Do You Detect a Draft?

Undeterred by Miami's history of hops flops, local microbreweries unleash a new round of beer pressure

Miami Brewing is setting up shop in a sterile light-industrial complex of warehouses in the not-so-scenic burg of Medley. Wedged among various export and wholesale-distribution centers, a bad odor's waft from a nearby landfill, the business is not exactly the stuff of tourism board-certified sightseeing excursions. At present, in fact, Miami Brewing has only three staffers: the president, the marketing director, and the brewmaster. During the past few weeks, workmen have been overhauling the 10,000-square-foot warehouse and installing the brewing equipment to begin production and bottling of three beers -- a lager, an amber ale, and a golden ale.

Company founder and president Richard Durkin says an interest in home-brewing and trips to Europe and New England led him down the microbrewing trail. He'd wanted to open a brewery in a building that sported a more picturesque architectural profile, until he realized the resulting costs would have doubled his budget. "I guess our dream would be to be very successful, to make good beers, to buy some land off a turnpike exit, build a 30,000-square-foot restaurant, and become a destination," he says. (As it stands, the endeavor is costing about $1.5 million, according to sales manager Luis Lopez.)

The other two South Florida breweries-in-progress are also nearing startup. Key West Overseas Breweries, Inc., located in a warehouse district on the Overseas Highway, and the Old Florida Brewing Corporation in Oakland Park have their equipment in place and are awaiting the requisite state and federal licensing. Key West Overseas president Kenneth Sandham says he's going to begin brewing one lager and distribute it in kegs to Monroe and Dade counties, and then, within eight weeks, commence bottling. Old Florida president Richard Powers, a New York businessman, intends to kick off with six different beers but restrict initial distribution to Broward.

The first among the current brewing torrent likely to open a tap is the South Pointe Seafood House in Miami Beach, which has installed a $150,000 system in full view of restaurant patrons. The operation is being stewarded by 27-year-old brewmaster Jeff Nelson, an import from California who learned his art at brewpubs in Eureka and L.A. Sporting long hair, wire-rimmed glasses, a goatee, blue jeans, and lightweight hiking boots, Nelson is a Northern California stereotype come to life. ("Yeah, it was pretty interesting," he recalls of his first trip to meet the owners of the seafood restaurant. "I was surprised. It's kind of a yuppie place, and I came looking like a hippie from the hills.")

Somewhat skinnier than one might expect of a man in his profession, Nelson came to Miami Beach armed with a cookbook of beers he intends to "adjust" for the area. South Pointe will offer a light beer, a red, a stout, and a mystery option Nelson calls "the Brewmaster's Select Series, which is anything I feel like making." He and his boss, restaurant owner Arthur Forgette, are aiming to capture a business-lunch crowd, then lure them back for happy hour. The regulars, Nelson reports, are already "pretty stoked about it."

A little way up the Beach, on Sixteenth Street just off Alton Road, another brewpub, the Abbey, is evolving. Thirty-year-olds Rich Dispenzieri and Raymond Rigazio, friends since their childhood in Tappan, New York, bought the grotty but venerable Knotty Pine Bar and have gutted the interior. In place of the dusty, green-shingle decor, they're installing mahogany and maple shelves and paneling to capture the woody sensibility of an English pub.

"Throughout history, monks were like the educators who taught people how to make beer. They brewed beer for survival, to support the abbey," explains Rigazio, who says pewlike booths will be constructed with monastic archways to match. Unlike most brewpubs, the Abbey won't brew on the premises: Dispenzieri and Rigazio will contract out that work to the not-yet-operational Key West Overseas Breweries. The paradox doesn't faze the two New Yorkers; in fact, their contract-brewing arrangement has become a bragging point. "What makes us unique is we're the first contract brewpub around," Rigazio chirps. (To brewing purists, this is akin to a pharmacist calling himself a doctor. Remarks Sara Doersam, managing editor of the Tampa-based trade publication Southern Draft Brew News: "It's interesting they would call themselves a 'brewpub'. That's kind of bogus.")

Slated for Miami Lakes, a third Dade brewpub is the brainchild of a group of five partners led by Gonzalo Vargas, a Bolivian native who runs an import-export business. Vargas says he was inspired two years ago while tossing back a few at brewpubs in Southern California. "There are so many Latin people here who are not hard-liquor drinkers," he reasons. "They are beer drinkers, we think. We thought that in Miami having a very light environment, full of green and flowers and plants, a fresh environment would invite people to consume beer."

The walls of Vargas's office, located in an industrial park in the armpit of the Dolphin and Palmetto expressways, are covered in an architect's colorful renderings of the brewpub, planned for the site of a now-defunct restaurant. (The name of the operation -- Don Gambrinu's -- pays homage to Don Shula, Miami Dolphins coach and honorary mayor of Miami Lakes, as well as to Gambrinu, a mythological god of beer, Vargas explains.) The drawings depict sprawling multilevel decks of wood and tile, in great part open to the air, with a thatched-roof bar and a wall of gigantic TV screens. Vargas originally looked for a site in Coral Gables but couldn't find anything suitable. "We felt the place deserved to be big," he asserts.

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