This Islamorada brewery has an interesting challenge six months after Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys — even though they didn’t have damage.
I’m waiting for Craig McBay to meet me at Florida Keys Brewing Company.
I give my name to the brewer behind the bar and a man at a barstool, down from Miami for a job interview, asks why I want to see the owner. I explain I’m with a alt weekly newspaper and I’m writing a follow-up on the state of the Keys’ economy and culture after Irma.
“With Hurricane Maria right after, and then everything else in the media, like school shootings, the Keys kind of got lost in the news cycle,” I say.
His face changes.
“I don’t think the school shootings kept the media from covering this,” he says.
“No, I didn’t mean that,” I explain. “I meant we have so much news to cover—”
He cuts me off.
“The media has an agenda.”
“The media has an agenda in not covering the effects of Hurricane Irma?”
“They all have agendas.”
“I’m part of the media — here to cover the the Keys six months after Irma — and I can assure you we don’t have any sort of agenda beyond the truth. I’m here, covering the after-effects of the hurricane,” I remind him.
“I still think you have an agenda,” he says.
My blood orange cider can’t come fast enough.
Fortunately, McBay finds his way to us before I can engage the Miami man in an intellectual debate about the non-existence of a journalistic agenda, and the night gets far more pleasant.
McBay and his wife Cheryl started Florida Keys Brewing Company in 2015, three years ago this Sunday — two-and-a-half-years before Irma swept across Islamorada. They opened the brewery — which uses key limes and local honey in its brews — in the burgeoning Morada Way’s Arts and Cultural District. It’s a refurbished bank of warehouses, at the end of which is a UPS depot. The road’s official name is Industrial Road; the District is in the process of changing it to something more representative of the artists who work there (think of it as the Warehouse Arts District, condensed to one street with more flora). The District — McBay is its leader — is working to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
While the District works on that, McBay works on his new tasting room at the corner of the Overseas Highway and Industrial Drive. Initially, the McBays had a more ambitious timeline for the new tasting room, but Irma “changed our timeline” he tells me.
He started construction on the new tasting room the week after Irma — the original location reopened as soon as they could access the business. He cites mangroves and fortune. Ten feet of mangrove reduces the surge by one foot, he tells us. They reopened to locals needing not only beer, but support from the community.
“The first few days after the storm, we were giving away beer,” he says. The beer stayed cold until Florida Keys Brewing Company got power back (he says it came back after five days), but tourists couldn’t access the Keys for two-three weeks.
“Everyone here relies on tourism,” he says. “Your locals can only do so much.”
Nevertheless, six months after Irma, “we’re still growing” he says. They brewed an Irma Belgian, made with rainwater from the storm. They’re getting ready for the Mar. 18 Islamorada Seafood and Art Festival. Work on the new tasting room continues.
The only hiccup? Contractors are in short supply. He doesn’t need storm repair and that’s what keeps most contractors going. His wife has created murals from bottlecaps from breweries from all over. The taps are ready.
All he needs is the work to come to completion, and there are only so many contractors to go around.
Down the street, Judy Hill, with the Islamorada Chamber, tells me the area is still down many hotel rooms (the Islander and Cheeca Lodge have yet to reopen).
“Some of our businesses did not make it. Our economy is a pendulum,” she says of the after-effects of Irma.
“The pendulum has swung.”
While working as the arts + entertainment editor for Creative Loafing Tampa, Cathy Salustri explored a post-Irma Florida Keys. Read the next in the series here, or, if you haven’t yet, go back and read part one here.