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Untapped: Sean Nordquist and the Florida Brewers Guild

Craft beer is a booming business in Florida, mostly made up of small businesses owned by locals. And while our local brewers are a friendly and collaborative bunch, the industry itself is fiercely competitive, with pressure from “Big Beer” corporations such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, not to mention strict regulations controlling how breweries make, sell, and distribute their product. What the brewers of Florida need is a voice--and that is the Florida Brewers Guild.

As Executive Director of the Florida Brewers Guild, Sean Nordquist holds the megaphone for that voice, making sure legislators hear it loud and clear. We met at Hawthorne Bottle Shoppe recently to talk about his new role and the future of the craft beer industry in Florida. For the record, he ordered J. Wakefield Brewing’s “Frank White,” an IPA with pineapples. Sean appreciates the skill and artistry represented in craft brewing, but his favorite style continues to be hoppy APAs and IPAs.

Sean is a professional writer, educator, and a craft beer fan. Interestingly, it was his writing, not his brewing skills, that started Sean’s career in the brewing industry. “I never actually worked in the brewing industry,” he said. He’d contacted Brian Yaeger after reading his book, Red, White, & Brew. “Brian and I went to high school together in Los Angeles, but we had not stayed in contact. I found out he wrote for Examiner.com in San Francisco. I submitted some writing samples to Examiner and I became the St. Petersburg Craft Beer Examiner.” This led to offers to write for several local print magazines, and then nationally.

Sean also had his own craft beer blog, Beer for the Daddy, which featured beer reviews. He started doing informal interviews with people in the Tampa Bay beer community. The first interview was a doozy: local brewing legend Joey Redner. Since then he’s also chatted with the likes of Paul Unwin of Cajun Cafe and Blaine Smith of Willards’ Tap House.

“During that time, I continued to meet people, learn the industry, and be as involved as I could. I was the only ‘non-three-tier’ person invited to start Tampa Bay Beer Week, and eventually was on the first board of directors,” remarked Sean.

Florida Brewers Guild Home Page

Now, Sean spearheads education and advocacy efforts on behalf of all our favorite local breweries. The official mission of the Florida Brewers Guild is, “To educate the public about the brewing industry in Florida; promote networking and educational opportunities between brewers, consumers, suppliers, and government regulatory agencies; and continually promote free market access of the Florida brewing industry to the public.”

“To me, this means a multi-pronged approach addressing all levels of the industry. But first and foremost it is to serve the breweries as advocates, advisors, and as a voice making sure that they can succeed in their business,” said Sean.

Beyond the close-knit craft beer community there is an awareness gap of the important role breweries play in local economies. Education and advocacy are critical to the Florida Brewers Guild mission, going beyond the choir to illustrate how local breweries impact all of Florida’s residents. “You have to help people understand why it should matter to them. How it affects them and their family or friends personally. One of the most effective tools these days is to talk about local jobs and money. Locally owned breweries employ local people who spend their money locally. They work with other local businesses, they pay local taxes, their families live and work in the community. Appealing to these issues is much more likely to be impactful than some feel-good speech about ‘fighting the man.’”

Damn the man. Save the beer.

So what is in store for the Florida craft brewing community? Sean was quick to point out the obvious challenge. “The independent brewing community as a whole - not just in Florida - is under constant assault from the multi-national corporate brewing behemoths. Some of it is overt: straight out acquisition of small independent breweries sends shockwaves through the community nearly every time it happens. Some of it is more insidious, using their massive purchasing power to simply lock up resources, or flood the market with advertising. Distributors are used in this, too. And the breweries have to walk a fine line between upsetting the people that get their beers to market and defending their business from questionable practices.”

Florida Brewers Guild is at the front of the battlefield on this issue, appealing directly to legislators to vote for pro-independent brewery bills and against those that may hurt local breweries. Education is important here, too, said Sean, and not just for the legislators. “Education is huge here as well; educating legislators as well as the public. Most lawmakers have a LOT more on their plate than beer laws. So if they do not already know and care about the independent brewers, they probably do not know what is going on. So we educate them. And at the same time, we inform the voting public what we are doing and why. If you get enough angry beer geeks calling and writing their representatives, there is no choice but to listen.”

But the outlook isn’t all grim. In fact, Sean believes there is plenty of room in Florida for more breweries, as long as they’re making good beer. “I don’t think there is a bubble waiting to burst here. I think new opportunities will arise as breweries take advantage of their strengths and their surroundings. Whether it is focusing on being hyper-local, or specializing in using regional ingredients, or even a specific style of beer, every brewery needs to decide who they want to be, and who they want to serve.  But as the craft industry continues to expand its popularity, there will be room for plenty more breweries making good beer.  And I think that is key: good beer. Consistently.”

When he’s not spearheading advocacy efforts on behalf of our favorite local craft breweries, you’ll probably find Sean with his family on the waters of Tampa Bay. He grew up in Los Angeles before moving to Florida, and the ocean is in his blood. It’s also in his professional background. “I taught marine science and did a lot of environmental outreach for a number of years. I currently sit on the board of directors for the Ocean Media Institute, a non-profit organization working to connect the ocean science world with the public through the use of documentary filmmaking, workshops, and storytelling.”

If you’d like to learn more about the Florida Brewers Guild, check out their website. And if you happen to see Sean at a local brewery, say hi. Maybe even raise your pint and thank him and Florida Brewers Guild for protecting the breweries that make Tampa Bay a beer drinker’s haven. Cheers, Sean!