Between N. Lemon and N. Central, 2nd Street is an urban canyon. The north face of 100 Central’s condominiums rises above the Whole Foods parking lot, and the south face of the DeSota apartments, with its outcrops of balconies, completes the geology. Tucked into the base of this canyon is a hole in the wall, marked only by a blue neon number on a smoked glass door: 99.
99 Bottles, the craft beer and wine bar at 1445 2nd Street is the kind of place you are happy to discover by accident, intimate and comfortable, and away from the shoulder to shoulder establishments of Main Street just two blocks over. Within the narrow space, shelved all the way from your waist to the top of one 16 foot ceiling, is a rainbow of beer brands in bombers, pints, 750’s, and cans. There are psychedelic growlers, tulip and pint and pilsner glasses, gear, and even fine wine, rising up the wall like a sculpture. But that is not the only spectacle. On the back wall is an epic mural, painted by Ringling College alumnus and artist Will Ralston. The bowler-hatted and bearded fellow with the far away twinkle in his eye is the archetypal bar patron. He is the guy on a stool next to you in a small joint, off the beaten path, where everyone is welcome and soon to be known to you; in essence, a citizen of a true neighborhood bar.
Sarasota is a city with over 800 restaurants, clubs, and bars, and not many of them can be said to be neighborhood bars. There are not many neighborhood bars left anywhere. By definition, a neighborhood bar is small, nearby, friendly, and dependable. The dependability part may be responsible for the downward trend. People began to prize variety in beverages and establishment styles more than the dependability of friendliness and being known.
99 Bottles owners Christine and Mark Tuchman are keenly aware of the value of dependability, but he also understands what the word welcoming means. Theirs and their staff’s energy and focus makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room. As the former creator of Mr. Beerys, a Sarasotan beer lover destination for years, they understand that people want to count on having an interesting and delicious beer and wine experience in an intimate setting, and to do that, you have to talk with patrons and not just sling pints. He points to the remaining wall, the bar wall, with its 35 taps. “Yes, that many taps means a variety of beer,” he says. “But we’re not just pouring to pour; we curate the beers for our guestss. That takes getting to know you.”
And curate, they do. Of the core cadre of bartenders, most have Level One or Two Cicerone Certification (Cicerone’s test being the beer equivalent of wine’s Court of Master Sommeliers Examination). These are people who want you to like a gose, helles, porter, amber or farmhouse ale, sour, milk stout, pilsner, lager, or east coast or west coast IPA as much as they do. “They took the time to explain beer to me,” says patron Dan Forno, “and I’ve been coming here ever since.”
Hardcore beer geeks know that 99 Bottles is still procuring unicorn brands and types most distributors cannot source. “He’s a consummate surveyor and purveyor of beer,” says customer Justin Banister. “They loves the hunt.” Recently, at the same time, 99 had on tap or in cans or bottles, Cantillon’s classic Gueuze, a much prized world class lambic beer from Belgium; Sexual Fluctuation, the double IPA Citra/Galaxy hops juicy offspring of a District 96 and Equilibrium collaboration; and Krampus, the nut and bean forward imperial sweet stout from Angry Chair. Says local resident Carissa Gross, “I find beer here I can’t find anywhere else. They tell me when it’s coming. They know what I like.”
A big supporter of local breweries, 99 Bottles dedicates taps and cooler space for beers from up and down both Florida coasts. Sample those with any one of the bar food offering. The hideout-like space also features a popular bagel breakfast on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings (bagels wash down well with a chocolate breakfast stout), and there is a tier option to become an Orange Key Holder, members of which receive special beers and gear in advance from the blue lockers in the back for an annual fee.
“If you say ’99 Bottles of –’ to most people, they will say ‘…beer on the wall’. And you find that here, literally. But I like to think about him on the wall.” Tuchman points to our man in the bowler. “Without saying anything at all, his face tells you everything you need to know about this place.”
With some conversation and the sampling of super fine beer, you will understand. And out of the corner of your eye, you may even see the bowlered dude slip off the wall and onto a stool for a refill or to tell a story, something you will only experience in this rarest of Sarasota neighborhood joints.