Craft Beer Making Waves in Miami
Let’s be frank. The city of Miami does not exactly exude an image of craft beer. That’s for the likes of Portland, Denver and Southern California. Miami is the home of South Beach, that Mecca of scantily dressed men and women frolicking about to club beats. There’s no craft beer in Miami, right??
I’m here to tell you there is—and lots of it!
No, Miami is not Portland. But it’s also not South Beach. In fact, South Beach is its own city. Miami does, on the other hand, have the industrial-turned-artsy neighborhood of Wynwood where craft brewers are working to take the spotlight away from South Beach.
Wynwood is a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood about three miles north of downtown Miami. I took the bus on a typically humid Miami afternoon in late October to have a look for myself. I saw many things, but my convoluted, Miami stereotype was not one of them.
First, I took in the neighborhood. It appeared industrial, a bit worn on the edges. Buildings were large blocks, clearly warehouses or factories in another life. Now they were covered in street art endorsed by the neighborhood. There was a Star Wars theme, perhaps feeding the hype of the upcoming release of Force Awakens.
Early on, the neighborhood was reminding me of any of the trending variety in my Rust Belt stomping grounds of Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Yet there was a distinct Latino flare that separated Wynwood from any other number of U.S. warehouse neighborhoods turning “hip.”
Take J. Wakefield Brewing, for example. The Hispanic influence is readily apparent in the names of their beers. There’s El Jefe, La Nada and Gourdita to name a few. But when I asked about the Hispanic connection, I was met with a shrug from the bartender.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, I was looking at the names.”
“Oh,” she said, glaring over at the taps. “I guess so.”
I decided it made complete sense that the Hispanic connection went over her head. This was a brewery in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. Of course, they’re going to be influenced by the surrounding culture. Do Germans think twice about any play on their linguistic naming? Or Americans? They call a beer “El Jefe” in the same way one could likely search for and find with relative ease a beer named, “The Boss.”
After this retrospectively obvious realization smacked me over the head, I made way down the street for Wynwood Brewing Co. to meet with Luis Brignoni. He, at first, didn’t make much of the connection between the neighborhood’s Latino roots and what’s going on with the brewing scene.
“Craft beer, I think, is about the purity rather than where it’s from,” he said dressed in his dark Wynwood uniform and a backward ball cap.
A stone’s throw away, Jesse Morris at Concrete Beach Brewery quickly recognizes the Latino influence, pointing to their passion fruit beer as an example.
“You can find it innately here because it’s imbued with the culture here,” he says. “A lot of those [Latin-American] fruits lend themselves to really intriguing beers. Our thinking was, ‘Let’s go try some cool shit.’”
Jesse, a native Floridian, who admits his beard should’ve placed him in Portland, started experimenting with his head brewer from New York by visiting local farmer’s markets and trying the food.
“Beer is a companion for food,” he says. “It’s never just about what’s in the glass. It’s about what they’re going to go to after they made it.”
Concrete Beach looks like the polar opposite of Wynwood Brewing Co. Concrete is brand new, huge, and more resembles new American craft breweries that can financially skip the micro stage and start big. Wynwood looks and feels more like the neighborhood bar, the place you go for a drink with a friend. Concrete is for the first date, and a party, Wynwood comes up once you settle down. It feels familiar.
A Cultural Movement
Back at Wynwood, Luis shares his familiar path to brewing. He started in college and his father fed the habit by purchasing him a Mr. Beer Kit.
“I got a little obsessed and started brewing nonstop,” he says.
When his sights turned to brewing in Miami in 2009, he noticed the scene was a bit dry.
“I kept bugging my wife,” he said, telling her, “We should do something!”
The rest is happy history with just a few bumps. Wynwood Brewing incorporated in 2011 and he pulled his father out of retirement in Orlando to help the business. (A cardboard cutout of Luis’ father stands next to the bar and he got a beer named after him.) The “bumps” came in general bureaucracy. Luis felt nobody in local government understood the concept of a small brewery.
“I don’t think you can do that because it’s illegal to distill hops,” Luis says he was told. “It took a lot of education.”
Now they’re eyeing 5,000 barrels for 2016, and Luis says, “it feels like home.” Even better, he’s happy to be contributing to the revitalization of the neighborhood, having signed a lease before it was cool to be in Wynwood. Now the area features some of the most expensive and sought-after real estate in the city. Most everything has a developer attached. And to Luis’s great joy, Wynwood remains distinctly different than South Beach.
“That’s exactly what we didn’t want to be. South Beach. They like flamingos and art deco. That’s fine, but we’re different. We wanted to be edgy, timely, and have the identity of the neighborhood speak out in the branding,” he says.
“Right now, Wynwood is at the forefront of a really good cultural movement.”