Counting Down to New Times' Beerfest: John Linn Talks Craft Beer and Why It's Gaining Traction in South Florida

With the New Times' Beerfest just a few short weeks away, Clean Plate Charlie is focused on all things beer and particularly the beer scene as it stands in South Florida.

To get an understanding of where our region and our state are fall in line with national trends, we connected with John Linn, who serves as "Barron of Beer Happenings" for Brown Distributing Co., a Beerfest partner.

In an email interview, Linn -- a former food critic for New Times -- brought us up to speed on the momentum of the craft brew movement in South Florida, what we can expect to see next, and what he recommends for spring sipping. Details after the jump.

Clean Plate Charlie: What is the current state of the microbrew movement in Florida? How does this compare to a few years ago? Or on a national scale? (Are we ahead of the curve/behind it/on par?)

John Linn: Craft beer in Florida is booming like never before. For years, we've had a really dedicated following of craft beer drinkers, but in the past year or so the movement has expanded into mainstream appeal.

Credit for that has to go partly to the multitap beer bars such as Tap 42 and World of Beer that have come in and introduced to a really wide audience the idea that beer is so much more than just fizzy yellow stuff.

But I think you also have to look at the local Florida brewers such as Cigar City, Tequesta Brewing, Big Bear, Titanic, Funky Buddha, and more, who have contributed to that with some amazing beers that really push the envelope in terms of creativity and taste.

I mean, all you have to do is look at Cigar City's Hunahpu's Day, which was held [March 10] and attracted, like, 6,000 people to come out and stand in line for a chance to get a rare beer made with ancho chilies and Mayan cocoa. That's pretty incredible.

If you wanted to look at it from a more objective perspective of numbers, nationwide the craft beer movement grew about 14 percent in 2011. Just in South Florida alone, [Brown's] craft beer business grew 84 percent in that same span. So while there's still some catching up we need to do in comparison to states like Colorado or Oregon, the scene down here certainly is growing at a rapid clip.

What are some coming trends for beers? What's new on the horizon that beer lovers and even novices could keep a look out for?

Cider has been talked about often as the next huge wave of the craft beer movement. That's largely because cider, like Florida, I guess, has a lot of room to grow. It's an untapped market. Many cideries are also moving beyond the typical cider mold and starting to employ some of the techniques that American craft brewers are, such as barrel aging, incorporating funky or interesting flavors and ingredients, and using a variety of ale yeasts (especially Belgian strains) to change the way these products taste in dramatic ways.

In the beer world, the big trend moving forward is local. Local is really the next logical step for the movement. For one, fresh beer tastes better, and you can't get much fresher than drinking, say, a [Cigar City] Jai Alai IPA that you know was bottled a week ago and is on a shelf at Publix today. That, and people want to patronize local business and see it flourish.

The growth of local breweries in Florida is what's really going to drive the movement to expand in a big way down here. There's a statistic that says the majority of people in the U.S. live within ten miles of a brewery. That's definitely not the case down here, but I can see that being a possibility in the future.

There are going to be a number of local breweries that will start to produce on a large scale this year -- Funky Buddha in Boca Raton is one; Due South in Boynton [Beach] is another.

Any suggested spring beers, whether from Florida brewers or anywhere else?

Well, Florida spring is pretty much summer anywhere else in the U.S.! People tend to reach for "sessionable" beers in hotter weather; something you can drink more than one of and not want to fall asleep.

Locally, we've got Cigar City Hotter Than Helles, which is year-round but fits that bill with a nice, Vienna-style lager with all-malt character. Funky Buddha just did a cream ale, which is a pretty traditional American, easy-drinking style. I'm also digging Narragansett's Bock, which is like 6.5 percent but really crisp and full of delicious noble hops. And Blue Point just released two beers that are perfect warm-weather brews; its White IPA is like a cross between a hoppy IPA and a Belgian Wit, and its Spring Fling is a mild copper ale that's both malty and refreshing.

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