Do You Detect a Draft?

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

A fourth group of investors is eyeing the city of Miami for a brewpub. This group is led by Alex Saenz, a Miami native who runs a brewing consulting business in San Diego. Saenz originally had planned to take over the South Miami Avenue site of the closed-down restaurant Firehouse Four, but the property is currently entangled in litigation and Saenz decided to look elsewhere. "The beginning was really me running against the wind, people telling me, 'You're not going to do this. What are you doing?'" the brew consultant says adamantly. "And I think it's because people have lost the vision, the vision. I know it can be done outside South Beach and Coconut Grove." (In 1989 the owners of the erstwhile German restaurant Zum Alten Fritz were probably just as certain when they opened Dade's only brewpub in recent memory. But the Florida Brewing Company, located in the Miramar neighborhood near the Omni mall, lasted only about three years.)

"I'm talking about doing something for the citizens," Saenz continues, shifting into huckster high gear. "Like pride in the Dolphins (I'm a Dolphin fan!) and the Hurricanes. Just being part of the city, the Sunshine State. That's part of what a brewery does, gives you pride in the city, giving back to the community. Being a native from Miami, I'm very enthusiastic working with the community." Saenz has dubbed his pub Magic City Brewery. "With the centennial coming up, I think we have a winner," he opines. "We have honest intentions here...that could also make money."

"I feel like we're pioneers in this!" exclaims Gonzalo Vargas. "The others, too. They're pioneers, too!"

Indeed, South Florida, where history is forgotten as soon as it's made and tradition doesn't have time to set, has a remarkable way of making legions of people feel as though they're doing something new and daring. But although beer-drinking Miami seems to be perpetually attached to the udders of Anheuser-Busch, Miller, et al., there was a time when this town knew homegrown beer.

The end of Prohibition ignited a frenzy of brewing activity here. According to the Register of U.S. Breweries, an index of beermaking operations since 1876, at least seven different brewing companies operated during the 1930s in the cities of Miami and Hialeah. No more than three ever operated simultaneously, though, and nearly all the enterprises were extremely short-lived. Kip Sharpe, an Alabama-based amateur beer historian specializing in the southeastern United States, says several other companies announced plans to open breweries during that decade that never materialized.

Miami's most enduring brewing operation, the American Brewing Company, opened in 1938 at NW Seventh Avenue and Thirteenth Street. (A cleaning-supplies business now stands at the site, located next to Booker T. Washington Middle School.) A division of a New Orleans-based brewer, the company pumped out suds for twenty years, producing Regal Beer, Regal Ale, and Great Dane Ale. Sales, which declined during the latter part of the Thirties, jumped with the arrival of World War II and the platoons of GIs who came here for military training. Regal could be found on tap at many of the town's bars, particularly those along NW Seventh Avenue, which was a main thoroughfare in the days before the construction of I-95.

Regal hung on after the war, employing more than a hundred locals. Even teetotalers were familiar with the brewery's bottle-shape neon sign, which soared above NW Seventh Avenue. "It was very, very visible," recalls local historian, Arva Parks. "I can remember coming back into town when I was a kid [in the 1940s], and when we saw the sign, we'd say, 'There's the Regal Beer sign. We're home!'"

The brand's cheapness appears to have been a major selling point. One of the company's slogans, "You can't drink freight," referred to the additional costs attached to beers that had to be imported into town. "It was a major player, a good seller," recalls Chuck Langston, who drove a Regal distribution truck in the Fifties. Back then, according to Langston, three quarts could be had for 99 cents. "We were so damn poor, we'd buy Regal," chimes in Paul George, a Miami native and associate professor of history at Miami-Dade Community College.

In 1958 brewing giant Anheuser-Busch stomped into town and bought the brewery. "They bought the company to destroy the label," asserts Langston, who these days works as a sales manager of a regional beverage distributor. "Six months prior to [Anheuser-Busch's] arrival, there were signs all over town saying, 'Bavarian is coming. Bavarian is coming,'" a reference to the newcomer's low-priced offering, Busch Bavarian.

A 1961 antitrust suit forced Anheuser-Busch to divest itself of the brewery on the grounds that Busch had acquired an unfair share of the regional market. Though the National Brewing Company of Baltimore soon picked up the operation for a reported three million dollars, sales continued to decline. This occurred in spite of (or perhaps because of) some desperate public relations efforts. One peppy jingle went: "Look at Grandpa, he ain't shy; he grabs a beer as he goes by. A kiss from Grandma he'll be stealin' when he gets that Regal feelin'." Another effort, the "Sun, Fun, and Regal" campaign, also went flat.

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