Food & Drink

How South Florida helped start the tropical fruit beer trend

Funky Buddha’s blood orange IPA, More Moro, became so popular the brewery began producing this beer year round.
Funky Buddha’s blood orange IPA, More Moro, became so popular the brewery began producing this beer year round. Handout

Ryan Sentz had been open barely a year at Funky Buddha Brewery when one of his best customers brought him a load of mangoes and a sweet idea:

How about a beer highlighting South Florida’s ubiquitous summer fruit?

Sentz, a Florida native who has made a career at the Oakland Park brewery of bringing culinary flavors into beer — Maple Bacon Coffee Porter, anyone? — knew it could work. He created a mango-habañero wheat ale and named it after the customer, Bob Ouellette: Bob’s Backyard Mango Habanero Ale.

They brew it in the summer when mangoes come into season.

That was four years ago. Since then, Funky Buddha has amassed no fewer than 10 different beers using tropical fruits, including their More More Blood Orange IPA, which is bottled regularly throughout the year and sold at many South Florida retailers.

“People who called it gimmicky are the ones now doing it,” Sentz said. “But you have to step out of your comfort zone.”

The rest of the country is catching up.

These days, a walk down the beer aisle is increasingly reminiscent of a trip to a tiki bar.

Sales of flavored IPAs (India Pale Ales) skyrocketed in 2015, according to data presented at the Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia, with “tropical-flavored” IPA sales increasing by 250 percent.

This is no surprise to South Florida breweries, of which there are now more than 20 in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

RELATED: Wynwood West? Why craft breweries are opening in western Miami-Dade County

Due South Brewing in Boynton Beach annually brews its Hopicana orange-rye IPA using Florida oranges. And it doesn’t stop there, with a Grapefruit Category 5 imperial IPA and Belgian blondes using dragon fruit and passionfruit, among others.

“The fruit is there, so let’s use it,” said Due South spokesman Doug Fairall.

Nationally, credit San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing Co. for spreading what South Florida already knew.

In summer 2014, the company released a Grapefruit Sculpin, a variant of their popular IPA that uses Florida grapefruits.

Sales went through the roof. In some markets, the company says, the Grapefruit Sculpin outsells the regular Sculpin, a widely available favorite among craft-beer drinkers.

Today, they brew Pineapple Sculpin, a mango variant of their Even Keel Session IPA, and a Watermelon Dorado IPA.

Once Ballast Point’s fruity beers began taking over tap lines and stealing prime space at beer stores, other breweries began to announce and release their own versions.

New Belgium’s current offerings include Citradelic, a beer brewed with 10 kinds of hops and “tangerine-infused orange peel,” which gives off rich tangerine and mango aromas, and Juicy Mandarina, an imperial IPA exploding with citrus notes.

Of course, South Florida’s breweries already knew there was a market for it — before the nationally distributed brewers did.

“I’d go to a [brewers] festival and we’d be the only ones doing tropical fruit,” Sentz said. “Now you feel you can’t have a brewery without it, because it just works.”

Funky Buddha collaborated a few years ago with Miami’s Wynwood Brewing Company on a smoked mango beer that Wynwood founder and head brewer Luis Brignoni loved.

“People still talk about that beer,” he said. “It’s so much fun using the flavors down here. It’s like, why wouldn’t we?”

Hops are the reason for this flavor explosion. Brewers are experimenting with a new generation of hops prized for their aromatic qualities rather than just their bittering properties.

“I have smelled hops that smell like strawberry shortcake all the way to toasted coconut,” said New Belgium brewer Ross Koenigs.

Those sweet hops naturally are making beers that lend themselves to adding tropical flavors, Sentz said.

“They key is finding the right combination that plays well with the hops,” Sentz said.

Wynwood’s J. Wakefield Brewing has become renowned for using local, tropical fruit in their so-called sour beer — light, sweet concoctions that both refresh and pucker your lips.

Their DFPF — Dragon Fruit Passion Fruit Berliner — is made once a year when the fruits are in season and the lines at the brewery circle the block. And their Miami Madness, brewed with mango, guava and passion fruit, has an annual release party all its own.

“It’s local, indigenous and it’s the flavor of Miami,” said Miami native and founder Johnathan Wakefield. “It’s what people down here relate to.”

Wakefield says he prefers the stronger flavors of tropical fruits — he’s used everything from the citric passion fruit and mango to the milder guavas, mamey and papaya — to more popular fruits used in beer like blueberries and raspberries.

“They just work better with beer,” he said.

The tidal wave of tropical beers shows no sign of subsiding. But one industry expert, Jennifer Litz-Kirk, executive editor at Beer Business Daily, compared the trend to the explosion of fruit-flavored vodkas a few years ago, calling it “the flavored-vodkafication of beer” and a fad.

Nonsense, says Wakefield.

J. Wakefield has a guava beer they brewed with Torrence, Calif., brewery Smog City Brewing on tap right now at their Northwest 24th Street brewery. Next week comes a passion fruit saison they brewed with Long Island’s LIC Beer Project. They have plans to collaborate with breweries as far away as California on tropical beers.

“It’s only going to grow,” Wakefield said. “We’re spreading the tropical fruit love all around.”

Fritz Hahn of the Washington Post contributed to this report.