Swamp Head Brewery is poised for bull gator status

The Wetlands, the tasting room at Swamp head Brewery, is open seven days a week at 3147 SW 42nd Way off Southwest 40th Boulevard, about one mile north of Archer Road.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at 11:23 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at 11:23 a.m.

If you think beer and ice cream sounds terrible, think again.


The Wetlands at Swamp Head Brewery

Location: 3147 SW 42nd Way
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 1-9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Atmosphere: It's a brewery, and a small brewery at that
Service: Counter
Libations: Beer
Info: 352-505-3035 swamphead.com

It can work (and you don't have to consume a gallon of beer first).

That's right. There are people who pair beer with ice cream, and they do it well. Think dark chocolate ice cream with black, bitter beer named “Dark Water,” a brew just about the color of swamp water.

This is a dining column about a brewery, a place that doesn't serve food.

You can't get a sandwich or a steak at The Wetlands. Most of the time you can't get any “food” at all (although there are those who will argue that beer is a complete, nutritional substance).

The only thing you can get for sure at this place is beer, and that might take a while. Even finding a seat is questionable.

The Wetlands is a clever name for the tasting room at Swamp Head, Gainesville's craft brewery. It's housed — for now — in a small industrial park north of Archer Road and just east of Interstate 75. I say “for now” because the owners are close to breaking ground on a much larger brewery on Southwest 34th Street.

I have no idea what that new brewery may be like. I imagine it will be a couple of million dollars worth of gorgeous. But it will be close to impossible for it to carry the vibe of The Wetlands. The Wetlands is like a secret; it's a place only the cognoscenti know about.

It's a place for beer nerds. And the beer nerds gather here daily.

They arrive early and stay late. They stake out the few tables and stools as soon as the doors open at 4 p.m. (1 p.m. on weekends).

They're like jazz freaks at a Miles Davis show, like foodies at Eataly, like high-fashion models at a Fifth Avenue shoe sale.

They share something. You can tell Swamp Head is a special place for them. Lines may be long, but nobody cares. And it's obvious the people working here love what they do.

There is no other place quite like it in Gainesville. There are brew pubs. There are restaurants that brew beer to sell with their food, but Swamp Head is the only brewery. Its business model is beer by the keg, not by the glass. Someday, they hope to sell beer in cans, but that's in the future.

Swamp Head makes five brews regularly and others seasonally or as inspiration strikes. The five are a cream ale called Wild Night that is made with honey from Apalachicola; a Belgian Witbier called Cottonmouth, which is a cloudy concoction with a fruity aftertaste; a sharp, hop-centered pale ale named Stump Knocker; a dark, tasty, oatmeal stout called Midnight Oil that is brewed with locally roasted coffee; and an India Pale Ale called Big Nose IPA, which is all about hops.

These are beers for beer lovers. If your idea of a good brew is Bud Light, you probably won't like Swamp Head. If you try it at all, go for Wild Night. It's popular with the ladies.

You cannot buy these beers in your local liquor or grocery store — yet. So far, these brews are distributed only in kegs, meaning you can find Swamp Head only in bars and restaurants or at the brewery, where it costs $4 a pint, $6-$8 a quart or $18-$20 a gallon (bring your own jug). Thanks to Florida's peculiar liquor laws, you can't buy a half-gallon.

The truth is that I am not a true connoisseur of beer. I like it all right, but I'm not well educated on the subject; I'm more of a wine guy. That's why I asked some self-described “beer snobs” and “beer nerds,” to visit The Wetlands with me.

A lot of things impressed me. The beer was not the least among them. One special day featured a couple of fascinating, chocolate-infused brews, one dark and one light. They both were tasty, with a hint of chocolate, but to really make them special, just outside was a Sweet Dreams ice-cream truck featuring frozen concoctions created especially for the beers ($4 for a cone). The pairings were delightful.

I asked my companions why it has taken so long for Gainesville to have its own craft brewery, and they shrugged. Nobody had a definitive answer. So, I asked why Swamp Head seems to have succeeded. Here I got a more definitive answer: quality.

“I am impressed by the whole spectrum of beers,” said one of my guests, a guy who “collects” small-batch beers. “Most small breweries do one thing well, a stout or an IPA, for example. These guys do it all well… They don't make a bad beer.”

Just last week, Swamp Head took a gold medal in the World Beer Cup for one of its seasonal inspirations called Smoke Signal, a hoppy, dark Porter made with smoked brown malt. The contest, sometimes called the “Beer Olympics” featured 4,754 entries from 1,403 breweries in 58 countries.

These guys are for real.

If you hurry, you still might experience Swamp Head in its “baby gator” phase. Don't wait too long, though, because this place is poised for bull gator status.

David Carlson has been writing about food and wine for more than 20 years. Email him at dave@carlsonfamily.net. Dining is done anonymously and without advance notice. All meals are paid for by The Gainesville Sun.

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