Opening a brewery is a long and arduous process. Considering the rapid rate at which they've been popping up in South Florida, that might come as a bit of a surprise. Alcohol, unsurprisingly, is a highly regulated industry, with local governments, the State of Florida, and the federal government all looking to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. Every brewery open today is the result of a labor of love.
The first beer a brewery makes for public consumption is chosen for a lot of reasons: beers made to test equipment, beers made because the recipes have been honed for years, beers made because they're hard to screw up. No matter the reason they're chosen — prosaic or poetic — they'll always hold a special place in the brewer's heart. So let's stop and take a moment to look back at some of our biggest breweries' very first steps.
Floridian Hefeweizen, Funky Buddha Brewery
This cloudy hefeweizen was the first thing that moved through Funky Buddha's equipment when it opened. Strong scents of lemon and a slight clove/herb character meld with flavors of bananas and a bit of yeasty character give it an almost dry citrus banana-bread taste — minus all that sugar. Light body and a carbonation to match round out a complementing acidity.
"The first brew we did was Floridian," says Ryan Sentz, owner and brewer at Funky Buddha Brewery. "We did it for several reasons, the first being that it was our flagship beer and we knew it would be the first to market. Also being a lower-gravity, lower-IBU beer, we figured it we could have greater control and come closer to what we were looking for."
Southern Saison, Due South Brewing Co.
One of the brewery's now special releases was also its first. Due South's Southern Saison is a beer that showcases a large, rocky head with fruity and spicy flavors. This Belgian-styled farmhouse ale is brewed with Caribbean spices.
"Quite honestly, I chose this beer because I didn't know what I was doing," recalls Mike Halker, owner and brewer at Due South. "I had only brewed 15 gallons of beer, never 500. I felt a beer with so much going on flavorwise would hide potential imperfections, and as it wasn't on our high-profile list like Caramel Cream Ale or Category 3 IPA, it was a safer place to start. I only had four days' experience when I brewed them, but it was better than nothing!"
White Wizard Wit, Barrel of Monks Brewing
Wheat is generally used sparingly by brewers, because it contains quite a lot of gluten that can cause problems with the process. But used appropriately, it can make some damned good beers, which is one of the reasons why this pale and naturally cloudy wheat beer was the first one brewed at Barrel of Monks. It is a spiced ale using coriander and Florida orange peel to add a citrus crispness that makes it refreshing and highly drinkable.
As owner and brewer Bill McFee says, "We chose that beer to test our equipment because brewing with wheat is challenging — the lautering process is made more difficult by the sticky proteins in wheat. We wanted to put our new brew system, as well as our skills, to the test right off the bat. Thankfully, it came out great!"
Gnarley Barley, Tequesta Brewing Co.
Tequesta Brewing's Gnarley Barley is a hoppy, copper-colored pale ale that brings together fruity hops and a bready, honeyed malt body, presenting a pleasingly complex matrix of flavors.
"First beer we brewed... was probably Gnarley Barley," owner and brewer Fran Andrewlevich says, with an aura of uncertainty. The stresses of opening a brewery wreak havoc on the mind. "I should have written a book," he continues. "I've forgotten it all."
Brewer Matt Webster crafted this recipe while brewing at the Corner Cafe in 2009. After a couple of years spent perfecting it on a large homebrew system, the beer became the logical choice for the duo when they decided to open Tequesta Brewing in 2011.
Watermelon Saison, Twisted Trunk Brewing
Saisons are a forgiving style of beer. The range of flavors that can be present is fairly large, and saison yeasts are incredibly tolerant of all sorts of temperature ranges to ferment. Perhaps this is why many brewers, including Fran Andrewlevich, choose this style to start out.
A little bit of spicy fruitiness plus the refreshing aromas and flavors of watermelon meld together to form this particular saison, the first beer produced by the Palm Beach Gardens-based brewery.
"We did [this one] because before we got the decoction down and all that, we [wanted something] a little straightforward with a little room for error," owner and brewer Andrewlevich says. "[A saison has] that kinda funky yeast to it, so it can be a little bit off, but it came out good, so we were lucky in that respect."
Screamin' Reels IPA, Saltwater Brewery
The brewers at Delray Beach's Saltwater Brewery wanted to eschew the local mainstream for this first batch, going with a flavor profile for their IPA that's from a bit further afield. Screamin' Reels IPA became their bitter and resiny hop-forward product, testing their equipment with a gorgeous, amber-colored, hoppy beer.
"The first beer we brewed," owner Chris Gove says, "was our Screamin' Reels IPA, influenced by a West Coast-style IPA: light pale malt body, refreshing mouthfeel, and emphasis on hop character.
"We felt by going in this direction, it would bring a different flavor to the existing South Florida or East Coast IPA lineup, which is a more malt-forward. We figured that the tropical flavors from the hops and the light mouthfeel would go perfectly with the weather and palate of Florida."
Ziko's Rage Russian Imperial Stout, 26 Degree Brewing Co.
Go big or go home. This is apparently what owner Greg Lieberman thought when he and his brewing team decided to make an imperial stout for their first beer. Effortlessly dark with a savory cream-colored head, this complex roasty, sweet, and chocolate-laden beer proves that you can test your brewhouse with sheer effort and succeed.
"Ziko's Rage was batch 001 for us," says Lieberman. "I've been brewing Ziko since I first started all-grain brewing. After this won a handful of homebrewing competitions, I knew I was on to something.
"I chose to brew this as batch one for a bunch of reasons. This brew is near and dear to me. Since I brewed it so often, I figured I would easily be able to tell if the scale-up procedure was correct. We have an oversized 40-barrel mash tun, so what better way to test out the new system than with such a big beer? Getting this done first gives it time to age and mellow since we weren't opening for another three to four weeks."
Cypress Creek Cream Ale, Bangin' Banjo Brewing
This beer from Pompano Beach's Bangin' Banjo Brewing is possibly the lightest and most subtly balanced in the company's repertoire, but it made for a cost-effective test of its brewing equipment. Light in color, with just the most delicate of hop profiles, the beer came out flawlessly, much to the delight of the brewers.
Owner Adam Feingold remembers the experience.
"The Cypress Creek was our lightest beer, easiest to brew, and cheapest beer, so if we messed it up, it wouldn't cost as much as some of the other beers," he says. "We were really pleased with how it came out. Matt [Giani, brewmaster] had done a lot of tank preparation, so he was already familiar with the equipment, and we had done a water batch to calibrate our equipment losses and timing."
Immigration IPA, LauderAle
Kyle Jones, owner and brewer at LauderAle, sought to tackle his opening day by putting together something complex and demanding. This is why he chose the Immigration IPA, a beer with a moderately malted character that's balanced with Amarillo and Citra hops that provide a slightly bitter grapefruit and citrus finish.
"We knew this was going to be one of the more challenging styles to master," Jones says."[That] is why we chose to start there."
Figuring out the perfect timing on hop additions — the way brewers use hops in the boil to extract bitterness, flavor, and aroma — is a critical step to making an India pale ale that rises above the pack.
Copperpoint Lager, Copperpoint Brewing Co.
Owner and brewer Matt Cox decided upon his amber lager as his first commercial beer at Copperpoint Brewing Co. in part because of timing and level of difficulty.
"It takes five weeks from start to finish," Cox says, "so I wanted to make sure it had plenty of time. First batches are always nerve-racking, so the lager was a good fit as well. It's a less complex beer to brew. Some of our other beers like wit and IPAs are much more difficult to manage on brew day."
The lager presented the perfect conditions for brewing on an untested system. The result is a crisp and richly malted lager, full of bread-crust flavors and hints of butterscotch and toffee.
Mango IPA, Hollywood Brewing Co.
"When we decided to start Hollywood Brewing Co., we wanted to make a beer that spoke to South Florida and its cultural diversity while celebrating the essence of the modern craft movement," Hollywood Brewing brewer Johnny Quinones says. Formerly known as Organic Brewing, with the reinvention of the beachfront brewery came a reinvention of its beers, in a sense allowing it to start over.
The Mango IPA pours a brilliant clear, dark orange with a voluminous and frothy head. Aromas of citrus abound with a slight hint of mango goodness that sneaks in under the radar. The taste is quite sweet and malty, with little bitterness at the beginning. The mango aspect is there but not overpowering.
"When people drink the mango IPA from Hollywood Brewing Co.," Quinones says, "we want them to feel they are drinking an IPA 'South Florida style.'?"
Honey Lime Summer Ale, the Mack House
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The Mack House in Davie has, for years, been a place to find good craft beers mingling with Holy Mackerel's own branded beers. It was only a few years ago that brewer Justin Miles was brought onboard to expand upon those offerings and craft some in-house experimental brews.
The Honey Lime Summer Ale was his first experiment. This crisp and slightly tart beer falls somewhere in the realm of margaritas and Key-lime pie, providing flavors that have been a success to the brewery.
"I was stressed about it turning out well because it was kind of a trial run to see if I would be the brewer long-term," Miles recalls. "The honey lime was a recipe I brewed at home, and people always loved it. With it being on a much larger scale than at home, I had to tweak some of the recipe. Nothing like jumping from five gallons to 31."
Doug Fairall is a craft beer blogger who focuses on Florida beers. He is a Certified Beer Server and has been a homebrewer since 2010. For beer things in your Twitter feed, follow him @DougFairall and find the latest beer pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.