ICYMI: Craft Brewing Business turned 10 this year, and we are celebrating our 10th anniversary with craft breweries that also launched in 2013. In Cheers to 10 Years, we’ll learn how these brewing businesses have made it work for a decade, and how they plan to keep it going. Cheers to 10 Years!
Fort Myers Brewing Co. was the first microbrewery to open in Florida’s Lee County back in 2013, just before the craft beer movement went into hyper drive. And “micro” is definitely the right word. Founded by husband-and-wife duo Rob and Jen Whyte, Fort Myers Brewing started selling a few brews from a 400 sq ft taproom with a max production capacity of 300 barrels of beer a year.
“After we moved to Fort Myers, we found that there wasn’t a brewery in our area. So, we decided to open our own,” says Rob, who had spent 20+ years in software development to that point. But his beer-making background precedes any career aspirations. “My brewing experience started in 1990-’91 timeframe when me and my friends figured out that we could buy supplies at the homebrew shop to make our own beer… without having to be 21.”
Rob did gain pro experience (when he was old enough) at a brewery in Southern California for a few years in the mid 2000s before moving to Florida.
To embark on their new mission, Rob built their first brew system by hand and developed a brewing software while Jen focused on establishing the business.
“We were new to town when we started our brewery and hoped that the business would help us make a few new friends,” Jen says. “We never dreamed that Fort Myers Brewing would be what it is today, and it’s all thanks to Southwest Florida embracing us all those years ago.”
Fort Myers’ four-day 10th Anniversary Party at the end of February featured more than 50 rotating specialty craft brews, food trucks and live music.
“We never expected such a great response from the community,” Rob concurs. As we learned in our chat, community is a big part of the Fort Myers story to this point, and where it plans to go from here.
Fort Myers today …
Fort Myers Brewing is one of the larger craft brewers in Florida now, with a 22,000-sq-ft operation, running a four-vessel, 30-bbl system that churns out 15,000 bbls of beer annually for the taproom and distribution (poured at 1,600 locations).
The brewery has also made a name for itself in the local business community and in the broader craft beer landscape:
- Fort Myers has won multiple prestigious awards, including a gold at the 2022 World Beer Cup, golds at the Best Florida Beer Competition and Great American Beer Festival, and Grand National Champion at the 2021 and 2022 U.S. Open Hard Seltzer Championships.
- Fort Myers Brewing was also named “Best Large Brewery in Florida” in 2016 and received the Business Resiliency and Innovation of the Year Award at the Lee County Economic Development Office, Horizon Council and Horizon Foundation’s 2021 Industry Appreciation Awards.
What’s changed over the last 10 years?
“There has been explosive growth in the craft beer scene in Southwest Florida since we opened our doors,” Rob notes. “There weren’t any other breweries in Fort Myers when we opened, and now locals have an abundance of really great craft beer options across the region.”
Being the first craft beer maker in a region, in 2013, meant bringing locals along slowly, with the right kind of product offering.
“Since locals were new to craft beer when we launched, we chose to develop our beer menu slowly over time,” Rob says. “We started with Gateway Blonde – a light blonde ale – and gradually introducing heftier brews, like our popular High 5 IPA, along with a signature lineup of ales, lagers, stouts and other out-of-the-box flavors.”
Years later, Fort Myers expanded its menu, right along with many of its craft beer brethren, with hard seltzers. Fort Myers’ Spyk’d Hard Seltzer line was once again a regional first.
Key turning point?
Rob points to the moment he officially went all in and officially left his day job to focus on beer.
“Looking back, I probably should have done it out of the gate instead of just brewing on weekends and opening our taproom only two days a week. We oddly thought closing at 6 p.m. was a good idea.”
Fort Myers now operates seven days a week with an entire team of more than 20 brewers and bartenders.
How are you prepping for the next 10 years?
“We have plans for a major expansion,” Rob tells us. “We have purchased a large plot of land that backs up to our current facility, and the plans include a large music venue with a large grass area for listening and drinking.”
Beyond their personal accomplishment of running and growing their beer business, Rob and Jen quickly point to the “community of partners” Fort Myers has built along the way, including food trucks and musicians, yoga instructors and other small vendors spanning coffee, popcorn, jewelry and more.
“Our greatest point of pride in our 10 years of business has been creating a fun place for beer enthusiasts, families and friends (and pets) to be together, and we’re looking forward to bringing an enhanced experience for our loyal customers and visitors to the region while expanding manufacturing and packaging operations – and continuing to brew great beer.
“We’ve been proud to grow alongside our craft beer community and help put our community on the map as a craft brewing destination.”
Cheers to 10 years! If your brewery is turning 10 and wants to cheers, drop me a line at [email protected]. Tell me your story …
• What’s changed over the last 10 years?
• Key turning points or decisions to note?
• Are you making any changes to prep for the next 10?
Here are some more Cheers to 10 Years features: