Tampa’s Coppertail Brewing Company has come a long way since they opened back in 2014. The brewery started in 2011 as a crazy idea in the mind of owner Kent Bailey, and like the mythical monster it’s named for, Coppertail Brewing continues to grow its legend to all the borders of the Sunshine State.
What is the Coppertail?
The unorthodox name of the brewery comes from a story that Kent and his daughter shared. “The brewery’s name came from my little girl who is not so little anymore,” Kent remembers. “She would say that Coppertail was a sea monster that lived in the Tampa Bay area. That turned into a joke in the family, and we would talk about it and laugh about it.” When it came time to name the business that Kent wanted to start, he remembered the story and related to it. “It wound up on the list of potential brewery names and we just liked the sound of it. It was memorable, and we knew we could have fun with the beer and the labels.” Kent stops short of explaining the full story to everyone, as he wants to leave enough to the imagination. “I have always envisioned leaving part of the Coppertail legend up to our customers. I look at this like art. I hate it when someone tries to tell me what art means. o, I have always resisted marketing professionals trying to overexplain the Coppertail monster, but I like to leave hints on the bottom of our six-pack holders.” Those hints range from miscellaneous characters on the labels to faux newspaper clippings to the continued evolution of the beer and its labels around the Coppertail monster.
Making the Coppertail myth a reality
Kent candidly admits that his background in beer is “a person who drinks and enjoys beer.” When he is mistakenly asked if he is the head brewer, he responds that he is the “homebrewer in chief.” Kent says that he started getting excited about beer before opening a brewery and he began homebrewing in his kitchen. Eventually, he got kicked out of the kitchen to the garage, and once he was homebrewion, he wanted to start a brewery, but his problem came down to research: “After all the research, I could not find a reason why it wouldn’t work,” Kent admits. “If done right. That was the impetus behind the brewery.” Kent would discover that starting a brewery the right way was no small task, but it would be easier if he surrounded himself with the right people.
Kent says he always wanted to start a business, but with every other business he wanted to start he reached a point where some aspect of the business would convince him that it was not a good idea. “So, opening a brewery in the Tampa area was the first thing I researched that I was really excited about that all the data I looked at was saying the same thing: the Florida market is growing, the Tampa market, in particular, is hot, not many breweries were putting out beer in bottles and cans at that time, and so it seemed like a good idea to start a brewery focused on making the highest quality beer and being able to get it out in package around the state.” Making a start in the brewing industry is notoriously difficult, but Kent says that the potential roadblocks seemed surmountable.
“I think there were some red flags that told me this would not be a good idea, looking back…” Kent admits.
“He just didn’t pay attention to any of them,” Casey quickly interjects
Kent knew that he would have to raise a great deal of money to make Coppertail Brewing a reality. “Once I raised the money, then it seemed like that was not a barrier anymore, and then I knew the next key piece was linking up with a talented commercial brewer.” Kent and Casey met by chance and began discussing a shared idea of opening a brewery. “Once Casey entered the picture, the risks seemed to go way down,” Kent admits. “If I had to start it myself without Casey, that would have been extremely risky.”
“It would have been,” Casey adds with a wry laugh.
Coppertail Brewing’s second employee
Before the brewery could come to fruition, Kent knew that he would need an experienced and talented brewer to start a brewery, and it would help if he or she had a sense of humor. He found all three of those things in Casey Hughes, but first Casey would have to move back to Florida from New Jersey. Casey Hughes’s path to the beer industry started in the brewhouse of the now extinct Key West Brewing Company. Casey was three months into college when he dropped out and moved from New York to the Florida Keys in the late 1990s. Casey has a different way of looking at it, though: “I dropped out of college, moved into a brewery and started my education there,” he says of his early days in brewing. Casey then got on-the-job training while he spent eight years at the Key West Brewing Company. After the brewery closed its doors, Casey moved back up north to New Jersey where he brewed beer for the same brewery for eleven years. Then Casey left New Jersey to come back down to Florida and help Kent start Coppertail Brewing in 2013.
Casey’s education in beer has one ironic point that Kent is quick to point out. Casey was brewing beer professionally before he was legally old enough to drink it.
What brought Casey down to Florida after being away for more than a decade? It was not a love of beer, but a hatred of snow that got Casey to Tampa. “I always wanted to get away from the snow,” Casey admits. “I grew up in upstate New York and needed to leave Key West to find a job after the brewery closed.” Florida did not have many craft breweries around 2000, so Casey looked at his options nationally. “I moved to Philadelphia where it was very cold and snowed a lot. I put my time in up there, and I talked to a few people who were looking to start breweries. Kent and I connected and we both had the same plan on how we wanted to do a brewery that became Coppertail.” Coppertail now had two employees: an owner and a brewer.
Moving the brewery forward
Kent and Casey surmised that once the brewery began, there would be a growth period and eventually the brewery would need to expand to fit demand. Many other Florida breweries had a similar issue where they could not produce enough beer and had to expand to meet growth. Kent and Casey decided to leap this hurdle by installing a larger brewing system when they opened rather than expanding the brewery after years in business. “One thing we talked about,” says Casey, “was that in building a larger brewery so that we would grow into this quickly. If we built a 20-barrel brewhouse, then we would have to install a 50-barrel brewhouse years later,” Casey explains. “We skipped the smaller system and went all in by building a larger system.”
Finding the brewery a home
With two employees and grand ambitions, Coppertail Brewing now needed a home. Kent had ideas about where to put the brewery, but when an old mayonnaise and olive factory on the edge of Tampa’s Ybor City was available, Kent and Casey knew that Coppertail had found a home. “Once I started narrowing it down, we had fifteen or so properties we were looking at. What sold me on this property is that it is in the right location, close to downtown and huge square footage.”
“We felt like we could grow here for a while,” Kent says.
The Coppertail finds its beery way
The brewery then needed to decide on the beers that they were going to make, and Kent and Casey laugh about disagreements that they had in designing Coppertail Brewing’s list of core beers. “We decided on the core beers after a lot of ‘spirited debates,’” Kent recalls. “I think it’s important that if you bring in someone who’s experienced, that you listen to them. But I have my dreams, too, and the beers that I want to see. Casey is not shy, though, and so he and I had a lot of discussions and go back and forth about the beer lineup.” Kent and Casey then decided to take their beer to the people and see what the public liked. “We had a number of ideas and we would do popup tastings to see what the public liked. We decided we needed to nail down the lineup and we made some weird picks. We put a tripel in our core. Unholy Tripel always got us good feedback and nobody else was pushing out a tripel. We put a porter in our core. There weren’t a lot of porters in the market at the time. Then we decided on a pale IPA with late hops and no caramel malt – it didn’t look like any other IPA.”
“I like Free Dive,” Casey says bluntly. “I have had that idea and played around with it other places. I wanted to have in this beer. One thing I wanted in this beer was a super easy-drinking, moderately low ABV, high-aroma citrus clean beer that has a nice nose and hops to it.” Casey’s high standards and exact specifications for Free Dive IPA and he was able to convince Kent that it should stay. “Kent and I actually disagreed about the beer because he didn’t think it looked like an IPA. I told him we weren’t trying to look like everything else. We have another local brewery that does a darker maltier IPA.”
Casey and Kent now laugh at the selection of some of their core beers, knowing that people like them, despite conventional wisdom. “We tested Night Swim Porter. That was a public thing,” Casey remembers. “I have always loved porters and we brought it out and we debated about it. Then we went and poured after a 5K. People were running in November and they came to us after the race and we blew through several kegs of porter. The runners had a choice of a light domestic lager and our porter and our line had almost everyone in the race drinking porter.” It was one of the few times I got to give Kent an “I told you so,” knowing that I was right about the porter.
At the end of the day, the beers wound up “drinkable, refreshing, and high quality,” according to Kent. Casey smiles and labels Coppertail’s beers “approachable, yet nerdy.”
The Coppertail keeps swimming
Kent and Casey admit that running a brewery is not without its challenges. “The hardest part about running a brewery is the people and the communication. We’re lucky that we have great people. You have to think about your people.” While Coppertail was able to plan for the expansion of their brewery, they hired almost 40 people in four years. “We went from three employees to 40 employees in four years. They are the same thing that keeps us coming to work here. We have a great team, and everyone loves the beer, the brand, and the company. We have great camaraderie around here and we all like to make people happy that drink our beer.”
After building a solid team of people, Coppertail’s next step is to focus on expanding their focus on Florida. “We’ve built the infrastructure of what we want to do. In the next five years, now that we’ve finished our distribution footprint around Florida, I would love to see us really focus on Florida and make as much high-quality beer out to the people of Florida,” says Kent.
Keeping new ideas brewing
While Free Dive IPA continues to grow, Casey and his brewing staff are a curious bunch and they like to brew a myriad of different beers. That is where Coppertail’s new Alpha Hunt series of beers came from. Kent explains that “Casey has to maintain the same flavor profile on Free Dive all the time, but Casey also gets access to awesome hops that he wants to play with in different IPAs. The idea was to come out with a series of IPAs where Casey could do what he wanted with those hops and make the beers stronger or lighter or whatever he wanted. The idea was to make a few of those per year without a ton of volume, but just enough so our fans can enjoy it and Casey and the brew staff can have fun.”
Casey likes these beers as a chance to learn as much as to brew differently. “Anything we do on beers like these, we learn, and we improve ourselves. Beers like Hyperbolic IPA may change some from last year to this year. We see things that we like in the beer and we play around. This industry is so fluid, that we have to play around and adapt to stay on top and adapt.”
Each Alpha Hunt series beer gives Coppertail’s marketing department a chance to flex their heads as well. Each beer is named for a fictional explorer that went in search of the Coppertail monster
Standing out is about more than the beer
Making Coppertail’s beers stand out in a crowded marketplace is a constant thought to Coppertail Brewing. “I boil it down to quality. Not just the quality that we think about in our beer, Kent says. That is important. We also have to focus on quality in salespeople, marketing, and all aspects of the brand.”
Kent steps back to talk about the beer as being part of the sales focus as well. “We love our core four beers. I have heard people in the industry moan when they have to sell their core beers. Our staff loves our core beers and they each have a favorite. You can’t sell something you don’t believe in.”
Coppertail also uses their beer as a force for good in the community, supporting a different charity each month by donating a portion of proceeds from a certain beer. Coppertail also works with organizations in the community to raise awareness and support events, charities, and organizations. “We work with some great people in the community. We just did a beer with the Florida Aquarium called Coral Haze – a really fun project that our people enjoyed making and has been selling well in the tasting room. It was a fun beer that we did to play around with the IPA.”
Casey likes to say that “we have to fire on all cylinders. Everyone does a great job at their jobs here, and we have great products and great people who love our products.”
Kent remembers getting through the early days of the brewery by focusing on small steps and getting details right. Now that Coppertail Brewing has statewide distribution, the saying has changed somewhat. “In the early days, we would look at each other and I would say “we only need to get this one thing right,” Kent says. “At some point, Casey started saying ‘we just have to get everything right.’ Now we’ve adapted to that and we work on that all the time. That is how we have to differentiate ourselves. We just have to get every detail right,” Kent says.
“We want to set the bar high,” Casey asserts. That is what we are trying to do with this whole brewery and this whole concept: to set the bar as high as possible.”