Photography by Dan Austin
A look into Lakeland’s growing beer scene through the lens of a good ol’ fashioned pub crawl
As I wait for my Uber, let’s take a moment to relish Lakeland’s food and drink scene compared to just five years ago. It’s impossible to overlook the sheer number of local proprietors operating in the Swan City, taking pride in a community that has come alive in what feels like the blink of an eye. Dining and celebrating in Lakeland no longer necessitates a trip to Applebees, or Chili’s, or some other unimaginative chain restaurant serving bland chips and salsa with (two-for-one) Bud Light Limes.
Yes, Lakeland. What a time to be alive.
Three-and-a-half minutes after pressing “Confirm Uber,” a smiling Francisco arrives at my house in a white Toyota Corolla. We’re immediately best friends. Francisco politely declines to join our pub crawl and expertly handles the 2.73-mile trek to Swan Brewing. Don’t drink and drive, kids. Francisco will Uber you around for next to nothing.
Without further adieu, you are cordially invited to join in our revelry as we hit some of Lakeland’s hottest spots, enjoy some beer, and celebrate a Thursday we will never forget.
Here at Swan Brewing, I’ll be enjoying a beer with co-founders Dan Thumberg and Christian Hood at their family-friendly spot on Lake Wire. Swan’s unique location, local brews, and massive outdoor tent space offer a perfect spot to spend an afternoon or evening. A rotating array of food trucks serves hungry beer drinkers, with the highly lauded Salt & Fire Food Lab truck here often. For the uninitiated, try Salt & Fire’s shrimp and chorizo burrito; if you don’t like it, probably reconsider all life choices up to that point.
Swan Brewing has 30 taps running, though not all are Swan brews. If anything, there might be too many options to choose from. I settle on the Cliff Claven, a hoppy red ale, and it’s delicious. Normally, I love sitting outside at Swan’s casual picnic tables under the tent. Today though, the temperature must be close to the same as the surface of the sun. We grab a table inside.
For a little background, Thumberg and Hood are a proud part of Lakeland’s renaissance of locally owned food and drink culture. Thumberg lived all around the country before moving to Lakeland, and Hood is originally from Tampa. Lakeland brought them together in 2014.
“I knew I wanted to open a brewery,” says Thumberg. “But this is a very capital-intensive business, and I needed to find partners. It was almost serendipitous; when I met Christian he had ideas about opening a craft-brewing business as well. He had a full business plan, and so did I. We met one day over beers, and as we compared our plans they were practically identical. We immediately started looking at places.”
One of the things they both agreed upon: they wanted to be in Lakeland. “The first place we looked at was this spot off Lake Beulah,” says Thumberg. “It was this old shack, about 3,000 square feet. It was super cheap but had a lot of issues, and way off the beaten path.” Thumberg laughs. “That didn’t work out.”
Not long after, along with their other partner, Ryan, Thumberg and Hood expanded their search. “We looked on the south side of town, all over midtown, looked at the old icehouse that’s now a bank. One day I went to pick up some mail, I looked across the street and I saw this empty building.”
Thumberg started digging through public records, reached out to the building owner, and made his pitch. “I reached out to him on LinkedIn, told him I wanted to build a brewery, and he got back to me within 30 seconds.”
Thirty days later, due diligence began. “I’d been to over 100 breweries, and not just in Florida. It was tough doing the R&D,” laughs Hood. “I went as far as California to see what they were doing there, up to Asheville, trying to schedule time with brewery owners. I was asking them, ‘Out of all the things you’ve done, what would you do different, and why? I took notes. Brought it all back.”
A common theme in the answers — it’s very difficult to run the business side of a brewery, plus the actual brewing itself. As a result, Thumberg and Hood picked roles. Hood manages the brewing, while Thumberg runs the business. A little over a year later after launching, the compartmentalized model is working. Swan Brewing is thriving, relishing their unique contribution to the community.
“You know, I moved here in 2004,” says Hood. “There wasn’t a lot to do in Lakeland. Today we’re witnessing a transformation. Lakeland has all these great colleges: Polk State, Florida Southern, (Florida) Polytechnic which isn’t too far away. Back in the day, we had kids graduating from these good schools and moving away. Taking their money somewhere else. Now, we’re seeing the population get a little bit younger. These college graduates are making some money and staying in town. That encourages entrepreneurs like us to come into this market, into Lakeland, and stay.”
A few minutes and a lot of laughs later, unfortunately, it’s time to move on.
115 West Pine Street
Lakeland, FL 33815
Cob & Pen
It’s a whopping $5.75 for a Lyft ride from Swan to the next stop — Cob & Pen — just a mile or so down the road. Also, I miss Francisco. The back seat of this Lyft smells of goat cheese and cologne, and our driver never says hello. So, my $1 tip feels generous.
For those who’ve been in Lakeland for any period of time, since before the transformation, good luck walking into Cob & Pen without sporting a giant grin. Through a well-documented “Save the Tudor” movement five years ago, the former estate home that houses Cob & Pen was relocated from Lake Hollingsworth to its now Dixieland home. The gorgeous property was painstakingly preserved, with Lakeland’s beer drinkers as the beneficiary.
Even if you’re not into history, Cob & Pen dishes up an impressive craft-beer menu. A dizzying array of taps, cans, and bottles will satisfy even the most discerning beer drinker. I settle on a “Motueka” from Grove Roots and consider the sheer scope of Cob & Pen. In addition to the main dining area, there are cozy spots for a perfect date night, along with some great outdoor areas for a sizable party. We spent a little too much time at Swan, so this stop will have to be quick. I quickly devour my favorite item on the food menu — the Steak Frites — before finishing my Motueka.
On to the final location on our crawl.
For those interested in learning more about the history, check out “Up the Secret Staircase” at thelakelander.com.
COB & PEN
1221 South Florida Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33803
Lakeland’s Beer Rev + Brew Hub
After a 90-second Uber ride to Beer Rev, I’ve quickly got another pint of Grove Roots in my hand. This time I chose a “Honey on the Double,” one of my personal favorites. I’m here with Beer Rev Owner Mike Dodge, and Brew Hub’s Head Brewer and Director of Brewing Operations, Christopher Schoen. In this group, I’m feeling particularly nescient in my beer I.Q. Fortunately, the beer helps.
Dodge, a former schoolteacher turned entrepreneur, spent 11 years teaching before contemplating a career change. “I’d always wanted to own my own business,” says Dodge. “I had looked for a long time trying to find a business that I really enjoyed, that was in an up-and-coming industry.”
After a chance encounter with a pumpkin beer, Dodge was hooked. “I was a lot more of a wine drinker. I liked bold flavors. The beer industry never really gave me that until I had this one pumpkin beer,” laughs Dodge. “And that’s really what set me off. I would drink some Ambers every once in a while, but never really got into beer into I really found something off the wall. After that, I just fell in love with craft beer.”
Beer Rev, which is equal parts bar, restaurant, and package store, got its start at a small storefront off Lakeland Highlands but is now enjoying a prime location on South Florida Avenue, just south of Edgewood. Amongst other beers it serves from all over the world, Beer Rev carries several selections brewed just down the road at Brew Hub, where Schoen oversees a sizable Lakeland operation launched in October of 2014.
Schoen, who has been in the beer-brewing industry since he was 16 years old, brings a wealth of experience to Brew Hub Lakeland, having worked for seven different brewers all across the country. Even though Brew Hub does offer a retail tap room, its main purpose occupies a unique space in the Lakeland beer culture: brewing beer for 23 partner breweries, with over 100 different brands.
Schoen, like our guys at Swan, echoes the changing culture in Lakeland. “Since we’ve been here in 2014, Lakeland has not only taken to craft beer, but taken to more cultural sophistication in fine dining, music, all across the board. And ‘craft,’ that’s a loose definition. It’s kind of like calling something, ‘quality.’ Whenever you ask someone what they think is quality, their definition is going to vary drastically. Seventy-seven percent of Americans think Blue Moon is a craft beer. Sometimes, quality is in the eye of the beholder.”
Brew Hub’s Head Brewer and Director of Brewing Operations, Christopher Schoen
Schoen points to Lakeland’s long history with Bernie Little Distributors as part of Lakeland’s historic beer culture. “The beer scene was mainly driven by Bernie Little, which has at times been one of the largest distributorships in the country. A lot of the Lakeland beer scene has been very macro focused until the last five years. Since then, we’ve got a lot of breweries such as Beer Hub, Swan, Grove Roots — you know, local guys that kind of throw a wrench into the guy going to buy a 30-case of some macro-brew.”
Several selections from Beer Rev are brewed at local brewery, Brew Hub.
While Schoen says Lakeland probably isn’t a beer destination yet, pointing towards spots like Seminole Heights’ double-digit breweries within a five-mile radius, he’s encouraged by the city’s progress.
“The support of locals has been great. We’ve been very lucky to be where we are in Lakeland. Overall, the beer scene since 2014 has grown so much, up to where we are now. I can’t wait to see what else pops up. It’s going to be pretty fun.”
Speaking of fun – I’ve had plenty of it. I’m only half a mile from home. Maybe I’ll walk. After all these IPAs, I could use to burn a few calories.
Who am I kidding? It’s a million degrees outside. Francisco will take us home for the cost of one Cliff Clavin Red Ale.
Cheers, Lakeland. Let’s be safe out there.