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Ybor brewery closes; Ybor Gold lives on

The company's former owner hopes membership in the Florida Beer Co. can extend the appeal of its surviving labels.

Published August 15, 2003

TAMPA - The Ybor City Brewing Co. is no more.

The brewer's vats and bottling lines that poured forth Ybor Gold, homebrew for Tampa's historic old neighborhood, haven't been functioning for about a month.

But lovers of local microbrew can take comfort in the fact that the label lives on, and the shelves will continue to stock bottles of Ybor's signature beverage. It's just going to be brewed and bottled on Florida's east coast in Melbourne, by a contract brewing company.

Ybor City Brewing Co.'s four labels will continue under its new parent, Florida Beer Co., as will the labels of two other former Florida microbreweries, Key West Brewery and Miami Brewing Co.

This gathering of microbrewers has been orchestrated by Humberto Perez, president of Florida Beer Co. and former head of Ybor City Brewing Co. He hopes to create a regional brewing force that would put Florida on the nation's beer map.

"Before, we were all competitors," said Perez. But now the new company can focus on marketing, brand development, and "placing a greater emphasis on aggressively building our multiple microbrewer beer brands throughout the state," Perez said.

Production ceased at the Ybor City Brewing Co. in early July. In the meantime Perez negotiated to outsource production for the Ybor, Key West and Miami labels at Indian River Beverage Co.

In all, Indian River will produce 11 established labels for Florida Beer Co., including Ybor Gold, Calusa Wheat, Brown Ale and the seasonal Gaspar's Ale; Hurricane Reef Caribbean Pilsner, Raspberry Wheat and Pale Ale; and Key West Sunset Ale and Pilsner Light.

Perez also recently acquired U.S. production and distribution rights for La Tropical, an established Cuban beer.

Perez declined to say how much the acquisition for Key West Brewery and Miami Brewing Co. cost, and would only say that Florida Beer Co. has a "contract brewing agreement" with Indian River Beverage Co.

Will fans of Ybor Gold be able to taste the difference once production moves to Melbourne? Perez is confident they won't. "We have devoted very special attention to consistency of quality," he said.

Michael Bryant, president of the Florida Brewer's Guild, also has faith in Indian River Beverage Co.

"I don't think you'll see any difference in quality," he said. "They're a good brewer. It's all in your recipe, and how you present it."

What Bryant is more interested in is the possible ripple effect the fortunes of Florida Beer might cause. Bryant is a microbrewer himself, and owns the only such operation left in the bay area, the Dunedin Brewery.

Though he says Perez is "stepping into a larger sector" of the industry, if Florida Beer doesn't do well it will hurt smaller operations such as his own and brew pub restaurants.

Conversely, "If they survive and do better," said Bryant, "I think it'll be better for all of us. A certain synergy and feeding frenzy will happen that's a lot like the restaurant scene."

Whether that will happen is a tough call. Florida's beverage laws make life for the microbrewer, which produces 60,000 barrels or less annually, harder than in other states. For example, brew pubs can only sell their beer on premises, and all microbrewers are required to use outside companies for distribution.

"Everybody is just working their tails off trying to stay in business," Bryant said, referring to the guild's 20 microbrewer members.

Perez wouldn't give specific sales figures. But he admitted that securing distribution is a constant challenge for the microbrewer, and one that has contributed to flat sales for some of his labels.

So for now, Florida Beer's strategy is to obtain "100 percent distribution in Florida," said Perez, adding that parts of North Florida have yet to be secured. After that, Perez hopes, Florida Beer's labels will expand into other states.

Beyond the three employee layoffs that happened when the Ybor brewing ceased, there has been speculation as to what kind of blow Ybor City's civic profile has sustained.

For now, what's left of what was known as Ybor City Brewing Co. is staying put. In fact, Perez says the Florida Beer's marketing, sales and corporate headquarters will be consolidated at the former Ybor Brewing Co.'s building, at least for the time being.

Perez bought the 1894-vintage former cigar factory at 2205 N 20th St. and converted to a brewery in 1994.

Since then, "none of us had any idea the property would appreciate as much as it has," said Tom Hall, spokesman for Ybor City Brewing Co. and Florida Beer Co. "It no longer makes sense to use it as a brewery," Hall said.

Currently the top floor of the three-story building is used by Granite Services Inc. Perez said he's considering redeveloping the remaining 27,000 square feet into office space.

- Times staff writer Chris Sherman contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 15, 2003, 01:17:11]

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