There’s something about this archipelago of more than 1,700 islands that calls to drifters and dreamers. Perhaps it’s the fact that it feels more culturally akin to Cuba than to continental North America. The pace of life is unhurried, the communities close-knit and supportive.
Whatever it is, it motivated industrialist Henry Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railway from Miami to Key West in 1912, laying much of the groundwork for the 180-kilometre section of U.S. Route 1 that connects the islands today. It also inspired Ernest Hemingway’s pen and Jimmy Buffett’s six-string. And it lured Burlington, Ont., native Craig McBay away from a decade-plus career in fire protection in West Palm Beach to Islamorada, where four years ago he established the Florida Keys Brewing Company a few kilometres down the highway from the Marker 88 restaurant.
“I love the small community,” he says. We’re standing outside the brewery’s old tasting room on a palm-lined street in the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District. A VW van equipped with beer taps and airbrushed with a scene of hibiscus blossoms and surfing marine wildlife is parked across the street. At the end of the block, a cover band’s rendition of The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” wafts out of McBay’s newly opened beer garden, a sun-dappled hideaway where children play giant Jenga as their parents sip pints at brightly painted picnic tables.
McBay fell into brewing via a homebrew kit, a wedding gift from his mother-in-law, and found that he had a knack for it. At the time, no one was making beer in the Upper Keys, so he and his wife Cheryl — a self-described mermaid who’s largely responsible for the brewery’s flower-power aesthetic — seized their opportunity to bottle the island lifestyle. Their beers incorporate local ingredients and have cheeky names like Smelly Butt (a pineapple IPA) and Iguana Bait (a honey hibiscus Kölsch and the company’s top seller).
McBay always envisioned keeping the business local, but after Hurricane Irma caused widespread destruction throughout the Keys in September 2017, he began searching for new markets for his product. His Spearfish Amber, Sunsessional IPA and Iguana Bait are now available up the east coast of Florida, but the heart and soul of the operation remains in Islamorada.
“Every drop of our liquid is made in the Keys,” he says proudly.