Booze, kegs and pitchers: L&A at the Beer Festival

Amidst the bustle of ostentatious pedestrians, flashy neon signs, Art Deco-designed restaurants and ritzy edifices such as the Tides Hotel and the Versace Mansion on SoBe’s Ocean Drive, a disparate brand of festivity installed itself among the lush sand and palm trees. Ostensibly, it seemed like a paradox for the Miami Beach International World of Beer Festival 2003 to inaugurate the first global beer fiesta in South Florida on the beachfront between 7th and 8th St., an area usually plagued by Mango’s cocktails and Wet Willies’ frozen drinks.
“The goal of the event is to erase the stigma attached to beer drinkers,” said Justine Stock, the head volunteer coordinator and daughter of one of the event’s organizers, Melissa Frantz. “Beer shouldn’t just be associated with white trash. It has history, they had casks in Noah’s Arc. Americans care more about the marketing. I mean, Budweiser tastes like shit, but they have great ad campaigns. We want to create more awareness about world beer and show that it can be as interesting as wine and cocktails.”
Whether or not beer can have this epicurean value didn’t matter: Life & Art had to dive in and savor what such a festival could offer. Upon entering, my photographer quickly disappeared into the various tents, letting me scrutinize the surrounding alone-on stage, a jam band played a miscellany of Goo Goo Dolls, “Sweet Home Alabama,” and original Celtic flute tunes. Along the sandy field, an eclectic tang of bourbon chicken, Maryland crab cakes and fried alligator blended with the potent aroma of beer inside the many pavilions boasting more than 300 international singular brews.
Thirsty amblers-ranging from the preppies in Hilfiger and Polos to the pot-bellied beer devotees to the few mullet-heads rocking flickering ornaments on their bodies-wandered around to taste the different flavors, yet the crowd was slim compared to the amount of space at the festival. Stock blamed this on the recession and $25 price tag for admission, also pointing out that this was the event’s first year. In any case, I was starting to feel dehydrated and so made my way to the most lively, gregarious booth: the Belgian beer stand. While shouting out “Mussels from Brussels!” and singing along to “It’s Great to Be a Belgian,” Paul Cuypers, president of the Belgian Club of Florida, greeted me.
“Belgium has the best and most different kinds of beer in the world,” he said. “Every little village has several small breweries and so everyone tries to make theirs better. It’s very competitive and a big incentive to make good beer.” He also noted that each habitant in Belgium consumes about 130 liters of beer per year (the second largest consummation after Germany, which holds first place with 142 liters). Also, many international beers are brewed using Belgian techniques, he said.
After guzzling down a Saxo (really sweet and fruity), a Hoegarden (pungent, flavorful) and a Stella Artois (a perfect mix between dry and sweet), I was off to a good start and walked over to the Warsteiner booth, a pilsner brewed in Warstein, Germany. A flabby, red-nosed sort, Mark Dean, special events coordinator for Warsteiner importers, conceitedly proclaimed his beer to be the “nectar of the gods.”
“It’s crisp and clean, easy for the American palette and many people think that our dark beer tastes lighter than the regular pilsner,” he told me. He also emphasized that his beer is brewed in its native land, then imported to the U.S., while another representative elucidated that a lot of imports aren’t made in their country of origin-Guinness and Fosters are both made in Canada, instead of Ireland and Australia, respectively. I tasted both the dark and light varieties of Warsteiner, but couldn’t really tell the difference because I was drinking both at the same time.
Across this booth, another Belgian stand caught my eye. Dubbed L’Alsacienne “Sans Culotte” (i.e., “without underwear” in French), the bottle’s label portrays “Fannie” lifting up her skirt to reveal a bare ass. However, explained Mike Cutter, president of the company that imports these beers from their brewery in Erteveldt, Belgium, the ass has to be censored otherwise it would be deemed indecent in the U.S. since it’s an alcoholic bottle, while this isn’t the case in Belgium. Cleverly and humorously, Cutter stamped a censor that could easily be scratched off when the bottle is bought and describes it as having a “non-hop finish” and a “non-bitter and refreshing taste.”
Moving along, I bumped into the Unibroue stand-beers from Chambly, Quebec, with eccentric gothic designs on the bottles. Perhaps the image enticed me to taste, yet I will attest that these brews had the most original flavor and a delectable zest. “We make our beers Belgian style, using techniques like refermentation, aging, etc., to make it more flavorful,” said Michael Hruska, regional sales manager for the company. “It’s enjoying beer for what it can be, flavor wise. American beers aren’t as exciting as Belgian or German ones and you could compare our brew to a champagne or even a port wine finish.”
At this point, while handling three sampling cups, I was searching for my photographer and observing the Canstruction “can castle.” Night had fallen and the brew was heating me up. Steve, a volunteer, came up to me for a chat and praised the array of people. “There was this girl who was soaking wet from swimming in the cold ocean,” he said. “She was from Norway.” Meantime, an older man was having a hard time standing up, and after crashing twice onto the ground, he belched out the beer and was escorted to the exit.
Back inside the exhibition area, I stumbled upon Magner’s Cider, brewed in Ireland. Sales rep Shane McCarthy noted that while American ciders tend to be very sweet, English ones are very dry, so Magner’s is pegged in the middle. John Keogh, a sales manager for the English cider Strongbow, mentioned that before the prohibition, cider was widely consumed in the U.S. Due to the introduction of malt beverages such as Smirnoff Ice, Americans hardly consume cider, while it’s the first alcoholic drink young Brits buy when growing up because it’s cheap, he said.
Kalik, a popular Bahamian brew, was described to have the “lightness of American beers and the full body of European ones” by Micheal Larsen, sales director of Commonwealth Brewery. And, on the other side of the planet, Singha, the oldest Thai beer, is more bitter and contains more alcohol (6%) than American brews. Nondhee Trananon, of the Thai Trade Center, noted that in Thailand, beer is served with more alcohol (8%) and in larger volumes.
While drunkenly jotting down the last few notes for my story, I finally found my photographer, looking hammered, his body oscillating in his corner. I drifted towards him and we both noticed the semi-empty Miller Lite stand, jokingly pondering who would even want an American beer after relishing the succulent flavor of the international selection offered here. Moreover, we ran into the Mango’s booth, the only one serving liquor instead of beer with a blonde in a see-through leopard suit pouring Bacardi bottles, which prompted a reality check-we were still in the middle of South Beach. As we meandered back through the gaudy Ocean Drive crowd and glistening Porsches, I felt rather disoriented, as if I stepped in from some strange, outside land.
Omar Sommereyns can be reached at