Do You Detect a Draft?

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

"There's old hogs and there's new hogs," muses Bill Haire, a long-time Miami resident and beer distributor who drove a Regal truck during the Sixties. "The old hogs go along with it, the new hogs want something else. Regal was a good beer. But national advertising got the best of it."

Though its budget could never compete against the gargantuan national firms that monopolized much of the market after World War II, there is ample evidence that Regal had enough going against it to fail on its own.

"Regal? That was a terrible one," winces Mac Klein, proprietor of Mac's Club Deuce on South Beach. "It was horrible and cheap." The Deuce's well-known neon designs reflecting off his bald pate, Klein smiles at the horror of the recollection. "Regal," he declares grandly, as if proclaiming a motto. "A beer I'd never drink." He pauses, then offers an amendment. "You can say, 'I once had a bottle of Regal and I immediately switched to whiskey.' You can quote me saying that." Whereupon he laughs and disappears into the back room of his bar.

"It was a particularly vile beer," shouts Butch Beamer Warren over the din of the Taurus Steak House in Coconut Grove, where he's been a bartender since the Seventies. "It was just unbearable, the worst vile garbage imaginable. That was a beer marketed for someone who didn't want to spend the price of a regular beer. It had a terrible stigma: If you saw someone drinking it, you figured they were on the way out -- they weren't down and out, but they were coasting." Warren coughs a laugh. "It was sold in just about every bar, but it was the court of last resort: Do I spend my last bit of silver on a cup of coffee in the morning to wake up, or do I go for the knockout punch with the Regal?"

In its waning years, Regal seems to have fallen completely out of the Miami vernacular. The Miami Herald's Tropic magazine published a story about Regal in October 1973, titled "Yes, Folks, There Is a Miami Beer." Not long afterward, the brewery closed.

Of course no one plans to produce a mediocre beer. Certainly not Miami's neobrewers, all of whom, to a man (and they are all men), tout their products' purity, high quality, and healthfulness. For a bunch of self-styled mavericks, in fact, all are trumpeting virtually the same message: It's fresh! It's got no preservatives! And it's your beer, Miami!

A micro- or pub-brewer's hopes of seducing Miami's drinkers away from the popular brands, and away from each other's product, likely will come down to the lotus of advertising. On the surface, the new brewcrew professes to welcome the competition. But their mutual suspicion suggests otherwise. Gonzalo Vargas of Don Gambrinu's says that as far as he's concerned, more brewpubs means more public awareness and therefore more people who will be encouraged to visit his pub. In the same breath, though, he attempts to extract information about his potential competition, pulling out a notebook and remarking sotto voce, "We have to look at these."

Ken Sandham, president of Key West Overseas Breweries, declares, "The more the merrier, there's enough room in the market. Florida has the fourth-largest per capita beer consumption in the whole country!" Then he asks, "What else have you found out that I'd be interested in?"

Says Prince-Wiest Brewing Company's Vincent Prince: "The only thing competition creates is the awareness of microbreweries in general. I think there is room in the market for both us and [fellow Dade hopeful] Miami Brewing." Partner David Wiest, meanwhile, inspects a reproduction of that competitor's label. "Uh, they're going to have some major labeling costs," Wiest whistles. "It doesn't do a lot for me. I don't know if pastels work for me."

Sara Doersam of Southern Draft Brew News says the South Florida micro- and pub-brew market is wide open at the moment. In fact, according to Doersam, the rest of the state and the entire southeast region is on the verge of experiencing a brewing boom. "Quite frankly the southeast has grown slower than the rest of the country," she says. "I think a lot of people speculate that it's the Bible Belt and the religious right is slowing it down. But a lot of it has to do with legislation." (South Carolina and Georgia legalized brewpubs only within the past year; they're still illegal in Mississippi.)

Since the early 1980s, an assortment of microbreweries and brewpubs has explored the niches between the large brewers. Small companies now number in excess of 400 around the U.S. According to information provided by the Beer Institute, a Washington, D.C., trade association for beer manufacturers, as many as 100 new small breweries (primarily brewpubs) opened this past year. Still, despite its remarkable growth, the craft-brewing industry has only captured about one percent of total beer sales nationwide. As the oft-repeated craft-brewing adage goes: The average microbrewer makes per year what Budweiser spills.

At present Florida is home to about two dozen brewpubs and only two microbreweries, says Sara Doersam. Needless to say, there's room for more growth. "It's kind of like the last frontier," she says.

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