Vacay.ca occasionally features content outside of Canada if the destination or article is of keen interest to our audience. In this case, Contributing Writer Paul Knowles profiles a Canadian who has turned a brewery into a destination in Florida.
The sun is shining, a musical duo billed as The Sunshine Band are on the brightly decorated open-air stage, you’re relaxing in beach chairs, there’s a light breeze caressing the palm trees, and there’s a glass of “Iguana Bait” beer in your hand.
You, my friend, are living the good life of the Florida Keys. More specifically, you’re joining knowledgeable locals and lucky visitors in the beer garden at the Florida Keys Brewing Company.
If you closely examine the logo of the Florida Keys Brewing Company — look past the palm tree and the hibiscus flowers — you will notice a unique little symbol wrapped around the map of the Keys. Yep — that’s half of a red Canadian maple leaf, paired with a conch shell. And that image encapsulates the story of this very successful Florida Keys enterprise.
Florida Keys Brewery co-owner and brewmaster Craig McBay was born and raised in Burlington, Ontario, where his parents still live. He met his wife, Cheryl, on a fishing trip in the Florida Keys. Cheryl is a “Conch” — the moniker proudly carried by anyone born in the Keys.
And thus, the logo — maple leaf married to conch.
When they married, there was no thought of opening a brewery. But Cheryl’s mother knew one thing about Canadians — they like beer. So she gave her son-in-law a home-brew kit as a gift. It was an inspired choice, leading to a hobby that turned into a passion that, today, has turned into one of the most successful — and community-minded –—businesses in Islamorada, a village in the central Florida Keys.
McBay attended high school in Burlington, and, in 2000, graduated from Seneca College in Toronto, majoring in fire protection. He found work with a company based in Florida, and decided, “I’ll just go down for a year and see if I like it.” During a fishing trip to the Keys, he ended up having a few drinks in an Islamorada bar called “Hog Heaven”. And there, he met his bride-to-be.
McBay admits that the majority of meetings at Hog Heaven probably don’t result in long-term relationships. And there was the added complication that Cheryl was leaving on a trip to Europe the next day.
But she came back, and McBay was waiting. They first lived in West Palm Beach, and that was their place of residence when McBay’s mother-in-law gave him the prescient gift. He took to home brewing like – well, like a Canadian to beer. At one point, he says, he had 400 bottles stored in their apartment.
Their stay on mainland Florida didn’t last long. Like most true Conchs, Cheryl McBay loves the Florida Keys, so the couple moved back. And they noticed that when they were in bars or restaurants, patrons were asking about local beers. There weren’t any.
A plan was born — thanks to Cheryl’s forward thinking. Inspired by his wife’s vision, McBay reached out to craft breweries, and they willingly let him hang out with them. “Craft brewers help each other,” he says. “We’re fighting the big guys.” He studied the business for two-and-a-half years, and then they opened the Florida Keys Brewing Company in 2015.
McBay admits that he and his wife did not see overnight success. “It was a slow start. Our bartenders were sleeping on the counter because there was no one here.”
They stuck with it through Hurricane Irma in 2017, which hit Islamorada hard, and the global pandemic. In 2018, shortly after Irma, they purchased a building near to the original location and created a tap room that could double as a set for a Grateful Dead concert. And outside is a spacious beer garden, with the stage where musicians perform. McBay sums it up: “We have something so special here, something you can’t get at any other place in town.”
He remembers that on the brewery’s opening night, they had “one beer on tap.” Today, there are 20 taps behind the bar, and, as brewmaster, he supervises production of “40 different beers a year.” Their products are distributed throughout the Keys, so you can order their beer in bars and restaurants from Key Largo to Key West. But you’ll probably enjoy it best at the source — the beer garden and tap room are the ideal setting for relaxation.
The McBays have found a way to combine solid business practices with a great deal of fun and a commitment to community. The fun is reflected in the décor — wild, bright spaces; in the music in the beer garden; in the wildly colourful shirts, hats, and sundry swag for sale in the tap room; in the branding of the beers; and in the social media presence, which makes it clear that there is a party going on, and it’s at the Florida Keys Brewery.
And the party is fuelled by beers bearing Keys-friendly names like Iguana Bait and its more powerful cousin, the Stoned Iguana. There’s Sun Session IPA, Alligator Light House Lager, and Smuggler’s Moon.
Keys performer David Feder, known locally as a “hillbilly flamenco” star, said the McBays’ commitment to the local music scene goes way beyond providing gigs in their patio. Feder runs fundraising festivals that have supplied hundreds of instruments to local kids, and have provided scholarships to budding musicians. Florida Keys Brewing Company has donated the beer for these free concerts and the sale of those beverages provides most of the money that is raised.
Craig McBay is typically modest when asked about such a donation. It’s just a way of thanking the community that has supported them from the beginning, he says. And his community involvement doesn’t stop there – he is the President of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, and is planning a trip to Washington to lobby for important Keys causes.
He’s happiest, though, at home in Islamorada with Cheryl and their twins, making great beer (he admits he samples his product, in moderation, every day), providing work to musicians and the brewery’s staff of 24, and welcoming happy, relaxed patrons — who soon become friends.
And about that logo — both McBays have a tattoo of the maple leaf/conch icon. It’s a perfect symbol of a life partnership that has led to one of the Florida Keys’ happiest places.
MORE ABOUT FLORIDA KEYS BREWING COMPANY
Florida Keys Brewing Company: Floridakeysbrewingco.com
Florida Keys: Fla-keys.com/
Florida Tourism: VisitFlorida.Com
Phone: Call 1888-735-2872 to speak with an information specialist.