Enter a nondescript warehouse near the junction of the Palmetto Expressway and Bird Road and you'll smell something like supercharged cream of wheat. Move in a few steps and you'll find Nick Armada, a 31-year-old man of average stature with salt-and-pepper hair, stirring a kettle of grain mash ever so diligently.
"When you're not paying attention, you'll get a boil-over easy," he says. "You get a boil-over and you lose two gallons right off the bat."
Mixing and mashing the wackiest flavor combinations is all part of homebrewing. And Armada's business, CerveTech, is the eye of this particular storm. Armada is Miami's Brewmeister Smith — the evil mad scientist from The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew. But he's not creating an army of beer-entranced zombies. Rather, he's converting regular folks to the sophisticated art of handcrafting small batches of beer.
Opened by Armada this past September, CerveTech is a place where, for a small fee, folks can learn how to boil wort, add yeast, bottle, and wait — in just the right proportions. After helping found B.R.E.W. FIU — a club at Florida International University's North Campus for people interested in beer — Armada wanted to spread his expertise further.
Membership starts at $25 per month, which allows access to the warehouse on SW 75th Avenue and use of all the brewing equipment: kettles, fermenting jars, taps, propane burners, kegerators, and a freezer. For $25 more, members receive ingredients such as barley, hops, and malt — enough to brew a five-gallon batch of beer, which is equal to about 54 bottles. And $100 per month buys all the fixings for three five-gallon batches of varying flavors.
So far, 25 people have joined CerveTech. And they have crafted many a strange brew. Three members — Danny Morales, Christopher Campos, and Diego Ramirez — created a flan-flavored beer that tastes like a caramel cream ale.
"Wacky? I do a lot of that," Armada says. "The chili stout is pretty out-there. But a black IPA at 8 percent in a blue corn whiskey barrel for four months seems even wackier."
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One member, Eric Santana, acquired a strain of wild sugar cane called caña brava, which grows mostly in Cuba, to use as a beer ingredient. "The cane is thicker, black as night on the outside," Armada says. "And you can taste the green [from the inside] like fresh-cut grass."
While attempting to clone a Miami version of Fat Tire ale, a craft brew from Colorado, the 31-year-old Kendall resident discovered the unique sugar cane and agreed to trade bottles of beer for the stalks. "I don't know how the strain got here," Santana says. "When we were brewing it, we wanted to try a twist. That's when we came up with the sugar cane."
From novice to veteran, all levels of craftsmanship are represented at CerveTech. One experienced member is Jonathan Wakefield, who says he collaborated with Cigar City Brewing in Tampa to brew seven beers. One of them, the Pilot Series Passionfruit and Dragonfruit Berliner Weisse, ranks eighth among the world's top 50 beers, according to RateBeer.com.
Wakefield met Armada through B.R.E.W. FIU last summer and now instructs CerveTech members on making Berliner Weisse beers, a type of sour brew native to northern Germany. "The easiest way to turn a wine drinker into a beer drinker is through sour beers," Wakefield says. "[CerveTech] has a lot of potential, and he brews a lot of good beer. He's off on the right foot." •