Back in my Miami days, mojitos, martinis and margaritas dominated the drinking scene, from South Beach to the suburbs. In the early 2000s, beer was an afterthought for the South Florida beverage manager, who made sure his or her bar was stocked with top shelf vodka, tequila and plenty of cachaça, limes and fresh mint. During my eight years living in Miami, there was no craft beer scene to speak of. Sure, there were international beers readily available such as Presidente and Quilmes, each popular in certain pockets of the Dominican and Argentinean communities. Sure, there were a few places like Zeke’s on Lincoln Road, who boasted over 140 bottles and select craft drafts at an unheard price of $3. Then there’s The Abbey Brewing Co. in South Beach, a dark and tiny pub that was off the beaten path and had an impressive menu of fine craft beer. On the mainland in Coral Gables, the Titanic, known as “Miami’s Oldest and Finest Brewpub,” churned out its own crafty suds. These places were the exception to the rule during my time there, and none of these places were glamorous or trendy, which is what life in South Florida was all about. I never really gave beer much thought and ordered whatever was on tap. Beer was for beach days and bucket specials of Tecate at Señor Frogs. It was the libation of choice for St. Patrick’s Day, but that was about it.
In 2008 I left behind my flip-flops and exchanged them for winter boots, making the move to Upstate New York. It was about that time that my craft beer curiosity (sparked from recent European travels) turned into a flaming passion. My new surroundings already had a booming craft beer scene, and another one was emerging in Quebec, an easy drive for me. As I became more and more entrenched in the craft beer scene of the Northeast and Canada, there was a Florida scene taking a fast and furious life of its own. While happy to live in a New York beer town and meet great people in the industry, I was shaking my head that I wasn’t in Florida to experience this exciting period for small brewers and beer aficionados who could finally have a space to create great beers and a form a new community.
Fast forward to present day Craft Beer USA. Zeke’s on Lincoln Road is no longer, and the charm of the dark brown wood and iPod jukebox at The Abbey has been replaced with a much larger space, lighter wood benches, and craft beer now resides with a full service bar to attract non-beer drinking South Beach residents. The Titanic is still there, I’m sure, with its successful formula to appeal to everyone. Franchises like Gordon Biersch and The Yard House were relatively new when I left, which might have helped start a quiet revolution brewing in the minds of soon-to-be pioneers of the not-yet-there Miami craft beer scene. Father and son co-founders of Wynwood Brewery (est. 2011), Luis C. Brignoni (“Pops”) and Luis Jr. took a gamble on an idea that has hit pay dirt. Taking traditional styles and making them todo Miami, Wynwood’s beers reflect the strong Latino presence in South Florida. With names like “La Rubia” Blonde Ale, tropical aromas of El Dorado Pale Ale and coconut-white chocolate flavors of CocoChoco Stout, it’s hard to ignore the changing landscape of craft beer in the United States.
After reading about Wynwood and other microbreweries quickly joining the ranks of Florida powerhouses like Cigar City from Tampa and Boca Raton’s Funky Buddha, I had to check out the scene for myself. The Key West Brewfest was the perfect venue to explore Floridian beers and to “drink like a local,” the motto for Florida Brewers. After years of attending brewfests exclusively in New York, Ontario and Quebec, the Key West Brewfest was uncharted territory for me. The excitement of a whole new scene along with the ocean as a backdrop was almost too much to handle. The goal: to sample only Florida beers and talk with brewers. Mission accomplished. I was able to meet with the guys from Wynwood who were proud of their Lupulado Batch #1, a fresh hop pale ale brewed with fresh Cascade hops from New York. Pretty soon I was drinking like a local again, trying Belgian Wits with hibiscus flowers and Saisons with Florida mangos. There was an excitement in the air from brewers and tasters alike who all knew that craft beer was here to stay and not just a passing fad or glamorous gimmick. Attending this event opened my eyes wider to what I was already reading about: the rapid growth of the craft beer industry in recent years. To be amidst the excitement of a new dawn rising in Miami was an experience like no other. It was confirmation that a mojito town can peacefully coexist with Pop’s Porter and La Rubia. Salud!