is changing.

In 2010, its first full year in production, Swamp Head sold 700 barrels. Demand tripled in 2011, and this year it expects to sell 4,500 barrels. The brewery grew so quickly that it had to stop taking new accounts as it scrambled to fill orders from existing customers. Part of the problem will be solved with its recent expansion, which is doubling brewing capacity from 80 to 170 barrels.

“With those new tanks we’ve been ramping up production,” Kemper said. “We want to really be Florida’s brewery.

Brendan FarringtonBrendan Farrington has worked as a news reporter for 24 years and in his spare time runs the website FloridaBarTab.com, which explores the best and most interesting places to grab a beer or drink in Florida. He’s also building a following of like-minded bar enthusiasts on Facebook and Twitter.