Though I often think of the first time we met, the good robots of Facebook Memories reminded me this morning of exactly when it was with the following post.
Ten years ago.
I had no idea we were going to meet
that day, Jai Alai. My then-wife and my daughter – 5 years old at the time –
decided to spend the weekend in Central Florida, and they had some shopping to
do. We ended up at Waterford Lakes Town Center in East Orlando. While they
perused shoe stores and clothing shops on a beautiful spring morning, I scouted
out a place where we could have lunch.
Noticing a crew setting up something
in an area of the expansive parking lot, I wandered over to ask a worker what
was going on.
“We’re setting up a beer festival,”
My interest was piqued. It was called
the East Orlando Beer Festival. I found out the details and when it would
start. I called my wife and told her where we would meet for lunch. Once she
and my daughter arrived there, I had one question for her.
“How would y’all like to spend a few
more hours here shopping?”
No arms were twisted.
Let’s back up in my life a little.
We were living in Sarasota at the time, and though I had been “into” craft beer
for a while, it was far from a big part of my life. I had visited a few
breweries here and there and learned a bit about it, and leaned toward drinking
it when it was available. Some of the guys at work were far geekier about it,
and I learned a lot from them.
But my beverage of choice at the
time was, I believe, Corona Light. With a twist of lime, of course.
So the idea of trying a variety of
craft beers from around the country and a few from Florida certainly appealed
to me. And that’s what I did that afternoon.
But back to you, Jai Alai.
That beer geeks on my team at my day
job had mentioned the buzz they had been hearing about the new “Cigar City”
brewery in Tampa. Being a Tampa native, the name appealed to me. I was looking
forward to trying it out.
Little did I know that my chance would come that spring day
a decade ago, for as I turned down a row, there was table bearing a Cigar City
Brewing banner. I immediately made for it. Two dudes were behind the table
serving samples of two beers: Maduro Brown Ale and, of course, Jai Alai.
I tried the Maduro first. Loved it. And oh, Jai Alai, how I
wish I could say it was love at first sip. But it wasn’t. I wasn’t used to such
bitterness and floral flavors and citrus and caramel all at once. Don’t get me
wrong. I was intrigued. But not enamored.
As I wrote in a comment on that original post: “Many
microbrews,2-3 ozs. at a time. Impressed w/ offerings from new cigar city
brewery, esp. jai-alai IPA.”
It was more than your taste, though,
Jai Alai. I loved your name, described on your can as so: “The merry game of
jai alai provides inspiration.”
Though in my lifetime, I could count
on one hand the times I visited the Tampa Jai Alai Fronton to watch the players
whip that ball against the wall using the wicker cestas strapped to their arms,
it was not so with my father. He went pretty much every Friday night, and when
he hit a trifecta, he returned with a crisp $5 bill for each of us kids who
were still living at home at the time.
Back to the beer.
Needless to say, my palate soon
adjusted to the joy that is you, Jai Alai, and eventually I made it to that new
brewery in Tampa. Before long, you were being bottled and I started finding you
in the darndest places across the state.
Then in 2012 you made it into cans,
and I made it a point to swing by the brewery to grab a sixer of that first
run. I still have the (empty) cans on a shelf in my kitchen.
The O.G. Jai Alai cans. Photo by Gerard Walen
During this time, I started blogging
and writing about craft beer, and sometimes found myself attending various
festivals, conferences and events across the country. When someone asked where
I was from, I told them “Florida.”
Usually their next words were, “Ah,
Cigar City,” and often followed by “Jai Alai.”
Your reputation preceded you.
Over the years, for various reasons,
your recipe was tweaked, but under the guidance of Cigar City Brewmaster Wayne
Wambles, it would only be noticeable to the most refined of palates.
Your label changed, but it still paid
homage to “the merry game” and your roots.
On that panel was Cigar City Brewing
founder Joey Redner. At one point, someone asked him about expanding
distribution throughout the country. His response, to paraphrase, would be that
it’s difficult because first they would have to ensure that there would be representation
not just in specialty beer stores and such, but also on supermarket shelves in
order to make it worthwhile.
From left, Eric Criss, Joey Redner, Mark DeNote, Gerard Walen. Carol Dekkers, Photo
I then asked the audience – about 150
or so beer bloggers, writers, social media influencers and communicators from
across the country and around the world – this question:
“If you could go to your local
grocery store and buy Cigar City beer, would you?”
Everyone raised a hand.
Not long before that, Cigar City
became part of a new partnership with Oskar Blues Brewing – a consortium with a
few other breweries that became the Canarchy Craft Brewery Collective.
Soon, Cigar City’s offerings made their way to other states, led by you, Jai Alai. In October, it was announced that Jai Alai is “the third fastest growing top 50 craft brand in the U.S.” according to Brewbound.com.
You’re even in 12-packs!
I’m happy for your success, Jai Alai. But I hope you’ll
always remember our first meeting, 10 years ago today.
I’ll never forget.
P.S. Want to meet me outside on the patio?
Photo by Gerard Walen, BeerinFlorida.com
P.P.S. Any of you have Jai Alai stories you want to share?
You can add them in the comments.