Tampa Bay Brewing History

by Mark DeNote

Tampa’s brewing history is much like a beer in itself: it begins slowly, but once the right minds meld and decide on a course of action, quality improves, then thrives, then before you know it the glass is empty and must be passed to a new generation to fill.

Tampa began as a military outpost around Tampa Bay to “’aid defense from possible foreign invasion’ and to prevent the natives from acquiring arms and rum from unlicensed Cuban traders…” When Fort Brooke was established and the garrison arrived, the need for water was one of the first essentials they saw to. Conveniently enough, there was a spring on Government Land, and having a need for convenience over creativity, the men of Fort Brooke simply named the spring Government Spring and built a two-mile stretch of road (the first in what was then South Florida) to the spring. That spring head was located at what is now Fifth Avenue and Thriteenth Street in Tampa’s Ybor City.

After the water was established, the spring became essential to Tampa. When Vicente Ybor brought his cigar factories to what was now called Ybor City, the spring’s water was in use by an ice plant, but Ybor himself had eyes for the spring; he knew it had more potent potential.

In 1896, Eduardo Manrara (Ybor’s second in command and heir to the business), and a group of investors and advisors to the Ybor Company organized Florida’s first brewery, dubbed The Ybor City Brewing Company. Once these keen businessmen noticed a distinct lack of competition in the Southeast and the potential to make money shipping beer out of state, the brewery was renamed The Florida Brewing Company. The brewery opened with an annual capacity of 25,000 barrels (1 barrel= 31 gallons), although they only produced about 10-12,000 barrels in their first year. In addition to the brewery, the Florida Brewing Company also took over the former ice works, constructed a bottling works for beer, soda, and mineral water, and built a stable and office across the street. In an era before cars and electricity were widespread, The Florida Brewing Company was committed to making beers – the most popular being German-style lagers – in the land of eternal summer.

In 1897 The Florida Brewing Company celebrated its grand opening.

When the Spanish American War began in 1898, the brewery ramped up production, serving the 30,000 troops, including Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. In a historical connection, Roosevelt would have boarded his horse at the police stable in Ybor City that now houses Cigar City Cider and Mead. The Florid Brewing Company thrived in those years, and by 1900 was shipping more beer to Cuba than any other American brewer. The brewery celebrated this achievement by making a giant barrel-shaped float and entering it into the Labor Day Parade of 1900. They passed out beer along the parade route, all the way down Lafayette (what is now Kennedy Boulevard).

Once Prohibition hit, the brewery suffered publicly but thrived privately. Tampa was one of the wettest dry cities in the United States during Prohibition, and the Florida Brewing Company certainly had a hand in that distinction. When the brewery was raided in 1927, there were 12,600 gallons of beer in the tanks. The brewery was closed, but an appellate court later reversed the decision.

Once the “noble experiment” ended in Tampa, the Florida Brewing Company rechristened itself as the Tampa Florida Brewery, Inc. and prepared for their best years. At the same time, competition was on the way from two new Tampa breweries, one on North Howard Street and one on Zack Street.

DeSoto Brewing on North Howard Avenue roared in like a lion: advertising their state of the art equipment , their top-notch brewing staff, and their savvy ownership, the brewery itself folded in about two years and left nothing behind but some very rare memorabilia.

True competition came at the hands of Southern Brewing. Southern Brewing would operate from 1934 until 1963, and would repeatedly plaster Tampa in their marketing campaigns. Southern Brewing would market their Silver Bar Ale to taverns all over town, regardless of race. In segregated Tampa, SB had mirrors and posters with the “SB Girls”: white girls for the whites only establishments, and African-American ladies for the blacks only establishments. SB would have good years, in some years exceeding the production of today’s Cigar City Brewing, but when a certain garden tasting room and animal show came to town, the brewery folded under and sold their brewery to International Breweries, Incorporated in 1956. IBI continued to run Southern Brewing until 1963 when stiff competition from the brand new Schlitz brewery proved to be too much.

The Tampa Florida Brewery, Inc. made the most out of the years between Prohibition and the day the large breweries came back to Tampa. The brewery’s flagship beer was called “La Tropical” and it enjoyed a tremendous local fan base. A boom in sales occurred during the World War II era, and in the 1940s Tampa Florida Brewery, Inc. and Southern Brewing would sell a combined total of 170,000 barrels of beer each year. La Tropical was sold all over the Southeast and the brewery made special labels for beer shipped to Georgia and Alabama. Sales would slowly decline into the late 1950s because of competition from larger, national breweries in and around the Southeast and Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. The Tampa Florida Brewery, Inc. would sell the brewery to Brewers and Bottlers Equipment Company, who would come and sell off the equipment.

From the early 1960s until the early 1990s, Tampa was a doldrum of local beer. The national breweries dominated the market and few would brave the rough waters of the beer industry until one fateful day in Ybor City. Investor and president of Venezuela’s Cerveceria Regional, Humberto Perez bought the old Seidenberg and Company Cigar Factory in Ybor City with plans to turn it into Tampa’s first microbrewery since the mass extinctions of the 1960s. Perez founded Ybor City Brewing Company and invested $2.6 million in renovating the building, buying equipment, and readying the company for business. Ybor City Brewing Company brewed Ybor Gold Lager, Ybor Brown Ale, and Calusa Wheat, among others. Business began slowly, but once it picked up, Ybor City was plodding along until they got caught up in troubles with their distributor, and were unable to send beer to market for a long period of time. The backup was frustrating to Perez and YCBC, as a result the brewery had lost so much money that they had to close their doors. YCBC’s beers can still be sampled today, as Perez sold his recipes to a small brewery in Melbourne, Florida that steadily grew and is now the largest craft brewer in Florida, the Florida Beer Company.

From the time that Ybor City Brewing Company closed, around the turn of the 21st Century, local beer was impossible to come by in Tampa, until some home brewers on different sides of Tampa Bay decided to each open their own family breweries. From that point forward, the Doble family of Tampa Bay Brewing Company and the Bryant family of Dunedin Brewery began working to reintroduce Tampa to an old friend: tasty local beer.

For more information on Tampa’s Brewing History, please visit the author of this piece at FloridaBeerNews.com, or look for the upcoming book on Florida Beer, The Great Florida Craft Beer Guide coming from Seaside/ University Press of Florida.