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Latin America

New Cuba interest gives lift to re-launch of island’s oldest beer

"La Tropical" beer is being relaunched in Miami almost 130 years after its creation in Cuba. The original Havana brewery was nationalized by Cuba's communist government and now sits disused in an overgrown garden
27 May 2016 – 06:22 PM EDT
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By Pascal Fletcher @pascalfletcher

Selling Cuba nostalgia in a bottle may seem like a niche market.

But with the American craft beer industry bubbling, and interest in Cuba and all things Cuban booming, you have all the ingredients of a potent marketing brew.

That’s the hope of veteran entrepreneur and craft beer brewer Alan Newman who has teamed up with two Cuban-Americans, Manny Portuondo and Ramón Blanco Herrera, to re-launch Cuba’s oldest and most fabled beer – La Tropical, founded in Havana in 1888, and a household name for Cubans born before Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

“Timing is everything,” said Newman, sitting at his Concrete Beach Brewery in Miami’s trendy Wynwood arts district, where the iconic beer, which once won international awards, made its comeback on Sunday May 22, to the sound of Cuban music and accompanied by Cuban roast pork and cigars. Lines of patrons formed outside the Concrete Beach brewery social hall, eager to sample the recreated La Tropical, as temperatures in Miami reached the 90s Fahrenheit.

Newman, whose Alchemy & Science company is an independently operating subsidiary of The Boston Beer Company, America’s leading brewer of craft beers, is betting on getting a lift from a surge in public interest in Cuba following President Barack Obama’s move at the end of 2014 to normalize relations with the Communist-ruled island.

“I’m a heritage fan. The idea that we can be sitting here, rescuing one of the best known beer brands in Cuba in its day is fantastic, “ said Newman, 70, who has been involved in his career with other well-known American craft beer brands, such as Magic Hat, Angel City and Coney Island.

Before Castro nationalized the historic Havana brewery located in cool, tree-shaded grounds on the banks of the Almendares River, La Tropical was Cuba’s best-selling beer, commanding up to 60 percent of the market.

But while the brewery after the Revolution continued to produce the beer until it stopped in the late 2000s, the factory lies in disrepair, along with the Moorish-style castle, outdoor ballroom and foliage-cloaked beer gardens that were famous for hosting parties and social gatherings – a tradition that continued to the present day.

One photograph from 1930 in the Florida State Archives shows Chicago prohibition-era gangster Al Capone, smiling and chubby-cheeked, sampling a beer at La Tropical with friends during a visit to Cuba.

Back to the Beginning

By partnering with Portuondo and Blanco Herrera in the recreation of the beer, Newman is going back to La Tropical’s roots. The two are scions of the Cuban families involved in the foundation of the Cervecería La Tropical 128 years ago.

Blanco Herrera, now 70, is the great grandson of the brewery founder. He fled Cuba as a teen with his family in 1960, the year La Tropical was nationalized, and lives in Miami. He has collected memorabilia about the brewery, including bottle labels, brochures, postcards and photographs testifying to the fame of the La Tropical beer gardens and the nearby baseball stadium that had the same name.

Portuondo, 49, traces his links to La Tropical back to the fact that his great, great-grandfather, Federico Kohly, originally sold the land where the brewery stands to the Blanco Herrera family, and was also the developer of the Reparto Kohly, a well-known Havana neighborhood where Cuba’s military top brass now live.

Born in the United States to Cuban exile parents, Portuondo paid his first visit to Cuba last year, and made an emotional pilgrimage to the decaying La Tropical brewery and beer gardens. The trip convinced him to press ahead with the project to revive the beer in Miami.

“We wanted to be true to the original … the idea is to go back to the beginning,” Portuondo said.

He previously worked for Anheuser-Busch in Puerto Rico, and ran a Brahma plant in Valencia, Venezuela. He had attempted an earlier re-launch of La Tropical beer in Florida in 1998. Now he was able to persuade Newman that the time was right to try again, as American visitors are increasingly flocking to Cuba under eased travel restrictions and romantic resonances of the pre-revolutionary era, the architecture, 1950s cars, cigars and rums, are captivating old and young alike.

“You could not have put together a better partnership,” Portuondo said.

“This is a multi-generation story. It is about maintaining a tradition and leaving it to the new generations,” he added.

“Bit Hoppier, with a Malty Backbone”

Newman, Portuondo and Blanco Herrera are seeking to recreate the original La Tropical taste, which was brewed with hops imported to Cuba from North America, adapting it to the new popular fashion for distinctive tasting craft beers.

“We knew it was a Vienna lager, and it had to be on the malty side (like the original),” said Newman. “We took this and tweaked it,” he added. “It will be a little bit hoppier than the original … but will still have a slightly malty backbone”.

Portuondo had obtained the rough formula for brewing the beer from Julio Fernández Selles, who was La Tropical’s last master brewer when the plant was nationalized in 1960, and whom he tracked down living in exile in Miami some years ago. Fernández Selles has since passed away.

The team will be selling the beer under a label that replicates the traditional style of the original one, showing the name La Tropical above the gold seals of prizes for quality won in famous beer brewing centers of Europe and the U.S.

Unlike the case of Cuba’s best-known rum, Havana Club, where originally Cuban rum giant Bacardi, now based in Puerto Rico, has fought a long and bitter legal battle with the Cuban state over use in the United States of the trademark name, Portuondo says he does not envisage any similar tussle over La Tropical.

He said he legally bought up and consolidated the rights to the name in the United States, Canada and several European markets years ago. “It has been uncontested and so there is no trademark issue,” he said.

Cuba’s current top domestic beer brands are Cristal – once produced by the La Tropical brewery – and the newer Bucanero, both now brewed by the Cervecería Bucanero S.A., which is a 50-50 joint venture between the Cuban state and a subsidiary of global beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev.

“Needs to be Saved”

The island’s beer industry has been struggling to keep pace with the rising influx of foreign tourists, now being swelled by tens of thousands of Americans thirsty to sample the “forbidden fruit” of a destination long barred to them by the U.S. economic embargo. President Obama has significantly eased travel restrictions in the last 18 months, although mass American tourism to Cuba is still blocked.

Portuondo said that for the moment the La Tropical team is focused on carving out a niche for the re-launched fabled Cuban beer among U.S. consumers, rather than thinking of trying to sell in Cuba’s much smaller market.

But, with the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations still very much a work in progress, he looked forward to a day when investors and beer historians on both sides of the Florida straits could join together to salvage the La Tropical brewery and beer gardens in Havana which first produced the famous brew over a century ago.

“If there was an opportunity to work with my Cuban brothers to rebuild La Tropical, it would make sense,” Portuondo said.

“It needs to be saved,” agreed Blanco Herrera.