You won't struggle to find good beer in Fort Lauderdale today. Bars specializing in craft beers offer beer menus more in-depth than the ones for food. Most bars and restaurants have at least a handful of interesting choices. Supermarkets and liquor stores now have shelves devoted to beer from smaller brewers -- and if you can't find what you're looking for there, a few specialty beer shops offer all the options you'll ever need. * It wasn't always this way. Dominant in places such as Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, the American craft beer movement was slow to arrive in South Florida. But it's here now, and it's growing. We caught up with a few of the people who make Fort Lauderdale beer scene what it is.
The Big Dogs
As brewery origin stories go, it’s an unusual one. A place opens in Boca Raton that’s basically a hookah bar with cool music and live events. They start brewing their own beer, and pretty soon they’re known for that. Word gets around about their interesting, unusual beers – hey, try the Maple Bacon Coffee Porter - and before long the place is packed out all the time. By the time they head south to Broward and open up a huge location in Oakland Park, they’re the tri-county area’s big brewer.
It all seems unlikely, not least because “Boca Raton hookah lounge” doesn’t sound like it should be a thing in the first place. And yet, here is Funky Buddha Brewery.
Since its unlikely beginnings in 2010, Funky Buddha has been on one extended growth spurt. If the brewery was writing a LinkedIn page, 2015 would be filled with lots of updates. Last year the brewery opened its Craft Food Counter and Kitchen and started selling food in the Oakland Park taproom. American craft beer giant Sierra Nevada selected Funky Buddha as one of 30 breweries around the country to help create limited-edition beers that will be sold nationwide this year. And perhaps most importantly, in 2015 Funky Buddha brewed 21,000 barrels of beer. That, John Linn notes, comes out to more than five million pints.
Linn, Funky Buddha’s brand director, has seen the evolution. He describes himself as a fan of Funky Buddha before he was an employee. When he was hired, the place was just the core group of people who had started it all in the hookah bar. He was employee no. 1; today there are 105.
Every part of the business has grown. The Oakland Park location opened in 2013; in 2014, they began distributing outside South Florida. Later that year they began bottling beers – a crucial step, as that’s what allows you to get into major stores and supermarkets.
But as they’ve got bigger, they’ve also worked hard to stay local. The popular taproom is part of a growing Oakland Park culinary scene, and locally Funky Buddha might be as well known as a destination bar and fun events host as it is for brewing. In January the brewery’s annual Maple Bacon Coffee Porter Day, a kind of brewery birthday celebration where they serve bottles of their sought-after porter, was a sellout event that packed Jaco Pastorious Park next door to the brewery in Oakland Park. The taproom regularly hosts everything from tap takeovers to charity events to happenings for organizations such as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers soccer club. And Linn’s quick to point out that you can come in on most days and find a diverse cross-section of people in the taproom – not just the younger, too-cool-for-school crowd that makes up the stereotype the craft beer scene sometimes gets tarred with.
“When you look at what a brewery is and could be, it’s a community hub,” Linn says. It’s a place where you go to share a beer, share a story, share an experience. It also helps when you can go to where a thing’s being made – see who makes it, have a more personal connection with the product.
“It’s this great combination, I think, of culture and industry,” Linn says. “It’s been this reconnection with where it’s made – 'I’m going to see where it’s made, and I’m going to enjoy it at the source.'”
It helps that interest in craft beer in general has skyrocketed in recent years.
“South Florida was a latecomer to that,” Linn says. “When we opened up, there were probably three other production breweries in the tri-county area that were open. Now there’s 25. It’s taken off in an unbelievable way. We feel really fortunate to have opened up when we did.”
They plan to continue growing – and they’re not worried about losing what made them so popular in the first place.
“We definitely hear ‘Oh, you guys are so big now,’” Linn says. “You always hear that – you start becoming successful, and you’re going to hear from people who have different opinions on your success. For us, the thing is to keep making great beer, and the rest is going to take care of itself. We try to be friendly and reach out, but the main thing we can do is keep making good beer, and better beer.”
And anyway, profits get plowed back into the brewery. “Almost everything we make is constantly reinvested back into the business,” Linn says. “The owners aren’t sitting back counting their money – everything goes back into the business.” As they’ve grown they’ve added not just more staff, but more stuff – they have an actual lab now, with equipment such as a centrifuge. (It’s for filtration.) For them, more money means more opportunity to buy the sort of gear that lets them experiment even more. “That’s not to say you can’t make good beer without that,” Linn says, “but it certainly helps.”
That said, the gear isn’t the main thing.
“The hard work has never changed from day one,” Linn says. “We have had long hours, we have sweated, we have kind of kept that breakneck pace ever since. As soon as something’s done, we’ve moved onto the next thing. The most hardworking people survive here and do well here.
“I try not to say this with blinders on,” he says, “but I think we’re making the best beer now that we’ve ever made.”
The Young Guns
Joey Farrell and Kyle Jones had never brewed a drop of beer when they decided to open a brewery.
The Fort Lauderdale natives, who had been friends since they were teenagers, had never done any amateur brewing at home. They’d never even tried one of the cheap little brewing kits you can get at Target. Nor did they work in professions remotely connected to brewing Farrell was a naval architect, while Jones worked in real estate.
When they opened LauderAle Brewery in 2013, they just went ahead and jumped in at the deep end. And, as often happens when you do that, they learned to swim pretty quickly.
“When we started, we really had no idea what the industry was like,” Jones says. “As we started doing research and talking to people, it became more apparent what was happening in the industry.”
What was happening was that craft beer was taking off. The friends began brewing a little at first, then incrementally more.
“In the beginning, we started brewing beers that we liked to drink,” Jones says. “We’d go to other bars and try other beers ‘this is good, let’s try to do this style or that style.’”
They brewed out of Jones’ kitchen, then Farrell’s garage. They joined a local brewers’ group and learned tips and terms.
They moved into a location in the industrial area between the airport and Port Everglades, where they opened a tiny bar alongside their brewery. Until recently, unless one of them turned up at an event you were attending, that was the only place you could sample LauderAle beer. And as they brewed more beer and word got out, people started tracking them down in their out-of-the-way spot.
Jones describes the place’s look as “nautical/industrial” – which is appropriate, given the location. If you were looking for an area to put a bar in, this tucked-away bit of warehouse district would be about the last place you’d consider. But the location has served LauderAle’s purpose well.
“It draws people that are really serious and passionate about craft beer,” Jones says, “and it keeps people away that don’t care, that just want to go because it’s convenient. The location brings in a good crowd. Had we been in a location that was easy to get to and easy to find, we would have been screwed. Even in our existing location, we had trouble keeping up with demand in the beginning.”
Since then they’ve expanded.
“The rate that we’re growing at now is sustainable, and it’s healthy,” Jones says.
The latest advance in that sustainable-growth plan came a couple of months ago. In January they started distributing with Crafty Connoisseurs, a small, family-run craft beer distribution company.
“We’re going to keep it local, only Fort Lauderdale bars and restaurants at first,” Jones says. “We’re going to do distribution like we did brewing, slow and steady, no need to rush. We’ve already made a footprint here in Fort Lauderdale.”
Further on, they have another big plan. They’ve found a property they like on 17th Street, and plans are in the works to open a large craft-beer bar with on-premises brewing. But, Jones adds, they’re still early in the process for that. They’ll open it in the same timeframe they’ve used for everything else at LauderAle – when they’re ready.
“Right now, it’s not about the money,” Jones says. “It’s about making really good beer and making really good service and a good experience that nobody else has. A unique experience. If we can do that, the growth will follow.”
THE EARLY ADOPTER
These days, there’s plenty of good beer in South Florida, and Adam Fine can help you find it. Or make some of your own.
Along with Riverside Market owners Julian and Lisa Siegel, Fine runs Craft Beer Cartel. Across the street from Riverside Market’s Riverside Park location, the shop divides in half. On one side, you’ve got one of the area’s best selections of craft and imported beer; on the other, you’ve got supplies for brewing your own. And in the middle of it you’ve got Fine, a wisdom-dispensing beer aficionado. He can help with your queries whether they’re about the batch you’ve got going at home or what the top independent breweries are in, say, Minnesota at the moment.
Today Fine’s a local leader in a growing, popular field. It wasn’t always thus. When he returned home to Florida in the ‘90s, decent beer options were limited. An avid homebrewer, he got a job with Hops, then a popular brewpub chain. Eventually he went out on his own as a contract brewer – a brewer without a brewery, who brews different beers at different places. He also got into the beer distribution business, which posed interesting challenges.
“When I moved back to Florida, you either had your domestic average beers or, if you were actually a bar that had good beer, it was all imported,” he says. “There really wasn’t an American craft scene at the time. There was only a little bit of Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams and Anchor Steam. Craft beer went through a period in the late ’90s when it just took a nosedive. People who had started up, unless they had a business plan, didn’t succeed and went out of business.”
Back then an average bar was just carrying the big Americans and several big imports Guinness, Heineken, Bass etc.
“For an eight-handle place, that was pretty much the mix for everybody,” Fine says. “If you went to a place that had more than eight or 10 taps, they would be doing imports.”
It was in this environment that Fine started making and selling beer.
“It was very difficult,” he says. “You’re coming from a place where your average domestic keg was $75, and I was walking in with a keg that’s $130.” And on top of that, it’s beer that nobody’s heard of. Part of the job at the time, Fine says, was getting bar owners and managers into the beer teaching them about it so that they’d sell it knowledgeably to customers. He would try to convince them that people would travel for good, hard-to-find beer.
“People would seek it out,” Fine says. “But a lot of these bar owners didn’t understand the act of selling your beer list. It wasn’t really until the bar owners themselves started drinking it.”
Over time, the bar owners bought in. Eventually the cultural sea change happened aided by people like Fine’s friends and eventual business partners, the Siegels. Today Fine holds court from Riverside Park, where Craft Beer Cartel offers brewing classes as well as help from an expert. “That’s the benefit of a local homebrew store we’re there to give people advice about brewing,” he says. “That’s what separates us from the online world of beer ingredients. We have home-brewers coming in every day.”
There could be more in store, and Fine hopes to make a big announcement at some point. Hey, he’s done just about everything in the business except for one thing. “What else is there left to do,” he says, “but own a brewery."
THE NEXT GENERATION
Rauf Vagifoglu-Khoffner’s grandfather was a brewer in Germany in 1933 when he received an offer to come brew German beer in Istanbul. The modern, secular Turkish state was being built, and European things were all the rage. The brewer looked at the scene in his homeland – at the steady rise of this new Nazi party – and thought yes, a move to Istanbul sounded good.
Eight decades later his grandson Rauf also felt the political winds when Turkey’s rightwing, traditionalist government cancelled his family brewery’s brewing license.
“They couldn’t even give us any paper (explaining) why they would do this,” Khoffner says. “The country leaders decided they’re not European. ‘Beer’s not our traditional beverage; we’ve got to drink some yoghurt or airak and milk. If you can produce that, please stay.’”
Khoffner left. Before he went, he met with a man he knew who held an official position. The man said this would all blow over at some point – if he stayed and made something other than beer in his brewery, he would eventually be able to go back to his old business.
“I was very angry,” Khoffner says, “and I told him ‘beer is in our blood.’”
Today, that’s the motto of the new Khoffner Brewery, which sits far from Istanbul. Housed in a nondescript, one-story Lake Ridge warehouse across from an old apartment building and just east of the railroad tracks, the brewery also includes a taproom. The two-room bar’s licensing is just being finalized with the city, meaning they’re now able to operate as a fully public bar. Under an exposed wood-beam ceiling, bartenders serve up Khoffner beers on a polished wood bar. There are three TVs over the bar, but the real view is through the huge windows below them, where patrons can look in on the brewery. A side room offers a leather couch and a wall-length German street scene photo.
This exists in Fort Lauderdale thanks to Evan Kagan, a local who is a longtime friend and now business partner. Kagan’s an avid amateur brewer, but his friend’s the master.
“I never would have imagined doing this without Rauf,” he says. “While I enjoy it, his passion is for it.”
Khoffner says his family has more than 200 beer recipes, though he hesitates to call them “family recipes” as they are really variations on beers handed down through the fraternity of brewers. Here he brews his own versions of everything from traditional German pilsners to English brown ales to IPAs. He loves the creativity of his new country and city.
“There’s a lot of talented people in Fort Lauderdale and in the United States in general,” he says of a brewing scene that’s less tied to tradition than its European counterparts. “I want to be in a place where there’s no stupid rules. If you have it in your mind, try it.”
That said, he also values his foundations and the brewing tradition he comes from.
“Passion with knowledge is everything,” he says.
It’s the bringing together of those two ideals – of the old world and the new – that Khoffner’s striving for.
“This is what we’re trying to do: bring the old-school traditions to a new kind of brewing.”