Plenty has been written about the uniquely supportive way Tampa Bay’s craft beer community banded together during the Covid-19 pandemic – and now, with the very beginnings of the return of normal life taking root, those breweries continue to prove the strength of those relationships.
When the idea for a brewery-vs.-brewery cook-off occurred to BarrieHaus Beer Company director of sales and relationships Junbae Lee, it did not come fully formed. There was originally a thought to go with a fully sanctioned competition, but the timeline would not work out – so Lee began reaching out to friends at other breweries, seeing who wanted to get involved and in what capacity.
The result, eventually, was a five-way brewery matchup featuring Tampa Bay Brewing Company, Zydeco Brew Werks, Coppertail Brewing Company, and host BarrieHaus — all based in Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighborhood — and Leaven Brewing out of Riverview.
“It was a collaboration effort for everyone to come together and do this. There was no argument about what site it was going to be on or who was making the money off of it or whatever,” says Lee. “Everyone came together to do this, all of the photo shoots, all of the video shoots, and all of them posted and did a marketing push on their own feeds. And that’s huge, because it’s deterring people from going to their brewery. They’re bringing everyone here.”
The main competition focused on pork butt, also known as pork shoulder. Heights Meat Market in the Tampa Heights neighborhood of Tampa sponsored the cook-off and provided the pork butts for the blind-taste voting, creating a level playing field and getting yet another local business involved with the event.
In a tightly contested vote, with the results announced by Tampa Bay radio personality Johnny B. of 102.5 The Bone, the outsider Leaven Brewing was named the inaugural winner – by a single vote over host BarrieHaus. Cory Ferguson used a homemade barbecue sauce on Leaven’s pork butt, and stayed awake all night to maintain its cooking temperature.
“My mindset coming in was definitely just being happy to be a part of this and to get to know all the people at all these different breweries,” Ferguson said. “My goal was just to not come in last place, and I guess I did the opposite. I’m very happy with that. It’s awesome.”
Coppertail finished in third place, while Tampa Bay Brewing Company and Zydeco tied for fourth. The placing from first to the tie for fourth was separated by fewer than five votes.
For finishing in first place, Leaven won the inaugural trophy, an oversized mounted ring, which will stay at the brewery as a showpiece, plus a wrestling-style championship belt that will serve as a traveling trophy for future competitions.
“Originally, I just wanted to try to create the most obnoxious trophy I could get. But then I found out it’s not that easy to get the customized figurine for the top,” says Lee. “So, as I was searching for barbeque trophies, this WWE-style belt showed up and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ And then I saw the three-pound ring and I was like, ‘Yeah, that one, too.’ I went a little overboard with it all, but it definitely was worth it.”
Admission to the cook-off included all-you-can-eat wristbands, two drink tickets and a voting token. BarrieHaus had its entire tap list available, while each other competitor brought along one beer for tasting. Tampa-based musician Kimi Tortuga provided live entertainment.
In addition to the competition pork butt, each brewery offered tasting plates of a second protein and side dishes. Leaven went less traditional with pastrami, topped by sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard, and sides of bacon jalapeno poppers and cream cheese jalapeno cornbread. Coppertail and Tampa Bay Brewing Company had a miniature secondary competition with brisket. Zydeco cooked salmon with stone-ground mustard, brown sugar and a mango chutney. And the hosts made pork belly, served as sliders on sweet Hawaiian rolls with pickled red onion and cilantro, and a side of collard greens.
The event was heavily promoted on social media, with a photo shoot at BarrieHaus for the digital and printed flyers and a Heights Meat Market video shoot when some of the competitors went to pick up their pork butts. Production assistance was provided by Onward Productions, a side project of Coppertail communications specialist James Kovacs.
“Obviously, it has been really nice to have this event and to be somewhat back to normal, to be able to hug friends for the first time in a long time and to be – hopefully mostly safely – back in our element,” says Kovacs. “It was a little bit like herding cats, but once we had everyone together it was really fun because we got to do some really silly stuff. We all love each other, of course, but we also love talking smack. It has been really nice to return to something somewhat normal.”
The event drew more than 70 attendees, a number which impressed Lee but one he also hopes to grow in coming years.
“It was super unknown, going into it. If we would’ve gotten 10 people to come we probably would’ve been excited – and it probably would’ve just been all of our friends,” says Lee, laughing. “There was no expectation, just, ‘let’s have fun with it and see what happens.’
“We probably will be looking at doing it a weekend earlier or later, not to drop it on the holiday itself. A lot of people are out of town. Everything is opening up so people are wanting to go somewhere, they’re wanting to travel.”
At the end of the event – which was not the end of the day, as BarrieHaus hosted a Tampa Bay Lightning playoffs watch party after the barbeque competition – Lee, like Kovacs, was just happy to have been able to participate in an event that brought the community closer and that resembled something close to a return to normal life.
“It’s one of those things that is fun to do because it brings all of us together. Honestly, we don’t get to see each other a lot because we’re each in our own brewing world,” says Lee. “It takes a lot to run these production sites. Production life for breweries is around-the-clock because you cannot run out of beer. This is kind of a nice break for everybody.”