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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 8, 2017 1 year ago

Independence Days

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Tampa's Coppertail Brewing Co. readies for major growth, while avoiding the industrywide rush to find equity partners.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

The ex-lawyer developed a taste for fine brews during college, when he spent a summer backpacking around Europe and raising a few pints along the way. His taste buds fully awakened, he said goodbye to Budweiser and hello to mashing, fermenting, sparging and all of the other intricacies of home-brewing. “That's when my love for beer started,” Bailey says.

In 2011, Bailey crossed paths with Casey Hughes, a skilled brewer with experience at breweries in Key West and New Jersey. They came up with a plan to launch a craft brewery in the heart of Tampa's Ybor City, and in 2012, Coppertail Brewing Co. was born. “Once Casey came onboard, it really took off,” Bailey says. “I knew I had the commercial know-how to succeed.”

That confidence has come to fruition: The partners recently quadrupled the brewery's production capabilities and are seeing healthy revenue growth. In 2014, Coppertail's first official year in business, Bailey, 42, and Hughes, 38, sold some 800 barrels beer and generated about $1 million in revenue. By the end of 2017, Bailey estimates Coppertail will have sold about 13,000 barrels and generated $3 million to $5 million in revenue. The brewery can produce between 15,000 and 20,000 barrels per year right now, but that number will jump to 70,000 when the expansion underway is complete.

“With that rapid growth, we've had to keep investing in tanks, keep investing in equipment that will allow us to keep up,” Bailey says, adding that the expansion “will give us enough capacity for the next 10 years.”

Bailey made some savvy moves early, positioning the brewery as a destination for much more than beer tasting — and to separate it from competitors in a crowded market.

For one, he installed a commercial kitchen and leased it to The Stein & Vine, a Brandon-based upscale restaurant that serves craft beer and wine. That way, he doesn't have to bring in food trucks, which he says can be unreliable, to sate patrons' appetites. The Stein & Vine partnership has attracted a steady weekday lunch crowd, he adds, and the attendant revenue stream.

Bailey also spent time and resources in the early going to have branding that differentiates the Coppertail brand. “It seemed like every other brewery was trying to look like Cigar City, with brightly colored cans, and so we did a 180 and said, 'Let's do bottles and go with a muted color palette with lots of illustrations,'” he says.

Funding for Coppertail's growth has come from Bailey's savings, as well as loans from friends and family. He's put in his retirement account and a second mortgage into the business, and he sold off several investment properties to help boost the brewery's prospects.

Basically, he's gone all-in, and he couldn't be happier about it.

“So far, it's self-contained, and that's the way I like it,” he says. “I've seen other business deals over the years where people who don't get along well end up forming partnerships, and then it becomes a nightmare when they split up. I really wanted to keep control and avoid having too many people involved in the decision making.”

In a time when pioneering craft breweries like Cigar City are being snapped up by bigger, mainstream beverage companies and investment funds, Bailey's strategy is to keep Coppertail independent. He believes the brewery already has what it takes to succeed long term in a rapidly evolving market. Coppertail's four core brews — Free Dive (IPA), Unholy (American trippel), Night Swim (porter) and Wheat Stroke (American wheat ale) — are available nearly statewide, with Pensacola and the panhandle the last remaining territory to conquer.

Bailey says the quality of those beers is another reason the company has thrived. “I believe it's the best craft beer in the state of Florida,” he says. “And that's not because of me; it's because of Casey, our brewmaster. He's one of the most experienced, award-winning brewers in the state. I just think he does a great job.”

What's in a name?

The Coppertail Brewing Co. name comes courtesy of founder Kent Bailey's daughter, Sophia Rose.

When Sophia was 5, she told her dad a story about “Coppertail,” a sea monster who lurks beneath the surface of Tampa Bay. “I immediately liked the word,” Bailey recalls. “And the idea of a sea monster living in Tampa Bay seemed so ridiculous, but also so much fun.”

Now a bit older, Sophia, 12, realizes her story inspired the name of her daddy's company, so she “struts around this place like she owns it,” Bailey says with a laugh. “Except she wants to turn it into a marshmallow factory, someday, when she's old enough.”

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