Misfit Home-Brewers Help Lead Miami's Craft Beer Invasion

Neftali "Nifty" Medina opens the door to a spare bedroom, which he calls the "man cave," in his modest Southwest Dade house. The skinny, goateed 30-year-old squeezes between standing guitars and a drum set and then walks over to a large freezer fitted with a tap and thermostat. He flips open the lid and grabs two five-gallon kegs, one in each hand. He turns and gives them to his stout and brawny friend, Robert Tejon, who carries them outside to the back yard in preparation for a weekend barbecue.

There's Buddha's Sweat American Stout, Kiwi IPA, Pineapple Xpress, Wheat Pale Ale, Wheat-R-Melon IPA, and Bust a Nut Peanut Butter Porter.

Medina, Tejon, and eight other friends made the stuff themselves. They are all members of the five-year-old club Misfit Home-Brewers, a local pioneer on the do-it-yourself brewing scene.

"We experiment with a lot of things — barrel-aging, additives, fruit, peanut butter, chocolate — and it doesn't end up costing us thousands of dollars," the 29-year-old Tejon says. "If we want to add some fruit, we just go out and spend $15 and buy like ten pounds. That's what sets us apart from a lot of microbreweries. We get to use a lot more exotic ingredients."

The Misfits are just a small part of South Florida's renaissance of craft beer, which is celebrating American Craft Brew Week, May 14 through 20. Last month, the area got its first brewery in decades when Schnebly Redland's Winery & Brewery completed a home-built brewing setup. Florida International University is preparing to build a research microbrewery for its Chaplin School of Hospitality students in January 2013. CerveTech, a place where people gather to brew smaller batches of beer, took off just a few months ago.

And dozens of restaurants and bars have begun stocking exotic suds that until recently were available only in California and New England. There's even a relatively new shop off Galloway Road that sells all the fixings, so homebrewers don't have to get all of their supplies over the Internet. "We have veterans and rookies," Tejon says. "Everybody is connected by the fact that they brew their own beer."

Nationally, craft brew retail sales have grown by about 15 percent in the past two years as sales of conventional beer have fallen slightly, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group. That continues a trend that began years ago in colder parts of the country, where big brewers have cut back and little guys have picked up business.

For decades, Miami was left out of the craft brew trend. Hot weather, a leaning toward hard alcohol, and easy access to inexpensive, high-quality Latin beers put the city behind the curve.

Or at least that was the case when Medina, Tejon, and company started the Misfits. That was in August 2011. Their hip-hop/rock fusion band, Nature's Fury, was jamming out during a Coconut Grove tattoo festival when they were shut down for playing too loudly. Pissed off, they took a short walk to Big Daddy's Liquors and combined their cash to snag a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale, a craft beer from Chico, California. "We took them back like Coronas," Medina says. "We were drunk for hours!"

Tejon purchased a small beginner's do-it-yourself homebrewing kit and made a five-gallon batch of what turned out to be a high-gravity Belgian pale ale. He thought it sucked. It was heavily carbonated and smelled funny, but his buddies enjoyed the high alcohol content. Within two months, Medina and Tejon had formed a homebrewing club called Nifert's Strong Ales — an amalgamation of their first names, Nifty and Robert.

Soon Tejon and Medina were hosting parties and barbecues with their homebrew. It made such an impression on their friends George Garcia (who would learn to make kiwi and peanut butter beer) and Piero Rodriguez that they wanted in on the action. Others followed. Five years later, Misfit Home-Brewers club was born.

For Tejon, who customizes trucks as a day job, everything came together after he did more research into homebrewing. It took him about a year to produce what he considered a great batch of pale ale. "Once I started using good ingredients," Tejon says, "it all got better."

Five years and more than $10,000 later, the Misfits have begun showing up at craft beer festivals across Florida. Now they are hooked on using local tropical fruits to produce Berliner Weisse beer, a sour wheat brew originally from northern Germany with an alcohol content of about 3 percent. "The main reason why we make beer is because we make stuff you can't find," Medina says. "That's why people like our stuff."

Miami retailers are ordering more craft beer too. In the past two years, Kendall liquor store Sunset Corners has seen a 30 percent increase in craft beer sales. The shop now stocks more than 300 varieties, including rarities such as Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Ale, which can be aged in the bottle.

"We've gone from putting them all in boxes up front to putting them in one aisle and building shelves," assistant manager John A. McGriff says. "That gives you an idea of how craft beer has taken off — when we have to make space in our store for them."

Now Sunset Corners receives Bigfoot Ale — the brew that Medina and Tejon's band drank that day in the Grove — by the pallet. "People have no qualms about paying $100 for a case of craft beer," McGriff says.

Tejon the Misfit doesn't spend that kind of money, though. "I'm very picky," he says. "That's kind of the reason why I brew my own."

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David Minsky is a U.S. Navy veteran and Tulane graduate who has experience reporting on stories from California, South Florida, and the Deep South. He has also won some journalism awards. Email or tweet David with story tips and ideas.
Contact: David Minsky