Sunshine and world class theme parks; the irresistible combination that makes Orlando, Florida one of the most visited cities in the US. But scratch beneath the surface of “The City Beautiful” and you’ll unearth a lesser known aspect of central Florida in its thriving craft beer scene.

In recent years there has been a notable rise in the number of breweries and brewpubs opening up across the state, and the city has established itself as something of a hotbed for beer connoisseurs.

Craft beer

Noun – A beer with a distinctive flavour, produced in small batches in a particular region. With so many great bars and breweries spread throughout Orlando, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to sampling the city’s best brews.

John Cheek is the proud owner and president of one such company; Orlando Brewing. Florida’s only certified organic brewery delights beer enthusiasts all year round with its mix of permanent and seasonal craft beers, all of which adhere to the age old German Purity Law: A beer may contain only water, hops and malted barley.

We spoke to John to find out more about Orlando Brewing and his passion for all things craft beer.

Tell us a little bit about Orlando Brewing.

Orlando Brewing is the only certified organic brewery in Florida and also the only organic brewery in the southeast (south of Vermont and east of Colorado). Orlando Brewing was also the first brewery to have its products labelled ‘Fresh From Florida’.

We brew beers under the German Purity Law of 1516 (Reinheitsgebot) which states beer may contain only water, hops & malted barley. Beers made with additional organic ingredients are made under the Orlando Brewing Violator Series (i.e. violation of the Reinheitsgebot, German Purity Law).

Orlando Brewing ran out of money in September 2004 and I took over in October 2004. I enlisted Ed Canty, founder of the Florida Brewers Guild, as our professional brewer, as well as Gene Lohri and Stan Richards to set up and plan the move into our current space which took 15 months.

We now have a Taproom with 21 of our beers, with live bands playing every Friday and Saturday night.

So how did you get into brewing in the first place?

I started home brewing in 1987. In May 1989 I founded the Central Florida Homebrewer Club and in 1994 when I stepped down as President, we had over 500 members. 

In the late 1990s, I purchased the old Winter Park Brewery equipment from the Mill Bakery, Eatery & Brewery.  The equipment was in storage for a number of years when one of the members of the Homebrew Club, using my equipment, started Orlando Brewing Partners. In 2004, my partner ran out of money and in order to regain possession of my equipment, I was required to pay the back utilities and rent. Once the bills were paid, I realised I had a functioning brewery and no debt.

On April 7 2006, Orlando Brewing reopened at our current location. So to answer the questions of how I got into brewing, I would say ‘by accident’.

How many varieties of beer do you produce on site and what does the process involve?

We brew seven organic beers (Blonde Ale, Pale Ale, Red Ale, O-Town Brown Ale, Olde Pelican English Pale Ale, Blackwater Dry Porter and I-4 India Pale Ale) year round for our distributors and we brew four organic beers (Steamee Summer, Oktoberfest, Grateful Pumpkin & Grapefruit Pale Ale) seasonally for distribution. We’ve also brewed two organic ‘Babes Brews’ (Chocolate Mint Girl Stout & Nilla Nut Kolsch) which are only made by the women of the brewery.

We also make organic beers that are just on sale at the brewery, which include Poppin Pilz, Pompous Ass India Pale Ale, Dobel Imperial India Pale Ale, Eminent Domain Scottish Ale and BVC India Pale Ale.

As for the process, it’s fairly simple; we make a batch and if it sells extremely well then we continue to make it. Sometimes, we just stumble upon a beer like the organic Lagerhead India Pale Lager. The Brewery Operations Manager, my daughter Megan, was at the beach drinking a commercial India Pale Lager and liked the taste but knew we could make it better.

The Orlando craft beer scene has been thriving in recent years, what do you think has led to this growth?

When Orlando Brewing opened in 2006, it became the sixth brewery in Florida. There were about 30 brewpubs which sold their beer only on the premises. Needless to say, Florida as a whole was a beer wasteland. Today, there are over 30 breweries and 40 brewpubs. 

Since breweries can sell off-premises for consumption or distribution, beer began to filter out into the public houses and as more beer became available, people began to see and buy craft beer. Remember people come to Orlando from all over the world. When travelling, the number one phrase has become “What local beer do you have on draft?” Restaurants and hotels are realising that local sells, and sells very well.

The approach Orlando Brewing takes is “Educating the public one pint at a time”. As people become more educated about choices, the craft beer scene will continue to thrive in Orlando.

So where should people go to sample Orlando’s best craft beers?

My favourite places to sample craft beer other than the Taproom at the brewery, would be any of the Rosen Hotel Properties or one of the semi-annual Florida Brewer’s Guild Festivals held at different locations around Florida. I also enjoy getting together with our distributors to sample the new beers coming into the state.

And which of the Orlando Brewing beers ranks as your favourite?

First off, I must say “My name is John and I am a hophead”. My go-to beers are the Organic Olde Pelican English Pale Ale and the Organic Pompous Ass India Pale Ale. American hops can also be a little harsh whereas English hops can be rather smooth. I like the smoothness of English hops so a nice pale ale or Indian pale ale is perfect.

For lagers, my favourite is our Organic Steamee Summer. This beer is a lager but fermented at ale temperatures, so the beer is still somewhat smooth as a lager should be but with more of the fruity esters of an ale. The Steamee Summer is usually available from June 21st until we run out.

So what does the future hold for Orlando Brewing and the wider craft beer scene in the city?

When we look at the future of Orlando Brewing, slow and steady wins the race. We have expanded and will continue to expand our distribution network in Florida. Because we are a certified organic brewery, we have a very special product and as people begin to taste the difference in the ingredients, they will ask for Orlando Brewing beers. 

As for Orlando, I know of four projects in Central Florida involving new breweries so the beer scene should improve significantly. There are currently two breweries in Central Florida, so adding four more in the next six months will put Orlando down as a beer destination.

Orlando is the most competitive beer market in the world. Every brewery in the world knows 60 million people visit ‘The City Beautiful’ every year. No one can lose market share and not get management scrutiny. Being a small brewery in Orlando is like being the little kid in a crowded room of adults; easy to miss. One redeeming feature is “Everyone comes to Orlando eventually” and we look forward to them visiting.

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