Keel Farms strives to serve quality food and beverage that is sustainable and taps into the talents of their community. ©Dawn Damico
Keel Farms Agrarian Ales and Ciders in Plant City, Florida, is a blueberry farm, disguised as a winery, brewery, and sustainable local business.
Before that, it was a nursery that built a reputation for growing envy-worthy poinsettias that caught the eye of the Disney company. Before that, it was a plot of undeveloped land in a town named after the man who helped build Florida.
Henry Plant is well known as one of the railroad titans who helped build Florida by laying miles of tracks across untamed regions of the state and erecting lavish hotels that made the Sunshine State a favored winter season destination for so many northern residents. Henry Flagler is the other railroad man who helped put Florida on the map, so to speak.
These two historical figures were the inspiration for Keel and Curley’s original name, Two Henrys Brewing. In 2019, after some confusion surfaced with a Canadian company with the same name, the owners decided to go back to what Joe Keel started about 40 years ago and rebrand to align with their roots: Agriculture that serves up quality, sustainability, and community.
I imagine Henry Plant would appreciate that.
*you will also find them by their other name: Keel & Curley Winery
In this article, I’ll share an overnight trip to Keel & Curley Winery, a little bit of country about 30 minutes east of Tampa in Plant City. Because of the farmland surrounding you as you drive down a two-lane country road lined with towering trees, you would think the city’s name comes from its farming heritage. What started as rich soil for cotton is now the winter strawberry capital of the world. But no. This town of 28.43 square miles and about 38,938 residents gets its name from the railroad man who helped build Florida. But that wouldn’t have happened if his grandmother had gotten her way!
Henry Plant and Florida
Joe Keel saw something special in Plant City. His nursery was famous for poinsettias, many which were sold to Disney. Today, you can see rows of local produce, like these strawberries getting ready for winter harvest. ©Dawn Damico
Before he was a railroad man, Henry Plant’s grandmother was preparing him to go to Yale College, hoping he would go into ministry. According to a historical text, in the early 1800s, most men only took college courses if they intended to enter the ministry. Instead, Plant attended district school, tried several occupations that didn’t suit his desire for an active occupation, and then engaged himself to a steamboat line in 1837 that was running boats between New York and New Haven.
It was there that he learned about transport and express business. He was the deckhand on a steamboat that also transported packages and express materials. By what might be called serendipity, Plant was assigned to the express room where they decided to store the packages. That opportunity planted the seeds for his future endeavors.
How Henry Plant Fell In Love with Florida
About 15 years later, Henry Plant had his first encounter with the state that would become not only his winter home but also the focus of his enterprising spirit. After his young wife became ill, and doctors urged Plant to take her to Florida’s pleasant climate, Henry and his wife experienced what we might call a bad travel experience.
Imagine traveling from New York to Jacksonville, Florida, with three connecting flights that extended over eight days, only to arrive at a tiny undeveloped town with no transportation and a night in a run-down motel.
Now, to be fair, transportation in the 1800s was by steamboat instead of airplane, but there were three different boats. Jacksonville had little to write home about yet, and Henry Plant couldn’t leave that hotel fast enough!
Still, Henry Plant saw something special in this remote part of the country. Florida captured a special place in the businessman’s heart as his wife’s health improved in her new surroundings. As they say, the rest is history.
From Farm to Glass (or Belly)
Keel Farms Winery offer more than wine. You can enjoy local craft beer and ciders too! ©Dawn Damico
Today, Keel Farms is a place to experience wine, brews, ciders, locally sourced food in their restaurant, goats, and farm-fresh eggs. There is a 25-acre farm open for exploration and tours, and well-behaved dogs on a leash are welcome. Half of the acreage is dedicated to blueberry bushes, one of the first crops planted on the property, and they open the fields for U-Pick in the spring.
While we visited, young strawberry plants poked up through neat rows, preparing for the first u-pick strawberry season starting in December.
Keel and Curley Wine
The wine at Keel and Curley Winery is a unique blend of sweet fermented juices that include flavors like blueberry, strawberry, and peach. Many of their sweet “wines” are actually fermented blueberries. Sweet wines are common in the South because the thick-skinned scuppernong grapes are the only thing that can handle the Florida humidity!
For that reason, when you approach the wine-tasting room, leave behind what you think wine should taste like because “this” is not “that.” Instead, enjoy the blends for what they are: fermented fruit juices, locally grown and sourced, and blended sometimes with grapes for a fun, light, sweet experience that mirrors Southern hospitality.
In case you’re wondering, these “fruit juices” contain alcohol—about 12%.
I asked our host about the process.
How to Make Heavenly Sweet Wine
All the grape juice and fruits for the wine are put into a barrel. The only things added to the fruits are cane sugar and dry yeast. The yeast causes the fermentation, and the sugar causes the alcohol. The liquid is processed for two weeks in stainless steel drums, and the temperature is controlled for each batch rather than controlling the temperature in the space. After that, the mixture goes through tubes where solids are directed to compost and juice to another tank. That juice is continuously stirred for two weeks so that it ferments evenly.
Their winemaker, who has been there for fourteen years, will begin tasting the blend after about eight days. He experiments with different flavors and combinations and presents new beverage options to the owners and crew for feedback.
After two weeks in the second tank, the liquid goes through an absolute filter that removes all but the tiniest particles, leaving clean, clear juice for us to enjoy! And with over 500,000 bottles of wine produced on their property, there is a lot of enjoyment from the fruits of their labor.
Sustainability is a Priority
Our host noted that they prefer to keg rather than bottle for sustainability reasons. You will notice that they pour many of their wines from a tap at the tasting counter rather than bottles. Each keg saves 27 bottles from ending up in a landfill. Their beers are keg only; if you have a growler, they can fill them up. Their ciders come in cans and kegs.
Keel Farms Wine: A Rainbow of Flavor
You’ll find flavors like Autumn Apple, Blueberry Moscato and Blueberry Sangria, Key West Key Lime Sauvignon Blanc, Orange Sangria, and Raspberry Rose. My preference is drier wines; however, a couple of the sweet wines delighted my taste buds. I thought a couple would pair well with a splash of ginger beer on a hot summer day. And the Key West blend had hints of a salty Gulf breeze.
For those who prefer dry wines, they have some blends like Pinot Noir and Merlot. The grapes for these dry wines are not sourced locally. Instead, they get the grape juice from fields in California to mix into locally grown fruit. Wild Berry Pinot Noir and Black Raspberry Merlot were on the list during our visit.
The Black Raspberry Merlot blends black merlot grapes, black raspberries, and cherries. The cherries add richness to the flavor.
Craft Beer (Ale) and Cider
Their tasting room is set up so you have the wine-tasting bar on one side and the beer and cider-tasting bar on the other. You’ll find a selection of in-house brews like BlueBerry Muffin (wheat), La Grange (French-style Pilsner), Lime “Goose” (Gose), and Passion Pit (Fruited Sour). They also feature craft beer from other local breweries. Selections from Royal Palm Brewing and Ravenous Pig were on the board during our visit.
The Cider selection is a kaleidoscope of flavors like Creamsicle, Elderberry, Mango (yum!), Mimosa, and Raspberry Citrus (double yum!). Initially, they had apple groves on site. Today, they source the apples from groves in New York, where everything is made and packaged, then shipped down to Florida. If I remember the conversation correctly, that change had something to do with efficiency in the process and canning.
The Farm at Keel Winery
Enjoy looking at these “kids” playing in the backyard around the dino! The chickens are right next door in a large enclosures where fresh eggs are plentiful. ©Dawn Damico
We wanted to take a tour of the farm; however, they canceled them because of rainy weather on the day we arrived. Instead, we did a self-guided tour to enjoy the property after our wine tasting and some Gator tacos made with alligators sourced locally from a gator farm in Lakeland.
The grape vines seen from the large outdoor deck are primarily for show and photo ops, not for wine production. However, it certainly adds beauty to the experience. A little further down, you’ll find a family of playful goats and a large enclosure with chickens busy laying eggs.
A couple of outdoor seating areas invite you to linger before and after your meal and tastings.
Farm to Fork Restaurant at Keel Farms
Local and Sustainable are what you’ll find at Keel Farms. The beef for their burgers comes from a local ranch; the gator meat comes from an alligator farm not too far away. ©Dawn Damico
You can expect the same farm-fresh, locally sourced commitment for dinner. We started with Blistered Shishito Peppers. Then, I tasted the Berry Salad, topped with blueberries (of course), strawberries (duh…Plant City is the strawberry capital), and candied pecans. We also enjoyed the Wine Burger, made from local grass-fed beef with Black Raspberry Merlot caramelized onions.
Where to Stay for you Keel Farms Experience
Keel Farms is a part of Harvest Host and RVers can stay steps away from the tasting room. The owners also have a refurbished farmhouse you can rent, perfect for a family, larger group, or special occasion. ©Dawn Damico
You can find several mid-range hotels around Plant City, nearby Lakeland, and Tampa. There are also two unique places to stay that have a direct connection to Keel Winery:
For RVers, the property adjacent to the winery is available on Harvest Host. You’ll enjoy an expansive grass area with several large trees just beyond the large dirt parking lot. When you wake up in the morning, you will truly feel like you’re on the farm, especially with cows across the road and roosters crowing with the sun.
Lakeside Vineyard in Thonotosassa, Florida (Airbnb)
The owners invite you to stay in their beautiful lakeside vineyard home on Lake Thonotasassa, just 10 minutes from Keel Farms. This is a remodeled, early 1900s farmhouse with 2500 square feet. Here is the Airbnb property link.
You can purchase your favorite wine or cider in bottles and cans, but bring a growler for the craft beer (or buy one at Keel Farms). ©Dawn Damico
Keel and Kurley are intentional about sourcing locally. From the food grown on the property or from surrounding farms served in the restaurant to the merchandise they sell in the tasting room and the people they hire for all aspects of the business, they support locals as often as possible.
When they can’t produce it onsite, they first look to their immediate community. One example is that they used to have their bee hives for honey on the property. It became a problem with customers, and visitors were uncomfortable with the bees (getting stung can do that to you!). Their solution was to reach out to a beekeeper in the community to source honey from them instead. Those bees are brought to the property in December to help pollinate the farm.
Being kind to the environment is essential, too. They prefer that packaging is environmentally friendly, as noted earlier. Walking around the property, you’ll notice the compost pile busy at work to return to the ground, where it will nourish future wines, ales, and ciders.
Why Should You Visit Keel Farms?
Award winning wines are just the beginning for your experience and Keel and Curley Winery. The other side of the tap room has t craft beer and ciders to enoy! ©Dawn Damico
Plant City is in West Central Florida, Hillsborough County, about 25 miles east of Tampa. It’s an easy day trip from many places on central Florida’s west and east coasts.
Small planes might like the services at the Plant City Airport (KPCM)
Keel Farms Agrarian Ales and Ciders and Winery is a glimpse of the farming side of Florida.
At Keel Farms, you can:
- Take a farm tour
- Hang out with friends and family on one of their outdoor patios to enjoy the day as you sip on your beverage of choice
- Enjoy a farm-to-fork meal with ingredients sourced locally, many right on the farm
- Visit with the goats
- Watch the chickens and then go inside and purchase farm-fresh eggs
- Take pictures by the vines or near the old model truck
- Purchase a bottle, can, or growler home to enjoy later
- Stay at their Harvest Host
- Reserve their Airbnb property
- Unplug for a little while and enjoy life in the country
Other Things to Do In/Around Plant City
You can choose your flight among a selection of craft beer and ciders. ©Dawn Damico
Strawberry Festival: Attend the annual Florida Strawberry Festival held each Spring in February/March. It’s the biggest of its kind!
Downtown Plant City Historic District: Take a stroll through the charming Downtown Plant City Historic District, known for its historic architecture, antique shops, and local eateries.
Dinosaur World: Explore Dinosaur World, a theme park with life-sized dinosaur replicas, fossil digging, and a museum with prehistoric artifacts.
Working Farms and Markets with U-Pick: Indulge in fresh strawberries and other locally grown produce at various farms with fresh produce, live animals, farm tours and more.
Edward Medard Regional Park: Enjoy outdoor activities like fishing, hiking, and bird watching at Edward Medard Regional Park which includes a 700-acre reservoir.
Alafia River State Park: Located south of Plant City. Go hiking, biking, or horseback riding at Alafia River State Park, known for its diverse trails and outdoor activities.
Downtown Lakeland: Explore the nearby city of Lakeland, where they close down the streets to celebrate local events. Maybe that’s why they call it the “mecca of cool.” Also home to Frank Lloyd Wright architecture at Florida Southern College
Sunflowers of San Felasco: Depending on the season, visit the Sunflowers of San Felasco for stunning sunflower fields and photo opportunities.
*see map below
We enjoyed our overnight trip to Keel Farms Agrarian Ales and Ciders in Plant City, Florida, and I’m looking forward to taking another day trip to see some of the other working farms and u-pick experiences in and around Plant City.
I’ve included a map below with some of the destinations. It’s driving distance from Tampa and Orlando. You can use this to start planning your own trip to Plant City.
Have you been here? I’d love to hear about your experience and about any destinations in this part of Florida that I missed and should check out!
*see map below
Save this for planning your trip to Plant City, Florida and Keel and Curley Winery, Keel Farms Agrarian Ales and Ciders: