Explosive growth has been the trademark of craft beer in South Florida for the past five years. From a low of just a few brewpubs and small breweries dotting the landscape here or there to the now-expansive list of newly opened breweries, ranging from tiny multibarrel houses to large production facilities, there's been a paradigm shift in the way beer has been perceived in our neck of the swamp.
It's now easier than ever to find something to suit your palate. Thanks to the internet and social media, it's easier to seek out knowledge and meet educated folk in the field. It's easier to find ingredients to make beer yourself at brew supply shops, many with the same ingredients that big brewers get.
But how easy is it to be a brewer? If you have the will, there's a way. We talked to several industry veterans, newcomers, and up-and-comers about what it takes to make beer for a living. It distills down to four basic steps.
The first steps are always the easiest. It's probably something you're already doing right now. Just do it more.
Seek out beer styles you haven't had before. If you are a self-described hophead, go over to the other side and start delving into the wild world of sour beers, or seek out a strong Scotch ale or English barleywine to really stretch your malt-responsive taste buds. Experience is the greatest teacher.
"It's crucial to develop your palate," says Russ Brunner, 2013 Sam Adams LongShot winner and gold-medal homebrewer at the 35th-annual National Homebrewers Conference. "Trying a world-class example of a beer style in the proper glassware and environment can literally change your beer-drinking life.
"I was a Miller Lite drinker. When I first tried a St. Bernardus Abt 12 served to me by local beer-tending legend Ian Hunter at Brother Tucker's, it was the catalyst for me to start brewing. I tasted caramelized dark sugar and notes of dark stone fruit and figs. I didn't believe my server that all of these amazing flavors and aromas simply came just from a perfect balance of malt, hops, and yeast. I bought [John Palmer's] How to Brew the next day, and the rest is history."
Fran Andrewlevich, who cofounded both Tequesta Brewing Co. and Twisted Trunk Brewing Co., believes it's best to learn from your elders.
"When I started tasting beers, there was nobody knowledgeable around. So you go, 'OK, it's a little roasty,' and that was it... I met a guy who used to judge at the Great American Beer Festival and some other guys that I knew [who] knew beer, and I'd just drink beer with them. Just drink beer with them... and say, 'What are you tasting?' Just surround yourself with people that are knowledgeable in it and share the same passion."
Did you think you were done with study hall, exams, and late-night cram sessions when you left college?
Beer has such a wide-open palette of colors, flavors, styles, and history that it's easy to get lost once you've opened the Pandora's box of craft beer. After you've refined your taste buds a bit, it's important to supplement the subjective with the quantitative, and it all boils down to one simple act: reading.
Pick up books; there are so many around now, but the standards still apply. Read Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink by Randy Mosher, writer and faculty member at the Siebel Institute, America's oldest brewing school. Pick up the New World Guide to Beer by the late Michael Jackson, arguably the most influential beer writer, who helped kick-start beer interest in the 1970s. Sit down with former Middle East AP correspondent and Brooklyn Brewery cofounder Steve Hindy's The Craft Beer Revolution: How a Band of Microbrewers Is Transforming the World's Favorite Drink. All of these and many more will fill you with a wealth of knowledge about where beer comes from and where it is going.
There are also certifications to acquire as well, such as the various levels of cicerone, beer's answer to the sommelier. These are useful tools that help to show a level of professionalism to the world.
Chris Cohen, certified cicerone, certified Beer Judge Certification Program judge, and contributing beer writer for SeriousEats.com and SF Weekly, believes that "being a certified cicerone really does give you know-how and the authority to tell someone without reservation: 'I'm an expert.'?"
Andrewlevich, our local font of beer knowledge, believes a practical approach is useful as well.
"I think educationwise, if you're not a brewer and trying to get your palate better, you go to tastings, you go to beer pairings, you're making that commitment, financially, mentally."
Finally, after all of that research, it's time to make beer.
Brewing beer at home can be the easiest and simplest process or one that evolves into an ever-expanding collection of equipment and gadgets. Whichever way you proceed (and you will eventually start expanding your collection), you will end up with beer. It's a fairly simple beverage to create. The true art is in the craft.
Brunner, who has been brewing since about 2011, believes the best mantra is "Sanitation, sanitation, sanitation."
"Keep it clean, and provide the best environment for the yeast to make a phenomenal beer," he says. "Brewers make wort; yeast makes beer."
After that, he continues, become educated on yeast management and fermentation control. Both of these processes are incredibly important — and often overlooked — aspects of creating something worthwhile. Don't get caught up in the hops and the malts, though that can be an exciting area to dwell.
Soon you may move from beginner's malt syrup kits to basically making it yourself by mashing your own grains.
"You go from the all-extract to the all-grain and get a real nice [brewing] system" Andrewlevich says. "So you're actually making the commitment, making the financial commitment, and doing it. You're going to make better beer. Once you see the grains going in, smell the hops, that really ties it together for a lot of people."
Brew It Professionally
At this step, it's all about taking everything to the next level: You're familiar with beer styles, you know the ins and outs of what makes beer really beer, you've made some killer brews that have won a homebrew award or two, and now you're looking to open your own place. Luckily, there are a few people who know a thing or two about that, such as Mike Halker, founder and brewer at Due South Brewing in Boynton Beach. He opened his brewery in 2012.
"Sure, it's a business, and whether you open a brewery or a bookstore, you're going to have to navigate the traditional waters getting things off the ground," he says, speaking about the differences between brewing at home and brewing commercially. "Opening a business isn't easy, but honestly, as difficult as it is, it's the easiest part of owning a brewery.
"Today's brewer must be ever-evolving and connected to the consumer. It's going to take more than a good IPA. And with the diversity in the market, you've got one chance. If they don't like what you've produced, they're going elsewhere.
"It's back-breaking work," he continues, "in a building that feels like an oven for hours and hours, so if your heart's not in it, it's hard to stay the course. But if it's your passion and you truly care about the liquid, none of that matters. It's all about the beer. And that's integrity. And the people will know."
Bangin' Banjo Brewery co-owner Adam Feingold says just the action of taking your hobby and turning it into a business is a challenge. "Now when you screw up a batch, it costs you a lot of money," he says.
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As for the more physical issues on going professional, such as buildings and permits, Feingold says it varies from person to person.
"Everyone has it different. We had it fairly easy. Do your homework and due diligence. Our biggest complication was getting the plans drawn."
Finally, it's all about being specific: specific in your mission and your budget, specific in your knowledge and your passion. "Figure out precisely what you want to do," Feingold emphasizes, "which concept and which path to follow. It's a lot more than serving beer out of a bar... You have to make beer that inspires."
Doug Fairall is a craft beer blogger who focuses on Florida beers. He is a Certified Beer Server and has been a homebrewer since 2009. For beer things in your Twitter feed, follow him @DougFairall and find the latest beer pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.