By Bob Townsend
Wayne Wambles, Cigar City’s brewmaster of almost a decade and a native of Enterprise, Alabama. (Photo by Matthew Fuj Scher)
TAMPA, Florida — Ybor City was built by Cubans, and by their cigars. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants from Cuba hand-rolled millions of fine cigars that spread far and wide the distinctive reputation of their neighborhood of Tampa.
Today, thanks to Cigar City Brewing, beer has also become one of Tampa’s claims to fame.
Cigar City has become perhaps the most notable and innovative craft brewery in Florida. Its beers have strong links to the Cuban culture of Ybor City, expressed in creations such as the top-selling Jai Alai IPA, as well as Tampa-Style Lager, Florida Cracker White Ale, Maduro Brown Ale, and Invasion Pale Ale.
Among beer nerds, though, the limited edition release known as Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout is Cigar City’s greatest claim to fame. Once a year, on Hunahpu’s Day, beer collectors and traders crowd Cigar City, causing a commotion in their rush to take home bottles of the latest vintage of the strong, aromatic dark ale, aged on cacao nibs, Madagascar vanilla beans, ancho chiles, pasilla chiles, and cinnamon.
All this deliciousness comes from Wayne Wambles, Cigar City’s brewmaster of almost a decade and a native of Enterprise, Alabama.
I have known Wambles since I began writing about beer, when he was the head brewer for Buckhead Brewery & Grill in Atlanta. BB&G was a brewpub chain that originated in Tallahassee, Florida, and grew around metro Atlanta before changing concepts, and closing in 2005.
The day Wambles debuted one of the earliest iterations of Hunahpu’s at a cask-ale festival, I was there. The ale caused a stir that spawned a cult, as it influenced other brewers to copy the culinary bent of its Mayan, mole-sauce-like flavors. And to this day, Hunahpu’s maintains a perfect 100 score on the RateBeer website.
But for all his considerable skills and creativity, Wambles is equally interesting as a major figure in the growth and evolution that has taken place in the Southern beer scene since his first job as a brewer, at Poplar Head Mule Co. in Dothan, Alabama.
“I’ve been brewing commercially since 1996, so I’ve seen a lot of changes,” Wambles says, “especially when you think about all the things that have happened in Alabama and Georgia and Florida. When I first started homebrewing in 1993, it was illegal in the state of Alabama. But during that time, I was essentially learning what would be my future career — as an outlaw, if you will.”
If homebrewing was illegal, commercial brewing was barely legal in Alabama, and encumbered by an assortment of requirements and regulations.
“To open Poplar Head, the owner, who was an attorney, had to prove that beer had been brewed in that county prior to prohibition,” Wambles says. “The other thing was that the brewery had to be in an historic building. I actually don’t think anybody could have gotten all that done if they didn’t have some pull as a local attorney. But he was really fond of beer, so that didn’t hurt, either.”
After successive stints at brewpubs in Tallahassee and Atlanta, and a brief stint back in Dothan, Wambles moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he worked at Foothills Brewing.
“That was a combination of a brewpub and a packaging brewery, so they were sending beer out the door,” Wambles says. “I think I was only there for a total of 15 months. But while I was there, I found out about the Cigar City job, I sent my resume in, and I was hired as the brewer.”
In March 2008, Wambles joined Joey Redner, a Tampa native and Cigar City founder, and the duo began the difficult task of building a new brewery from the ground up.
“I had no idea at all when I first moved down there what was going to happen,” Wambles recalls. “We spent almost a year installing infrastructure and working on the building in order to get it ready to open the brewery. We brewed the first batch of beer in January of 2009. But one of the electrical inspectors came by and didn’t agree with the contractor’s work, so he shut off our power. [As a result], we had a 15-barrel batch of Maduro in the tank that probably had more conditioning time than any other beer we ever made in the history of Cigar City. To this day, I still think about it, because it was also one of the best batches of Maduro we ever made.”
That first year, Cigar City produced fewer than 1,000 barrels of beer. Last year, production exceeded 65,000 barrels, with a large portion of the brewing now being done at the Oskar Blues brewery in Brevard, North Carolina. In 2016, Oskar Blues bought out Cigar City, which sent Wambles back to North Carolina, where he and his family bought a house in nearby Sylva.
“With the acquisition and partnership, this year we’ll make over 100,000 barrels of beer,” Wambles says.
Looking back at the impact Cigar City had on brewing in Florida, and the way its beer sales are expanding around the Southeast, Wambles is modest but typically candid.
“We did exactly what we wanted to do,” he says. “We made beers that represented our personal taste, and we didn’t look back. The marketing side was about education and cultural awareness. And the beer was about making things that we enjoyed.”
Cigar City’s Jai Lai IPA represents all of that and more. By some estimates, the juicy-before-juicy-was-cool IPA is second only to Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale as the most popular canned craft beer sold in grocery stores.
“Jai Lai represents 65-percent-plus of our total sales,” Wambles says.“That beer was designed and brewed on the pilot system in 2008 and put into production in 2009. The whole concept was about marketing in a different way.
“For me, Tampa always felt like a tropical environment. That’s why I wanted tropical notes in the beer that were a collective component of the malt profile and the hop profile. So, it was a matter of mixing hop varieties to create tropical fruit notes, without using any fruit. I like to describe it as luscious. I think that’s where we ended up, and that’s where we still are today.”
Reflecting on his years of brewing, Wambles certainly sees a Southern influence in much of what motivated him.
“There was nothing good to drink in Enterprise and Dothan, and that was the reason I started brewing,” he says. “I started cooking for the same reason. I guess I just got sick of waiting for it to come. But good things did come. The legalization of homebrewing in Alabama. The legalization of draft beer in the county I lived in. The legalization of different bottle sizes in the state of Florida. The changes in the law in the state of Georgia. But also, outside of legislative changes, we’re making better beer as Southern brewers. We’re making more challenging beers and more culinary beers. There’s just more diversity, and more beer, and there will be more innovation in the future.”