THE Home Brew Effect
Trying not to curse anything, John Linn was hesitant to say everything was finally going all right. Around him at the Funky Buddha Brewery in Oakland Park, machinery and men moved at speeds that suggested an emergency.
At stake on that Wednesday afternoon was the brewery’s reputation as a place that regularly does something special – like throwing massive parties to celebrate the release of new beers with odd-sounding (but surprisingly delicious) ingredients. Three days away was the brewery’s biggest bash yet, to celebrate the yearly release of its most popular beer: the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter.
It would be hard to exaggerate just how positive the reviews have been for the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, including an exceedingly rare 99 percent out of 100 from the website . It’s sweet, slightly smoky, with a depth of chocolate and spice notes, and goes well with, seriously, everything.
Funky Buddha, as you might know, started as a brewpub in Boca Raton in 2007. It released the first Maple Bacon Coffee Porter in 2011 and offers it only as a limited release once a year. Last year, 3,000 bottles sold out in one day. This year, the brewery planned to sell 10,000.
The problem was that the brewery’s two-week-old, $750,000 bottling machine kept shutting down all Wednesday morning. It couldn’t handle the large rolls of labels needed for the 22-ounce Maple Bacon Coffee Porter bottles. Every time they’d get the machine going, it would stop, alarms would sound, and Linn would get worried.
Linn, who holds the title of brand director, is generally in charge of marketing. But that morning, he was on the phone with the Italian manufacturer of the bottle line looking for tech support. The machine’s springs, it turns out, just needed a slight adjustment to handle the labels.
“It looks like it’s going well now,” Linn says, putting the back of his hand up to his forehead, as if checking for a fever. “It was a tough go, but I think we’re going to be all right.”
All right is an understatement. Since the brewery opened about two years ago, Funky Buddha has tripled its beer production, expanded into a larger space and created so many new positions so often that Linn can’t recall the last time the brewery was fully staffed.
These days, that’s just how fast the craft beer industry is growing in South Florida. Sure, we were late to the locally brewed beer craze that took off in places like California, Colorado and Oregon. But in the past few years, we’ve seen breweries open up from Boynton Beach to Wynwood.
The breweries have developed unlike just about any other business. They’re not just corporations run by some guys trying to make money. People follow them like sports teams, buying apparel and going nuts on social media about them, all in allegiance to the new hometown beer.
This has happened despite multiple Florida laws that make it difficult to run a brewery. While some things have gotten easier, some state lawmakers have even proposed tougher rules that would slow the craft beer industry’s growth. And a lawsuit filed earlier this year might just threaten all of it.
It may be a new era for craft breweries, but some people wonder for how long.
A Late Start for South Florida
Adam Fine remembers the time before South Florida’s craft beer era. He moved back here in 1996 and discovered a metro area with few local breweries. Brewpubs – we had them. But finding an interesting beer of something made locally – good luck.
“It was a beer wasteland,” Fine recalls.
Fine wanted to open his own brewery, but all the research told him the market wasn’t ready. So he started a distributorship instead called Fresh Beer with the hopes of bringing out-of-state craft brews to town.
Other distributors joined in, and over the next decade, stores started carrying beers from Breckenridge and Vermont and San Francisco.
Still, it looked like Florida would largely be left behind in the craft beer craze, mainly because of state laws that made it difficult to run a small brewery. The most restrictive of them forbid breweries from selling beer on premises, the way most local guys make money.
Then Cigar City Brewery in Tampa found a loophole. In 2009, the brewery opened a tap room serving up the beers it made right there in Tampa’s traditional Cuban neighborhood. It used a law Florida created decades ago for Busch Gardens, which allowed tap rooms that also happened to be tourist destinations. So, Cigar City called itself a tourist destination.
Nobody seemed to mind, so suddenly a craft beer industry began to grow in Florida. Technically, maybe, still illegal, tap rooms opened everywhere. “Everybody’s testing gray areas now,” Fine says.
All of that might soon change. The Florida Retail Federation – a trade group that represents retailers including Publix, Winn-Dixie, CVS and Walgreens – filed a lawsuit in January against the state of Florida, arguing that tasting rooms are using an exception to the law that wasn’t intended for them. Samantha Padgett, the federation’s general counsel, says the suit isn’t about shutting down tap rooms, but instead clarifying who can use the exception.
“I don’t think there’s any scenario for us that we envisioned that these tasting rooms would close,” Padgett said. “The intent from the retail federation was to clarify the law. It should be clear about the exception and who it applies to.”
The federation later backed off its lawsuit after the state agreed to voluntarily look into its rules regarding tasting rooms. It’s unclear how long that review will take or whether it could threaten the future of tap rooms. Meanwhile, the Legislature later this year could pass a specific law allowing tap rooms, but state lawmakers so far haven’t exactly been friendly to small breweries.
Already, Florida restricts the size of bottles to 32 ounces, meaning the large “growler” bottles sold at breweries in other states are illegal here. Lawmakers tried to dump that law last year, but lobbyists with the Beer Industry of Florida, a group representing the nation’s biggest beer makers, got the law amended in ways that would actually make brewing craft beer even more difficult. With outcry from craft breweries, the bill died before it could become law. The Beer Industry of Florida did not return an email and phone call to its Tallahassee office.
Hopefully, Florida lawmakers will retry the growler bill this year, says Mike Halker, president and head brewer at Due South Brewing Company in Boynton Beach. Halker is president of the Florida Brewers Guild, which represents craft beer makers and has hired Josh Aubuchon, a Tallahassee lobbyist with high-powered law firm Holland & Knight.
Halker wasn’t even into beer until he walked into a homebrew shop in 2003 to buy a winemaking kit for his wife. “I said, ‘I don’t really like beer,’ and the guy said, ‘You haven’t had the right beer,’” Halker recalls.
So he started brewing. The first stuff, wasn’t that good. But after a few tries, Halker’s friends told him he ought to open a brewery. He started entering his brews in competitions. When he started winning, he decided maybe his friends were right.
Halker built a 15,000-square-foot brewery and soon figured out that Florida laws were against him. One rule that dates back to the Prohibition era requires breweries to sell through a middleman – distributors that typically take 30 percent off the top of all sales. Those contracts with the distributors, as dictated by Florida law, are signed for life. Unless both sides want to get out, the breweries have no option to switch to another distributor.
Halker thinks craft breweries now have enough muscle to influence the laws.
“Our voice wasn’t loud a few years ago when there were just 10 of us,” Halker says. “It has gotten a lot better now that there are a hundred of us.” Nowadays, Halker says a couple new breweries open a month.
One of the newer ones is LauderAle, which opened in July 2013 by friends Kyle Jones and Joey Farrell. Jones is a realtor, while Farrell is a ship engineer and built a lot of the brewery hardware himself. The whole brewery thing just came to them one night while drinking at Tap 42 in Fort Lauderdale. The next day, they split the $200 to buy a homebrew kit on Amazon.com.
Ten months later, they opened a 3,200-square-foot brewery in a hard-to-find industrial neighborhood west of Port Everglades. Still, people find them, and they attract crowds on weekend nights when the tap room is open. For now, the plan is simply to sell beer out of the tap room – no bottles, no taps at local bars.
“When you walk back here in our tap room and people are hanging out, I mean, it’s cool,” Jones says. “This place can really get crazy some nights.”
Maybe the next brewery to follow will be one operated by Adam Fine, the distributor. He’s now working at the Craft Beer Cartel, a beer store and homebrew supply shop in Fort Lauderdale run by Julian and Lisa Siegel from the nearby Riverside Market. The three of them recently purchased the machinery needed to begin a craft brewery and are looking for a location.
Julian Siegel says he knows his brewery will be up against state law. “Florida is a total newbie at craft beer,” Siegel says. “The state has no concept of how to address this new industry.”
The Church of Beer Opens on Saturday
The Funky Buddha’s Maple Bacon Coffee Porter Festival officially started at noon Jan. 10, but anybody who showed up then would have been forgiven for thinking they had arrived way late. Because, by then, thousands were already standing in line.
The line began out back of the brewery. It then snaked around like an airport security maze, past dumpsters and loading docks and to the end of a parking lot the size of a city block.
Brad Keller was one of the first of them. He arrived at 8:30 that morning and found that the line was already two rows deep. “I’m not much of a beer drinker,” admitted Keller, a 25-year-old real estate agent from Weston. “I’m new to this whole craft beer thing. A friend of mine told me about this maple bacon beer, and I just thought it sounded cool.”
At about 12:30 p.m., four hours into his day at the brewery, Keller made it into the tent to buy the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter – limit four per person at $15 each. Actually, Keller didn’t walk out of the tent with the beers, just four pink wristbands that showed he had paid. Then, he’d have to wait until the brewery began handing them out at 4 p.m., more than seven hours into his day at the brewery.
This Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, you see, is a downright phenomenon. It is a downright mass exodus, for the simple right to buy four bottles.
It’s not just customers. The brewery’s 54 employees weren’t enough to staff the festival, so it asked for volunteers. One-hundred-and-sixteen people signed up. They’d get some free stuff, bottles of the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter among them. But let’s be clear: these people were willing to work all day, on a Saturday, for a corporation.
“To me, it’s just a community thing. It’s our first craft brewery in Fort Lauderdale and it’s becoming a fixture,” explained Byron Valle. He’s a 31-year-old software analyst from Coral Springs and volunteered in part because he’s engaged to the brewery’s taproom manager.
Valle spent the morning checking IDs of people waiting in line to buy the bottles, awarding them with green wristbands. He spelled out how his day would go: “I’ve been here since 10 a.m. and I’ll probably be here until midnight. Then I’m probably going to Laser Wolf to have a few.”
For now, though, he would check IDs, empty trash and pour beers. “Whatever they need me to do, I’m there,” he said.
John Linn, the brewery’s brand director, also found himself putting out fires. He arrived when it was still dark, and he’d be there until the last of the bottles were gone.
Every one of the $15 bottles either sold or was handed out to volunteers and employees the day of the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter Festival. Add to that the untold $5 draught beers sold to people waiting all day to pick up their purchased bottles.
It was a phenomenon. And it was just the start.
A Sample of South Florida Breweries
Barrel of Monks Brewing
1141 S. Rogers Circle, Boca Raton, 561.510.1253,
Big Bear Brewing Co.
1800 N. University Drive, Coral Springs, 954.341.5545, bigbearbrewingco.com
Due South Brewing Co.
2900 High Ridge Road, Boynton Beach, 561.463.2337, duesouthbrewing.com
Funky Buddha Brewery
1201 NE 38th St., Oakland Park, 954.440.0046, funkybuddhabrewery.com
The Funky Buddha Lounge & Brewery
2621 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton, 561.368.4643, thefunkybuddha.com
Holy Mackerel Brewing
902 SW Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale, 954.261.0668, holymackerelbeers.com
3305 SE 14th Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954.653.9711, lauderale.co
Native Brewing Co.
1701 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, 561.865.5373, saltwaterbrewery.com