Food & Drink

M.I.A. Beer Co. looks to future after co-founder dies in car crash

The M.I.A. Beer Company family: From left, Michael Demetrus, Howard Holschauer, Kevin Smith, Eddie Leon, Johann Beckford, Claudio Menicocci, Orestes ‘Rusty’ Hernandez and Chris Lacerna.
The M.I.A. Beer Company family: From left, Michael Demetrus, Howard Holschauer, Kevin Smith, Eddie Leon, Johann Beckford, Claudio Menicocci, Orestes ‘Rusty’ Hernandez and Chris Lacerna. For the Miami Herald

Wynwood is no longer the only place you can drink a pint of freshly brewed beer. M.I.A. Beer Co. — a full production brewery in Doral which opened its taproom a year ago but has been in the beer distribution business for about three years — is a hidden gem treasured by local craft beer lovers.

At M.I.A., patrons enjoy drinking signature beers such as the Miami Weiss, a traditional German-style Hefeweizen brewed with wheat, barley and sweet orange peel; and the 305, a light-and-crisp golden ale with a touch of West Coast hops, in a warehouse atmosphere.

The brewing company, moving ahead after the death of co-founder Piero Rodriguez in a June car crash, occupies 10,000 square feet nestled in shopping center Doral West, where neighboring businesses include a staffing agency and cargo company.

“When I was in the process of opening the brewery, I started getting kind of scared because people would always ask me ‘Why Doral? Why not Wynwood or somewhere else?’ But to me, it made sense on many levels,” said Eddie Leon, 47, who co-owns M.I.A. Beer Co. along with business partners Kevin Smith and Johann Beckford.

“I live down the street from the brewery, this is my home and my community, plus here we have room to grow,” he said. “From an infrastructure standpoint it was the best choice, we’re in an industrial building which has high ceilings, electrical gas and enough space to accommodate production needs but we’re surrounded by a safe, residential area with walking and driving traffic. When we signed the lease the square foot was valued at $9 whereas in other areas of Miami, it can be as high as $60, so it was an ideal location in many ways.”

Leon admits people often comment that they’re surprised by what they see when they step inside the building, an industrial-looking setting with chic lounge-style accents like neon lights underneath the bar and above the draft selection menu board.

But perhaps what would be more surprising for patrons to learn is that Leon — an architect who co-owns Spine 3-D, an architectural marketing and renderings company — designed M.I.A.’s interior himself. The Cuban American, who was born on the island but grew up in Miami, and his business partners turned to the beer industry after experiencing a rough patch in 2009 when the construction and real estate market dropped.

“We didn’t want to have all our eggs in one basket and were researching other businesses and thinking what else can we do that’s not so dependent on the real estate market,” he said. “And then I thought, well ... people drink when times are good and people drink when times are bad.”

Leon was not entirely new to the world of brewing. He had brewed beer at home many years before, using a home kit he got as a gift when he was in college. He then started to brew beer at home again, at first by himself but later involving his partners in the process.

“We started taking the beer we made at home to local beer festivals and giving it away to people,” Leon said. “We met many people and it was a lot of fun. The whole brewing community was so tight-knit and friendly.”

CO-FOUNDER’S SUDDEN PASSING

It was at a beer festival where Leon met home-brewer Piero Rodriguez. The two quickly became friends and soon after, Rodriguez joined M.I.A.’s brew team. From then on, he spent countless hours in M.I.A.’s brew room, creating and brewing new recipes. Rodriguez, who was affectionately referred to as “Tigre” by taproom coworkers and friends, became an integral part of everything M.I.A.: an essential part of the company’s brew team and family.

In early June, his life was cut short. After working a late shift at the bar, Rodriguez, 34, died in an early-morning car crash, a devastating blow for Leon and the rest of the M.I.A. family, who quickly mobilized to honor his life by organizing fundraising efforts to benefit Rodriguez’s 9-year-old son, Rebel.

“He definitely won’t be forgotten,” said Leon, who says a commissioned mural of Rodriguez by artist Claudio Picasso will soon adorn the tap room. “The outpouring of love and the amount of people in the community, who reached out to offer their help, to host fundraisers, to honor Piero’s life in some way, really speaks to the type of person Piero was and the legacy he is leaving.”

The last beer Piero brewed, the “Babalu”, an orange, carrot, ginger berliner, has become a tap room favorite.

“We also brewed the ‘Peligro Stout,’ ” Leon said. “It was the last recipe he worked on. We finalized it and brewed it as a tribute to him and named it ‘Peligro’ because that was another nickname of his. He will live on in our hearts, in our memory and in our beer.”

Rodriguez will also live on in tribute tattoos. “At M.I.A., three of the guys, Rusty, Robert and our brewmaster, Mike, have gotten tiger tattoos in memory of Piero.”

MOVING FORWARD INTO UNTAPPED POTENTIAL

For brewmaster Michael Demetrus, who for four years was co-owner and brewer of Finch’s Beer Co., in Chicago, moving to Miami was a no-brainer.

“When I first moved here, there were only two breweries in Miami,” said Demetrus, 36, who brews four times a week on average and says one brewing cycle on M.I.A.’s 220bbl (620 gallon) three-vessel Premier Stainless system, can take up to 14 hours.

“Right now, there’s one brewery for every 400,000 people or so, by comparison, in thriving beer regions such as the Northeast and the Midwest, it’s not uncommon to see that ratio as low as 1 for every 10,000 people. Just think about Miami’s potential for growth in those terms. This is an exciting place to be a part of, in this new era, one of the last of its kind in terms of density.”

Claudio Menicocci, M.I.A.’s taproom manager, a Pinecrest resident who has been with the company since its early stages, agrees.

“This is the new gold rush — but for beer,” said Menicocci, 31. “We’re the final frontier of beer. The East and the Southeast are becoming big players in the beer game. So many breweries are popping up in Miami, you have us, Biscayne Brewing, The Tank, and Lincoln’s Beard opening up soon, and a few others in Hialeah. I can imagine within the next five or 10 years there will be about that many breweries opening up.”

But M.I.A. Beer Co., which has 54 tap handles, features about 40 unique beers — made with a wide variety of ingredients, yeasts and malts of all kinds — and 10 guest beers from local breweries such as Wynwood Brewing, is staying ahead of the curve and focused on expansion.

Leon recently acquired another 10,000 square feet of space in the warehouse next to M.I.A., where he plans to build a second bar and a kitchen. As of right now, food served at the beer company is provided by mobile caterer Blue Sky Pies run by Chef Donna Winter. He’s also flirting with the idea of applying for a liquor license and offering craft cocktails. A second location set to open in another area of Miami within the next couple of years is also in the works.

On the production side, the beer company’s three partners are also cranking it up. They’ve been distributing bottles of beer since 2013 and debuted cans of four signature flavors — Domino, Mega Mix, Miami Weiss, Tourist Trappe — in February.

According to Leon, M.I.A. produces at least 100 barrels per week; a figure which nearly triples last year’s production.

“We estimate producing 6,000 barrels this year for the Florida market alone,” said Leon, who explains that M.I.A. beers can be found in Sint Maarten, the Dutch side of the island Saint Marten, with growing interest from bars in New York, Ohio, and Alabama, as well as Aruba and Haiti.

“We’re also looking at the Bahamas,” he adds. Locally, M.I.A. beers are found on tap at restaurants Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, Box Elder, Clandestino Pub, Finka Table and Tap, Kush, Lokal and The Butcher Shop among others and bottled or canned at Mendez Fuel, Milam’s Markets, Publix, Total Wine and Wholefoods. But their biggest local accounts include The Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach and Better Days Miami in Brickell.

Florida Starbucks stores also carry M.I.A. beer cans as part of their Starbucks Evenings program and Target locations have recently signed on to carry them, too.

“We’re producing more beer than we ever have before to fulfill demand for distribution, as well as for our taproom. Just think about it this way: 6,000 barrels of beer is equivalent to 186,000 gallons which could fill two Olympic-size pools,” he said.

“Sales in our taproom last year totaled 7,000 cases, with one case carrying four six-packs, and outside distribution sales totaled 20,000. Last month, from distribution sales alone we sold 5,300 cases, a quarter of all of last year’s sales and of course, that reflects on total distribution earnings which we project will net near 1.5 million this year, up 300 percent from the last.”

For now, beer bottles are hand-bottled in-house by staff, four beers at a time.

“It takes a team of two or three guys, who clean, fill, cap and label each bottle,” Menicocci said. “It takes about three days, in which anywhere from 700 to 1,000 bottles are processed. It’s definitely a labor of love. You have to love what you do to work here.”

On the other hand, canning requires a different process. M.I.A. Beer Co. partnered with Brew Hub, a large production facility in Lakeland, Florida, in which all canning is done. However, Demetrus travels to Brewhub’s facilities to brew.

CREATING AND EDUCATING

A desire to create original, finely crafted “Miami Inspired Ales” is at M.I.A.’s core — after all, it’s in their name. Drawing from Miami’s rich multiculturalism for inspiration for the creation of recipes or beer names is the norm. Beer names range from “Chango” (a patron in the Santeria religion); a mango-infused berliner; to “Domino,” a light crisp pilsner, which honors the Cuban tradition of playing afternoon Domino matches.

“People love Miami culture, Miami swag,” Menicocci said. “Everything about our beer from the colors and designs on the bottles and cans to the taste, names and taproom atmosphere screams Miami.”

On average, M.I.A. releases about three new beers a week. “Exclusively in our taproom,” explains Demetrus, who says he enjoys gauging reactions on these “test beers” from customers.

“These are small batch, 220-gallon specialty brews. We’re always working on creating something new, for instance, last week we released Finder’s Keepers. This beer started out as a French country ale, then went into oak barrels and re-fermented for four months with numerous strains of wild yeast and bacterium. The result was a wild ale, tart, complex, funky and smooth.”

Leon also has his hand in conceptualizing new beers and says when it comes time to name a beer he leans towards names that relate best to Miami, are funny or cheesy and can create conversation among strangers in the taproom.

“I’m always thinking about names,” he laughs. “I’ve thought about creating a hoppy, indian pale ale and naming it ‘Hop-a-locka’ in honor of Opa-locka or ‘Acere Ventura’ drawing from ‘Ace Ventura’ ... you know, fun things like that.”

Cool names aside, some patrons are still hesitant to try craft beer.

“At first, they’ll come in here and ask me what do you have that’s like a Corona? Or like a Heineken?” he said. “But once they start trying different beers and they realize how fun and experimental it can be, I hate to say it but they’re like kids in a candy store. I’ll see them drinking J. Wakefield’s ‘El Jefe’ or our ‘Mega Mix.’ It’s amazing how accepting they become.”

Menicocci echoes Leon and adds that educating the community is both a responsibility and a pleasure.

“With the whole craft beer thing … it can sometimes come off as this barrel age, peach, sour … this and that. But it doesn’t have to be a cerveza rara (weird beer),” he said. “It can just be an easy-to-drink, perfectly crafted light lager that just blows you away because it’s so deliciously simple and it’s craft because it’s made here, locally, with hard work and love, by people who just really care about what they’re doing.”

If you go

M.I.A. Beer Co. brewery tours are available Saturdays from 1 to 6 p.m., cost $5 and include a pint of M.I.A. flagship beer. The brewery is located at 10400 NW 33rd St., Suite 150, Doral. For more information, visit www.MIA.beer.

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