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Old Cuban Beer Brings Back Memories

June 4, 1999

MIAMI (AP) _ Seventy-one-year-old Evaristo Junquera remembers nursing a glass of La Tropical beer and grooving to Cuban rhythms as a young man in Havana in the 1950s.

``That was the life,″ he recalled fondly.

When Junquera was just barely out of his teens, people his age flocked to the gardens of La Tropical brewery every Sunday to drink the island-brewed lager and dance the rumba, danzon and paso doble to live band music.

Cuban exiles like Junquera say taking a swig of the beer today unleashes the memories of the dances and romances of their youth. And that’s exactly what Tropical’s president Manny Portuondo wants.

``There’s an interest in all things Cuban _ that romantic, exotic, mystical feel,″ said Portuondo, who two years ago bought the trademark for La Tropical, Cuba’s first and oldest beer, first brewed in 1888.

Portuondo, the son of Cuban immigrants, used the original formula to revive the famed and slightly bitter-tasting Cuban beer, and won backers that included Tropical’s founding family.

La Tropical began appearing in U.S. stores in October 1998, about 40 years after Cuban President Fidel Castro’s soldiers arrived on a Friday and commandeered the Havana brewery.

They ordered Cosme Blanco Herrera to relinquish ownership of the brewery, a thriving business that had built on its grounds along the banks of the Almendares River a professional baseball stadium, an elementary school and vast flower gardens. La Tropical was handed over to the brewery’s gardener, who was deputized by Castro’s government to take care of the business, which still produces a version of the beer.

Blanco-Herrera, vice president of the company and son of La Tropical’s founder, moved to Miami with his wife, Chola, and children Ramon and Berta. He fully believed the Castro government would soon fall.

``We went to a motel on Miami Beach. We thought it was just for a few months,″ said Berta Blanco-Herrera-Bauchmann, who was about 7 years old at the time. ``Then my father started working nights at a gas station. Then he went to work in the trust department at a bank.″

``I think they killed his hopes of ever producing the beer,″ she said.

But decades later, Portuondo, a beer consultant and former director of marketing for St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch Inc., stumbled upon Tropical’s U.S. trademark in 1997 and felt there was a lucrative market for the beer.

``In terms of equity that it has in the Cuban community _ it’s huge,″ he said. ``Tropical wasn’t just a brewery. It was a part of the social culture in Cuba. La Tropical was always known for free-flowing beer and dances.″

Portuondo paid $50,000 plus another $75,000 in royalties for the trademark. Then he scoured for investors among South Florida’s Hispanic community, rich with Cubans who were forced to leave their homeland.

Within a year, Portuondo formed an ownership team that includes a Hispanic advertising and public relations firm and Ramon Blanco-Herrera, Cosme’s son and the grandson of the La Tropical’s founder.

Unlike its predecessor, the revived La Tropical business is small. The company occupies a tiny office in Coral Gables and focuses its marketing efforts on South Florida Hispanics in their 20s.

Portuondo is gambling on second and third generation Cubans learning about the beer’s rich history from their parents and great-grandparents.

``You tell them La Tropical is a Cuban beer and the first thing they do is ask their father and their grandfather. And then papi or abuelo say, ’Ah Tropical, that’s the beer I was drinking when I met your mother,‴ Portuondo said.

Portuondo says La Tropical will remain a regional beer and build a mystique much like Coors did by selling only in the western United States for many years.

The strategy is beginning to work. John Hastings can’t get enough of La Tropical. In fact, he can’t get it at all in St. Petersburg on Florida’s west coast.

Hastings makes the three-hour drive from St. Petersburg to Miami every few weeks to buy the Cuban beer _ 32 cases at a time.

``I’ve got to have it,″ said Hastings, who owns Habana Cafe, the only business to stock the beer in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. ``Customers want the beer to go. I have customers who ask to take a case back to Pittsburgh or New York.″

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