Tony Casoria and Kevin Lilly have an expansive vision of an urban brewery, tasting room, upscale cocktail lounge and concert venue — The Attic — that would serve as the prototype for similar ventures in select cities across the U.S., with each one tailored to fit its specific locale.
But first, the business partners behind Rock Brothers Brewing (which also count Dale Hunter and Joey Redner among their ranks) and Attic Records (the label/promotions company that set everything in motion) have to get their own Attic off the ground.
Rock Brothers purchased the historic King Greco Hardware building on the corner of 8th Avenue and 15th Street in Ybor City more than a year ago, and received zoning approval from the City of Tampa relatively quickly. But acquiring permits to begin work on a structure that was built in 1895 and hadn’t seen much in the way of improvements since the plumbing was installed sometime in the ’60s proved a challenging and slow-going process.
“That’s caused the most delays,” Casoria explained. “But the city has been amazingly easy to work with in allowing us to do this big project in this whole building. There could be a lot more hurdles, but they’re really interested in developing and they love what we’re bringing to the table.”
Neither Casoria nor Lilly seem overly concerned. They purchased the property for a steal and only really started dumping money into it last week, when the permits were finally approved and the rehab began in earnest. “We were hoping to be open by now, that was the original plan,” Casoria said. “But at the end of the day, we have our wholesale business going — we’re still launching beers and growing that side of things, so we’re not stressing the delays. We’re not bleeding money — the company’s going strong. If anything, we’re improving it before we take on the major expense, and we’re just building awareness and more anticipation in the meantime.”
Lilly admitted it got frustrating having to wait so long, but the foundation is being laid and he’s in good spirits about the whole thing. “It feels very good, a big relief to be started.”
Though the vast empty space is a dusty gutted mess right now, you can see the promise in the bare brick walls and vaulted ceilings of its first floor, which is divided into two parts. The larger half will be used for the brewing tanks and tasting room, the smaller home to a swanky full-liquor bar serving high-end spirits and “beertails” created from Rock Brothers brews. The upstairs space will be transformed into an intimate listening room-style venue, its tall picture windows spilling golden light onto varnished wood floors. With rock ‘n’ roll-themed posters, art and memorabilia scattered around the place, it will have the feel of a House of Blues or Planet Hollywood, but on a smaller urban scale.
Casoria first started channeling his love of fine spirits and great music when he opened Prohibition-themed St. Pete cocktail lounge Mandarin Hide in 2010 with some law school buddies and started booking shows there. He teamed up with Lilly in 2012 to co-found Attic Records to help their favorite local artists (like singer-songwriter Forrest Hoffar). Their combined experience and connections segued into Whigfest (an art and music fest held over President’s Day weekend in downtown St. Petersburg), then to Rock Brothers Brewing. Lilly’s idea of band-product collaborations was first conceived in Atlanta in ’06, but only brought to fruition when he and Casoria partnered with Joey Redner and Cigar City Brewing to create Have Gun, Will Travel’s High Road Ale in 2014. In the few years since, the collabs have gained traction with a handful of other artist-brew brands. (More about these further down in the story.)
The demand for Rock Brothers brews continued to increase, and Cigar City was willing to keep producing the Rock Brothers brands, even allocating some space in its brewery for production, provided Tony and Lilly brought in their own equipment.
“So we started buying equipment and installing it in Cigar City, which is completely unheard of,” Casoria said. “Cigar City wasn’t making any money off it, they were just doing it because it was a fun project, they literally wanted to help a competitor, a new small brewery, come to be.”
The success, however, eventually prompted them to seek a more permanent solution. “We got to a point where we knew we needed to be master of our own destiny,” Casoria explained. “Cigar City has been incredible to us but we couldn’t rely on them forever.”
Casoria and Lilly couldn’t find an affordable property that suited their needs in St. Pete, so they broadened their search to Ybor City, which, Casoria said, “was being re-discovered like St. Pete was eight or 10 years ago.” He and Lilly saw the potential for The Attic to be part of the district’s latest renaissance. “When we looked at this spot, it felt like home; it’s the perfect size, we aren’t wasting any space ... this building was perfect, it’s right on the trolley line, it’s sexy, it’s beautiful…”
At this point, contractors estimate they could be ready to open The Attic’s doors as early as September. “Every time we say it, it’s longer,” Casoria said. “But we’re OK with the delays. We want to do things right.”
BANDS MAKE THE BEER
The process behind Rock Brothers’ band-beer collaborations has been likened to a songwriting session. All the essential participants put their heads together, hash out ideas about the integral components and flavor profiles, and arrive at a harmonious conclusion once everyone is satisfied with the formula.
In sum, these are more than just artist-themed craft brews; the artists actually take an active role in their creation. “That’s what we strive for in these beer-band collaborations,” says Rock Brothers’ Tony Casoria. “We want to make sure it’s completely authentic, we don’t want to work with a band that’s not excited about it, who’s not interested in craft beer, we don’t want to slap their name on it. We want it to be the band’s favorite beer. So we help them dial into it, figure out what it is.”
Rock Bros debuted their first collab with Bradenton-area Americana rockers Have Gun, Will Travel in 2014: High Road Ale, which earned a win at the United States Beer Tasting Championship and is not only served at various watering holes around Tampa Bay, but landed on the shelves of Total Wine locations stretching from Tampa to Ft Myers as of this year. Soon, it’ll be sold across the state of Florida.
A half-dozen brews with nationally touring acts have been released since the first — JJ Grey’s Nare Sugar Brown Ale, Nothing Too Fancy Pale Ale from Umphrey’s McGee, Hootie’s Homegrown Ale by Hootie and the Blowfish, 311 Amber Ale, and the recently unveiled Rebelution IPA.
Casoria’s dream is to produce a music-and-craft beer festival featuring all Rock Bros bands and brews, with massive tents themed around each performer scattered around the fest grounds. “So you’ll go to the 311 tent and their beer will be on tap, the band will come through and do tastings or sign autographs, and there’ll be interactive things happening, too, to make it a really immersive experience.”
But that’s looking far into the Rock Brothers future. For now, Casoria and co-founder Kevin Lilly are focused on the next significant Rock Brothers achievement: “We’re putting Hootie’s beer and 311’s beer in cans, and this summer, we’ll be launching those in the Southeast. If we can satisfy 1,000 retail stores in the Southeast, and fill those orders, then we’ll try to get into Kroger, and Publix.”
Casoria can barely contain his enthusiasm at the prospect of national distribution. “To be across the country, in supermarket chains where everyone can get it? That’s very exciting.”