"Drive slow!" shouted several of the more than 20 passengers on a minicoach as it rolled south on I-95 past the sprawling suburbia of southern Palm Beach County. The driver looked back, smiled, and set the cruise control to 55, allowing traffic to pass unabated.
Why the leisurely pace when most people just want to get to wherever the hell they're going? Simple: free beer. As another round of cold ones from Brew Bus Brewing was tossed down the aisle, the adults smiled like kids on Christmas. At the wheel, the driver looked almost preternaturally mellow.
Welcome to the South Florida Brew Bus.
The five-month-old beer tourism operation takes craft-beer-loving citizens on journeys to five local breweries to sample 12 to 16 ounces of beer at each stop, as well as however much they can drink on the bus. The bus has its own line of five beers prepared by Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, such as the award-winning English porter Double Decker, rich with chocolate malt and roasted oat flavors. By the end, sobriety ranges from tipsy to hammered.
"We're a little different from a regular brewery tour company," Brew Bus event coordinator Aaron Caplan says. "We don't just do brewery tours... We do stories of finding that one beer that keeps you going back."
The concept was hatched in Tampa three years ago, when Florida-born Anthony Derby returned home to the Sunshine State after attending the University of Colorado. While there, he had become infatuated with the craft beer movement and, after attempting to visit three breweries in one day, saw his opportunity. Upon his return in 2011, he teamed up with his mother, who is the acting president of now-iconic Cigar City Brewing, and began the operation that would become the Tampa Bay Brew Bus.
That service started in February 2011 and, with the help of Cigar City, began offering its own beverages in June 2012. The bus hit three of the 29 breweries in the Tampa Bay area, offering passengers three routes.
Last year, Derby hired college friend Aaron Caplan to help with the creation of a similar service in South Florida. By March 2014, they had purchased a 23-passenger bus to travel among three breweries. For $50 a head, they provided pint tickets, beer, and, most important, transportation.
These days, South Florida Brew Bus offers two tours on an alternating schedule. The northern route begins at Funky Buddha Brewery and heads north into Palm Beach County. Buddha's 40,000-square-foot production facility and taproom, styled in a glitzy warehouse motif, is home to nationally popular beers such as Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, the white chocolate and coconut Last Snow, and the cinnamon-, vanilla-, and apple-flavored Bonita Applebum.
The tour provides ample time to study the stainless-steel fermenters, stacked wooden barrels, and other equipment that makes it all possible. We even got to sample the limited-release No Crusts peanut butter and jelly brown ale, another of Buddha's culinary-inspired creations. It burst with peanut aroma and flavor, with a hint of fruitiness at the end.
After allowing guests a 20-minute respite to commune with a proper pint, the bus moved out. It was a fun place. As the beer began flowing, people got into a friendly mood. Those who began as happenstance neighbors in some cases became instant friends. "Where are you from?" led to "What's your favorite beer?", which led to "Hit me up on Facebook."
Saltwater Brewing, situated just off the interstate, is the next stop on the northern route. Saltwater, which began producing beer in December 2013, is a gorgeous update of a 50-year-old barn. Dade County pine is spread throughout, as part of the bartop, the paneling, and even the tap handles. If the name didn't give it away, the ocean is a major theme here. After a brief tour, a glass of South End session ale is offered. This low-in-alcohol but high-in-flavor beer is crisp but slightly creamy, with a full flavor of biscuity caramel malts, some mild smoke, and a light pineapple hop aroma. By this point, with all these beers, you'll be well into the tipsy range. The advantage of a chauffeured bus becomes starkly apparent.
Then comes Due South Brewing Company, which has been around since 2012. It has won the title of Best Large Brewery in Florida from the Florida Brewers Guild, added a canning line, and expanded distribution throughout the southern half of the state. This is the least glamorous of the three facilities. During the summer, the taproom is hot because most of it lies in the production warehouse. Fans keep the air circulating. But you don't go here to just hang out; you go for the beer.
The northern route ends here with the Mexican Standoff, a porter infused with cocoa nibs, vanilla, cinnamon, and chilies. It packs some heat in the back of the throat, which the cinnamon surprisingly does well in mitigating.
Indeed, Wynwood is the highlight of the southern tour. From the self-titled Wynwood IPA, chock-full of British crystal malts and balanced hop bitterness, to Beat the Meat, a fun-to-order pale wheat ale that's as crisp and warm as a slice of toasted white bread, this warehouse retrofit is a hidden gem among the art studios and galleries that populate the Wynwood Arts District. It's easy to miss from the outside, but once you step inside, you'll marvel at the brewery taproom. With photos, art, murals, and plenty of IKEA-sourced seating, it's a modern ode to the neighborhood and so very Miami.
You don't have to be a craft beer aficionado to enjoy the bus. In fact, it's probably the best way to dip your toes into the game. "Sometimes [passengers] are friends of someone who enjoys craft beer and they bring them on to enjoy it," Caplan notes. "A lot of times... they're here to experience it without the risk of driving in between."
The idea of brewery tourism is perfect for South Florida, where the art and science of craft brewing has just taken off. From the introduction of a brewing program at Schnebly Redland's Winery in Homestead called Miami Brewing Co. to the highly anticipated openings of J. Wakefield Brewing and Concrete Beach Brewing in Wynwood, the tricounty area is a tinderbox of thirsty men and women ready to drop change on an afternoon of drinking. For the price, it's easier to get drunk elsewhere. For the experience, it's something that can't be matched. After all, how often do you get the chance to get wasted on the highway?
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"Once more breweries open, we'll be switching it up," Caplan says of the tour routes. "As South Florida grows, by this time next year, more breweries will definitely help."
Until then, each tour lasts about five hours and packs a powerful punch. "I had a fantastic time," passenger Adam Nortman of Hollywood sounded off after an afternoon on the bus. Then he looked over at the notes I was scribbling, sat up straight, and jokingly said, "It exposed me to a myriad of brewing options in Palm Beach County." He laughed. His buddy laughed. We all laughed.