TAMPA — Florida Brewing Co. had a unique marketing strategy for the launch of its La Tropical beer in 1896.
“They said you can drink as much as you want and not get drunk because the spring water they used was so pure,” said attorney Dale Swope, whose law firm restored and is located in the brewery’s former Ybor City headquarters. “That theory got blown apart on the first day of sales, when two guys got drunk and a fight turned deadly.”
With a laugh, he said he hopes La Tropical’s official Tampa relaunch goes better.
The brewery shuttered in 1961. La Tropical beer returned in 1998 under a new brewery, but was available in Tampa irregularly and in a limited capacity.
“You could only get it in a few Cuban restaurants,” said Manny Portuondo, CEO of the Miami-based Cerveceria La Tropical, which brews the beer. “And the formula was different.”
On Thursday, through a joint venture with Heineken and using the beer’s original century-old formula, La Tropical will be available in restaurants and stores throughout the Tampa Bay area for the first time in six decades.
“La Tropical is finally back in Tampa for real,” Portuondo, 55, said. “My grandmother would be happy to hear that news.”
His family has a historic connection to the beer: In the 1800s, Portuondo’s maternal great-great-grandfather, Federico Kohly, left Switzerland for Cuba.
“He owned most of the suburban land outside of Havana,” Portuondo said. “He sold 100 acres to Ramon Blanco-Herrera. That’s how the Cuban beer industry was then born.”
Blanco-Herrera founded the Cerveceria La Tropical in 1888. It was Cuba’s first brewery, Portuondo said, and, by 1958, accounted for over 60% of the nation’s beer production.
“My grandmother’s childhood home, which was also the home she inherited and where my mother grew up, was literally half a mile from the brewery,” Portuondo said. “The brewery had tropical gardens and a baseball stadium with an infield made of crushed La Tropical bottles. My grandmother and mother had so many memories of it.”
Meanwhile, in Tampa, Ybor City pioneer Vicente Martinez Ybor founded the Florida Brewing Co. in 1896. Portuondo said Ybor licensed La Tropical from the Cuban brewery. It was the first beer brewed in Tampa.
Florida Brewing Co. shut down in part due to local competition from Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. and Anheuser-Busch’s Busch Gardens.
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By then, Fidel Castro had brought socialism to Cuba. The brewery there was nationalized and Portuondo’s family moved to Miami.
“I grew up hearing stories from my grandmother about the brewery,” Portuondo said. “Then something happened in my late 20s. I became very interested in my family’s history, their connection to La Tropical and how it was lost. I decided to do something about it. My grandmother told me there was nothing I could do unless I was ready to take up arms against Cuba. But I thought I could beat them with my business mind.”
In 1998, he discovered a photograph of the Cuban brewery’s final management team before nationalization. The brewmaster was among those pictured.
“I searched for him for six months,” Portuondo said. “I found him living 10 blocks from my house. He explained the origins of La Tropical’s formula.”
Portuondo decided to brew just enough La Tropical to block the Cuban government from using the name outside the island.
To fund the venture, Portuondo mortgaged his home and raised capital from Miami’s Cuban American community, including the Blanco-Herrera family.
He first brewed La Tropical through a deal with Tampa’s Yuengling Brewing Co. and then the Ybor Brewing Co. before working with the Boston Beer Co.
In 2017, Portuondo entered into the joint venture with Heineken. That enabled him to build a 30,000-square-foot brewery in Miami less than two years ago.
He’d previously brewed a formula created in 1950, Portuondo said. “Now, I’m brewing the original 1888 formula. I wanted to go back to the very beginning.”
Tampa will be the first city other than Miami where La Tropical beer is widely available.
The three varieties using the historic formula are La Original Ambar Lager, the Nativo Key Suave IPA and the Tropiflaca Lite Lager.
“Tampa and Cuba are connected in so many ways, including through La Tropical,” Portuondo said. “Beer is about alcohol, but it is also about culture. That is why it was time to bring the beer back to Tampa.”