The Florida Keys & Key West

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Hops and Hibiscus: A Florida Keys Brewer's Passion

"Everything always works out."

Islamorada resident and mother of twins Cheryl McBay, 36, puts her life's positive mantra into practice daily with her brewmaster husband, Craig McBay, 37, as they power through the latest and largest growth spurt of their locally crafted Florida Keys Brewing Co. The vibrant microbrewery is tucked away in the island village's arts and cultural district at Morada Way.

Born and raised in Islamorada and a self-proclaimed "total boat junkie," Cheryl grew up spear fishing, fishing and playing on a locally popular sandbar. She traveled around a lot after high school and spent stints in Hawaii, Tennessee and overseas.

"I would take two months off and go backpack. Call it island fever, cabin fever, whatever — I had to travel," said Cheryl, who recently explored Newfoundland with her only sister. "I like isolation, away from people, untouched paradise kind of places.

"It's an ongoing joke — I have moved away about 20 times since high school, but I keep coming back to the Keys," she said.

Cheryl spent 15 years bartending and waiting tables, learning the business end of serving the drinking public. She met Craig McBay in the Hog Heaven bar eight years ago while she was enjoying a girls' night out. Craig, a native of Toronto who was working as an engineer in West Palm Beach, was on a fishing trip to the Keys.

After they were married Craig's job allowed them both to establish permanent roots in Islamorada, despite being a long way from his close-knit parents and siblings in Canada. It was the final return home for Cheryl, who's raising her own family near her sister's young family and their parents, a second-generation commercial fishermen and a home remodeler.

A home-brew kit that Cheryl's mom gave Craig as a birthday present started him down the beer-making path.

"We became craft beer junkies — going to breweries, getting specialty bottles, becoming members of clubs — and just really got into it," Cheryl said.

Craig started brewing more and larger batches that the couple ended up giving away as samples, at events or to their friends. In 2012 they took the leap to open Florida Keys Brewing Co.

"We brew our beer in Islamorada and sell it inside the Keys," Cheryl said. "That's it — it's a destination beer. If you want to drink local, it's Florida Keys Brewing Co."

The McBays keep their brewery experience community-minded, organic, fun and funky for residents and visitors alike. The emporium features live music weekly along with monthly art and other eclectic events.

"Our whole vibe is an island vibe ... this is definitely us," Cheryl explained.

Starting in mid-August three of the couple's craft drafts — Hogfish Amber, Sunsessional IPA and Iguana Bait, a very light German-style honey and hibiscus kolsch — are to be available at bars and restaurants Keyswide. It is their most significant expansion to date.

Cheryl said they took the hardest route, brewing and marketing their product themselves according to their own standards and consistency, but it's all for the pure love of beer.

And if someone brings them local fruit from the Islamorada area — such as Key limes, mangoes, honey or hibiscus — they'll make a beer with it. Reef Crawl, a mango-infused wheat ale, is on tap now at the tasting room.

"It boils down to how good your product is," Cheryl said. "Craig is the A-type perfectionist personality. There is no way he would let anyone else brew his beer."

Today "everything but brew" is her self-assigned job description. Cheryl handles all the company's advertising, marketing and bookkeeping, and says she has a hard time saying no to anything. Her enthusiasm is palpable, as is a healthy sense of humor.

With their mountain of individual responsibilities, Craig, and Cheryl have precious little downtime, but focus on raising their twin toddlers, Rose and Arlo.

"We signed our lease at the [expanded] Morada Way location in March 2014 and three months later, in May, had twins," Cheryl said.

She calls the boy-and-girl twins her "de-stressor" and enjoys going to the park with them after work to wash away the pressures of her busy days.

"I am going to tattoo 'Beer and Babies' on myself somewhere, I swear," she quipped, "because that's my life."

The couple still travels when possible to sample and learn what's out there.

"We're still complete dorks when it comes to beer," Cheryl said. "We pack light on vacation to leave room to bring home new beers to try."

Cheryl (right) recently found a new isolated paradise with her sister, in Newfoundland.

Cheryl (right) recently found a new isolated paradise with her sister, in Newfoundland.

Craig manages the brewery and oversees the entire beer making process.

Craig manages the brewery and oversees the entire beer making process.

Craig and Rose feed some new friends on a past family vacation.

Craig and Rose feed some new friends on a past family vacation.

The McBay family out for some summer sandbar fun off Islamorada.

The McBay family out for some summer sandbar fun off Islamorada.

(L-R) Craig, Arlo, Cheryl and Rose.

(L-R) Craig, Arlo, Cheryl and Rose.

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