There’s something to be said about the power of a tall glass of beer. From the first time Luke Kemper took a swig of craft beer, he was hooked on the flavor and the possibilities of brewing his own. So when he wrapped up studying business and environmental science at the University of Colorado in 2005, he came back to settle in his hometown and bring the craft beer craze to Hogtown.
Kemper’s Swamp Head Brewery is the first brewery to set up operation in Gainesville. It sent out its first keg in 2009 and hasn’t stopped rolling out new beers since. What started as a two-man operation brewing a couple days a week has rocketed to a seven-person team with a brewing schedule that runs every day at their location north of Archer Road at 3140 SW 42nd Way.
The brewery stays busy with five year-round beers and more than 15 seasonal and limited-release varieties. No matter the style, brewers like to give each beer a hint of Floridian charm through a clever name or native ingredient. Beer drinkers have taken notice; you can find Swamp Head logos in bars and brewpubs from Tallahassee to Fort Myers.
One thing that hasn’t bent from the pressure of production is the creativity of the brews. Step up to the bar in the Wetlands tasting room and you can expect a range of flavors and styles that most breweries don’t reach for several years. Swamp Head has already veered from traditional styles with releases like a chipotle-infused pale ale, a Neapolitan beer that touts three layers of flavor and a farmhouse ale called Saison du Swamp.
The man behind the brews is head brewer Craig Birkmaier, a seasoned homebrewer who led Swamp Head to regional fame with an 11-medal sweep at the 2011 Best Florida Beer Championship, announced in Tampa last April, and national fame with a spot on Beer Advocate’s top beer lists.
Birkmaier knows his hops. He now oversees two other brewers as the team works to produce the beers that bring crowds to the brewery’s small warehouse near I-75. According to Birkmaier, finding success in brewing boils down to two main pieces: process and art.
“Part of being a good brewer is getting the process down and having control over all that stuff so you can repeat it again and again,” Birkmaier says. “Art is the recipe design and how you tweak things to make them taste good.”
Even after living in Boulder and Atlanta, Kemper always knew he’d end up back in Gainesville. With so much history here, he says, it just felt right. Propelled by his desire to bring craft beer to Florida after experiencing the thriving beer community in Colorado, Kemper met up with longtime family friend Birkmaier to talk business in 2008.
Birkmaier, whose first career was in TV production, started homebrewing in 2002 after traveling and developing a taste for the beers found throughout Europe and America. By the time he teamed up with Kemper, he was already recognized around Florida for his award-winning recipes.