It is one of Orlando's best-kept secrets.

Tucked among warehouses, rail yards and medical offices on the south edge of downtown is Orlando Brewing, one of about 10 organic breweries nationwide and the only one "south of Vermont and east of Colorado," as Orlando Brewing President John Cheek puts it. It is a beer lover's oasis, a pristine place to enjoy beer unmarred by cigarette smoke, food and even the drone of televisions, an environment that exudes the feel of someone's basement.

The brewery is one of five in the state, with plants operated by Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling among them. It serves 20 organic beers all developed by Orlando Brewing. The beers have won 27 state awards and also are the nation's first to bear the state Department of Agriculture's designation "Fresh from Florida," which promotes Florida-grown products. It is a go-to place on weekends for my husband and me, far-removed from the flashy, crowded theme parks minutes away.  

"It's a better-tasting beer because it's better ingredients," Cheek says. "It's the old Papa John's thing. Better ingredients make better beer."

It is happy hour on Friday, and Cheek and I are discussing this at the bar, me tapping on my laptop and him sipping from a fluted glass of his favorite beer, an over-hopped, over-malted English pale ale called Old Pelican. He is a self-described "child of the '70s," a man who wears camouflage shorts, Chuck Taylor sneakers and his white hair pulled back in a ponytail. He knows virtually everyone who comes in the door.

'Hobby gone bad'

"It's the crap they make so that I have something to drink, and I'm the president," Cheek says of his Old Pelican. He suffers no shortage of snarky remarks. "People often are asking me, how did you get started in this? And I say it's a hobby gone bad."

In 1987, Cheek couldn't find any beer he liked, so he began making beer in his kitchen, then his garage. He established the Central Florida Homebrewers Club two years later, and then a fellow home brewer established Orlando Brewing with Cheek's equipment, making him an investor. Cheek became president in 2004. The brewery develops its own recipes and uses ingredients free of pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers. Six-packs are packaged with reusable six-pack holders, and cases are packaged with milk cartons.

Orlando Brewing is located in a converted warehouse and features live local music on weekends, when its hours are listed as 12 p.m. to ? It seats 50 and fills up easily on weekends. Picnic tables are outside for smokers. The brewery does not serve food but offers menus for nearby restaurants that deliver. While Cheek and I talked, a group at a table nearby ate pizza from a box. Among the kitsch hanging from the walls is a neon sign proclaiming, "Liquid Bread." Dozens of medals line the wall above the taps.

Community gathering place

Cheek aims to create good beer and a community gathering place. Local groups such as the Young Democrats meet here, and the brewery also hosts events. The third annual Orlando Brewing Oktoberfest was held in September. Cheek is in discussions about moving to a bigger place where food could be served. His 23-year-old daughter, Megan Cheek, is brewing operations manager. George Cain, a pharmacist, got involved after coming as a customer for months. He now is marketing director, and his wife works in the office, too.

The beers include a blonde ale, pale ale, red ale and brown ale. There is the Orlando Brewing Eagle Stout, Orlando Brewing Pompous A*s and Orlando Brewing Box of Chocolates. The Winter Park, a blonde ale developed by the brewery's distributor, includes 16 essential vitamins, because why shouldn't beer be good for you? After Cheek and I finish talking, I order the Miami Weiss, a light beer. My happy hour has begun.

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