by Tom McLaughlin

DEVON RAVINE | Daily News Props Brewery and Grill owners (left to right) Brian O'Neill, Travis Peterson, Mike Kee and Nate Vannatter will soon be celebrating the opening of a new distribution brewery to meet the demand for their popular craft beers.
DEVON RAVINE | Daily News
Props Brewery and Grill owners (left to right) Brian O’Neill, Travis Peterson, Mike Kee and Nate Vannatter will soon be celebrating the opening of a new distribution brewery to meet the demand for their popular craft beers.

The popularity of craft beer continues to grow across Northwest Florida.

“I think the enthusiasm for craft beer is on the uptick still,” said Brian O’Neill, a co-owner of Props Craft Brewery.

And Props, which opened in 2011 as a little brewpub in the furthest corner of a Fort Walton Beach strip mall, is riding the wave of suds-loving enthusiasm.

The company, founded by a pair of Air Force pilots, announced in August it is expanding its operation to allow for the brewing of more beverage and wider distribution of its products.

Utilizing a $150,000 grant from the University of West Florida Office of Economic Development and Engagement, Props Craft Brewery plans to open a commercial brewery operation at a building inside the Fort Walton Beach Commerce and Technology Park.

The grant comes out of a $30 million fund set aside by the Florida Legislature to help regional economic development in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The now four-member ownership team is confident the new facility, which will open out onto Lovejoy Road, will be ready for a “soft opening” by mid-September.

A tap room, where customers can sit and enjoy a glass of beer or purchase growlers or kegs, could also be ready to go before October, said co-owner Nathan Vannatter.

And the brewery itself, capable of producing four times the amount of beverage the present in-restaurant brewery can muster, should be up and running by sometime in October, according to co-owner Michael Kee.

O’Neill said the existing Props restaurant and brewery in the Shoppes of Paradise Point strip center won’t be going anywhere, though some of its larger brewing vats will make the move across town.

It is estimated the brewery expansion will lead to $1.3 million in capital expenditures and Props anticipates hiring an additional 10 people as a result, a news release from UWF and the Okaloosa County Economic Development Council said.

The new location will be decorated in the WWII aviation theme of the existing Props facility, Kee said. While sampling one or more of the 16 beer choices available inside the tap room, guests can look out on the brewery and see the beer manufacturing as it happens.

“We’ll have lots of opportunities for people to get a closer look at the process. We’ll have brewery tours and let people get hands on,” Kee said.

EDC Executive Director Nathan Sparks said the Props business model is what was envisioned when the Legislature approved $30 million for economic development in Northwest Florida following the 2010 oil spill.

“Props brewery is precisely the type of homegrown operation that the EDC is proud to assist,” he said in the news release. “The fact that the company was founded by entrepreneurs who first served our country as members of our military makes this one even more special.”