Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood has rapidly gentrified in recent years, transforming from a street-art mecca to the kinda place where valet drivers gently park Ferraris in gravel lots around lunch time. In between that shift, it flourished with an array of artistically-driven businesses that included galleries, fashion houses, restaurants, and breweries. First in was Wynwood Brewing a little more than three years ago. And then came yesterday's announcement of a new brewery from AB InBev’s High End group called Veza Sur. Life comes at you fast.
“Having someone like Concrete Beach, and even someone like AB, a billion dollar conglomerate, it’s funny to me,” says Wynwood Brewing founder Luis Brignoni. “It’s like, wow, we actually somewhat beat these guys to the game and it’s funny that they’re now coming into our neighborhood. Why not South Beach? Why not Brickell? There’s something about Wynwood that I’ve always loved. I lived there with my wife for a while, and homebrewing in the back alley out of my apartment before we got the brewery up and going, There’s a neat vibe and people see it and I think that’s why they decided to invest and be there. And welcome. The more the better. The more people we have saying there’s a bunch of breweries in Wynwood the better for all of us.“
It's not quite a half mile (or about a 10-minute walk) from Wynwood to J. Wakefield Brewing. In the middle is Concrete Beach, a small brewery with a taproom run by Alchemy & Science, Boston Beer Company's innovation team that operates under much the same mission as AB’s High End. A&S finds new growth and builds relevant brands for the future, and much of that is attempted through acquisitions. Concrete Beach is an internally-developed brand that needed a home and a story, and they make good enough beers that they have no trouble filling the taproom and patio. But the bulk of their packaged product is made at Boston Beer's Cincinnati plant. It’s an interesting model for a larger brewer trying to see how far they can stretch between old and new models.
But to some, the introduction of Concrete Beach was the first sign of things to come.
“We have a solid relationship with Concrete Beach. We’re open to everybody, but maybe at arm's length,” Jonathan Wakefield says. “The more breweries, the better. I’ve always said that. The three breweries there currently have completely different portfolios.”
As for his role in Wynwood going forward, Wakefield’s smiles can be heard through his words: “Boston beer a block and a half from me and AB one street up, parallel with me. I’ll be the only independently owned craft brewery in Wynwood.”
This past year, Wynwood Brewing, the original brewery in the neighborhood, also made its move. Eyeing a large expansion to keep growing despite the confines of its neighborhood spot, it struck a deal with the Craft Brew Alliance, a portfolio of brands like Redhook, Widmer, and Kona that’s 32% owned by AB InBev. Joining CBA doesn’t come with the deep pockets of a straight AB acquisition, which has helped many of its brands jumpstart new growth. But it does come with some substantial resources.
“Part of the deal with CBA is to have them brew some of our larger brands up in Portsmouth,” Brignoni says. He's referring to the New Hampshire home of CBA member Redhook, who devotes a substantial percentage of its capacity to contracting their partner’s portfolios. “It’ll free up capacity at our current facility. We’ll always have a home at Wynwood. We’ve been working with our landlord to secure that. Expanding the taproom and doing some more fun stuff with the space we’ll have.”
Until then, his focus at home is on the relatively untapped geography surrounding Dade County. “We’re only in 54% of our total accounts in Miami alone—93% of our total production stays just in Dade County," he explains. "With respect to market viability, there’s a lot of market here.”
A small stretch of fancy real estate with four breweries, three of which are tied or owned by some of our biggest brewers begs the question: Why Wynwood? What is it about this little corner of the world that’s become a microcosm of how gnarly and competitive the entire U.S. beer market is becoming? According to Brignoni, it’s not about Miami at all. It’s about what lies to the South.
“It’s a gateway to the Americas,” he says. “Miami is 70% hispanic. It’s not like Texas or L.A., where they do good job of assimilating to the culture. Miami is different. They speak Spanish first, not English. Very deep-rooted pockets of Hispanic culture.”
And all those people have connections elsewhere.
“Argentinians, Brazilians, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, it’s everybody," Brignoni says. "They all have a good base here. It’s a key market. They come here to vacation, to shop. Wynwood resonates with people from any major city in South America.”
And they take that resonance back home.
“I saw someone in customs wearing our t-shirt and I felt pretty proud,” Brignoni recalls. “We have a good brand. Miami is a gateway for taking that brand and exporting to Latin American countries.”
We know AB InBev was close to securing a deal with Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing before the deal’s timeline lapsed and they signed on with Oskar Blues instead, leaving a regional hole in the High End footprint nationally. Shortly after that miss, in May 2016, it was announced that a new beer maker called Spanglish Brewing was slated to enter the Miami market with local resident Jurgen Wassmann partnering with Bogota Beer Company, a Colombian brewery acquired by InBev in 2015. Spanglish was pitching beer "reminiscent of American and Latino cultures made with locally sourced ingredients.” It never got off the ground.
AB’s High End team declined to comment further on the deal, but Wassmann seems to no longer be a part of the story. The project has an updated name, Veza Sur, but the pitch is essentially the same, the new concept simply described as a “Latin-American inspired craft beer brand.” But now it’s also being billed as a partnership between Bagota Beer’s Berny Silberwasser, The High End’s Max-Antonio Burger, and two of The High End’s top acquired talents, Jeremy and Chris Cox, co-founders of 10 Barrel. For the first time since InBev started ramping up acquisition activity in 2011, we’re about to see what they can do with all that talent and experience when it's put toward building of a brand from scratch—even if the concept is a carryover from an abandoned venture.
“I welcome the challenge,” Wakefield says, sounding unconcerned. “I think it comes down to the portfolio. AB makes very consistent, quality-driven beer, repetitiously. That’s what they’re known for. How far outside the box will they go? I dunno. That’s a question to be answered soon. I don’t know how basic you can be and enter the market now.”