Republished from Boating Magazine.
Because everything’s better by boat, Boating constantly engages the world by water. We’ve fished, skiied, tubed, boarded and surfed. We’ve raced, run whitewater, rescued, and embarked on adventures to Communist countries. We’ve gone to rock concerts and pro sports games by boat, and we’ve rafted up in party coves.
But this time, we’re here for the beer. More precisely, the microbeer: the crafty, flavorful alternative to the mass-produced product proffered by the international brewing industry. In the last 20 years, microbreweries seem to have popped up on every street corner in America. I can walk to three of them from my home office. But brew-hopping, we figured, would be better in a boat. An opportunity materialized on the new Afina 3950, moored in Jacksonville, Florida, on the St. Johns River right down from the River City Brewing Company. As we still say in Wisconsin, let’s go for the gusto!
The Afina 3950 turned out to be an ideal craft for this outing because its glassed-in salon kept us out of the rain during a typical summer-evening Florida shower, and because it came with a designated captain. (We run on a zero-tolerance policy at Boating.) It would be hard to pick a greater city for boating than Jacksonville, which flanks the mighty and north-flowing St. Johns River near where its mouth dumps into the more-mighty Atlantic and offers further opportunity for general plunking around in numerous coves and small tributaries to the main river.
Operation Dry Water: If the helm is your responsibility, stay sober. It’s that simple. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, alcohol use is the leading known contributing factor in recreational-boater deaths. Consider the consequences suffered by Orange County, Florida, resident Mark Watts, whose 2006 BUI accident killed a 20-year-old woman on Lake Irma and sent him to prison for six years. “What I’ve gone through couldn’t compare to parents losing a child,” Watts states in a public service video produced for Operation Dry Water, a year-round boating-under-the-influence awareness and enforcement campaign of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. “You don’t want to be me. Take the time to think about consuming alcohol and operating a boat.” Check out the powerful video and the website at operationdrywater.org.
Jacksonville is also a beer town, home to a 1-million-square-foot Anheuser-Busch Inbev SA suds factory that daily cranks out 235 truckloads — or reportedly 9 million barrels annually — of Budweiser and other maxi-brews. Now, I’m from Milwaukee, so I ought to know that the Bud factory is not what we were looking for. We found the good stuff on downtown Jacksonville’s Southbank at River City Brewing Company, where the Afina snugged up to the bulkhead with ease thanks to its Mercury Axius Joystick Piloting controls. We were welcomed by the River City staff, including 76-year-old brewmaster Bob Grandstaff.
River City claims to be the oldest microbrewery in the Jacksonville area, having tapped its first barrel in 1993. Grandstaff has been on duty since 2003. He once worked across the river at the Budweiser factory, where he was a quality-control manager and learned the craft, albeit on a much larger scale.
“This is a lot more fun than the large brewery,” Grandstaff says. “I get to be more creative, and I enjoy dealing directly with our customers.”
Grandstaff supervises the production of 200 barrels of beer annually, which puts the operation on the small end of the microbrew scale. The industry defines a microbrewery as one producing less than 15,000 barrels a year. That’s still a lot of beer, but considering the Jacksonville AB plant produces about 25,000 barrels a day, you gain perspective. Grandstaff told me that when he started at River City, there were four beer recipes produced year-round, plus an occasional seasonal beer. The bar now has eight recipes and seven taps, and he produces more seasonal varieties. One of his latest creations is Kentucky Bourbon Ale, which is aged with pieces of oak soaked in bourbon and, at 14 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), has a real kick. The signature River City brew is Red Rooster, one of the brewery’s original beers, which is created with four select German malts and toasted wheat. The result is a dark beer with a nice balance of bitter and sweet.