Mission Improbable: One Man's Quest to Find a $1 Beer in South Florida

It was me this time, but it just as easily could've been you.

The week had been an emotional bruiser. Deadlines, bosses, landlords, bank tellers, traffic, lady friend — each had their go, catching me with one unexpected kaboom after another until my nerves were breached and my patience was in hospice care. And it was only Wednesday.

I needed a beer. A draft, ice-cold. Not the memory wipe of a dusk-to-dawn bender. Just one. Something to pull a temporary curtain over all the noise. A breather before the next round.

So I popped into Abbey Brewing Co. in South Beach. The last gulp of an IPA splashed in my glass as I hooked my head around to take in the happy-hour crowd. A couple nuzzled in a booth. A lonely tourist locked on SportsCenter. It was a clean, poorly lighted place, to twist the line from Hemingway. The quintessential American rest stop for the battered soul: the bar.

The guy manning the counter slipped me the bill. My wallet was out before I scoped the charge: $4.50. That's with a $2 discount for happy hour.

Suddenly, my easy-earned peace was rubble. A whole hosanna choir of fat ladies began screaming in my head: "Too fucking expensive."

"Hey, man," I said to the bartender, papering over my annoyance with a buddy-buddy vibe, "how do you guys decide how much to charge for a beer?"

"I guess it's just what the owner decides he needs to charge to brew the beer," the guy said.

"Because this," I say, pushing a finger at the $6.50 on the menu, "is pricey."

Everything in South Florida is getting too fucking expensive. True, this place has always been wrapped in an haute couture image, the drop-top destination for global elites. But Maybach Miami is more mask than reality, and underneath, this region has working-class guts. Unfortunately, as the country stumbles out of the Great Recession, it's the normal folks who are getting sidelined and screwed.

Start with the land. Real estate prices are in upswing. I'll bet you a case of Ice House your rent's gone up in the past three months. It's been jacked for me and everyone else I know. And with land, so goes the price of everything else: fuel (10 cents higher than the national average), natural gas prices (more than 50 percent higher), and food. They just keep slapping meretricious layers of cost over the region like paint jobs on a stolen Camaro.

That's why those wallet-busting bar tabs sting. I'm from the Rust Belt, where we fight crippling winters and postindustrial blues with feeding tubes of cut-rate beer. I've stanched my own worst hours with soul-boosting trips to cheap dives, where amber waves flow easily, the American spirit in 16 ounces. And let's face it: If you're on the losing end of a boom economy, cheap drinks are the only consolation prize.

But South Florida is becoming a 1-percenter playpen. The succor of the working stiff is hard to find. So, like a postrecession Aeneas skiffing over a Mediterranean of booze, looking for a homeland that might exist no more, I decided to set off on a quest for the greatest beer deal of them all — the dollar draft.

I lay out some ground rules for my search. (1) Draft beer only. (2) No one-night-a-week deals; any bar that satisfies my quest has to offer a daily special. (3) No chain restaurants. (4) No Googling — word-of-mouth suggestions only. On a random Tuesday night in November, I set out into the belly of the boom economy, the blingy Oz of silicone beach bods and glass condo towers: South Beach.

Lesson number one from the field: It's hard to fit a fat roll of cash in your pocket if you're wearing skinny jeans. Put it in your back pocket: hard to sit. Front pocket: porny bulge. Still, I break two Andrew Jacksons down to 40 Washingtons and pocket that rubber-band bank.

If any place has a dollar draft, I figure, it's got to be the VFW Post 3559 — an open secret tucked into a condo building on West Avenue, with buzzer access. Marlboro smoke veils the small room looking out onto Biscayne Bay. By 5 p.m., regulars are hunkered down on stools, each new arrival heralded by backslaps and handshakes.

But there's no dollar beer here. Bud Light comes in the bottle for $2.25. I load up on two.

"The days of the dollar draft on the beach are dead," one patron grumbles. A lady who overhears that I'm a New Times writer looking for cheap drinks shakes her head solemnly. "They don't pay you too much over there, do they?"

I plot a course northeast. Quickly, my fat bank of singles crash-diets down to a slim roll. At Lost Weekend on Española Way, a Fat Tire is $5.02. I skip over to Finnegan's Way on Ocean ($5). The Whitelaw Hotel and Bar ($7.62). FL Cafe ($7.56). Tomorrow, I'll find a Post-it that says "beech place draf $5.24."

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson