Cuba’s oldest beer, La Tropical, brought back to life in Miami

latropical

The Miami Herald

Ramon Blanco Herrera carries his ghosts in a shiny, black tin box.

His liver-spotted hands carefully remove relics he never imagined would become so nostalgic for him when he was a boy in Cuba. A label from the original La Tropical beer. A certificate for stock in Cerveceria La Tropical brewery, signed by the president, his grandfather, in 1954. A picture of an ancestor’s statue standing over the expansive tropical beer gardens of the brewery his family founded in 1888, Cuba’s first.

“I never got to enjoy it. All the free beer I could have had…” jokes Blanco Herrera, 70, whose family saw their brewery — which produced upwards of 60 percent of Cuba’s beer — nationalized and his family exiled.

Manny Portuondo prefers to commune with his ghosts.

Portuondo, 49, the American-born son of Cuban exiles, visited Cuba for the first time last fall, including the sprawling tropical gardens and biergarten surrounding Cerveceria La Tropical, on the banks of the bubbling Almendares River. It was his great, great grandfather who developed and sold the land to the Blanco Herreras for the brewery more than 128 years ago.

“I stood there and I was in awe,” Portuondo said. “I felt that history in my blood, running through me. I came back after that trip and said to myself, ‘I’m going to bring that back.’ I want people to feel what I felt.”

Lovers of craft beer and all things Cuba will get that chance.

Portuondo worked with Wynwood’s Concrete Beach Brewery to re-create the original recipe and will release La Tropical at an event at the brewery on May 22. The event will cap American Craft Beer Week, which begins Monday with events around town.

The beer will be sold only at the brewery for now. But both Portuondo and Blanco Herrera, who own the world rights to the beer, and Concrete Beach, a subsidiary of the Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams), have their sights set on widespread distribution.

Brewers scrubbed the copper-plated brewing tanks at Concrete Beach on Monday as Portuondo and Blanco Herrera awaited their first taste of the finished beer, a malty Vienna-style lager that research told them is how the original beer would have been brewed.

In the other room awaited a beer their families had come together to create more than 128 years ago. This day has been nearly two decades coming.

Portuondo had been fascinated with his family’s ties to Cuba’s beer history. His maternal ancestors, the Kohly family, developed an entire Havana neighborhood, including the site of La Tropical brewery and its expansive gardens, Los Jardines de la Tropical. He graduated with a master’s in business from Florida International University and became Anheuser-Busch’s sales and marketing director in Puerto Rico 25 years ago.

He had grown up with the stories from his mother, a Kohly descendant, and his father, Manuel, who fought in the Bay of Pigs and spent two years in a Cuban prison after the government began nationalizing industries.

For Ramon Blanco Herrera, the connection was even more immediate. He remembers running around La Tropical brewery, which his great-grandfather had founded, and playing in his father’s office. His father, Cosme Blanco Herrera, had gone to the University of Pennsylvania to study business and returned to run the family business.

“The Mr. and Mrs. Budweiser of Cuba,” Manny Portuondo dubbed Ramon’s parents.

But when the Communist government seized the factory in the early 1960s, Blanco Herrera’s family came to the United States penniless, and his father ended up working in a bank — in the mailroom. Ramon grew up in Key Biscayne with only hazy memories of his time at the brewery.

He raised three children and rarely spoke about the depth of his family’s long history. It was only from friends who told stories about the brewery amid a lush tropical urban garden — picture Central Park, complete with an actual castle designed by an Antoni Gaudi disciple — that they realized how much their family had contributed to Cuba’s culture.

Over the years, Ramon scoured eBay for relics — old postcards, photos, bottles and labels — of the old Tropical brewery.

“He never talked about it,” said Moncy Blanco Herrera, 36, Ramon’s oldest. “I think he was too broken-hearted about it. It took a toll on him. It’s very bittersweet for him.”

Meanwhile, Portuondo was learning the modern beer business, including starting up Brahma Brewery of Brazil, which he later sold to Anheuser-Busch, now AB-InBev. He realized Cuba was still brewing La Tropical and its popular sub-brand, Cristal, in partnership with the Belgian-based InBev.

He teamed with Blanco Herrera and re-established their rights to the brand some 17 years ago, even brewing for three years out of Coral Gables in the late 1990s. (InBev and Cuba continue to brew Cristal, even as the beer magnate recently admitted in a 2011 annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that there are claims to the name. Portuondo has filed a claim against the company.)

Blanco Herrera’s youngest son, Eddie, remembers growing up with memorabilia from that endeavor, including a neon La Tropical sign he used as a nightlight and still keeps in his room. Moncy was the life of the party at the University of Florida when his father showed up with a case of that batch of La Tropical. And daughter Rosa remembers walking into a New Orleans bar and finding a picture of gangster Al Capone having a La Tropical beer outside the Havana brewery.

“The family legacy continues. … It’s truly a staple of what Cuba was,” said Rosa, 32, named for great-great aunt Rosita, whom her father called the “Paris Hilton of beer.”

La Tropical got new life recently with America’s surge in craft beer interest. Portuondo met Concrete Beach founder Alan Newman, who loved the idea of bringing back Cuba’s first beer.

“We’re always looking for ways we can be more of a part of the community,” Newman said. “Bringing back the most Cuban beer you can brew seemed like a no-brainer.”

This week, it came to fruition. Blanco Herrera and Portuondo slipped beyond the glass doors into Concrete Beach’s bruhaus, where a brewer poured each of them a glass of La Tropical right out of the bright tanks that are used for adding carbon dioxide in the final brewing step.

Portuondo kneeled to reach the tap. It felt like a moment of silent reverence.

He and Blanco Herrera exchanged a glance as they brought their glasses to their noses and took their first sip of a beer decades in the remaking. The amber lager was malty, almost creamy, without any bitterness.

“My ancestors would not be disappointed,” he said.

They are hoping Miami beer lovers will feel the same way.

2 thoughts on “Cuba’s oldest beer, La Tropical, brought back to life in Miami

  1. My father worked with Blanco Herrera, first as his chouffer, then at the distribution center. They treated their employees as family. Blanco Herrera loved my dad and help him become independent. Needless to say, my dad respected and loved Blanco Herrera and always kept in touch. My dad got into the jux box business and obtained the exclusive concession to the Tropical Gardens… so many memories.
    The Blanco Herrera mansion was a jewel, it had exotic gardens and I remember loving to go there with my dad so I could ride two enormous turtles they had there. Really nice, down to earth people. Can’t wait to taste the beer that I was then too young to enjoy!!

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