Update: Check out the slideshow of brewing at Big Bear, online now.
Since 1996, Big Bear Brewing Co., Broward's only independently owned and operated brewpub, has been crafting award-winning beers in suburban Coral Springs. For the past nine of those years, the man behind the kettles has been Brewmaster Matt Cox. Cox's creations, ranging from Witness, a German-style wheat ale, to his Bourbon Barrel Double IPA, have earned the modest brewpub heaps of acclaim nationwide, including awards at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, and the National Brewer's Association Convention (where his Witness recently took a gold). Not to mention, they taste pretty damned amazing.
We joined Cox on for a recent brew session to find out a little bit more about his process, his brews, and what it's like crafting some of Broward's freshest, most original beer.
Cox invited New Times into Big Bear's brew center, a two-story
room lined with brew kettles, mash tuns, and plenty of hulking
fermentation vessels. The industrial-looking room is the heart of Big
Bear's brewing operation. Encased in glass windows, it's also visible
to customers both in and outside the restaurant, which means lunchtime
guests can often see Cox in there at work.
When we arrived, Cox was getting started on a batch of his best-selling
Polar Light, a golden, shimmery brew made with German pilsner malt and
plenty of European noble hops. As the lightest beer Big Bear makes, the
restaurant's staff often equates Polar Light to crisp light beer such
as Bud or Miller. But aside from having loads more flavor than those
faux American beers, Cox told me that Polar Light isn't actually a
lager at all.
"It's actually an ale," said Cox, busy milling more than 500 pounds of German malt he'd use to brew the batch.
Light lagers are generally fermented in refrigerated tanks to inhibit
wild flavors and create a smoother, lower-alcohol beer. But ales, made
with top fermenting yeast strains, are brewed at slightly below room
temperature. The more active yeast create flavors that are much more
intense as a result.
Since Polar Light is actually an ale, it has a lot more going on than
a typical lager-drinker might be used to. According to Cox, he's slowly developed those flavors over time. "I've changed the recipe up over the
years as well and slowly incorporated more and more into it," says
Cox. "People might think it's easy making a light beer, but it's
actually difficult to make. I try as hard on Polar Light as I do on big
beers like Double Diablo."
By the way: Double Diablo, on of Cox's most recent creations, is a
double-strength batch of malty-sweet amber ale balanced out by a
truckload of aggressive, bitter whole hops. It packs a wallop too at
almost 10 percent alcohol and was a huge hit at the Jupiter Craft Brewers Festival in January.
As we spoke, Cox began moving the milled malts into a large tumbler
called a grist hopper, where it would hang out while the water in the
mash tun below got ready for steeping. He connected a tube between the
two vessels and flipped open a valve that sent the grain into the 150-degree water below. The room filled with the smell of baking bread and caramel. The grains would steep there for about an
hour, releasing their starches and flavors into the water. From there,
that water would filter into a brew kettle, where it would boil into
wort (unfermented beer).
Big Bear is set up on what's known as a ten-barrel system, which means
its equipment can produce single batches of beer up to about 300
gallons in size. This batch of Polar Light would use every bit of that
capacity. According to Cox, those 300 gallons, once fermented for about a week and
kegged, would last the restaurant only about three weeks.
As Cox worked, connecting tubes and transfer valves between the two
vessels, he took careful note of temperature and time readouts on a
nearby LED display. He explained these detailed notes are crucial to
the brewing process. "If I do something slightly different, it could
have a big impact on the beer," he said. "If something goes wrong, you
know how to avoid it, and If something goes right, you want to try to
That eye for detail is a big deal when brewing beer. Big Bear uses a
special deionizing system for its water that pumps clean-tasting
water into the kettles at about seven gallons per minute. Since the water
used to make beer needs a certain mineral content to produce the proper
flavors, Cox adds carefully measured mixtures of calcium, potassium,
and other minerals back into the brew during the mash phase. It's a
process that's slightly painstaking but one that he says is necessary
in Florida. "The water here just isn't good for beer, so we have to
treat it," he says.
Likewise, cleanliness is next to Godliness when it comes to
making beer. Cox carefully cleans each vessel and piece of equipment before
and after each batch. Any slip-up could mean errant bacteria, which can
spell disaster for a huge batch of beer. Luckily, Cox has never lost a
batch. "Knock on wood," he says, smiling.
For Cox, being Big Bear's brewmaster is a dream job. "To work at an
independent place like this where I have the ability to create my own
recipes, I'm really lucky," he says.
His only problem? Florida's backward beer laws, rules that
prohibit brewpubs like Big Bear from selling their beers offsite.
"It's frustrating that you can walk into Whole Foods and see beers from
California and Colorado there, and meanwhile I'm a block down the road
and I can't sell my beer there at all," he says.
Fortunately, Cox is just one of many local brewers getting active with
the state's legislative system. He sits on the Board of Directors for
the Florida Brewers Guild, an association that advocates for
independent, craft brewers in the state. He says he's excited about the
outlook for craft beer as well. "We're doing things like trying to get
bottle restrictions lifted and introducing bills to to the House and Senate," he says. With support for craft beer growing each day, it
seems only a matter of time before Cox and other brewers get
their wish and reverse these beer laws.
In the meantime, fresh, innovative beer is always available at the bar at Big Bear.