No Cheer for This Beer

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When Dave Fisher proudly held up a gold-painted coconut, a group of twenty men and one woman broke into applause, whooped, and swilled beer. He and the rest of the Fort Lauderdale Area Brewers (FLAB) had just won the first annual Coconut Cup and would soon be taking the gilded trophy home to Broward.

Members of the Miami Area Society of Homebrewers (MASH) were left, well, crying in their beers.

The competition between South Florida's two most seasoned home-brewing clubs took place Saturday, February 21, at the Firehouse Brewing Company's small plant on NW 64th Street just west of the Palmetto Expressway. Twelve judges, culled from the two clubs and several local microbreweries, sampled 62 different home-brewed beers in three categories: pale ales, porters/stouts, and wheat beers. In a blind tasting that lasted four hours, the judges worked at two folding tables set up on the concrete floor of the brewery, scrutinizing and savoring the entries for aroma, color, clarity, head retention, and above all, flavor.

FLAB took home all the gold medals, all the silvers, the best-of-show award, and thus the coveted Coconut Cup. Brewers from MASH walked away with three silvers.

The two team leaders try to explain the lopsided results but offer little insight. "They outnumbered us by a lot," sighs MASH president Richard Pushaw. "We kind of expected this." The more brews a team brought to the contest, the greater the chances one would impress the judges, he reasons. FLAB president Dave Fisher is humble, if repetitious, in victory: "They were outnumbered."

Indeed if strength is found in numbers, FLAB had an indisputable advantage with 65 brewers, compared to MASH's 18. FLAB began small, though. Eleven charter members formed the group in July 1996, but after a few monthly meetings at the Independence Restaurant and Brewery in Fort Lauderdale, the club's ranks quickly swelled to 100. "Drunks started showing up," Fisher recalls. "But when they figured out that we weren't a bunch of drunks, they stopped coming."

The best-of-show medal went to FLAB vice president Mark Osowski, a state parole officer who lives in Deerfield Beach. He has been home-brewing since 1986, when classmates of his at Florida State University introduced him to zymurgy, the science of brewing. That, he notes, was several years before commercial microbreweries, many of them begun by amateur home-brewers, had proliferated across the United States. "Microbrewing has opened up the world for people," Osowski proclaims. But he has no interest brewing anywhere other than his kitchen, and has never thought of going commercial. "We got into this not to make money but to make beer."

Unlike some of FLAB's gatherings, MASH'S monthly meetings at the Hofbrau Pub and Grill in Coral Gables have never drawn an overflow crowd. MASH was founded in 1995 by California native Jeff Davis, the brewmaster at Miami Brewing Company, a microbrewery in Medley that produces Hurricane Reef beer. Davis was also a judge at the Coconut Cup.

After their defeat, MASH members consoled themselves and pondered issues such as why the vast majority beer drinkers south of the Broward County line seem to prefer watery, bland beers over flavorful, full-bodied brews in the northern European tradition. "I wouldn't doubt it a bit if there were cultural reasons," speculates MASH member Mark Swenson, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Swenson, originally from Michigan, won a bronze medal for his stout at the Coconut. "If you were born in the United States, you're more likely to have a history with classical brewing traditions than someone from the tropics."

Another brewer, who prefers to remain anonymous, suspects issues of status to be germane: "In some Latin countries, if you buy the national beer it means you're rich. If you buy the local brew it means you're poor."

But the brewers from MASH agree that the biggest factor was probably the climate in Miami, which they are certain must be much hotter than Fort Lauderdale's. The warmer the weather, the lesser the interest in richer, tastier beer, they surmise. "For some reason, when you live in colder climates, that cold, light, refreshing thing is not as important [as flavor]," Swenson observes.

"On a hot day when you're in a boat off Dinner Key, the last thing most people want is a stout," adds Davis. Miami Brewing does not market stout. Its main local rival, Firehouse, did so last year, but stopped production owing to lack of sales. Firehouse has now launched a new lime-flavored wheat beer aimed at the light-beer consumer -- a move that elicited disdain from home-brewers at the Coconut Cup. "That's a Corona knockoff with a twist," scoffs MASH member Joe Berryman, who sampled it while awaiting competition results.

But just as Miami Brewing and Firehouse have begun to cater to the light-beer mainstream, bars that once offered little more than Corona and Budweiser are now serving microbrews. For example, last year the Clevelander Hotel on Ocean Drive opened a microbrewery next to its dance floor. MASH member Jamie Ray is the brewmaster.

For many home-brewers the next best thing to the homemade product is beer from a microbrewery -- a plant that produces fewer than 15,000 barrels (about 540,000 gallons) of beer per year. But for others even microbrews are just not good enough. "That stuff's garbage," rails Berryman, who writes for MASH's newsletter The Tropical Homebrewer and works for the Miami-Dade Department of Planning, Development, and Regulation. "Microbrews are a real disappointment. They are there to cash in on a fad."

A home-brewer can prepare a five-gallon batch in an afternoon by boiling malt extract, hops, sugar, and water. The boiled substance, known as wort, is transferred to a bucket and yeast is added; fermentation takes about two weeks. The ingredients and equipment, including kettles, fermentation buckets, and bottles, are inexpensive and available at home-brew specialty stores.

MASH vice president Robert Fischer thinks Miamians simply need to be better educated about beer. "A lot of people just don't understand how varied the possibilities of drinking beer can be," he explains, brimming with enthusiasm. "Just like wine, you can match beers to a specific celebration or dinner. For example, you might want to start your dinner with something light, like a pilsner. With the main course you might want something a little more bitter, like an India pale ale. Then later maybe out come some cigars and you might want something else. Then there's the weather to consider. On a hot day maybe a stout wouldn't be your cup of tea. Maybe something else."

But MASH members may not have time to wean Miamians from light beer. They'll be too busy revising their recipes so the club can bring the Coconut Cup to Miami. "We're trying to build a rivalry," says Scott Ross, MASH's competition chairman. But he knows that won't be easy. "How competitive can you get," he shrugs, "when you're drinking beer all day?

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