The Great American Beer Festival is true to its name, bringing together beers from everywhere in America, including places you wouldn’t necessarily think of as amazing beer-producing regions.
The festival groups breweries into nine geographical territories. Loosely, sometimes – the Paciific has precisely one brewery (Maui Brewing Co.) that isn’t from California.
Regardless of where it’s from, though, each individual brewery typically brews a range of beers and brings a handful showcasing their best to the fest. As such, each region has a wide gamut of beers to try – hanging out in “New England” won’t force you to drink only Hazy IPAs.
Getting out of one’s own backyard, however, seemed like an obvious way to find something new, so I wandered over to an area I knew nothing about – the Southeast.
I had a couple fantastic beers from Atlanta’s Orpheus Brewing Co., which had a number of creepily-named, barrel-aged brews fermented with fruit, nuts, or vanilla beans. Then I tried Quat, a golden ale brewed with kumquats from Tampa Bay Brewing Co. It didn’t take long to realize that the South enjoys putting its fruit in its beer.
A visit to the booth of J. Wakefield Brewing, of Miami, and a sample of its Miami Madness turned me on to a whole style of beer I’d previously never heard of – Florida weisses.
Berliner weisses were popular in Germany – particularly Berlin, obviously – in the 19th century. Allegedly, Napoleon’s troops referred to it as the “Champagne of the North.” These wheat-pilsner-malt ales were soured by lactobacillus during fermentation. To balance the sourness, Industrial Age Europeans would serve the beers with very sweet syrups, such as raspberry. This style of beer appears to have all but disappeared over the last century.
Some quick research revealed that Johnathan Wakefield was one of the leaders in the beer’s modern, American comeback and two of his beers, DFPF (Dragonfruit Passionfruit) Berliner and Miami Madness are consistently rated among the best Berliners in the world on beeradvocate.com and ratebeer.com. So I reached out to him.
The origin of the first fruited Berliner weisse is up for debate, but Wakefield developed his first Berliner, DFBF, as a homebrewer. After experimenting with wild ales, beers brewed with uncontrolled or unconventional microflora instead of traditional brewer’s yeast, he wanted to find an easier way to make a sour beer. This led him to the then-dead Berliner style, which he tried out at home while adding the eponymous fruit to the mix, and shared with his friends.
“Joey Redner, the owner of Cigar City (Brewing Co., of Tampa Bay), actually came down to my house. We were watching the University of Miami-Florida State University game, and he had it on draft,” Wakefield said. “He’s like, ‘This is amazing. You should come up to Cigar City and brew this on our pilot batch system.’”
Wakefield did just that and released it to the public at Cigar City in 2009. The batch only yielded about one keg, and that keg only lasted about five minutes, he said.
“People were walking around with this sour and sweet pink beer that no one else was making anything like at the time, and it just kind of skyrocketed from there,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, Wakefield developed Miami Madness, flavored with guava, mango and passionfruit. In 2015, he opened a brewery.
Since their inception, Florida weisses, as they’ve come to be called, have exploded in popularity in the Southeast, owing partly to the availability of citrus fruits in that part of the country. Wakefield also attributes their success to the fact that it’s practically always summer in Florida.
“We might get a week where it might hit like the 50s, and the summers are unbearably hot,” he said. “I won’t say people don’t drink stouts during the summer, because they do, but people do really enjoy a lighter, more easy-drinking, fruit-pronounced beer.”
Most of the year, we here in chilly, subalpine Colorado don’t have as much access to those citrusy, tropical flavors. But when GABF brings the entire country’s beers to us, we can share in what beer drinkers are experiencing in the Sunshine State.