Historically in Florida, a big storm meant thunder, lightning, wind, and rain. Today it means something totally different – it means award-winning craft beer. After its founding in 2012, Big Storm Brewing Company quickly expanded into one of the country’s fastest-growing independent craft breweries. With three taprooms, distribution as far north as New Jersey, and 20 different brews made each year, Big Storm draws heavily on local ingredients like citrus and wildflower honey to create unique beers that highlight the classic, Gulf-Coast Florida lifestyle. We were lucky enough to sit down with a few friends at Big Storm to talk about beer, expansion, and the newest facet of their business, ice cream!
Big Storm Brewery Pinellas Tap Room
In this interview, you’ll hear from Shannon Brooks, National Director of Sales and Marketing, Ciara Sibbick, Director of Marketing, and Katrina Jones, Retail Sales Manager.
Tell us a bit about you. What’s your background, how’d you get into Big Storm Brewing Co.?
Shannon – My background is in sales leadership, typically as the head of the sales team, but for the last 15 years, I’ve worked with nonprofits for fundraisers, helping schools or youth organizations raise money. Eventually, I started my own non-profit, but I’ve always been in sales, talking to people and working with larger organizations. My wife has been in the hospitality industry for a while and I found that interesting, so I thought, what better hospitality industry to get into than beer? So here I am with beer!
What was the first beer you drank?
Shannon – The first beer I ever had I think was a Budweiser.
I swore to Shannon that we wouldn’t disclose WHEN he had his first beer, just what it was. We can all agree that it’s a great start – Budweiser was my first beer too!
Ciara – I’m pretty sure mine was Pabst.
Kat – Does Smirnoff count as beer? I know its malt but that was mine.
What’s your favorite Big Storm Brewing Co. Beer?
Shannon and Kat both agree that BroMosa is the best.
Shannon – 100% BroMosa. BroMosa is a tangerine IPA. It started this summer as a one-off, and because of its popularity, we decided to make it a core beer. I believe it is going to just blow up throughout the entire state of Florida and beyond, so I’m really excited about BroMosa. It’s always in my fridge. It’s very, very good.
Ciara – Honestly, BroMosa is close for me, but my favorite is Tropic Pressure. It was one of the first beers I had here, and I’ve loved it from the beginning. It’s still my go-to, and it’s what I always have in my fridge.
What is Big Storm Brewing Co.’s best-selling beer?
Shannon – We have an overall battle between all of our beer, but the number one selling beer in the state of Florida (not just at Big Storm Brewing Co.) is Wavemaker. Tropic Pressure is coming up right behind it, it might nip it this year because it’s our number one selling beer in the Orlando region, but for now, it’s definitely Wavemaker.
You guys have won a lot of awards; what would you say is your proudest for the brewery?
Shannon – In 2016, our Oktoberfest won the award of best beer in Florida. And that wasn’t just for Oktoberfest, it was actually the best overall craft beer that year in the entire state, so that’s something we’re all extremely proud of.
Image from Big Storm Brewing on Instagram.
What are some of the biggest differences in the way you run the taproom vs the way you run sales?
Shannon – The taproom is all about the guest experience, so everything we do is centered around that. We want to make sure that they have an experience that they go home and share with other people. We have great beer, great food, great people, and I wouldn’t say it’s that much different when we attack the market for our distribution sales. When our beer goes in somewhere, whether it’s Publix or a restaurant or a bar, we want them to understand that we have great beer, great people, and we have a great track record. So, it’s not that far apart between what we’re trying to do in the taproom and out in the market.
What role has technology played in your expansive growth?
Shannon – Today, technology is data at your fingertips. With Lilypad, for example, our sales teams have instantaneous accountability to their retailers. They can see when an account runs out of beer or is getting close, look at past orders, see how frequently they order, and even track when we need to be there next. We can also see trends with the different beers we offer and with our sales numbers, and we can track when sales are expected, or which beers work during different parts of the year. I’d say it’s more data-driven than technology-driven, but there’s just so much data that we can collect in such a quick timeframe, whereas in the past, we weren’t able to do that. It used to be a lot more work, but now you can look at it all with just a simple graph.
What do you think are some of the most important things that led Big Storm to where it is now?
Shannon – It’s the quality of our beer. One of the things we regularly hear in our taproom, out in the market, even out of state, is how good our beer is. I mean no matter what, no one can take that away from us. We have a high-quality liquid and we stand behind it. We’re really confident when we talk about our beer. We’re also extremely lucky to have our head brewer who’s probably one of the most talented in the entire southeast.
So, obviously you have a strong partnership with the Tampa Bay Lightning now. How important have local relationships been for you?
Shannon – They’re essential. You have to take care of your backyard, so both our team and our overall company have made a concerted effort to be involved in the grassroots parts of our community. We try to be involved in as many different projects as we can, and we make a lot of charitable donations. Whether it’s a golf tournament or fundraiser, we’re involved with our local sports teams like the Rowdies and the Threshers. I mean, we have to understand where home is, and we do everything we can to be a part of the community. We’re not just a beer company here, but we live in the same communities that we serve, so that’s the way we look at it.
Ciara – Their success is our success too. Anything we can do to partner and get people to try our beer or go to a Rowdies game and try our beer at the stadium, is beneficial for both of us.
Big Storm is something that resonates well with Floridians, we’re used to hurricanes, but I saw recently that you guys started distributing in Ohio and NJ and are starting to break into the Northeast. What has it been like to break out of Florida, and what were some of the challenges you faced with expansion?
Shannon – The most exciting thing for all of us is how well-received our beer has been out of state. The response to our beer in Cincinnati has been amazing; the response in New Jersey has been amazing. North Carolina loves the beer; our sales have been doing fantastic, and we’ve only been in each of those three states for just over a month. Their excitement to get beer from Florida and to get a beer that tastes as good as ours has been the most fun part of expanding into those other states.
Ciara – The social side has also been really fun. We get comments all the time like, “When will you be in my state?” or “Oh my mom lives in Ohio, I’m going to tell her to go get Wavemaker.” And when people ask when we’re moving into a specific area, and we can tell them it’s only a few weeks away, they get very excited. People are really invested in our beer, so that’s cool to see.
What are some differences you’ve noticed in the way you market to different regions?
Ciara – I think people get the Big Storm name just as well up north as they do here in Florida. It’s more about bringing the Florida lifestyle to those states and giving them a little taste of the Gulf-Coast lifestyle. They look at Florida and think about big storms because they see hurricanes on TV, but they also see a premier vacation spot. Having our beer gives them the chance to close their eyes and picture they’re sipping Tropic Pressure on the beach in Florida – a unique experience for people up north. We still use grassroots marketing and social media to see what’s resonating, but it’s more about using that engagement to enhance the experience.
So, let’s talk about one of my favorite parts of Big Storm Brewing Co. – the ice cream! What was the inspiration behind that? How did ice cream get started?
Shannon – Ownership really had a passion for ice cream, and because they had a passion for beer as well, they thought, why not put beer and ice cream together? While it doesn’t sound like it would make sense, the creations we’ve made make a lot of sense. You have to try the beer shake; it just works!
We just started construction on our brand-new kitchen for the taproom this week, so we’ll have a full-kitchen soon, and then the stand-alone coffee and ice cream shop will open in about 4-6 months. We’re just now in the design stages, so once we’re able to get through all the design approvals, we’ll get started on construction. The kitchen will replace our existing food truck, and we’re doing a full-blown expansion out front to increase our entire consumption space, so stay tuned on that! We’re going to have a lot of fun stuff happening soon.
What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
Ciara – I like the Tropic Pressure, of course.
Kat – My favorite is the Almond Joy. It uses the Merchant Porter, a beer we have exclusively at the taproom, and I put in coconut flakes and chocolate-covered almonds. It’s so good.
Shannon – My daughter’s favorite is the superman. I don’t really do ice cream, but she loves that.
What do you guys think is next for the craft industry? Obviously, this summer was the summer of seltzer and a lot of craft brands jumped in on that, what do you see as the next big trend?
LJ (Special celebrity appearance from Big Storm Brewery co-founder, LJ!) – I think the trend that’s being a bit forced now is lagers and lighter low ABV beers, but I’m not sure that’ll stick. A lot of people started drinking craft beer in the beginning because they wanted full-bodied, full-flavored products. I think the next trend that will have a meaningful impact on sales will be getting back to basics. The x, y, z additive beer is really funky and fun and maybe a great dessert beer, but we’re going back to more traditional beers where there’s nowhere to hide. That’s how we’re going to recapture the growth that [craft] may be losing and then expand the market again.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Tampa Bay?
Unanimously – Drink beer!
Shannon – that’s really my favorite thing to do across the country, is drink beer. We have some of the best beer here in Florida, so when in Rome, visit breweries and drink beer!
We absolutely loved our time at Big Storm Brewing Co. and can’t wait to go back for beer (and ice cream) flights soon! Their award-winning beer is surpassed only by the friendliness of their staff, and we’re proud to have partners like them in Tampa Bay. So, the next time you’re at your local grocery store, grab a Wavemaker, throw on some shades, and pretend you’re at the beach – even if you’re in the middle of Ohio. Better yet, visit one of their three taprooms! Be sure to also follow our friends at Big Storm on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.