May 3, 2012 at 10:35 AM ET
At Walt Disney World, a beer geek can get pretty thirsty. I came to that realization this past week when I was there with my family. We had no car and no easy way to get off of Disney property to check out the burgeoning craft beer scene in Orlando. We were trapped in the Disney bubble.
While it’s a bastion of family entertainment, the house of the mouse is a veritable desert when it comes to craft beer. There are many stands that sell beer throughout the Disney parks, but these are dominated by industrial light lagers. Sure, you can get Newcastle and cans of Guinness Draught in the England section of Epcot, but if you’re craving a hop bomb or a craft brew gushing with malty goodness, you’re out of luck. Well, almost out of luck.
There’s an oasis in the desert that is the Disney beer scene: Nestled in the bosom of Disney’s Boardwalk hotel is the Big River Brewing Company, an honest-to-goodness brew pub, complete with a 10-barrel brewing rig and, depending on the season, five or more very good craft beers on tap. The brew pub has been at the Boardwalk since 1997, when Disney approached Big River’s parent company, Gordon Biersch, about creating a brewery in the park.
I caught up with Kent Waugh, Big River’s brewer. He’s a one-man band at the restaurant, in charge of all of the brewing, equipment cleaning, and management. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love.
When I arrived, Kent was cooking a batch of Rocket Red, a red ale that won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011. The place smelled like heaven to my craft beer-starved senses.
Kent mills his own grains and brews all the beers on site, then transfers them to one of six fermentation tanks. Once fermentation is complete, Kent transfers the beers to tanks he calls “serving vessels” because the beer flows directly from them to the taps in the restaurant. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.
I sampled all the beers Big River had on tap, and they were all good – it was like a cool drink of water for a man dying of thirst.
I ordered a sampler, starting with Big River’s biggest seller, Southern Flyer Light Lager, a craftier version of what the big boys brew. It was refreshing and smooth, with a nice hint of caramel down the middle of the flavor. Next up was Gadzooks Pilsner, a crisp take on a Czech pilsner that had a very nice Saaz hop kick on the back end. That was followed by the award-winning Rocket Red Ale, a caramel treat chock full of crystal malts that are chased by a Cascade hop finish. I had no idea how much I was craving hops until I sipped it.
I didn’t have high hopes for the next beer in the sampler, the Magnolia Brown Ale, because I’m not a fan of brown ales, but this one won me over with its rich malt character and sweet finish. Maybe it was my craft beer withdrawal, but this is a beer I’d happily order again.
The final beer in the sampler was a seasonal offering, a Maibock with a huge and sweet malt body and a slightly boozy finish. It was wonderful, and I wound up ordering a full glass of the stuff, as did my wife.
The one beer I didn’t get to try that first go-round was Steamboat Pale Ale, which along with the Rocket Red is a favorite amongst beer geeks. Kent told me that they had lost the last batch, but a fresh tankful would be on tap the next day.
I stopped by to give it a whirl, and I wasn’t disappointed. It had a lush malt backbone that served as a springboard for a heady kick of citrus and pine hops. This was the exact flavor I had been missing in Disney, and my spine tingled with pleasure as I quickly drank it down.
We had dinner at Big River on a Thursday night, and the restaurant was packed. We came back again the next night; me for the beer, and my wife for the food, which she declared to be the best she’d had at Disney. It’s mostly simple bar fare, but after eating very average meals at very expensive prices in the parks, it was nice to have a well-made, affordable meal.
If you’re a beer geek headed to Disney World, you have to put Big River Brewing Company on your list of destinations. Kent is there on weekdays from the time the place opens until late afternoon, and loves to sit down and talk beer. Be sure to ask him about his brewery days out in Colorado in the mid-90s; he was in the center of a pretty amazing scene.
And wait a few days into your trip before checking the place out – you’ll want to give your thirst for good beer the chance to build up a bit. When it comes to craft brews, absence makes the heart grow fonder!
UPDATE: Gerard from Road Trips for Beer just clued me in to an iPhone app called Beers and Ears which shows where you can find great craft beers hidden away at various restaurants and bars within the Disney bubble. I wish I had this when I was down there, especially considering that it's free. If you have an iPhone and plans to visit Disney, you should definitely check it out. Happy hunting!
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