Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sea Dog Brewing in Orlando is a tourist trap brewpub

The Orlando area has plenty of brewpubs and microbreweries scattered around town, but one everybody seems to forget about (or ignore) is Sea Dog Brewing Company, located just outside Disney. So yeah, it’s a tourist trap within a tourist trap (which isn’t necessarily a pejorative).

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From what I understand, Sea Dog started out as an independent brewpub up in Bangor, Maine, but was acquired by Shipyard Brewing Company at some point in the 1990s. Shipyard brews all the Sea Dog offerings at their production brewery in Portland, and has opened a few Sea Dog restaurants around New England and two here in Florida. Whether each location actually brews its own beers on site is a bit of a mystery. The Orlando location has what looks like a nano brewhouse, but upon closer inspection, seems to be just a cold room for storing kegs. I didn’t see a mash/lauter tun in the room nor a boil kettle or any fermentation tanks, so I’m not sure where the suds are actually conceived. But anyway, let’s discuss the restaurant itself.

I see bright tanks, but where are the tuns and the boil kettle?
I see bright tanks, but where are the tuns and the boil kettle?

I went with my friend Maggie on a Friday night. I figured it would be packed given the time and location, but it was only at about half capacity. The atmosphere is the standard American family-friendly casual dining motif. Tons of TVs scattered about; plenty of seating both indoors and out; a clean look; and a generic menu. They’re playing it safe here, so don’t expect to see anything particularly original, interesting or bizarre on the menu (except maybe the “Lamb Lollipops”). If you want a burger, steak, salad or seafood you’re going to get the same quality here as Applebee’s or Friday’s. But this is a beer blog after all, so let’s talk about that.

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I hadn’t drank a Sea Dog or a Shipyard beer in a long time. I’ve had mixed feelings about them, but I was hoping if the beer was handcrafted on site, the local brewmaster might be able to experiment a little and the brews would be fresher than the pasteurized bottled and canned wares I’ve tried. And while the beer may have been fresh, they were not especially delectable. A flight of four 5oz samples is pretty pricey at $7 ($0.35 per ounce) and there were 18 beers listed on the menu (one was a guest cider and one was a soda), which means we would’ve had to spend $32 just to sample all 16 of them. We decided to go with eight instead. Here’s the breakdown:

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  • Blue Paw Wild Blueberry Ale: This is probably Sea Dog’s most popular beer, though I’m not sure why. Every time I’ve had a bottle or can it wasn’t very good. I was hoping this draught version would be better, but it was worse. Smells great, but tastes dirty. Maggie didn’t like it either. 2/5
  • Acai Berry Hefeweizen: There’s nothing wrong with adding fruit to a traditional hefeweizen when done right. This wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great. Maggie and I both remarked that it tastes like Vitamin Water (i.e. faux). There was a classic hefe taste of banana and clove on the finish which was nice. 3/5
  • Maple Bacon Stout: The best beer of the flight by far. Delicious milk chocolate taste with a touch of smoke on the finish. This would make a great dessert beverage. 4.25/5
  • Shipyard Export Ale: This is Shipyard’s flagship beer; a British blonde ale. If you’re familiar with the genre you’ll know what to expect. It has that pub-style mild-but-distinctive palette and Ringwood character. It’s one of the rare beers that makes proper use of that yeast. Maggie thought it was okay. I’d imagine most laymen would feel the same as it’s an acquired taste. 3.75/5
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  • Sea Dog’s Hard Root Beer: Now that every brewery is making a “hard root beer,” I’m starting to distinguish the good ones from the bad ones. This iteration was high on the wintergreen and low on the sassafras so it kinda tastes like mouthwash. I will say there’s some nice sweetness to it, but the minty character is a bit overdone. 3/5
  • No. 7 IPA: A classic East Coast style IPA made with Cascade hops to give it a very piney/resiny aroma and flavor. Has a bit of a British character as well, but isn’t the butter bomb I was worried it’d be. It’s a fine “starter IPA,” though Maggie didn’t care for it. 3.5/5
  • Black IPA: I was really looking forward to this beer since Black IPA is one of my favorite niche styles (and seems to be fading in popularity lately). It was a messy brew; an odd mixture of fruit, roasted malt, and aggressive astringent bitterness. Maggie really like this one, though, which blew my mind. 1.5/5
  • Hazelnut Porter: You’d think this would be a great combination, though I’ve yet to try a hazelnut beer of any style that’s even adequate. This tastes like burnt hazelnut extract; very coarse, overtly faux, and not really sweet at all. Maggie and I agreed this was probably the worst beer of the flight. 1.5/5
Overall, the beer was not very good and I’m not sorry we didn’t get to try all 16. I could see some of these brews appealing to the non-beer enthusiast (especially the lighter beers), but beer geeks will probably be disappointed by the lineup.

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As for the food, it was adequate. I got a buffalo chicken sandwich which came on a ciabatta bun and
looked like something you’d get at Wendy’s. In fact, it even tastes a bit like a fast food item, as the sauce was quite mild, though the chicken was plump and juicy. Maggie tried the pot roast sandwich, which definitely tasted like pot roast, but also seemed a little fast food-ish. The fries and tots were good; I’m sure they’re the same brand carried by restaurants like this everywhere.

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The service, much like the food was adequate. Not bad exactly, but far from great. In fact, “adequate” seems to be the best adjective to describe our experience here. If we’re going by a pass/fail rubric, Sea Dog earns a passing grade, but on a more nuanced scale it’s rather average. Still, between our two meals and the beer the tab was only $44 and we left an $8 tip. That’s not bad for a Friday night dining experience in a tourist trap area, eh?

They charge for soda water? C'mon!