Interview with Johnathan Wakefield of J.Wakefield Brewing

He’s referred to as the master of Berliners. His brewery seamlessly fits into the art district that is Wynwood in Miami. Yes, there’s plenty of buzz around the J.Wakefield Brewing. Master busy bee Johnathan Wakefield had barely a moment to sit down with us, as there was bottles to be filled and lauter temperatures to be checked. Only the more excited we are to give you this in depth interview.

Which of your beers would you have served beer hunter Michael Jackson?

D.F.P.F.: Dragonfruit Passionfruit Berliner Weisse. Because the color is very striking: it’s light pink like fuchsia. It’s also a very balanced beer, so you get the tartness from the lactobacillus and a balanced sweetness from the fruit.

This is not the only sour beer you do.

This year we are probably going to release at least 25 different sours. The ones I am really known for are DFPF and Miami Madness.
Last year we did a whole string of Berliners, one was with Jeppe of Evil Twin with coffee and chocolate, one with All In Brewing with strawberry and rhubarb and we did one with Other Half in New York with kumquats and starfruit.
Not all are collabos though. We do a lot of treatment batches on our base Berliner. We screw around and do a five gallon batch to see how it tastes. If it goes over well with the public in the tap-room, we are going to redo it on a larger scale.

You brew every day?

We do now, because we have a bigger fermenter now. We have a 45 barrel fermenter which requires us to brew three times to fill it once. So now we are brewing three to four times a week.

Tell me a bit about the brewery, like the milestones or cliff notes.

We opened last February 2015; on the 28th was our grand opening party. To deal with all the government and the city, all the nonsense and contractors and builders, it took us a year and a half to open finally.
We did about 1,500 US barrels production last year. We do a wide range of beers: last year we did about 30 different beers. This year we try to push that to 50. And we are calculated to do about 3.500 barrels, so more than double of what we did last year.
Last year about 15 percent of it was sour beers. This year we are changing that to about 30 percent sour, as we started a sour program with brettanomyces, started a barrel programme.

How many people work here?

In the brewery, we have four people, including myself. Then one sales guy and eight people that work in the tap-room.

How badly under capacity are you?

Oh [sighs]. Massively. We could use two more guys. And we do not have enough production capacity to meet the demand: We cannot make enough beer. Which is why I had to buy the bigger fermenter to produce enough of the El Jefe hefeweizen and our IPA.

Where can you get your beers?

We distribute in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Miami, the Keys. We are on 200 accounts. And we are all draft, besides the special bottle releases, like D.F.P.F. and all the barrel aged stuff. We bottle that and keep one keg for in-house draft.
Now we are looking into contract brewing, like Cigar City does, at Brew Hub, up in Lakeland, Florida. They don’t brew anything for themselves but are just contract brewing. For guys like me that don’t have the capacity to make cans or bottles, they would do it for us. Therefore, I’m looking into maybe adding another 800 barrels, but only bottles and cans.
With my bottler that I use for the limited stuff, I couldn’t bottle 45 barrels. I would be here for weeks.

So you would let them brew your flagships?

That’s what our plan is, to do them in cans: Hop For Teacher, our IPA and El Jefe, our Coconut hefeweizen. And we also thought about 24th Street Brown. Those are the ones that really have taken off. Our Amber is not too far behind.

From the perspective of a European, Amber is interesting, as with Fat Tire, ambers still seem very popular in the US.

Yeah, it is close to an Oktoberfest, but an American version. It is not a lager but an ale, but it has the same kind of profile in maltiness and it is not overly bitter.
But no one in this market does an amber, except for me. Same thing with the brown ale. No one does a brown ale down here. Cigar City does, but they are four hours away from here. Besides, I have always liked brown ales and always loved Maduro Oatmeal Brown Ale. Therefore, it was an easy choice to make my own and people actually love it.
We have a current batch of Berliner in the fermenter that will probably go into a can with a bubble canning. I do not know if I would ever do that with a contract brewer, because there’s a lot of my house stuff in that beer. But we probably buy a really small canning line and start canning Berliners. I mean, we live in Miami: What would be better than going to the beach with a 3.5% beer that you can drink a lot of.

Your house stuff being?

My house yeast strains and bacteria that I use. They kind of separate my Berliners from those of others.

Where did you got them from? Ran around the neighborhood?

Basically [laughs]. About seven years ago I started to grow this strain. I kept it alive and eventually moved it in here. It obviously mutated from then until now, but it gives our Berliner a signature, which is outside of the classic, classic box. The grain bill and the way it is brewed is very classic though: 50 percent wheat, 50 percent two row, three step mash.
I took our house culture to other places, like up to New York to Captain Lawrence. We shipped a keg up and used it in a beer. But when you boil it, it dies off. I also helped the BrewDog guys in Scotland; actually helped them start a sour programme. It is all over their Twitter and Instagram now that they are starting to release a lot of Berliner Weisse. That is all my strain.

How did that happen?

BrewDog came to Miami for the TV show Brew Dogs and did a beer with Wynwood. I was featured in that show and listed as the best brewery in Miami.
But I think they are changing the format of that show: It’s going to be more like a competition right now. Between a homebrewer and a real brewer. So almost like Iron Chef. At least that’s what I’ve heard, the details might be different though.

When you think of beer, are you usually trying to create something easy to drink or rather push the envelope and go outside the box?

Well, I always swore that I’ll never do an amber ale or a blonde. But when you’re homebrewing, you are kind of brewing for yourself, you push the envelope and you do whatever you want. I still do that here, but I also brew for what the people want to drink.
We still screw around and do the pilot batches stuff, like today we brew a stout with dulce de leche. The wort tasted amazing. And as I mentioned, we put coffee and chocolate in a sour: it was an 8 percent Berliner and we threw cacao nibs and coffee in it. There have been a few coffee Berliners already, like I know that Brewski has done one. But I don’t think anyone has done coffee and chocolate in a Berliner before. So we do try to push the envelope.

Also with your flagships?

We’ve done variations of the flagships. We are heavily tied in with comic books: Miami has a comic book convention so we did a peach IPA for them and for another we did an apple cinnamon IPA. For the next convention in June we’ll need to something else and they like IPA, so we’ll do something to our IPA.
The El Hefe I kind of leave alone. It already has coconut in it, so to do more could be too much. The brown ale we do tons of treatments. It’s such a great base beer to work with and you can do a ton of stuff with it.

When you were a homebrewer, what happened that you wanted to go pro?

Homebrewing, just as it is for anybody, was a hobby. Getting tied in with the festivals and having more and more people asking us to be at these festivals and brew more beer, it became: hey, you should open a brewery. Eventually I was: Okay.
I quit my job and went to work for Cigar City – that was over three years ago. Left there and worked for Stone for a short stint. Then came back here and opened this place.

Ryan of Funky Buddha also mentioned Cigar City, so the community is working.

They are very receptive and open: I’m helping them by supplying labor but they are helping me by teaching me how to brew professionally. It was beneficial for both.
I’ve known Joey and Lane since they first opened, back in 2009. Basically I’ve known them since I was just a beer geek and homebrewing. I would drive up for every single bottle release, so every third weekend I would be up there, driving from Miami to Tampa.

How is the community in the Wynwood area?

It is growing, I mean, this area is definitely growing. Wynwood Brewing was the first one here, only two years ago. Then there is M.I.A. Brewing, all the way down in Homestead, who were open, I think, before Wynwood was. We were next here in Wynwood and last year Concrete Beach opened.

All of this happened late for a city as big as Miami.

Very late. I love Miami and I lived here all my life, basically, but Miami is always behind the curve of everything. Not just beer, but also food. The food truck scene started maybe three to four years after the rest of the country. Also the idea of farm to table started here later than everywhere else. So the beer scene started later too, but it’s catching on very fast.

Do you have an explanation why Miami is always behind the curve?

No, I really don’t. Maybe we are so far south that by pure geography we are the last to catch everything. However, everybody is very supportive and it definitely caught on, as we have a very strong following now. And Funky Buddha is taking off – they are huge. So I think it’ll only get bigger from here.
It always drove me crazy, going to San Diego and seeing a town of two million people with 120 breweries. And Miami with seven million people, there’s five breweries. Therefore, I was certain that there’s room for growth. There will definitely be more breweries and we want more breweries.
In Miami there’s at least three if not more breweries in the process of opening. Within the next five years, I expect us to have fifteen to twenty breweries. Which would be great. But we could definitely support even more than that, also because of the huge variety of people we have here; we have this melting pot of different cultures and communities with people from South America and also the northerners that come down,

What do you think your place will be among the fifteen breweries?

We are at the forefront. I think the five of us that opened within the last two years, will still be here and probably bigger than what we are now.

Will you be in a niche?

I will always want to be like this, kind of outside the box. If I’d just stuck to making straight classic styles, I’d get very bored. That is not me and I always want to do something different. Even as we will outgrow this space, we are not going to leave here. We will be here for a long time, but eventually we’ll have to look for another place, just to produce the core beers. And then I will turn this location into our space for experiments; more sours and more out of the norm beer styles.

You mentioned the melting pot before and I’ve hear Miami being referred to as the unofficial capital of Latin America. How does that show in your guests?

Oh, very much so. I would think that the majority of our guests is Latin American.
And some of that influence you can find in the beers: dulce de leche is very Argentinian and Uruguayan. We do a lot with fruits like dragonfruit and passionfruit, mango and guava. Or El Jefe to me is a very Miami beer. Yes, if you’d took out the coconut it’d be a super classic Hefeweizen, and as I’m not a big fan of clove, more on the banana side. Mixing the coconut with the banana esters, you get this tropical Hefeweizen that fits Miami very well. Plus we are so far south and not that far from the Caribbean; that’s also why it fits.

And being here makes it probably easier to source all these fruits.

Oh absolutely. I live thirty minutes from the wetlands where all these fruits grow. For me doing these beers is not that big a deal. If I were to live in Michigan, getting these exotic fruits would be much harder. But then, if I want to do a cherry beer…

Do you have connections with farmers?

Very much so. I just had a guy drop off starfruit and cumquats for me. Same goes for grains: All our spent grains goes to cattle farmers.

While we are talking, Mr. Vader is watching over us. What can you say about the art in your brewery?

I am a huge Star Wars and comic book fan. We have a Green Lantern lantern and ring. Thor’s hammer, Captain America’s shield.
The neighborhood is very eclectic and very deep rooted with art. So when we first opened the place, I had a local artist come in and paint the mural inside. It’s all Star Wars and I wanted it after the cantina scene. I think came out amazing. While it also gave us more attention, it’s really just what I wanted.

You basically built your own man cave.

Yes. [laughs] But that’s what I wanted. When I come and hang out at my place, I want to be able to enjoy it.

You said that you’re going to do a bottle release this Saturday. How many whale hunters will be in attendance?

Oh, for this beer probably quite a few, because it is one of our highest rated beers. And it was rated by Ratebeer as one of the top 50 beer releases in the world. We got one Ratebeer award for this beer, then one for being the best brewery to open in 2015 in Florida and also number two brewery in the world.
I was shocked when we got those awards. 5,600 breweries opened last year worldwide. To be number two is like…

But it couldn’t have been that much of a surprise, as you’ve always got great accolades.

Sure. I’ve got friends in Sweden and we ship beers over there. They visit me here. Then the BrewDog guys in Scotland want me to export, but I don’t make enough beer to send over there. The brewery is not just a US thing. Although the guys here know us well, we have a broad reach and that’s a good thing.

What would you do first: Add more accounts in the US or send the beer out of the States?

We do have accounts outside of Florida, as Miami is still kind of a growing market. The two core beers we cannot make enough of. But we do a lot more than just those core beers.
Pushing those on this young market has been difficult. We do Biere De Garde, Hefeweizen, Belgian Quad, Triple and Dubbel. Many people down here don’t know what they are.
So we had to push these to markets that were already craft savvy. Therefore, we send some to San Diego. We now have constant shippings to New York City as well as Richmond, Virginia to the restaurant Mekong. In NYC we send it to Tørst, where we did a tap takeover last November and I’m going up there again to brew with Other Half, so at the end of March we’ll do another tap takeover.

You were announced to attend the Copenhagen Beer Celebration two years ago and again last year, but didn’t attend neither year. So my first question is: Are you going to be there this year?

Mikkel did not invite me this year. Last year the brewery just opened, so for me to leave would have been absolutely impossible. This year would have been a bit better. But the timing of this year’s CBC is around the same time as our CBC [the Craft Brewer’s Conference – ed.]. So I will be in Philadelphia and I would have to fly from Philadelphia to Denmark.
But I might be in Copenhagen and if I’m not, my beers will be. I am doing something with Jeppe. He is doing the Sour&Bitter Fest on May 12. Thus I am sending 20 different kegs of sours to Denmark. Now Jeppe is telling me I have to come, so I try to plan that out.

What are you going to do on April 23? It’s the 500 year anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot.

We’re going to have to brew a lager! Now we actually have the tank space.
We’ve done one lager last year, a doppelbock. And I’ve been waiting to get the bigger tanks in to start doing more lagers, like a good pilsner or another doppelbock. There are so many options and I definitely want to do more lagers.
So it just might be that time to do that pilsner! We’ve got a ton of Bavarian Mandarina hops in, so…

Is it easy for you to get that kind of hops?

We’ve contracted quite well. Obviously, I don’t get the Nelson and Galaxy, but I do have a ton of Citra and Mosaic. I gotta have a ton of Citra, because that’s our primary bittering in our IPA. But we’ve lucked into Mosaic, like we’ve just done a pale ale with Mosaic.

To me there seems to be a bit of a group-think phenomenon: Hops pop up, everybody is raving about it and using it and it disappears again when the next one pops up.

That just happened last year with Equinox and Azacca. I got my hands on Equinox and it’s a really good hops. Do I think it’ll take over Citra? No.
There are always new hop breeds. So I have to call my hop guy and ask: What new breeds do you have? What new flavors? Almost like in a candy shop. Based off that, you then need to order for the next year. And some of these will really take off while even more new ones are being introduced.

I sometimes feel a bit sorry for Cascade. There’s nothing wrong with Cascade.

And I still use it a lot. It’s a great hop! Even Centennial. People have kind of forgotten these hops, because of Galaxy and Nelson and Mosaic and Equinox.

Yes, there are too many great forgotten ones like Warrior or Galena.

I use both of those. I also still use a lot of Mangum and Fuggle or Hallertau. I use a lot of noble hops too.

Last question: Which five beers would you tell people to drink before they die?

That’s a tough question.
Toppling Goliath Kentucky Brunch.
Any of the Churchill’s Finest Hour made by Lost Abbey. They always do an annual bottle release for this restaurant in San Marcos and those beers are always phenomenal.
D.F.P.F. of course. People should try that.
Cantillon Loerik. I haven’t had it in six years, but that bottle…!
And if I ever get it, that sour collabo “Isabelle Proximus” by Dogfish, Lost Abbey, Avery, Allagash and Russian River.

Do you seek out these beers or you just get them?

I used to have to trade and seek out beers. Now people send them to me.

What’s the ratio of you drinking your own to other people’s beers?

I would say I drink more of everybody else’s beers.


I don’t know. I enjoy my own stouts and sours of course, and if I’d had to name a “go to beer” it’d probably be my brown ale or the dunkelweizen. Those are both five to six percent beers that I can just sit down and enjoy. But we also make a lot of high alcohol beers too.
But really, honestly, I enjoy trying other people’s beers. I try my own stuff all the time.

This interview took place on 25 February 2016 at the brewery.

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