The things that make a great legend are the same that make a great beer. Start with a basic outline, add lots of local influence, and let it sit for a significant period of time. Pretty soon, you’ll have something people continue to talk about.
Take the story of Ulele, for example.
It starts in the 1500’s, as Spanish Explorers began to land in and explore Tampa Bay, then home to the Tocobaga tribe. Any history student can tell you meetings between groups like these are rarely peaceful; the Tocobaga and Spanish proved to be no exception. After the Spanish killed the mother of the Tocobaga chief and cut off his nose, the tribe seethed with desire for revenge.
The opportunity arose 11 years later.
As the expedition of Ferdinand de Soto landed in the area, some Spanish soldiers were taken prisoner. Some soldiers were used as target practice, while the teenaged conscript Juan Ortiz was ordered to be roasted alive.
Ulele, daughter to the Tocobaga chief, spared his life by throwing herself onto his body and refusing to move until his execution was rescinded. Ortiz was spared, destined to live his life as a slave until the expedition of Hernando de Soto passed by and obtained his services as a useful regional translator. Ortiz died during the expedition.
Now, how much of what was just said actually true? There’s no way to tell. There’s a marker in St. Pete that proclaims the exact spot where Ulele saved Ortiz. Other legends tell that three of the Tocobaga chief’s daughters, plus their mother, joined to save the life of this soldier. Plus, there’s the incredible similarity of this and the story of Pocahontas told some 80 years later.
Regardless, it makes for a good tale and good inspiration for Ulele, a restaurant and brewpub in Tampa Heights, on the northern edge of the riverwalk along the Hillsborough River.
Its home is in the old Tampa WaterWorks pumphouse building, built in 1903 to pump water from the nearby Ulele Spring. During the building’s rehabilitation, giant cisterns were discovered over what is now the kitchen area.
During the renovation, all new windows and fixtures were brought in to bring the building up to code, while still retaining historical accuracy and preserving the charm of the facility.
Much of the restaurant interior is a work of art. The front door was inspired by the cogs of the Platt St. Bridge. Much of the wood inside came from a reclaimed barn from North Florida. Many pieces of art in and around the restaurant were commissioned exclusively from local artists.
Above the doors to the kitchen are two large French stained glass pieces dating back to the 1800’s. These pieces are so valuable that the movers were afraid to touch them, so the Gonzmart family had to move them on their own!
It’s also quintessentially Tampa, with the 2nd floor resplendent with a wide variety of signed Tampa Bay Lightning and Rays jerseys. Apparently the restaurant is quite popular with Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and goalie Ben Bishop.
Ulele is the brainchild of Richard Gonzmart, 4th generation owner of the Columbia Restaurant chain, one of my favorite Florida restaurants and a legend in its own right. However, instead of the heavy Spanish influence of Columbia or a stereotypically citrus-heavy Floribbean menu, Ulele focuses on pre-Columbian ingredients and preparation.
The menu is thick with alligator, Fresh From Florida beef, local lobster, and Ulele’s signature oysters grilled on their huge, on-stage barbacoa grill. While chatting with Ulele’s incredibly knowledgeable Marketing Manager Jeff Houck, we sampled their hand-cut Okra Fries and giant, delicious Alligator Hush Puppies.
Both of these fantastic dishes, along with everything else, comes from classically-trained Executive Chef Eric Lackey. One a constant basis, Eric look at the menu and what is locally available, making sure the menu reflects seasonal and regional influences.
He also speaks daily to Brewmaster Tim Shackton, the man I first met when at Ulele. Tim’s workshop was christened Ulele Springs brewery, and is accessible in a separate building in the back, linked by a charming courtyard.
Inside is a gleaming 15 BBL system, flanked with fermentation tanks and a giant walk-in with barrels and tanks for lagering. That makes Ulele really interesting when it comes to brewpubs; a very large amount of their beers are lagered. Tim was very insistent on this, since lagers are smoother and easy to drink.
Tim has quite the brewing pedigree, tracing his brewing lineage back generations in Milwaukee. He has been associated with and designed several breweries in the state. He’s absolutely fascinating and refreshing to speak to; it’s nice to find a brewer that has a great reverence for tradition and quality and not just overhopping beers (as many Tampa Bay breweries like to do).
When I got there, Tim was in the middle of boiling one of Ulele’s signature beers, Wedding Beer (Fruit Beer, 5% ABV, 22 IBU). This soft, drinkable beer has copious additions of red, black, and blueberries. It’s fruity and lightly sweet, without being syrupy or heavy. Light and refreshing.
In an interesting show of reciprocity, the spent grain from all of the Ulele Springs beers goes to Myakka Farms, the ranch where Ulele’s beef is sourced. He also had me sample a few beers from the brewhouse’s in-building tap row. However, at Tim’s knowledgeable request, the pictures were saved for better glassware inside the restaurant.
Knowing full well that Tim has a heavily rotating calendar of beers and some of these might not be available when you go, here is some of what they had:
Ulele Light (American Light Lager, 4.1% ABV, 23.5% IBU) – This is an incredibly light and buoyant lager, but doesn’t skimp on flavor. Knowing that the big macros still draw many drinkers, Ulele Light was produced to cater to them, while easing them into full flavored craft beers.
BBB (Stout) – Their bourbon barrel aged stout, but not brutal at all. It’s still sessionable and drinkable, not like a sledgehammer. One of the things Tim likes is when a patron can slide an empty glass across the bar and say “I’ll have another one of those.” You can do that with BBB without calling for an ambulance afterward. Great job.
Rusty’s Red (Amber Ale, 5.5% ABV, 40 IBU) – This amber ale hits the wonderful balance of floral noble hops and bright caramel malt. A beautifully balanced beer with bold pops of flavor and a simple, smooth drinkability.
Hydration Station (American Light Lager, 3% ABV) – This is a bigger step above Ulele Light, with a bit meatier and more rounded malt quality. It’s still light, but still a bit bolder than the former.
Dryfall (Vienna Lager, 5.7% ABV) – Beautiful. All of the light caramel notes with a medium body coming from the great addition of earthy rich noble hops. If the Gonzmart family is reading this, please get Tim a canning line so I can get six-packs of this.
The last beer on the list is Rusty’s Red (Amber Ale, 5.5% ABV, 40 IBU) again, but dry hopped with some of those deliciously herbal noble hops. The man knows how to dry hop a beer to get a great flavor but not to make it battery acid.
There’s something really good going in Tampa Heights. It’s definitely a destination, with a lot to see, eat, and especially drink there. I am glad I went, and I can’t wait to go back.
And it’s not just a legend.
Drink Florida Craft,
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