Seven hundred and fifty bottles per minute shoot down a production line outside a large window in Julie Williams’s office. One thousand cases worth of beverages will expeditiously clink down the line during the hour we talk with chief operating officer Julie Williams and chief financial officer Stacey Oakley of The Florida Brewery. These two ladies are kind of a big deal. Together, they operate the largest women-run brewery in the United States.
A History of the Brewery
The Florida Brewery (TFB) was originally founded as Duncan Brewing Company by an Ohio brewmaster in 1973. Duncan chose Auburndale as the ideal spot for a brewing facility for its quality of water and community support. He railroaded a gargantuan copper kettle down from Dayton and began brewing in the outskirts of Auburndale. The brewery has changed hands several times throughout its history but has remained continuously operational.
In 1983 it was renamed The Florida Brewery. Also during the 80s, the Duncans released a line of craft beers along with brewing and packaging generic store brand beers for stores like Winn Dixie and Albertsons. Their own craft line didn’t take off. TFB’s Gator Lager gained some traction making it as far north as Michigan but did not last against other large beer distributors.
In 2009, Venezuelan industrial conglomerate Empresas Polar purchased the brewing company.
Today The Florida Brewery produces over 110,000 barrels of product per year. They distribute their craft beers from Miami to Orlando. TFB also produces Malta, a barley-based carbonated sweet beverage. “We are the largest co-packer for [malta] in the southeast,” said Oakley. They produce the sweet beverage for Publix, Goya, and Bacardi along with other private label brands. In addition to beer and malta, they produce nonalcoholic Ginger Beer and Blood Orange Ginger Beer for Powell & Mahoney, a company that distributes to Target and Starbucks. These products are also used in the mixed cocktails at Crave & Copper.
Polar is their biggest beer distributed internationally, shipping to over 20 countries and throughout the U.S.
On any given day, TFB produces between 8,000 and 13,000 cases of product.
The Grand Tour
Williams and Oakley gave us a tour of The Florida Brewery. We walked into the lab where they test PH, brix (the sweetness of the products), color, oxygen, CO2, bitterness, stability, and other aspects. “In here they are testing for all the parameters throughout the entire process – microbiological and physical-chemical,” explained Oakley.
We walked outside to a grouping of immense tanks. They explained that some were wastewater tanks. Currently, all of their wastewater is trucked to a farm, regulated by DEP, along with spent grain which goes to the cows. They are working with Cambrian to change that system to an Ecovault solution. That will allow the brewery to reuse part of the water for cleaning processes and the other part will be cleaned and go back to the city. “It will be a lot more efficient, and a lot more environmentally friendly,” said Oakley.
They have eleven tanks that are interchangeable as maturation and Brite beer tanks depending on need. These are controlled with jackets and ammonia temperature control. There are four cylindrical-conical tanks in which the beer starts before moving over to a maturation tank. Each tank holds between 650 to 700 barrels equaling about 8,000 cases of 12oz. beer.
Into the brewhouse, we went. “This is where the magic happens,” said Oakley. The barley comes by railcar from Canada. It is sucked up through hoses to the top of the building to be milled. She explained, “It goes from the mash ton which is used to convert the starches in crushed grains into sugars for fermentation. Then it moves to the lauter ton where the mash is separated into the clear liquid wort and the residual grain. Now the liquid is ready for the boil and goes to the kettle where eventually the hops are added. From there, the brew will ferment and mature and 18-21 days later, there will be finished product.” The brewhouse smelled like bread. This was because they were making lager, she said. An ale carries a fruitier aroma.
A large swing panel with valves and buttons and nozzles is where staff transfer the beer from tank to tank. We entered through a set of thick clear flaps into a chilled room. “A lady leads in beer,” said Oakley of their propagation/yeast cellar. “We call her our lady because she reproduces constantly.”
“We propagate all of our yeast. We’re using either the mother strand for Polar or using a basic yeast depending on which beer we’re doing whether it’s an ale or a lager. We take very small amounts of it and then we grow it. We grow it in the lab and then we eventually grow it in the yeast cellar,” she said. “It’s very cold in here because she’s temperamental – she has to stay at a certain temperature so that she continues to eat and reproduce. As soon as the yeast finished being propagated, then that’s what we will use to pitch into the beer.”
Next, we went to their filtration room. Oakley showed us a candle filter with cylindrical stainless steel tubes with holes in them. “We then use diatomaceous earth or volcanic earth and depending on the size, that’s how we’ll filter the beer. For a Pilsner or a lager, which is a very clean, filtered beer, we’ll use very small earth that pressurizes around these candles and then the liquid goes through the candles until all of that yeast or any of those particles are left behind and the clean beer goes through filtration.”
“Another thing we bring to the table being all women is that we are clean freaks,” she said as we walked through the facility. “That is the other comment from the majority of vendors who walk through is how clean the facility is at all times.”
The brewing company has a 40,000 square foot warehouse shipping between 8 and 10 truckloads a day.
Boss Beer Babes
Julie Williams was a CPA by trade with her own accounting outsourcing firm. In 2007, the owners of the brewery before Polar’s proprietorship became one of her clients. When Polar took ownership, they asked Williams to come aboard to run the brewery. She passed the accounting business to her husband and has overseen brewery operations since 2010. Williams was the first female plant manager Empresas Polar had ever hired.
Stacey Oakley comes from the finance side of the hospitality industry. She was the CFO for a Nantucket yacht club for six years. Looking to escape the frigid northeast winters, she and her husband, Matt Oakley moved to Auburndale, Florida where Stacey’s brother lived.
Oakley worked as a senior financial analyst for a resort outside of Disney. When a position came up with The Florida Brewery, she was interested. She met with Williams and remembers thinking, “I don’t care what I end up doing or what [the job] is, but I want to be there.” She and Williams clicked and have been successfully growing the brewery since. That was six years ago.
“We are now the largest women-run brewery in the U.S.,” according to Oakley. Shortly after taking ownership of the brewery, Polar gave the two women the opportunity to run it independently. Williams became the COO and Oakley took on the role of CFO.
Completing the female beer boss trifecta is their brewmaster, Daniella Velasquez. Velasquez is from Venezuela. She attended school at UCF and came to the brewery as an intern. “I’ve always known I wanted to be an engineer. I love processes,” she said. “I fell in love with brewing when I started working here.” Daniella started as a maintenance intern at the brewery. A couple of months in, the remodel of the brewhouse began and she was moved to quality.
“I went to the lab and I learned about the chemistry of the beer,” she said. “Making beer is a lot more complicated than people think and you have to be on time. Especially if you want to keep the quality and consistency of the beer.” She continued to learn more about the technical side of brewing and worked her way up to Lab Quality Manager.
In 2016, Williams and Oakley offered Velasquez the opportunity to travel to Germany for a year to be trained as a Certified Brewmaster. She accepted the offer without hesitation. The experience is one that sticks with her. “I not only learned about beer, which was the main part, I learned about other cultures and how the beer culture is different,” she said.
Velasquez returned to Florida as TFB’s assistant brewer, brimming with ideas on beers she thought their audience would love. “When you think about brewing, you have to brew something that you love, but you also have to think about the people that you’re brewing for,” she said. “I love brewing beer. That’s my passion.” Velasquez became The Florida Brewery’s brewmaster in 2018.
New Beginnings for the Brewing Company
When Empresas Polar allowed them to run The Florida Brewery independently two years ago, Williams and Oakley knew it needed a complete change. A brand remodel commenced with new logos, beer research and development, and strategy.
What better beer to debut their company facelift with than a vintage favorite, Gator Lager. The original formula wasn’t available, so they devised their own recipe. The 1980s Gator Lager had a phrase on the label: “A Taste of the Florida Lifestyle.” This embodied everything Williams and Oakley wanted TFB to be. “A Taste of the Florida Lifestyle” is now the company mantra and the essence of every beer they create. When creating a beer, they try to imagine where someone would be drinking their beer in Florida and what kind of memory they would be creating around it. Oakley likened it to a song. “Music always brings you to a place and time and our beer, we want to be the same,” she said.
Williams and Oakley, of course, wanted to continue to perfect and grow the manufacturing aspect of The Florida Brewery but wanted to draw people not only to their brands but to come together. Construction began to convert part of the facility into a public tasting room and hangout spot. “The main thing we wanted to do was provide a place for the community to come,” said Williams. Auburndale is a small, tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone, but it needed a central gathering space and The Florida Brewery was going to give them one. On January 19, 2019, The Florida Brewery opened its doors to the public with a Tasting Room, Public House, and Beer Garden. A few months ago they celebrated their one-year anniversary.
The public space was built around a house that sits in the middle of the facility. The house belonged to the Duncans who lived on the property. The following owners also occupied the house until Polar bought the brewery in 2009. “It was a normal, functioning house around this big plant,” said Williams.
“The Beer Garden used to be their backyard,” she added. The former owner’s grandkids would come and play out in the yard. The outside space was completely reimagined with a deck, painted lake backdrop, and a row of colorful Adirondack chairs. Cheery beachy-hue umbrellas cover a row of picnic tables and lush plant life brightens up the Beer Garden. “We wanted to take people out of being in industrial Auburndale to being in an oasis away from everything,” said Oakley.
Graffiti art murals are tagged across different surfaces. The brewery gave graffiti artist, Hiero Veiga, free reign to create with only one request – that he include a gator. He did, along with a polar bear in honor of Polar, and a detailed mural of Stacey Oakley’s hand pouring a beer from the tap.
A roomy wooden pole barn, “The Public House,” covers part of the exterior lounge area. An immense copper kettle overlooks the seating area as an art fixture. The kettle is the same one Duncan had railroaded down from Dayton, Ohio in the 1970s. It was still being used to brew at the facility as recently as 2013. The copper kettle is the inspiration behind the Crave & Copper by The Florida Brewery’s name and decor. The plan is to epoxy the top of the kettle to convert it to a functioning bar top.
The Tasting Room was constructed from the mother-in-law side of the original home. The space still feels a lot like a comfy living room. All of the rooms that were previously used as offices and before that, bedrooms and closets, have been turned into storage and retail space.
One feature you won’t see is the home’s inground pool. It remains but is inaccessible to the public. “We had the Duncan family here about six months ago and they told us all these stories about where they would unwrap Christmas presents and where they would hang out by the fireplace. They were so excited that we’re back open to the public because I think it’s something they dreamed of back in the 80s,” said Oakley.
The space has sayings and signs across the walls. “We didn’t realize we were making memories. We just knew we were having fun,” read one sign. That’s how they want patrons to feel, said Oakley. Another sign, appropriate for the female-operated brewery, hangs outside of the restrooms. “Men left. Women are always right.”
Let’s Talk Beer
The Tasting Room is purposely devoid of TVs. Williams and Oakley wanted it to be a place without modern distraction where people could connect. Oakley said they wanted the “Cheers” vibe, “Where everybody knows your name.”
The Tasting Room currently has twelve beers on tap with some beer staples and some rotating. A beer that remains a Tasting Room fixture, The Florida Brewery’s signature beer, Gator Lager is a traditional German pale lager. Their number one seller (depending on the day) is Beach Me Up, a light and refreshing beer with fruity grapefruit flavors.
Vying for the number one spot with Beach Me Up is 863 Light. This light beer was created for the many patrons who came in requesting Bud Light or a similar light beer – patrons who love the brewery atmosphere but aren’t interested in the more flavorful craft beers. Another request they’ve gotten is for lower-calorie ultra beer. Their ultra will be called Engine 421 after the fire engine that responded to the kitchen fire at Crave & Copper. “In honor of them, that will be a staple for us,” said Oakley.
Engine 421, along with an upgrade to 20 taps in the Tasting Room is slated to be ready by mid-March for the brewery’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration. The St. Patty’s Day celebration will be held on Saturday, March 14, with live music all day, green magical beer, a pot of gold beer, an all-day food truck, and Crave & Copper chef, Matt Oakley and his team will put together some festive bites.
If you’ve been ‘craving’ some C&C, you can catch them every Friday at The Florida Brewery until the restaurant, which is still in the rebuild phase, is back open. Following the Friday, December 13th fire that devastated the Crave & Copper kitchen, many providers and even customers reached out to offer help. One customer, the president of FreshPoint, donated food so that the C&C team could cook one Friday night. The staff prepared a small menu for donations on a Friday evening. The donations continued and they have been able to do it every Friday covering the cost of the food. “It was a nice act of kindness by our providers that has continued now every Friday,” said Oakley.
The Florida Brewery duo says there are a few trends on the upswing in the craft world. Though seltzers and nonalcoholic beers are on the rise, these are not something they plan to roll out for distribution. Valasquez sees a shift from hoppier beers towards more drinkable ones. “It’s not about a bitter beer with a bunch of hops, it’s about a balanced beer. I think the trend is going to be drinkable beers, more than, let’s call them … experimental beers,” she said.
“We’re a brewery that doesn’t necessarily follow the trends because we’re here for the long hall,” said Oakley. “We’ll continue with lagers, which is our main focus, but we will add some ales in.” Williams said, “We look at everything from drinkability. We want to make sure that everybody can come in and find something and drink more than one if that’s what they want.”
A Female Perspective
As women in a predominantly male industry, Oakley and Williams have a unique perspective on running a brewing company. First and foremost, their 48 employees, whom they call family, mean the most to them. Their employee retention speaks volumes for their dedication to being a family-first company. Their longest-running employee is the filler operator who has been at the brewery for 30 years, and a lab tech of over 20 years.
“I think we tend to have that ability to create a family and a place where people enjoy working. […] Where they feel like they’re not just an employee who comes in, runs their machine, and goes home,” said Williams. Oakley added that it is one thing to say they are a family-first company and another to understand that someone may need to stay home with a sick child or leave early for a doctor’s appointment or have to rush to a family emergency.
Five years ago, the brewery instituted a paid shutdown starting two days before Christmas eve through New Years Day for the entire staff. It is important to Williams and Oakley that every member of their TFB family has the opportunity to spend the holidays with their loved ones. They even take days off for company outings to go go-carting or bowling, have ‘Beer Fridays’, or play dominos together in the Beer Garden.
Two years ago, The Florida Brewery signed up to attend the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado. They signed up for the ‘Meet the Brewers’ section. “We were the only female booth there, out of 800 breweries,” said Oakley. It was a three-day festival with thousands of people sampling one-ounce pours of their beer. To best represent their “Taste of the Florida Lifestyle,” they brought Amber, Beach Me Up, and Gator Lager. On day three, TFB kicked their kegs before anyone else. They wore name badges that read, ‘I brew it all,’ ‘I run it all,’ and ‘I sell it all.’ Williams smiled saying they got quite the reaction and high-fives when attendees realized they weren’t just serving for the brewery – they were the brewery.
Even their approach to contract brewing has a feminine touch. The women say their level of trust, attention to detail, and even the office décor make all the difference when meeting with clients. They don’t look at their position as female brewery operators as a hindrance. They say it has been a help in everything from distribution to relationship building with clients. “It’s been a huge benefit for us,” said Oakley. “We bring a lot to the table when we come.”
Female brewmasters are also in the minority, but Valasquez said, “I like to be a female in a world of guys [...] It’s an open community.”
“Equality in this business, at least between brewmasters, is something normal,” she said. “I do exactly the same thing, I work as hard as them, and they understand that.”
The Florida Brewery
202 Gandy Rd, Auburndale, FL