What I Learned About Beer in Miami
Miami is a great city. It has all those benefits that come from being situated on a beach at the tropical, southernmost tip of the continent—sun, palm trees and beaches. But it’s also the most international American city I’ve visited, a place where 90 percent of the conversations you hear are spoken in some other language than English. Miami makes us think of Cuban immigrants, but the city is actually a crossroads/landing spot for all of Latin America and the Caribbean—and a big tourist spot for Europeans. There’s even a strong Mediterranean vibe. So you might see a falafel restaurant next to an Italian one, across the street from a Brazilian joint that’s just down the street from a tapas place. On my last night there, I went to Samba Sushi, a fusion restaurant that combined the cuisines of Japan, Brazil, and Peru. (It was spectacular.)
Miami is not, however, a great beer city. This is hardly surprising, given the weather and setting. Cocktails are king in Miami, and so long as you stay off the restaurants on Ocean Drive in South Beach, they’re innovative and tasty. I spent a lazy afternoon at the Ball and Chain watching a trio that constituted basically a Cuban jam band while I sipped on a drink made with dark rum, tobacco bitters, and garnished with tobacco leaf. It was in Little Havana, so the resonances were perfect. But beer? You don’t find a ton of IPAs, and you don’t want them, either. The heat and humidity aren’t conducive to these kinds of beers.
But I think there’s another element here to which I—an Oregonian—have mostly been blind. It came to me on an afternoon when I visited Abbey Brewing in South Beach. It was a sweltering 85/85 day (temp/humidity), and I strolled the longest mile of my life through the heavy air. When I arrived, I was surprised to find a bar that might have been moved there, without modification, directly from Chicago or Jersey City or Portland. It had a bit of a dive-bar ambiance, and everyone inside was speaking English and hollering at football game on the TV screen. (They were Pittsburgh fans.) There was a guy sitting at the bar in his motorcycle leathers. Abbey Brewing’s owner loves Belgian ales, and that’s what the brewery features—a dubbel, a tripel and a quad. They also had an IPA and—my salvation—a märzen. We were suddenly not in Miami anymore.
One thing I’ve been talking about on my Beer Bible book tour these days is that beer is not, like wine, a product of the earth. It is a constructed beverage, made with ingredients and the special techniques of the brewer. Like cuisine, it doesn’t reflect the terroir of a place, but the culture of the people making it. I’ve been talking about how it’s impossible to separate a beer’s style from not only the people who make it, but those who drink it. The kind of beer you want to drink in an English pub or German beer hall, when you’re having three or four pours, is different than the beer you drink in a Belgian café, when you’re enjoying mussels and frites. The vegetables that grow in Germany are basically the same ones the French can grow—but the cuisine of the two countries couldn’t be more different. Beer, like food, is cultural.
So join me back in the Abbey Brewing pub. Most beer culture in the world right now has its roots in European brewing. Abbey reflected that—with a healthy dose of American sprinkled in. As I mentioned, Miami is loaded with culturally-specific businesses, so there’s nothing out of the ordinary about a European-American pub making up part of the tapestry. And yet, in that moment, I realized how much American beer culture—especially craft beer culture—carries with it this European valence.
Because, actually, people do drink beer in Miami—but they drink beer like Bud Light, Corona and Imperial. I saw them at restaurants and pubs all over the city (although a lot more people were drinking cocktails). While every person in Abbey Brewing was European-American, the people I saw drinking light lagers looked like the general Miami public. If there is one virtue of the faceless mass market lagers that circle the globe, it’s that they’re pan-cultural. You find people drinking these kinds of beers everywhere, so they don’t carry that old European association with them. And of course, these beers are far more appropriate for the climate of Miami. So of course Corona outsells IPAs there.
Culture runs both ways. For decades, Americans have been unwilling to brew the kinds of beers that millions of Americans—and most Miamians—drink. I suspect a brewpub in South Beach that served a line-up that tilted heavily in the direction of mass market lagers, had the streamlined, modernist design of the city, and which served interesting non-European cuisine would be quite a hit. But it would mean abandoning not only the values of European brewing, but those of American brewing, which holds as gospel the truth that mass market lagers are “bad beer.” Such a brewery would really have to innovate and meet locals halfway.
American culture thrives on change, and that change is fueled by immigrants. Our grandparents ate French and Italian cuisine. I grew up on Mexican and Thai. Millennials entering adulthood eat Pho and ramen. Breweries make a cultural statement, whether they like it or not, with every decorative choice, menu entrée, and of course, new beer they release. One of the reasons good-beer fans so love good beer is that they’ve absorbed cultural cues breweries are sending out, which don’t vary much city to city. To grow and appeal to an ever broader group of Americans, though, it may not be enough for craft breweries to brew good beer and hope people will come through the doors. They might have to start appealing to an entirely different group of beer drinkers. And, if someone does found such a brewery in South Beach, I would love to visit.