Miami’s newest brewery, Cervecería La Tropical, has brought a piece of Cuba’s history to Miami’s Wynwood. The brewery got its start in Cuba in 1888 and is known for establishing the Cuban beer industry. La Tropical was originally founded by the Blanco Herrera family on the banks of the Almendares River near a section of Havana known as Kohly. This area was established by Federico Kohly, who sold the land for the brewery to the Blanco Herreras. It quickly became a source of national pride, recognized as the largest and most popular brewery on the island and considered a must-visit for locals and tourists alike for cold cervezas, live music, dancing and walks in the tropical garden that was later built in 1904. La Tropical thrived for decades, by 1958 La Tropical accounted for over 60% of all beer production in the country. In 1960, the revolution in Cuba began and La Tropical’s assets were seized, but that wasn’t the end for the vibrant brewery.
Manny Portuondo, great-great-grandson of Federico Kohly and CEO of Cerveceria La Tropical, grew up like many children listening to the stories of his ancestors and how they loved their life in Cuba. It wasn’t until he was a young man that he truly began to appreciate his Cuban roots and the stories his family had to tell. He was interested in the beer industry and knew La Tropical had the potential to live on. That’s when he set out on a mission to bring the brand to America — a task that took him roughly 23 years.
In 1999, Portuondo decided it was time to do a deep dive into the beloved brewery his family was once part of. In his research, he figured out the trademark wasn’t controlled by Cuban government. “My first thought was, “Hey I can’t control what happened in Cuba, but what if I can control what happens outside of Cuba?” I was able to identify that the person who had ownership of the trademark was in Miami,” shared Portuondo. “That’s where the idea of recreating the original Cervecería La Tropical began.”
Portuondo spent the next several years digging for any information he could get his hands on by using University of Miami’s Cuban Archives, known as The Cuba Collection, the largest collection of Cuban periodicals and books outside of Cuba. Of course, considering the history these microfiche records were not easy to work through.
Using photos from the 1950s he was able to identify key players from the brewery’s final days. One of which was the last brew master, Julio Fernandez-Selles, who had escaped Cuba and remained active in the beer industry retiring just six years earlier. “I knew I had to find this man, because he was the only one who could confirm the formula I had been working on for so long. I used what I call “the abuela network” you know, asked every Cuban grandmother I knew, because they always know someone who knows someone,” Portuondo said. In a crazy twist of fate, Fernandez-Selles lived just ten blocks away from him and indeed had all the answers.
With confirmation of the original recipe, Portuondo was able to pull off a successful launch of La Tropical’s La Original Ambar Lager in 2016 that generated a great deal of excitement in the community, with consumers lining up for hours for a taste of La Tropical’s original recipe. In turn, La Tropical garnered national and international attention within the industry.
“It was amazing to see so many people really embracing the beer. I knew I was making myself and my family proud. I started to get offers from every large brewing company you can imagine, and most of them just wanted to buy the recipe and trademark from me and run it as their own,” explained Portuondo. “But then Heineken came with an offer that would allow me to stay on and really pursue what I started over two decades ago, and I knew that was the right fit.”
A joint venture with Heineken ensued and La Tropical embarked on a mission to build a new and permanent home for the brewery in Miami, purchasing real estate, building the brewery, hiring and training staff and researching and developing the 20 handcrafted beers that are available on-site.
“The La Tropical story is a universal tale of loss and rebirth that everyone can relate to. The brand also had a proud and award-winning past that made it world famous. Heineken is proud to lead this venture and help La Tropical make it so again. We look forward to seeing consumer reception of this exciting beer brand and to accelerating the roll-out to additional markets in due course,” says Marc Busain, President Heineken Americas.
The shiny new La Tropical features a state-of-the-art onsite brewing operation, accompanied by a taproom, restaurant, botanical garden, and a stage for live music — much like its predecessor.
With the aim to become a cultural community center for all of Miami – having the historical beer at its core – La Tropical has an annual brewing capacity of 32,000 hectoliters per year and can house up to 800 craft beer lovers. The brewery is led by Brewmaster Matt Weintraub, who earned his reputation creating award-winning craft beer at the Florida International University Brewing Program. The taproom offers over 20 handcrafted beers passionately choreographed to create a dance of the senses, ranging from lagers, IPAs, sours, barrel-aged, and ales infused with local ingredients and the brand’s flagship La Original Ambar Lager, whose recipe is inspired by the original dating back to 1888.
The 28,000 square-foot space also houses a Latin Caribbean-inspired restaurant by Miami’s own Chef Cindy Hutson. “So many breweries have great beers and pair them with bar bites, which is fine, but I wanted to create a space where you don’t have to leave to have an incredible meal. Cindy Hutson is such a talent in Miami and from the moment we did some sample dishes, I knew this was the perfect fit,” says Portuondo of bringing the chef into the project.
Menu highlights include beer can bread served with whipped guava butter, jerk chicken, Cuban sandwich empanadas, and whole fried fish. In addition to beer offerings La Tropical has a full bar and a selection of beer cocktails.
Outdoors, consumers can explore a lush 10,000 square-foot botanical tropical garden – Jardines La Tropical – that’s overseen by Miami’s Fairchild Tropical Gardens. In keeping with the neighborhood, a selection of commissioned murals and art by local artists.
“The rebirth of Cervecería La Tropical represents a dream come true, fulfilling a lifelong passion to resurrect the brewery with a new permanent home in Miami – a city infused with Latin and Caribbean sabor. More than a century after La Tropical was originally founded, I am proud and excited to be creating a new cerveza, food and cultural destination that unites La Tropical’s Cuban soul with Miami’s diverse and unique culture that has made the city the Gateway of the Americas.,” says Portuondo.
The brewery also has plans to distribute its beer in cans and on draft at local restaurants, bars and supermarkets from Palm Beach to Key West. For real time updates, follow Cervecería La Tropical at @LaTropicalBeer on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter or visit their website.