When entrepreneurs Allan Branch and Tim Whaler were looking to start a brewing company in Panama City, they considered numerous names and ideas, but chose to let the public decide.
In a Facebook poll, people voted for a history class.
History Class Brewing Co.—or History Class, for short—is a brewery and brewpub in the heart of downtown Panama City that names its beers after local historic figures.
Patrons can order Ella Mae light ale named for the wife of Judge Joshua Sapp—who built the Sapp House by the courthouse—or SeaLab Exp. #472 IPA, named for the naval support activity on St. Andrew’s Bay, where the U.S. Navy Sealab performs marine experiments.
“The mission has always been to celebrate the history of Panama City and share the stories of the people who built this community,” explains Fontella Thompson, front of house manager. “They were ordinary people who did extraordinary things, and the concept was always to share those stories alongside good beer and good food.”
Allan and Tim started the business together, with Tim—an urban planner by day and once homebrewer by night—serving as the brewmaster.
With help from residents and organizations, Allan, Tim and creative director Eric Darnell researched Panama City history to come up with beer ideas.
“Bay County Historical Society was a huge resource for information and collaboration,” Fontella says. “They also pored over archives from the Bay County Library and, of course, collected stories shared by friends in our community. There are tons of local families that have roots in this town for many generations back.”
Created as a winter respite for Confederate soldiers, the town of Lynn Haven also attracted Union vets to the southern sun. The town’s Dr. William Krape erected a statue for his fallen Union comrades—the only monument honoring a Union soldier south of the Mason Dixon Line. In honor of this unique story, History Class created The Union Soldier IPA.
The Hero porter honors Air Force Pilot Lt. Edwin Gorbet, whose jet caught fire and was heading toward Jinks Junior High School in Panama City. Instead of ejecting and saving himself, he guided his jet away from the school and lost his life in the crash.
Some stories, such as “The Hero,” are told in videos on the brewpub’s website.
“All of the stories we share about this town—and those we have yet to share—are important to us,” Fontella says. “That said, when you look back at some of those first stories we told through the names of our beers, those were the ones we were most eager to tell.”
Continuing with the history theme, the brewpub’s walls are lined with old Panama City images, likening the atmosphere to a museum—albeit one with beer, pretzels and chicken wings.
“We set out not only to tell stories, but to build a place in our community where people feel comfortable and inspired to tell stories of their own—and that’s what we’ve seen so far,” Fontelle says. “Locals and visitors both love to walk around the brewery and see the artifacts in various places around the taproom, see the old photography and artwork on the walls, and read the stories there. But what’s amazing is when someone points at something and says, ‘That’s my great-granddad!’ or ‘I remember that old building. That’s where I had my first job.’ People share all sorts of stories and connections with our staff every day.”
February 23 marked the 113th anniversary of the official incorporation of Panama City. History Class commemorated the event with a “table beer” inspired by a recipe found in a Confederate recipe book printed more than 100 years ago.
G.M. West beer is named for city founding father George Mortimer West—a writer, photographer and city renaissance man who changed the town’s name from Harrison to Panama City during building of the Panama Canal. History Class Brewing’s website includes a video of that story.
The brewpub offers monthly tastings highlighting the beers and history behind their names, and celebrates events such as Star Wars Day on May 4— “May the fourth be with you.”
History Class will host a June 5 Birthday Bash Carnival on Park Avenue behind the brewery to celebrate the anniversary of its opening.
“We opened the doors to History Class in June 2020—yes, a challenging time to open a business,” Fontelle says. “But it has been rewarding.”