BRADENTON -- Michael Wagner has long thought few combinations go together as well as beer and baseball.
Now the 40-year-old Anna Maria Island proprietor has plans to brew a buck or two through a unique business that will offer both.
Wagner is slated to open Manatee’s first commercial brewery this year -- satisfying a dream he’s had since college. The Little Giant Brewing Co. soon will occupy a 5,500-square-foot now vacant building on 17th Avenue West in Bradenton, just a stone’s throw away from McKechnie Field, the spring training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“It’s going to be a heck of a project, but that’s what it’s all about,” said Wagner, a Chicago native. “It’s not like opening a restaurant. It’s a manufacturing facility.”
Wagner first caught a taste for brewing after college, when he began making small batches of his own beer as a hobby. When a career in social services didn’t quite pan out, he decided to make beer his business.
Not knowing what professional brewing was all about, Wagner took a trip in 2000 to Tampa, where he scouted every brewery in the region. He spent the next four years learning every trick of the trade from the owner of the popular Tampa Bay Brewing Co.
He hasn’t looked back since.
“It’s been one big research project for me over the years,” Wagner said. “Everyone wants to talk about brewing, but it doesn’t mean anything until you have a beer in your hand.”
The Little Giant Brewing Co. started with a pilot craft brewing system and shack on Anna Maria Island, where Wagner would make beer for private events. Because he didn’t have proper permits to sell it, he gave it away.
The operation was later moved to a small warehouse on U.S. 301 and Whitfield Avenue in south Manatee, where Wagner now makes 24 types of beer. He plans to sell the beer to retail outlets as well as serving it at the 17th Avenue West location.
Wagner is finalizing plans to close on the sale of the 17th Avenue commercial structure by February, moving all of his supplies with him.
With a little elbow grease and nearly $750,000, he hopes to transform the space into a commercial brewery, with a bar and lounge in the front of the house. He expects to hire about five people in the first year.
What once stood as a Magnavox TV showroom, Mexican restaurant and Greyhound bus stop will open as Bradenton’s first brew pub by spring training.
“It certainly is a big project,” Wagner said. “You just don’t realize how much goes into it until you get started.”
Wagner’s project gained approved from Bradenton’s Planning Commission in November, and subsequently the City Council on Dec. 14. He’s now seeking the required federal licenses, which could take another three months.
While overall beer sales are on the decline, sales of U.S. craft beer have posted double-digit gains over the last two years, according to the Brewers Association.
The industry now employs more than 100,000 workers across the country with 1,701 operating breweries -- the most since 1910.
“There certainly are a lot more diverse brewing styles being offered today, particularly by craft brewers,” association spokesman Paul Gatza said. “And I’m betting quality is far greater now than then.”
Josh Salman, Herald business writer can be reached at 941-745-7095.