Puerto Rico’s Medalla beer is being distributed in Florida for the first time, aiming to tap the soaring number of Puerto Ricans who have relocated to the beer-loving Sunshine State.

On Father’s Dayat La Cocina Puertorriquena restaurant in Pembroke Pines, Puerto Rican families ordered scores of the light beer to accompany such traditional dishes as mashed-plantain mofongo.

“It’s a taste of home, a way to identify with the island,” said restaurant owner Tony Sanchez, a Puerto Rican who lives in Lauderhill. “I took a 12-pack to my house last weekend and have been enjoying it.”

The number of Florida residents who describe themselves as Puerto Rican nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010 to reach almost 850,000, or 4.5 percent of the state’s population, the U.S. Census shows.

Greater Orlando ranks as the top destination for Puerto Ricans in the state, but South Florida also is popular. The number of South Floridians who call themselves Puerto Rican rose almost 30 percent over the decade to reach nearly 210,000, or 4 percent of area residents in 2010, the Census shows.

Indeed, so many people have been leaving the U.S. Caribbean territory — because of a shrinking economy and rising crime rate — that Puerto Rico’s population dropped during the decade. Only one U.S. state saw a decline in population in the period: Michigan, home to the downsized automotive industry.

Beer experts see potential for Medalla’s success in Florida, because it’s the top-selling beer in Puerto Rico, has not been available in the state and enjoys natural market in the area’s Puerto Ricans.

But the brand faces hurdles to grow beyond its Puerto Rican niche.

While Florida is the third largest U.S. beer market after California and Texas, beer sales in the state have contracted sharply since the recession. Beer sales in Florida fell more than 10 percent in the five years through 2011. That’s a drop four times bigger than the decline in the U.S. beer sales overall for the period, said Benj Steinman, editor of newsletter Beer Marketer’s Insights of Suffern, N.Y.

“In a difficult economic environment, for a brand that skews toward Hispanics who are harder hit than many groups, to get those customers to pay up for your brand is a challenge,” Steinman said.

Medalla is priced for Florida distribution between premium U.S. beers such as Sam Adams and imports such as Heineken, said Camalia Valdes, president of Medalla’s veteran brewer Cervecera de Puerto Rico. She seeks a pricing edge by touting the awards that justify its name Medalla — Spanish for medal.

To start out, Medalla aims to sell just 175,000 cases in its first year in Florida. That compares with more than 7.5 million cases it sells on the island yearly, Valdes said. The beer is now available in the state wholesale through distributors and retail at such chains as Publix, Walmart and Walgreens.

Longer-term, Medalla has grander ambitions. Valdes just finished a $100 million investment in the brewery to upgrade and boost production, with plans to sell Medalla across the United States.