Each year on December 25, families gather around the tree, and at some homes, among the presents are oblong boxes that when unwrapped reveal a plastic jug, some extract packets, and a few brushes. The Mr. Beer kit is the impulse buy for the beer lover in your life, conveniently stacked near the register of Bed Bath and Beyond. Most recipients will give it a try; some might even take up homebrewing as a full hobby graduating to better equipment; fewer will actually use it as the impetus to go pro; and still fewer will have the impact that Jonathan Wakefield has had on the brewing industry.
He is the namesake of J. Wakefield Brewing of Miami, Florida, the street-art decorated brewery in the city’s trendy Wynwood arts district—the place that attracts beer fans from all over the country in search of two very specific styles: the fruited Berliner weisse and the flavored stout.
Wakefield has accomplished a lot in a very short period, propelling parts of the industry forward, but so much of the success he has gained came from looking to the past. “During my homebrew days, I did a lot of research and background digging into ales that aren’t brewed anymore,” he says, remembering making Kottbusser, a German ale made from Kölsch yeast with oats, molasses, and honey. Or the Kentucky Common he made while working at Cigar City Brewing in 2013. “It’s the old, dead styles that I find interesting.”
It’s also what led him to Berliner weisse. While the German sour wheat ale is a style that is currently enjoying a renaissance around the world, until recently it had largely fallen into obscurity, save for a few purveyors around the globe. Typically low gravity with little hops character, Berliner weisse gets its character from both Lactobacillus and warm-fermenting yeasts. Traditionally it’s served with a few drops of either raspberry or woodruff syrup, but Wakefield, who lives in a fruit-and-citrus lush region, had another idea.
Creating a New Label
“[Berliner weisse] was a style no one gave a crap about, so how do you change the game? Did I want to go through the pain of making and reducing a syrup? No. I thought ‘why don’t we just put fruit in the fermentation,’ and that changed everything,” he says. He needed a name for the creation, and the term Florida weisse caught fire, as fans began to line up even before he opened his brewery doors. At the inaugural What The Funk Festival held in Denver during the 2013 Great American Beer Festival, fans lined up and snaked through the hall to get a taste of his dragon-fruit weisse. They’ve been lining up ever since at his brewery, which opened the following year.
“To me, it was trying to create a label out of an area,” he says. “The Florida weisse thing stuck for a while. Now it’s not a new thing, and everyone in the country does it. It’s been localized to everywhere from Michigan to California. So to me these days, it’s a fruited Berliner, an Americanized Berliner. Fruit is kicked in to a fermented quick-kettle thing.”
As beer drinkers increasingly flock toward full flavored, abrasive, sour, tart, and acidic beers, the addition of fruit directly to fermentation makes sense and has mass appeal. Because the base beer is relatively simplistic, the fruit has a chance to shine, and Wakefield has sourced from not only local farms, but around the world.
“I have spared no expense,” he says, citing the apple variety from Oregon that only grows in a certain valley. Or the Masumoto peaches from California that he calls the “king of peaches” that he had to “bend over backwards” to get. But, he believes that he’s the first one to put them into a beer.
Dragon fruit, thanks in part to how it turns the beer pink, remains the most popular. But if it grows on a branch or vine, Wakefield is open to trying it. One ingredient, however, that he won’t try again is highbush cranberries. A few years back, he made a collaboration beer with a Montreal brewer and used the fruit that aren’t really cranberries and grow in a tree in northern regions.
“They smell horrible, like feet but not in the truffle way,” Wakefield says. “But, it ultimately has a good funk to it. The beer turned out okay, but not that great.” The real issue was cleaning the tanks afterward. The highbush cranberries have a flat seed inside that makes up about 50 percent of the fruit; and after upward of 400 pounds of puree were used in the recipe, the seeds stuck to the bottom of the tank, cementing and clogging the system. It took the brewers hours of chiseling to break up and take away the debris.
Hot Weather Dark Beer
The low-alcohol, tartly refreshing Berliner makes sense for the hot Florida climate, but the other style Wakefield is known for—flavored stouts—might seem a little out of character. In response to the question, he recites the mantra of so many other brewers: I make what I like to drink.
“Since my homebrew days, I’ve made stouts, porters, and dark beers. Back then, I’d throw coconuts into 5-gallon barrels, and I’ve just carried it over,” he says.
Outside of IPAs, special stout releases are still what customers line up for, and on the days when Wakefield has a new stout release, it’s not uncommon for folks to arrive at midnight the night before and camp out for the first crack at a bottle.
“We make good IPA, but we don’t have that beer community [locally] for cases of hazy IPA. Here customers see a 10, 11, 12 percent ABV beer, and that’s what they want. They see it as the best bang for their buck, and it may seem counterintuitive, but people love drinking them even when its ninety-five degrees out.”
Still a Homebrewer
Although Wakefield has a good number of years under his belt as a pro, homebrewers still approach him regularly for advice to get into the business. He acknowledges that it’s hard.
There were almost 2,000 breweries in the country when he opened compared to 5,500 today. He cites geography as one of the keys to success, in that there weren’t many breweries in his area when he opened. But that card is less and less playable for new brewers. It’s a tough road to go pro these days.
So his advice: find a way to set yourself apart. “It’s hard to be a trailblazer, but you need to find something that will captivate customers and make people want to come to your brewery. For us, that’s adjunct stouts and the Berliner.”