Jillian and KJ, co-founders and owners of Leaven Brewing
“Once upon a time in a town near you, there was a humble little place that welcomed all regardless of their age, race, sex, religion, political views, sexual orientation or preference, or views on society. This place became a home to saints, sinners, and commoners alike. The people who built this place of comfort were humblest of all found in existence. These two became the leaders in a community of believers in the existence of good and friendship, surrounded by a world surrounded in chaos. This place is an escape from reality and feels like a warm hug right when you need it. So when life gets tough and you need something a bit more than what this world has to offer, come to Leaven to be welcomed, accepted, respected, and cared for.” By Jared Weems, mug-club member and regular at Leaven Brewing
What a joy it was to connect with Jillian Lynch, co-founder and owner of Leaven Brewing. It truly is a special safe haven for all who need a good beer and some great company. Read on to learn about how Leaven came to be and the amazing things they are doing for their community.
Will you tell me more about your background and how Leaven came to be?
Jillian: It’s fate, honestly. I was a 4th grade teacher when I met my husband. He was the head brewer over at the Fort Myers Brewing Company, already working for a family owned grassroots company like we have here.
My dad is the OG craft beer person, he introduced me to craft beer when I was small—obviously I wasn’t drinking craft beer with my dad when I was small! But he taught me to respect alcohol, how it takes a lot of time to craft it, and he taught me to appreciate the artwork. I’ve always loved craft beer. Eventually I found myself over at Fort Myers Brewing Company, met KJ, who is the love of my life and we got married at a brewery in Tampa.
We fell in love with Tampa. I started teaching here and he started brewing at a place called Brew Hub, which is a contract brewing system. KJ was excelling at what he was doing and eventually we just thought, why don’t we open a brewery? So we took all the money we had for our first home together and opened a brewery. As of March 31st, we’ve been open 2 years, going on 3.
What reactions have you seen from the community since you opened Leaven?
Jillian: The community has been involved since the very beginning. We’re out in a place called Riverview which is in the suburbs of Tampa. There was no craft beer out here before Leaven. We had a great opportunity to teach them what craft beer is and how to enjoy it— quality over quantity. The community has really grown with us. As we get bigger, they get more into beer. Honestly the Riverview community makes Leaven what it is.
How do you get involved in other community organizations?
Jillian: We get involved wherever we can. Recently we worked with Beer Kulture (a non-profit – “advanced and created opportunities that foster diversity, equity and inclusion within the craft beverage space.”). Florida is really lucky in the fact that we’re pretty diverse. We have a lot of women in beer, we have a lot of diversity across the board but Beer Kulture focuses on fostering diversity, equity and inclusion within the craft beverage space. We did a backpack drive with [Beer Kulture] along with Bay Cannon Brewing—we made a cutsie video together to get people to come donate.
In general, Florida beer is really cool because everybody knows everybody. Everyone is willing to chip in wherever they can— it’s very community focused.
Image courtesy of Leaven Brewing
Speaking of Florida brewing, how have the state laws affected you?
Jillian: It’s been pretty shitty. Let’s go back to March 17th, I think it was. We got a tweet—on Twitter!— letting us know that we needed to close down our businesses. This goes out from Secretary Beshears, and he tweets out that COVID restrictions—all restaurants, breweries, bars—must shut down at 5pm. I had a brewery full of people at the time.
Fast forward some time after the first shutdown, there was a loophole that if we had food on site we could be open. So as long as we had a food truck, we could stay open. Awesome! Then another series of shutdowns came where the business actually had to hold the food license in order to open. I could no longer pair with the food truck because I don’t own the truck or the license. Up until recently, unless a Florida Brewery holds a food license, they couldn’t be open.
We’re so blessed in our community! A guy who had a food truck who was always here asked if we wanted to rent his truck and buy his license. It was a resounding YES! So we now have a taco truck, Taco Not Taco. It was great because now we can stay open but now I’m paying more taxes, fees, and dues to the state by holding this license. Just what I needed, to hire more employees after a pandemic and to pay more in taxes. It’s the answer to the problem but it’s not the best answer for breweries.
Image courtesy of Leaven Brewing
How is the taco truck going?
Jillian: It’s so great! My husband is the most impressive person. He’s really smart and not only does he brew the beer along with an assistant brewer—we’re very lucky to have Clint. My husband said, “taco truck, I can do it. We’ll just put the recipes together and get it done.” Luckily he had a background in managing Mexican food restaurants. He gets on this truck and for the first couple of days it was just he and I on the truck, making tacos. Everyone knew not to expect too much but honestly they came out pretty dang good.
Recently we hired a guy named Corey, he has a background and passion for food. He’s elevated these tacos—they’re great! I’m really stoked on the concept.
How has the community taken to the taco truck?
Jillian: They are so supportive. Honestly, I think I could sell cheese whiz out of the truck and they would eat it.
Image courtesy of Leaven Brewing
Let’s talk about how your guests experience Leaven in terms of beer?
Jillian: We have two things that we started in the beginning that are integral to creating the craft community that should support good beer. One of the first things we did was create a mug club made up of 144 people. I will never make it bigger. We really wanted to create a family and out of 144 people with their spouses, that’s already a lot. We didn’t want it to be a discount savings program but more of a group I could manage and do some really cool things for.
With our mug club, we host beer education classes. We’ll do everything from an ‘on flavors’ course where I’ll pull out the BJCP restrictions on beer. We’ll also do ‘off flavors’ classes where we’ll actually dope the beer into tasting bad. With the 144 people who are experiencing these classes, they almost become a secondary educator for us when they come to the brewery.
Besides the mug club, we train the staff on the beer. We used to sit down as a group and talk about KJ’s new beers. We would talk about profiles, what kind of grains we use, what kind of hops, and why. Unfortunately through COVID we’ve just been in survival mode.
My staff paired with my mug club, being able to explain the beers properly makes for a really well educated community.
What do guests experience when they walk into your space?
Jillian: The taproom is about 4000 sq ft. with 13 seats at the actual bar. It’s simple, you come in, order your beer at the bar and then sit down. With the food, you order at the bar as well, you get a number and we’ll bring it to you.
We have tablets at the bar but what we’ve found is that the system is growing with us. At first we didn’t have the food component but it’s so easy with the beers. It’s so easy, what we’ve done, especially for the new employees, on the beer buttons it says what glass to pour it in. Instead of for here, crowler, growler, etc, we’ll say nonic glass, the glass it is supposed to be poured in. Adding the food component, I think we’re still figuring out some things but Arryved support is the best! They always answer, they always have a solution. Right now it works that we just keep the two tablets at the bar. At the end of the night they’ll run around and do last call and punch it in right there.
Image courtesy of Leaven Brewing
Will you tell us more about your social outreach?
Jillian: With our Instagram, I’ve just been really transparent. I think that is the key. Being transparent gives people the opportunity to know you and build a relationship. Without that relationship—I can’t even call them customers, that feels so weird—without my Leaven fam supporting us and understanding things, I don’t feel like it would function the same way. My Instagram has allowed people a sneak peak or a behind the scenes look into our business and explains why we make the choices we do. It starts to feel like their brewery.
When you think about the brewery as a business too much it starts to feel cold. A brewery is anything but that. When you come to Leaven, you know you’re coming to a mom and pop shop. You know KJ and I are going to be here. You know if something goes wrong, a mug club member is going to be here helping us out. It’s just that kind of place.
What do you think the next 6 months will look like in craft beer? How do you think the industry is evolving?
Jillian: COVID has really pushed everyone to become a brewpub. A food component is going to be necessary because it will be expected. If you go to any other beer hub like Asheville or San Diego, there’s no brewery that doesn’t have a food component. You don’t find many taprooms that are super successful just being a taproom.
The curveball thrown at us here in Florida is that you cannot be open unless you have food. I think the breweries that are leaning in and putting effort into the food concept are going to be successful. Doing everything with intention and quality is very important.
What do you want to leave our readers with?
Jillian: I think I’ve already alluded to the fact that we are like cheers. We’re very much like family and all we ever wish for is that people feel like they’re part of a community when they’re here. When we set out to create Leaven, people asked why here? We didn’t know anyone here, we have no friends here. It was a way for us to put down some roots.