Florida’s Beer Scene: Summing-up

Spending almost seven weeks in a south Florida condo (soon to conclude with a return to Toronto) has allowed me to explore the surrounding beer scene. Cresting a few breweries, e.g., Khoffner, Funky Buddah, and beer bars both craft and “regular”, as well as a few beer retailers, one gets a sense of what is going on.

Writ large, craft brewing is similar to what we see worldwide, including Ontario. There are some differences, my sense is the average pilsener and non-IPA ale is lighter than  elsewhere I’ve been, due probably to the climate. Maduro Brown is an example, from Cigar City in Tampa, or the rice pilsener of The Tank Brewery in Miami.

Also, in a region like this where imports big in the 80s and 90s still do well including many U.K., Irish, and German beers, it is interesting to note, or such is my perception, that these beers actually influence current craft production.

I’ve had two craft Irish Red Ales that were very similar to (Irish) Smithwick’s, or Killian’s Irish Red from Molson-Coors (indirectly an import). One tends to assume that brewers follow religiously beer style descriptions issued by trade or other authoritative bodies, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes they respond to perceived market demand or simply personal experience.

On the import side, of course nothing in Canada can match the awesome beer choice offered by the largest retailers such as Total Wines, among other specialty vendors. Beers from abroad, from other parts of the U.S., and from Central and South America, abound in numbers and a variety never seen at home. This is due to the population size and diversity of this region, as well as the retailing system being in private hands.

And so, world classics or other items of interest can be found here never seen in Ontario, some of which I’ve mentioned in earlier posts or on Twitter.

The one advantage I perceive in Ontario is the freshness factor: the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LBCO) tends to offer beers packaged in the three months preceding appearance on the shelf, even when sourced half-way around the world. In Florida, I’d estimate the average is double that based on best-by codes I’ve been able to decipher.

For example, the St. Pauli Girl from Bremen, Germany I mentioned on Twitter appears to be six months from packaging. It was still good, but would be better at three months.

Beer as fresh as we get at home can be found too, apart the brewery tap context, I mean. At discount food chain Aldi I found excellent beer at great prices packaged within the last three months. And at Total Wines, most items in the Seasonal section, e.g., Anchor Christmas Ale, were by definition packaged recently.

I did buy the odd duff beer – too old or gone sour (unintentionally) in the bottle, but that was just two or three from many more purchases. I’m sure I could have returned them had I asked.

Still, freshness in beer is very important, and so our system in Ontario has the edge there.

With a larger range of (often) more interesting German beers to try than we get at home, I was struck by the continuing high quality of German beer. Germany is legendary for beer history and quality but it is a heritage that, in the hustle-bustle and bubble of craft brewing, risks being lost. (This is partly due to German inertia or insouciance, but that’s another matter).

Yet, even in the craft-crazy brewing world, even where many exporting German breweries are now owned by international companies based outside Germany, the quality shows. Almost every German beer I drank was excellent or a world classic. Even Beck’s Bier, brewed now in St. Louis, Missouri, is a fine example of blonde lager.

I can’t say the same for the British imports I saw here, one or two exceptions apart. The beers are certainly worthy but rarely rise to the heights of the German norm, IMO. One reason for that is the all-malt character of most of the German beers. The hop levels seem higher on average as well.

Certainly though, from any practical beer-lovers’ standpoint, there is nothing to complain about (in Ontario too): beer has arrived, and this has been the case for some years now. It is true in most parts of Europe, in Britain, in North America, and in many other places as well.

Correlatively, the imagination and disruptive quality of craft brewing have juiced up traditions in the classic beer lands: Britain, Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium. This trend will only continue.

My only concern is, that craft doesn’t eat itself, by which I mean, indulging every whim of brewer or customer for variation in the palate to the point there is no standard any more, no yardstick.

This seems to be starting with stout and porter. The youngest drinkers, buying the endless flavoured variations, may never know classic taste of porter and stout.

I suppose something new will come of it all, and as long as it is beer, people will buy it. Nonetheless, if the building blocks of the craft beer revolution, inspired as they were by classic models descended from the 19th century, crumble, something irretrievable – and of gastronomic excellence – will be lost.

Did I have a “best beer”? People always want to know. I’ll say yes, under a few rubrics I typically favour.

Best Overall beer: Andechs Doppelbock (Germany). Rich and deep-flavoured, everything exactly right. It would fly off the shelves at LCBO…

Best Florida Craft Beer: Mi-So Lucky Hoppy Rice Pilsener (The Tank Brewing, Miami).

Best American-brewed Pils: Beck’s Bier (German but brewed in St. Louis, Missouri for the U.S. market).

Best Munich-style Dark Lager: San Miguel Negra (Phillipines).

Best Stout: Guinness Foreign Export Stout (Dublin, Ireland)

Best Flavoured Stout: Left Hand Milk Stout (Colorado, U.S.) and Mackeson Milk Stout (originally English, now also Florida-brewed). A tie.

Best English IPA: Ridgeway Brewing’s Elf Winter Ale (England).

Best American IPA: DuClaw Disaster IPA, with fine orangey notes from an inspired hop blend (Baltimore, Maryland).

Best flavoured beer: Anchor 2017 Christmas Ale (San Francisco, CA. The 2018 was leaner, piney, not as good).