Move Over, Margaritaville: In the Subtropics, South Florida’s Craft Beer Scene Emerges

Feature by | Oct 2013 | Issue #81
Photo by George Mercado

Funky Buddha Brewery’s John Linn remembers a time in the not-too-distant past when the words “craft beer” drew blank stares in South Florida bars.

“Nine times out of 10, people would not know what you were talking about,” says Linn of the average Fort Lauderdale bar-goer two or three years ago. Now, from West Palm Beach to Miami, those same barflies can hold their own in conversations about beer styles, varieties of hops and the nuances that indigenous Florida ingredients bring to brews.

Linn is a former beer-distributor rep who now works as brand director for Funky Buddha, the region’s newest and largest production craft brewery, located near Fort Lauderdale. In South Florida, he says, microbrews have become an “indispensable part of our restaurant scene, our nightlife, our culture, to the extent that if a new spot opens up … craft beer almost has to be a component of the menu.”

The sea of change that Linn describes didn’t happen overnight. In a land of glitz, glamour and beach bodies, beer often took a backseat to wine and cocktails.

Craft beer’s slow rise in South Florida also had a lot to do with the region’s melting pot of cultures, says Diego Ganoza, a native Peruvian who has called Miami home for most of his adult life. “We have a large [first-generation] Latino population, and they traditionally are ‘world lager’ drinkers,” Ganoza says. “We now have the younger generation—second- and third-generation Latinos—who are ready for something other than their father’s cookie-cutter Latin-American lager.”

An accomplished homebrewer who hopes to pin down a brick-and-mortar brewery location in Miami this fall, Ganoza has teamed up with restaurants, food trucks, beer fests and other events to give people a taste of what his Gravity Brewlab has in store.

Like other emerging South Florida brewers, Ganoza has found a niche in incorporating ingredients that provide familiar tastes to locals. He recently created a Belgian-style Farmhouse Ale called Saizonetta that he brewed with uncooked, unmalted semolina grain provided by South Beach restaurant Macchialina, which paired Ganoza’s beer with its housemade porchetta panini.

Johnathan Wakefield, another big name in the Miami homebrew community, uses tropical fruits like guava, mango, passion fruit and dragon fruit to ferment his tart Berliner Weisse-style beers. (A standout, his Salado Limon, combines sea salt and kaffir lime for a taste that’s undeniably margarita-esque.) By doing so, he’s put a regional stamp on the style—folks have taken to calling his brews “Florida Weisses”—similar to the way West Coast brewers gave us their turbohopped twist on IPAs.

Wakefield is eyeing an early 2014 opening for his Miami brewery, aptly named J. Wakefield Brewing. While waiting this summer for licensing approval and brewing equipment, Wakefield kept his game sharp by working as a temporary brewer at Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing.

About 30 miles north of Miami, at his brand-new, 30-barrel brewhouse and taproom in Oakland Park, Funky Buddha owner/brewer Ryan Sentz balances his portfolio of Florida-funky beers like Key Lime Pie Berliner and Moro Moro Blood Orange IPA with more straightforward brews like Floridian Hefeweizen and Missionary Blonde Ale.

“As much as people enjoy the specialty beers, most people want to have three or four or five of a particular beer,” Sentz says. “That’s when they go back to the staples. Even when we have a beer on like No Crusts [a peanut-butter-and-jelly Brown Ale], our top two selling beers are our Hop Gun IPA and Floridian Hefeweizen.”

Funky Buddha has evolved from its humble beginnings in 2007 as a Boca Raton hookah-and-tea lounge that also served craft beer. The brewing facility Sentz opened in June has a bocce court in the taproom and fermenting tanks named after his employees’ kids, grandparents and pets. It’s a draft-only operation for now; Sentz says he hopes to have a bottling line in place by mid-2014.

“As for distribution outside of Florida, we will occasionally send a keg or two for special events, but we want our main focus to be to take care of our own backyard,” he says.

Even with talented brewers cranking out creative, quality beers, it takes passionate consumers to make an area’s beer scene sing. And South Floridians are fully embracing the craft beer movement.

Chris Birnie-Visscher, sommelier at chef Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne in downtown Miami, smiled recently as he watched guests at a beer dinner tear into deconstructed red velvet cake paired with Brewery Ommegang’s Three Philosophers Quad. As more and more customers are looking for craft beer options, he says he’s happy to accommodate them.

“We have such a great selection of beers at our fingertips now, so getting them into the restaurant isn’t a problem,” Birnie-Visscher says. “But my job is to educate myself and my staff about what the different styles are, and what beers go well with what’s on our menu. I’m at a point now where, if a guest wants a full beer pairing with their meal, we can do that for them—and do it very well.”

Food and beer also come together in a special way at MC Kitchen in Miami’s Design District. There, beverage director/operations manager (and beer fanatic) Marcus Wade curates the deepest Dogfish Head selection of any South Florida restaurant, along with dozens of other US craft brews. And customers, he says, can’t get enough.

“There is no resistance, only open arms,” Wade says. “When I walk into MC Kitchen’s dining room, I feel a sense of accomplishment at the sight of a guest eating an 8-ounce filet accompanied with a 12-ounce Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. It’s truly a touching moment.”

And the beer enjoyment extends beyond restaurants and bars. Florida International University in North Miami has offered its students a brewing-science course since 2007 and recently began hosting sold-out homebrew classes to the public. (More proof that beer is gaining ground: FIU’s student brewers poured their beers at the popular South Beach Wine and Food Festival last year and will do so again in February.)

In Fort Lauderdale, Julian and Lisa Siegel’s Riverside Market has become a destination for the area’s craft beer fans, a laid-back spot to relax with friends over piled-high sandwiches and cold brews. If Riverside’s 20 draft choices—at least half of which are local—aren’t enough, a wall of coolers holds more than 550 different bottled options.

In an interesting spin on the honor system, bottle openers hang from Riverside’s ceiling, and customers can pop their own caps while hanging out. When they’re ready to close out, they bring their empties to the register, and pay for what they drank.

“People say we are crazy, but we believe if you trust people, they will be more trusting,” says Lisa, who’s a former schoolteacher. “The self-service environment allows people to interact. It actually builds friendships and promotes freedom of choice. Strangers talk at the wall of beer. Opinions are formed, and decisions are made.”

Riverside launched a six-week Beer Academy this summer as a Father’s Day promotion. It filled up so fast that the Siegels immediately announced a second semester. “The community had a thirst and need to learn about craft beer,” Julian says. “The response has been overwhelming. Students never want to skip school!”

81Feature4A Six-Pack of South Florida Brews

Due South Category 3 IPA: A flagship of Boynton Beach’s Due South Brewing Co., Cat 3 is a textbook example of malt-hops balance.

Miami Brewing Co. Shark Bait: A mango-flavored Wheat Ale, Shark Bait goes down easy on a hot South Florida afternoon. At press time, the brewery, an offshoot of south Miami-Dade County’s Schnebly Winery, announced the hiring of brewmaster Andrew Guthrie and plans to begin canning by November.

Gravity Brewlab Der Kommissar: For this tongue-in-cheek riff on a German-style Gose, Gravity Brewlab brewers Diego Ganoza, Robert Tejon and Seth Hammond add French sea salt—“just to spite old Kommissar.”

Funky Buddha OP Porter: A dose of lactose adds a slight creaminess that makes this versatile Porter a perfect complement to grilled meats or sweet desserts.

J. Wakefield Gmorks Revenge: This rum-barrel-aged version of brewer Johnathan Wakefield’s The Nothing Imperial Stout is spiked with vanilla beans and coconut, and has drawn comparisons to Three Floyds Dark Lord and Cigar City Hunahpu.

Inlet Brewing Monk in the Trunk: Organically grown hops and Belgian ale yeast result in a fresh-tasting yet complex Amber Ale that was first released in 2006. Although based in Jupiter, Fla., Inlet Brewing Co. sends its Monk recipe to Thomas Creek Brewing in South Carolina, where it is contract brewed.

Coming Soon

M.I.A. Beer Co. is pushing for a late-fall opening for its brewery and tasting room in Doral, a few miles west of downtown Miami. Brewmaster Piero Rodriguez is hoping his honey-wheat Crimin Ale and other small-batch beers will be a hit with local drinkers.

Wynwood Brewing Co. scheduled its soft opening for late September. The new brewery in downtown Miami’s Wynwood Arts District comes after two-plus years of planning and buildout.