Crafting Beer With Big Bear's Brewing Co.'s Matt Cox -- Updated With Slideshow

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C. Stiles
Big Bear brewmaster Matt Cox stirs a batch of Polar Light.
Update: Check out the slideshow of brewing at Big Bear, online now.

Since 1996, Big Bear Brewing Co., Broward's only independently owned and operated brewpub, has been crafting award-winning beers in suburban Coral Springs. For the past nine of those years, the man behind the kettles has been Brewmaster Matt Cox. Cox's creations, ranging from Witness, a German-style wheat ale, to his Bourbon Barrel Double IPA, have earned the modest brewpub heaps of acclaim nationwide, including awards at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, and the National Brewer's Association Convention (where his Witness recently took a gold). Not to mention, they taste pretty damned amazing. 

We joined Cox on for a recent brew session to find out a little bit more about his process, his brews, and what it's like crafting some of Broward's freshest, most original beer.

Cox invited New Times into Big Bear's brew center, a two-story room lined with brew kettles, mash tuns, and plenty of hulking fermentation vessels. The industrial-looking room is the heart of Big Bear's brewing operation. Encased in glass windows, it's also visible to customers both in and outside the restaurant, which means lunchtime guests can often see Cox in there at work.

When we arrived, Cox was getting started on a batch of his best-selling Polar Light, a golden, shimmery brew made with German pilsner malt and plenty of European noble hops. As the lightest beer Big Bear makes, the restaurant's staff often equates Polar Light to crisp light beer such as Bud or Miller. But aside from having loads more flavor than those faux American beers, Cox told me that Polar Light isn't actually a lager at all.

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C. Stiles
A view from the second story of Big Bear's 300-gallon brew center.
"It's actually an ale," said Cox, busy milling more than 500 pounds of German malt he'd use to brew the batch.

Light lagers are generally fermented in refrigerated tanks to inhibit wild flavors and create a smoother, lower-alcohol beer. But ales, made with top fermenting yeast strains, are brewed at slightly below room temperature. The more active yeast create flavors that are much more intense as a result. 

Since Polar Light is actually an ale, it has a lot more going on than a typical lager-drinker might be used to. According to Cox, he's slowly developed those flavors over time. "I've changed the recipe up over the years as well and slowly incorporated more and more into it," says Cox. "People might think it's easy making a light beer, but it's actually difficult to make. I try as hard on Polar Light as I do on big beers like Double Diablo."

By the way: Double Diablo, on of Cox's most recent creations, is a double-strength batch of malty-sweet amber ale balanced out by a truckload of aggressive, bitter whole hops. It packs a wallop too at almost 10 percent alcohol and was a huge hit at the Jupiter Craft Brewers Festival in January.

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C. Stiles
About 500 pounds of German pilsner malt are used to make a ten-barrel batch of Polar Light.
As we spoke, Cox began moving the milled malts into a large tumbler called a grist hopper, where it would hang out while the water in the mash tun below got ready for steeping. He connected a tube between the two vessels and flipped open a valve that sent the grain into the 150-degree water below. The room filled with the smell of baking bread and caramel. The grains would steep there for about an hour, releasing their starches and flavors into the water. From there, that water would filter into a brew kettle, where it would boil into wort (unfermented beer).

Big Bear is set up on what's known as a ten-barrel system, which means its equipment can produce single batches of beer up to about 300 gallons in size. This batch of Polar Light would use every bit of that capacity. According to Cox, those 300 gallons, once fermented for about a week and kegged, would last the restaurant only about three weeks.

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C. Stiles
As Cox worked, connecting tubes and transfer valves between the two vessels, he took careful note of temperature and time readouts on a nearby LED display. He explained these detailed notes are crucial to the brewing process. "If I do something slightly different, it could have a big impact on the beer," he said. "If something goes wrong, you know how to avoid it, and If something goes right, you want to try to re-create it."

That eye for detail is a big deal when brewing beer. Big Bear uses a special deionizing system for its water that pumps clean-tasting water into the kettles at about seven gallons per minute. Since the water used to make beer needs a certain mineral content to produce the proper flavors, Cox adds carefully measured mixtures of calcium, potassium, and other minerals back into the brew during the mash phase. It's a process that's slightly painstaking but one that he says is necessary in Florida. "The water here just isn't good for beer, so we have to treat it," he says.

Likewise, cleanliness is next to Godliness when it comes to making beer. Cox carefully cleans each vessel and piece of equipment before and after each batch. Any slip-up could mean errant bacteria, which can spell disaster for a huge batch of beer. Luckily, Cox has never lost a batch. "Knock on wood," he says, smiling.

For Cox, being Big Bear's brewmaster is a dream job. "To work at an independent place like this where I have the ability to create my own recipes, I'm really lucky," he says.

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C. Stiles
If Florida's beer laws change, we may see more of these coming from local craft brewers.
His only problem? Florida's backward beer laws, rules that prohibit brewpubs like Big Bear from selling their beers offsite. "It's frustrating that you can walk into Whole Foods and see beers from California and Colorado there, and meanwhile I'm a block down the road and I can't sell my beer there at all," he says.

Fortunately, Cox is just one of many local brewers getting active with the state's legislative system. He sits on the Board of Directors for the Florida Brewers Guild, an association that advocates for independent, craft brewers in the state. He says he's excited about the outlook for craft beer as well. "We're doing things like trying to get bottle restrictions lifted and introducing bills to to the House and Senate," he says. With support for craft beer growing each day, it seems only a matter of time before Cox and other brewers get their wish and reverse these beer laws.

In the meantime, fresh, innovative beer is always available at the bar at Big Bear.

Follow Big Bear Brewing Co. on Twitter @bigbearbrewing.

Big Bear Brewing Co.
1800 University Drive, Coral Springs
954-341-5545
bigbearbrewingco.com

Location Info

Big Bear Brewing Co.

1800 University Drive, Coral Springs, FL

Category: Restaurant

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