|Meet the Master|
|Written by Francisco Alvarado, BT Contributor|
North Miami’s Johnathan Wakefield has crafted some of the best beer on the planet
On a muggy Saturday afternoon during the first weekend in February, craft beer aficionados lined up for hours outside a Wynwood warehouse converted into a bar and brewery by Johnathan Wakefield. They eagerly waited to get their hands on one of 1000 bottles of the special edition DFPF Berliner Weisse beer the North Miami native began making seven years ago.
The DFPF is no ordinary German-style brewski. It’s a sudsy and sour, fuscia-colored concoction, made with delicious dragon fruit and passionfruit. Wakefield releases it once a year. With an alcohol by volume content of 7 percent, the DFPF also packs quite a punch.
“It’s this pinkish, purplish wheat beer that has a tart acidity to it,” Wakefield tells the BT in a recent interview. “Since I first put it out, people have just gone bananas for it. Serious beer drinkers had never seen anything like it.”
Three weeks later, more than 1000 connoisseurs showed up at the event space Mana Wynwood to celebrate the second anniversary of J. Wakefield Brewery, and to sample two of his limited edition imperial stout beers: the Golden Ticket, brewed with caramel, chocolate, coconut, and sea salt; and Desperado, a cauldron of ancho chili, cinnamon, and cacao, aged in bourbon barrels. Wakefest also featured internationally and nationally recognized craft beer brewers, from Southern California to the United Kingdom, a testament to his lofty place in the world of stylized beer-making.
“I really wanted to create an event that exposed Miamians to some fantastic craft beers, and at the same time help grow our local scene,” Wakefield says. “It was an opportunity to invite all my industry friends from around the globe to pour their beers in Miami.”
Wakefield never imagined his home beer-making odyssey, which began with a $50 home brew kit his wife Natalie gave him for Christmas in 2005, would transform him into one of the most respected craft beer makers in the industry. His DFPF and his Miami Madness beer currently hold the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings for Berliner Weisse-style brews, according to ratebeer.com. In January 2016, just a little over a year after he opened his Wynwood brewery, beer trade magazine Draft ranked his tap room the second-best on the planet.
In selecting Wakefield, Draft editor Zach Fowle noted that the former certified public accountant is a pioneer in creating off-the-wall beers like the DFPF Berliner Weisse. “The emerging style, characterized by post-fermentation fruit additions that add sweetness to a tart wheat beer base has become emblematic of South Florida craft beer,” Fowle wrote. “And while he didn’t invent the Florida Weisse, it’s safe to say Wakefield perfected it.”
Wakefield is earning accolades at a time when Miami’s craft beer scene is still in it nascent stages. In the past five years, other local master brewers have opened M.I.A. Brewing Co., Wynwood Brewing Co., Biscayne Brewing Co., and Concrete Brewing. In the next two years, another half dozen breweries are slated to open around Miami-Dade County.
“We’re trying to create a culture down here,” Wakefield says. “There are a lot of options and a lot of good beers coming out of Miami.”
A tall, husky 39-year-old with a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, Wakefield grew up in the Keystone Point and San Souci neighborhoods of North Miami with his three brothers, his mother, and his stepfather, John Tomlinson, a high-performance boat racer and co-owner of TNT Custom Marine, which is also based in the city.
“I always told Johnathan to find something he loves to do,” Tomlinson says. “If he can make a living doing that, then it’s not a job.”
After finishing eighth grade at Miami Country Day School, Wakefield attended North Miami Beach Senior High, where he earned a football scholarship to Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. “Johnathan was always a big, strong kid,” Tomlinson says. “But he loved cooking, too. He often talked about becoming a chef.”
After two years at Robert Morris, Wakefield came back to North Miami to finish college at Florida International University, where he got bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting. While he was studying for his master’s, Tomlinson hired Wakefield as TNT’s bookkeeper. However, Wakefield didn’t think accounting was his true calling in life, Tomlinson relates.
“He started venturing off into beer,” Tomlinson recalls. “Before you knew it, he was making his own at home.”
According to Wakefield, he discovered craft beers in 2002, after he bought a six-pack of an American pale ale made by Firestone Walker Brewery in Paso Robles, California. “I remember drinking this pale ale that was completely different from any of the watered-down beer I used to drink while I was in college in Pittsburgh,” Wakefield says. “From then on, I was having beers shipped to me from New York and California.”
Three years later, his wife bought him a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas. That one-gallon, $50 contraption has turned many beer-making novices into master brewers, Wakefield says. “I read all the books on craft beer making and gave it a shot,” he recalls. “Of course, the first batch wasn’t so great. Over time, I invested money in better equipment and started getting more positive feedback from my friends who drank it.”
His first big break happened on October 4, 2008, when he hosted a watch party at his house for the football game between the University of Miami Hurricanes and the Florida State University Seminoles. One of the guests was Joey Redner, founder and CEO of Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, whom Wakefield had befriended.
“Back then, Cigar City was the only real craft brewery in Florida,” Wakefield says. “I would drive up there once a month or every other month, whenever they had a new bottle release.”
For the watch party, Wakefield had three different homemade beers on draft, including a pineapple-flavored Kölsch-style brew that Redner kept drinking that night. “He was like, ‘This is great, you should try to do something like this with us,’” Wakefield says. “A week later, Joey and his partner asked me to make a small batch for their first anniversary festival.”
By 2010, Cigar City was selling Wakefield’s Pineapple Kölsch and the first iteration of his DFPF Berliner Weisse. “That Weisse really took off,” Wakefield recalls. “I took a classic style that everybody had forgotten about. Cigar City kept bringing me back, and I started doing all these other festivals. People kept telling me I should open my own brewery.”
Three years later, Wakefield convinced his stepfather to partner with him on his craft beer dreams. “He kept telling me if he could get a brewery going, he would make it,” Tomlinson says. “He was getting noticed and recognized for his talents. It just escalated from there.”
In addition to his stepfather’s seed capital, Wakefield launched a crowd-funded campaign on the online craft beer financing platform called CrowdBrewed. Within 30 hours of the campaign going live, Wakefield raised $55,000 in startup funds. He ended up collecting more than $100,000.
In 2015 he leased the 5000-square-foot warehouse at 120 NW 24th St., where he brews 2500 barrels of beer per year. The 15-barrel brewing system produces about 465 gallons per batch. Wakefield’s five flagship beers are Master Blaster porter, made with smoked coconut; El Jefe, a hefeweizen; CTC Brown Ale, inspired by Cinnamon Toast Crunch; Hops in Session IPA; and a Florida Weisse, which is like a light Berliner Weisse, but with fruit added to the beer, instead of to the glass.
He signed a deal with Gold Coast Distribution to distribute 75 percent of his brands of beer across the state. The remainder are served and sold in-house in the 400-square-foot bar that resembles the ultimate man cave. Comic book memorabilia line interior walls painted with floor-to-ceiling murals depicting characters from Star Wars imbibing beers. An exterior wall in the front-yard beer garden features a menacing portrait of Darth Vader by pop culture artist Bikismo.
“Johnathan is focused 100 percent on that brewery and doing it the way he wants to,” says Tomlinson. “Other people have tried to give him opinions on how he should do things. But he tells them he’s not going to waver from his creative side.”
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible