I hooked my thumb onto the rim of a 4oz shot glass full of English barleywine. Balancing my pinky underneath and keeping my knuckles plastered along the side, I brought the glass up to cheers, tapped the glass to the bar, and drank.
Taking a “shot” of barleywine is pretty common at Walking Tree Brewery in Vero Beach, FL; it has become one of the brewery’s unique traditions.
Further down along the bar, I saw a couple of bartenders perform the same ritual, but instead of a simple sip, they threw back the 9.2% ABV 2019 Great American Beer Festival silver-award-winning Barnacled Manatee in one swift motion.
“All the bartenders are allowed two ‘shots’ per shift,” Walking Tree Brewery Co-Founder Brooke Malone told me with a grin. “The kids are like wham!”
For the uninitiated, like myself, I stuck to sipping, letting the toasty caramel warm me from within. “[Our bartenders] will do the whole thing, but I won’t do that,” Walking Tree Co-Founder Mike Malone told me. “I say that almost every time; you don’t have to drink the whole thing [at once]!”
But Mike shared that it’s not uncommon to hear people buying rounds of eight Barnacled Manatee shots for their group. “They just farm them around,” he chuckled.
It took a few minutes and some queries amongst the staff for Mike and Brooke to pinpoint the origin of this tiny tradition. “I don’t know, probably Lombardo. I feel like that’s Alex,” Mike mused.
“Charlie, do you remember who did it?” Brooke asked behind the bar. “The origins? Were you around? Was this already a thing when you got here? Yeah, we can’t remember where it started.”
Turns out an old bar manager first came up with the idea. Since Walking Tree doesn’t serve liquor, the bolt of barleywine became the staff’s (and eventually the consumer’s) equivalent.
In its own way, this quirky custom encapsulates Walking Tree to a T.
Something made up and handmade, whose roots stretch down into the ground, grabbing hold of the Earth around it and never letting go.
When you walk into Walking Tree, you’re not just walking into a brewery. It feels like you’re opening the screen door, taking off your shoes, and putting your feet up while drinking a beer in Mike and Brooke’s home.
When I walked into the 24,000-sq-ft old Navy hangar at 4 p.m. on a Friday, Brooke greeted me with a huge grin, saying, “Well, welcome to the most badass brewery in the state of Florida.”
Although huge in size, Walking Tree feels like that tiny little neighborhood bar. You know the one—where people know each other’s first names, where they go for birthday parties and after-work happy hours, and where you can get something you can’t anywhere else—like a shot of barleywine.
But, much like a tree, Walking Tree didn’t just appear out of thin air. Mike and Brooke spent years planting the seeds that now make their brewery one of the most beloved in their sleepy coastal town.
When in Doubt, Oatmeal Stout
The roots of Walking Tree run tangentially to Brooke and Mike’s own, who first met at Waldo’s at the Driftwood Resort.
“I was at a girl’s night out, and it had been one of the rare occasions where something dragged him out,” recalls Brooke, who barely drank beer at the time. “We just bumped into each other and have been together ever since.”
An avid homebrewer, Mike felt determined to make a beer Brooke would drink. After several taste trials, Brooke finally found a beer she liked—Terrapin’s milk stout called Moo-HooChiato. “It was a bit sweet, but I loved the mouth feel of it,” she says, challenging Mike. “So here, make me this beer, but make it better.”
In 2013, Mike brewed Babycakes, an oatmeal stout that started sweeping homebrewing competitions across the state, almost a dozen total.
“That’s when I looked at him and said, dude, this makes you happy, and you hate your job,” she says. “It’s sh*t or get off the pot.”
By the end of that year, the seven-year lumber yard manager turned over a new leaf—unemployed with a business plan for a brewery in hand.
“I realized that if I didn’t leave, [opening a brewery] would always just be a dream,” says Mike.
Living the Beer Dream While Living on Rice and Beans
By 2014, Mike and Brooke had signed the lease to the massive warehouse, saving the 1940s-era WWII Navy building from demolition.
“It was scary,” says Mike.
Without enough upfront capital to open a brewery, the pair applied for a loan. But it took nine months for the bank to approve it.
“We mortgaged our a**es off to do this,” says Brooke, a printmaker who told me that to make ends meet, she sold artwork on the side of the road and at festivals across the state. “We had threadbare tires on our car … and were living on rice and beans for quite a while.”
In for a penny, in for a pound. In for an oatmeal stout, in for a brewery. The Malones went all in. Like hammers attacking nails, Brooke and Mike pounded the pavement and pounded through their future brewery.
For two years, the duo rehabbed the derelict warehouse with their bare hands, removing 70,000 pounds of drywall with just a “Bobcat, scissor lift, forklift, tractor shovels, and sledgehammers,” says Brooke. “But isn’t that inherently the MO of every amazing brewer you’ve ever met? … The brewers I know are the most loyal, hardworking, sweat equity, passionate, salt of the earth [people].”
As Mike walked me through the brewhouse, he explained how he cut through the floor to install their own drains. Walking past a freshly dug hole in the floor, he showed me where he planned to put in a new trench drain, telling me he poured 2,000 pounds of concrete for it himself yesterday. At times, Mike has been way more than a brewer and a brewery owner; he’s functioned as his own electrician and plumber, among other things.
And he’s not the only one.
Brooke says she hand painted almost all of the walls. “This was not a rich person’s vanity project,” she shares, pointing out some of her artwork hanging up around the brewery. “We built this ourselves.”
It all circles back to two very crucial words: Staying Rooted. Everywhere you look, from the floors up through the walls and certainly flowing through the beer, this mantra lives in Walking Tree.
Staying Rooted in Practice, Promise, and People
Despite the fact that we walk by trees every day, we rarely get to see inside one; we rarely stop to think about how long that bark has survived in the elements or how many homes it has provided to countless animals and insects. We never give a passing thought to the shade it’s provided for people and plants or the protection it’s given for birds and squirrels. Trees have been here long before us and probably will be long after.
Walking Tree believes in crafting quality while staying rooted in the community. Beer is essential to Walking Tree, like sunlight and water to a tree. But it’s only one part of the plan; giving back to those who come inside to drink is another.
“People are the secret, right?” says Brooke, who has a theory that brewers and those who work in breweries were never the “cool kids” in high school.
Instead, they learned how to do things on their own, fend for themselves, and use their brains to solve problems. “We’ve got thirty or forty years of learning how to be nice and be kind and be yourself. And so that’s why craft brewing and craft breweries win, because the humans, by and large, that make them have spent years learning how to exist without being selfish,” she says. “Now they are here having a blast living their own lives. They’re independent, and they’re doing it right. This is our superpower.”
If Mike hadn’t left his job and let himself brew, where would he be now? Still managing a lumber yard? Certainly not doing shots of barleywine with me at 4 p.m. on a Friday as the taproom starts to fill up with regulars, locals, parties, and friends.
Being yourself is paramount at Walking Tree, which hosts one of the most popular Pride parties in the decidedly conservative area of Florida.
“This year, we had an eighteen-foot dragon,” says Brooke, who built the contraption herself. Inevitably, Walking Tree’s choice to support the Queer community means they get bombarded with hate mail every June. But Brooke and Mike pay no mind. “Three things aren’t welcome here,” says Brooke. “Politics, religion, and a**holes.”
For Brooke, a military brat who was raised Baptist, she says, “If it doesn’t start with ‘I love you,’ it doesn’t belong [here].” Instead, she playfully encourages those who come to Walking Tree to “Shut the f**k up and drink a beer!”
Just taking a look around as the night wore on and people packed into the huge space, I could palpably tell the community had responded to Walking Tree’s wisdom.
“We are a place of community,” says Brooke. “We’ve got our regulars and our believers. They prop us up because they need us just as much as we need them.”
Those regulars in the know get to Walking Tree nice and early, snagging seats at the bar. Brooke introduced me to a couple of them, including the father of one of the owners of Illuminated Brew Works in Chicago, a brewery whose epic bonfire parties I used to go to in my early twenties.
Through blood, sweat, threadbare tires, and rice and bean bowls, the Malones have earned every square inch of this place, and yet they’re doing it all for their community.
That’s just the spirit and magic of Walking Tree, connecting people through a network of roots and delivering liquid sustenance to all of us.
Making the Best Damn Beer for the Best Damn Community
At Walking Tree, Mike makes beers he likes to drink.
“We really focus on classic styles and quality; we are not a hype brewery,” he said. Instead, you’ll find beers like Babycakes oatmeal stout, which I tried on nitro during my visit and which won gold at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in 2020, a gold at Best Florida Beer in 2018, and a silver at the same competition in 2019. This is the beer Brooke’s most proud of. “Hands down, we are crushing Florida with it,” she said.
Or Duke Snider’s, an imperial stout that picked up a bronze in 2018 at GABF.
And, of course, Barnacled Manatee, the aforementioned barleywine that won multiple Best Florida Beer Championship awards and a silver at GABF in 2019. And is Mike’s favorite.
When it comes to hops, Walking Tree’s eponymous core IPA dominates on the Treasure Coast (the three-county area including Vero Beach), winning a bronze at the 2017 Best Florida Beer competition. “It is wildly our bestseller,” says Mike.
Using Columbus, Cascade, and Simcoe in his Walking Tree IPA, Mike calls this beer a Florida West Coast IPA. “It’s easy to drink in the sun because it’s light and refreshing, but it still has that West Coast bite,” he says. “It’s that classic flavor, but with a lighter body and mouthfeel. It’s very simple, and we’ve done very well with it”
On the hazy side, Mike says he likes to dabble. But since IPAs aren’t something he drinks often, “It’s not like, oh, I can’t wait to make the next IPA,” he shares. “But at the same time, I’m really proud of our new hazy because it actually fits the bill that I look for where it’s not overtly fruity and it’s not yeasty and not grassy. … I don’t want plant matter in my beer!”
When it comes to lagers, Walking Tree’s American lager, called Landing Strip, is a nod to Walking Tree’s efforts to revitalize its neighborhood around the Vero Beach Regional Airport and hits perfectly for those steamy summer Florida days. As does Air Conditioning, a German pilsner released in June a couple of years ago that became a bit of a joke around town.
“On all of social media, we said Walking Tree has Air Conditioning now,” laughs Mike.
The Sky’s the Limit for Walking Tree
Somehow, after that 9.2% ABV barleywine shot, the next time I looked at my watch, three hours had passed. As the beer flowed, my conversation with Brooke and Mike rolled gently from politics to inclusivity and engendering community in a typically conservative area.
We never stopped talking, and as the minutes ticked by, people packed into Walking Tree.
By the time I left at 7 p.m., the band had just kicked off. Every so often, I’d hear a raucous roar as Barnacled Manatee shots clinked. Regulars posted up at the bar while a birthday party crowded into one of the long tables, and friends met up everywhere across the vast space—the place just buzzed with good vibes.
Honestly, I didn’t want to leave. Walking Tree is just the kind of place where you want to hang around all day and long into the night.
It’s the kind of place where you just want to shut the f*ck up and drink a beer.