Do You Detect a Draft?

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

The two young moguls perched over mozzarella cheese sticks and iced teas at a Hallandale Denny's are trying to explain why their business idea is going to sell to South Florida, perhaps the entire state, maybe even beyond. Their product: beer. By definition a festive beverage. On the other side of the keg, at least. On this end, it appears to be a serious matter.

David Wiest, a Fort Lauderdale resident who moved to the area twelve years ago and who bears an uncanny resemblance to Married...With Children patriarch Ed O'Neill, wants to elucidate a pitch in terms of their beer's physical selling points. "It's rich and full-bodied," he ventures, then adds in a nod to the subtropical climate, "not one that would weight you down."

After a few stabs at this marketing gambit, partner Vincent Prince waves Wiest off. "What we really want to do," he says, leaning forward earnestly, "is provide a good product for people in South Florida -- maybe you can work these words out for me -- that the people in South Florida will find a product that is -- what do I want to say? A really representative of South Florida. That's our goal. We want something that everyone can take pride in. Like the way the Dolphins once were: the pride of South Florida. Uh, maybe we shouldn't put the 'once' in there," he corrects himself. "That's really our goal."

A South Florida native, Prince grew up in Liberty City and now lives in Miami Lakes. "We think South Florida is really deserving of this product at this point in time," he continues, choosing his words carefully. "I think South Florida is, and has always been, a place where people can get away and relax and live at a slightly slower pace, and that's what we're getting at."

Prince pauses, but he's still not through. Having played the hometown-team card and the sun-and-fun card, he's looking for one more trump: tradition. "The architects of South Beach," he declares solemnly, evoking (by association if not by name) the likes of developers Carl Fisher and John Collins, "brought the aura of the beach, of being able to sit back and let your hair down. That's the spirit we want to capture in this product. We want people to think when they drink our beer that this is why people come to South Florida: They come with the attitude that they want to enjoy themselves. Even if they come for business, that at five o'clock they want to take their tie off and head for the beach! We want to produce a product that is consistent with that type of lifestyle."

Speech over, Prince leans back in his chair. "Maybe you can clean that up a little," he suggests.

If the sales pitch seems a little unpolished, it's not because Prince and Wiest haven't given their project a lot of thought. For the past two years, they've been trying to develop a microbrewery in Miami. Employed as financial managers at an aerospace company, they began visiting several microbreweries in the northeast. Next they paid a brewery in Auburndale $25,000 to develop a recipe and mix up a test batch of 3000 cases of Prince Gold. Plastering lampposts, walls, and coolers with their label, they test-marketed the beer in Miami Beach, Coconut Grove, Fort Lauderdale, and other Generation X and yuppie stomping grounds. The response was encouraging enough that they have persisted in their attempt to open Miami's first hometown brewery in twenty years. The primary stumbling block: assembling investors to supply the $700,000 needed to secure a site and commence construction. Though they've already passed what Wiest terms their "drop-dead date" (April 30), they haven't given up.

Money and marketing uncertainties aside, the duo faces other daunting factors in their quest to douse Dade with suds. A year ago, when customers were popping the tops on those first few Prince Golds, Prince-Wiest Brewing Company seemed to be the only new brewer in town. Now, however, at least three other microbreweries (i.e., ones that produce fewer than 15,000 31-gallon barrels per year) are under construction between Broward and Key West. All three are much closer than Prince-Wiest to manufacturing their first batch. In addition, at least four brewpubs (i.e., bars that make their own beer, usually on the premises) are planned for Dade County alone, at least three of which appear to be within a month or two of completion.

The relative explosion of beer-related activity in Miami straggles along behind a nationwide trend that has seen a massive growth in the so-called craft-beer industry during the past fifteen years. As of today, only two microbreweries are up and running in this state; neither is located in South Florida. About two dozen brewpubs are in operation, including one in Key West and one in Fort Lauderdale. None in Dade, though.

Not yet.
"Brewed in our traditional brewhouse," announces the label of the Miami Brewing Company's yet-to-be-manufactured Hurricane Reef Lager. "Hand crafted in small batches...in our traditional microbrewery." If this evokes romantic images of a nineteenth-century brick building whose smokestacks soar proudly skyward and whose vats are lovingly tended by dedicated, family-loving union men while a herd of Clydesdales paw the stable dirt out back...it shouldn't.

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.

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.

"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.

Which is why South Florida's new brewers are frothing to get out their product. "We look at our market as West Palm to Key West," declares Luis Lopez, marketing director of Miami Brewing Company. But, he adds, the company is also eyeing the Caribbean, the rest of the southeast United States, and Japan.

Lopez and others might want to curb their expansionist appetites and heed a cautionary tale from a comrade upstate. In June 1992, Beach Brewing Company caught the microbrewery wave early. In a small, 1250-square-foot brewery set up in a banquet kitchen at an Orlando Holiday Inn, the company began producing three types of beer and selling them in kegs. "Before we started, we went around to all the larger bars and restaurants, and about 50 said, 'Yeah, we're ready to go! Put our order in!'" Beach vice president Brian Baldasano recollects. But when Beach came knocking with its kegs, Baldasano adds, only two of those 50 businesses bought.

In its first six months, Beach Brewing sold 750 kegs, in its first full year (1993) only 1000, and Baldasano quickly learned that beer doesn't sell itself, particularly if it is microbrewed: "The distributors committed very heavily to selling the product -- they were, like, 'We can do it! We're your number-one team!' But they haven't opened one account for us."

Beach Brewing's minuscule staff had to "hit the pavement," Baldasano recounts, training waitstaff at restaurants and bars about the finer points of microbrewed beer and demystifying their brew for the general public. "We found out that it was an educational process, that there was only a small market share of people who knew anything about microbrews. Most people are scared of the product if it isn't golden pilsner," asserts the brewer. "Florida is a beer-ignorant state." This past year, Beach saw its sales ascend to about 2800 kegs; 1995 projections are 500 kegs higher.

To his neophyte brethren in South Florida, Baldasano offers this sip of guidance: "It takes time. Put enough money aside for marketing. Create yourself a niche with some special style of product or a certain marketing message A ours is that we're Florida's first microbrewery." He's happy to give advice to any new brewers, Baldasano adds. "There's plenty of room for growth!" he says cheerily.

Just don't ask him about his special yeast.

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