USFSP’s Brewing Arts Program is helping the Tampa Bay industry flourish

Beer Issue 2020.

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click to enlarge HEADS UP: Program Director Jennifer Sedillo (at Troubled Waters Brewing) hopes to open a lifeline to local breweries as well as help groom the next generation of brewers. - JENNA RIMENSNYDER
HEADS UP: Program Director Jennifer Sedillo (at Troubled Waters Brewing) hopes to open a lifeline to local breweries as well as help groom the next generation of brewers.

Six years ago Mike Harting of 3 Daughters Brewing quickly realized he was at a huge deficit when it came to knowledgeable employees in the industry.

“We basically fumbled our way through it for years,” Harting, owner and founder of the St. Petersburg brewery, tells CL in between puffs of his cigar. “At the time there were no breweries our size. We were looking for guidance, mentoring and we were looking for employees.”

But then Dr. Frank Biafora, a professor and dean at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus (USFSP), had a casual game of chess at 3 Daughters with Jim Leonard, a retired chemist who actually built 3 Daughters’ craft brewing laboratory. That’s when the seed of the USFSP Brewing Arts Program was planted.

“Frank and Jim called me over to the table and said, ‘We think we can build you a program,’” Harting recalled while shrugging his shoulders and watching the marge on the end of his cigar accumulate.

From there, the trio got to work, building a 25 week non-traditional program, at $5,000 per cohort, with the objective of having students ready to open a brewery of any size upon completion.

The trio put together a meeting of all the local breweries—basically an assembling of the Avengers—to talk online course modules and discuss a two-week hands on training for students.

“We were also able to link up with Bill Carman of Great Bay Distributors who helped set up brewery tours for cohorts and teach them how to find and work with distributors once they become brewers,” Harting added.

But what about the dough to get this puppy started?

Harting told CL that finding the funds was also on their list of to-dos. Thankfully, finding green wasn’t a struggle. A handful of breweries, along with Carman, were happy to donate to a program that would also scratch their backs in the near future. Once the cash was collected, they had different industry professionals to each come up with a week’s worth of curriculum, which USFSP then video-recorded to make the online program launch. Some of the faculty and brewers who have a hand in the program include St. Pete Brewing Co.'s Jon McCracken, 3 Daughters’ John-Erik Savitsky, Mike and Leigh Harting, plus Jim Helmke of D.G. Yuengling & Son and the late Greg Rapp of Rapp Brewing Co. 

The first USFSP Brewing Arts cohort launched in 2015, and its students’ obsessions with brewing beer has grown stronger with each class.

“If you look at the folks who went through this program you won’t find a commonality,” Harting said. “There are college kids and 45 year olds. Some of the students want to open a brewery; others just want to be a head brewer.”

That sentiment is echoed by Jennifer Sedillo, who Dr. Biafora named program director for USFSP’s Brewing Arts in early 2017.

“We have a mix of local and national students, the class before last we had a student from Colombia and another from Ukraine,” Sedillo said. “They both traveled here to do an internship at a local brewery, but we don’t require that.”

She added that smaller class sizes—each cohort has around 10-20 students—means the program won’t overwhelm the local breweries taking on these students for internships and possibly employing them upon completion.

“Although the cohort sizes have remained stable, I’ve seen a change in where our students are coming from,” Sedillo said, adding that there’s been a surge of applicants from Orlando, which is seeing its brewing scene grow to accommodate tourists and locals alike. She does point out, however, that Florida is still catching up to other parts of the country when it comes to brewing. “We’re not as mature as California, or cities like Portland and Colorado who have been doing this for decades.”

She added that while Tampa Bay does have long-running breweries like Dunedin Brewery, TBBC and Cigar City Brewing, the pool of wisdom when it comes to both brewing science and viable employees is still fairly small, so she and her crew at USFSP are on a mission to change that.

As the program and Tampa Bay’s local brewing industry gains experience, Sedillo is looking to emulate the University of California Davis’ Master Brewers Certificate Program (which has been utilized as a community resource for local brewers in Northern California) and Colorado’s Avery Brewing (which has worked with Colorado University to make advancements in research surrounding the yeast local brewings use.)

“That’s what we want to help encourage here in Tampa Bay,” she said. “We want to become a resource for local breweries.”

So far, USFSP has been able to do some lab services for breweries, including testing hops grown by a local farmer. 

Sedillo tries to incorporate every new nugget of information collected from the evolving industry into the curriculum, which has recently been revamped and now consists of 11 modules covering everything from the history and archaeology of brewing to what it takes to run front-of-house at a brewery. Beyond the certificate, USFSP also offers classes to those who are already in the industry but want to know about specific topics including yeast, sour beers, and quality control. 

“We make sure to go through the technical aspects and end the program with the business of brewing. That’s where Mike and Leigh [Harting, co-founder of 3 Daughters] teach opening, business plan and marketing,” Sedillo said.

The proof is in the pudding when it comes to the program, too. A healthy number of alumni have landed positions at local haunts including St. Pete Brewing, Cigar City, Mastry’s, Big Storm, Brew Bus and even Fat Point Brewing in Punta Gorda.

“We have a handful that do go on to open their own breweries, too,” Sedillo said as she paused to list off the success stories. “Dissent Brewing Co. in  St. Pete, Two Frogs in Tarpon Springs, and Grand Central Brewhouse taking over the former Taco Bus location in St. Pete.”

Although the certificate program has its fair share of overachievers, it is mainly for people who want to get their foot in the door of the brewing industry. One of those people is Anthony Trofe, a 37-year-old St. Pete native, bar and restaurant industry veteran, and novice home brewer.

“I signed up for the program because of my love for beer. I would love to eventually open a brewery down the road,” Trofe said when CL caught up with him during his internship at 3 Daughters.

BEYOND BREWING: Novice home brewer Anthony Trofe joined the Brewing Arts Program because of his love for beer. - MELISSA SANTELL
BEYOND BREWING: Novice home brewer Anthony Trofe joined the Brewing Arts Program because of his love for beer.

Trofe is part of Brewing Arts’ August 2019 cohort, and he was just days away from wrapping up the program. Although the program is online-based with a handful of voluntary and mandatory tours, Trofe has found himself rearranging his schedule to get the maximum experience—even continuing to feed his curiosity by picking hops when he and his wife took a summer trip to Michigan.

“We actually visited Mackinaw Brewing Co. in Traverse City, which was part of a lecture during one of my courses,” Trofe added. “It was awesome to see that come around full circle.”

Trofe is open to the possibilities Tampa Bay’s thriving brewery industry has to offer. He would love to find himself working at a local brewery and eventually opening up a farm-to-bottle brewery with his own hops farm (if Florida’s climate permits.) 

Until then, Trofe has both experience and a certificate that says he’s acquired the tools to be dubbed head brewer, launch his own concept, or just spice up his home brews. Whether someone’s working in their garage or has ambitions to be the boss of a big brewery, it seems as though the USFSP Brewing Arts Program can scratch any brewing industry itch.

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