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On their way to becoming doctors, pre-med interns learn to brew beer

TAMPA — This lab, like many labs, was a room of science. There was a microscope, beakers, test tubes and tongs. The people wore safety goggles and hung up their lab coats. They used an incubator, and a centrifuge, and any scientist would have felt at home in this room.

Still it was hard to ignore the beer.

There were gallons upon gallons of it here, beer stacked in bottles and cans on wire shelves — wheat beers, pale ales, lagers, India Pale Ales, known as IPAs.

"That's the beer library," said Shelby Kaminsky, a 21-year-old with plastic goggles pushed up into her hair. Then she crossed the room to run some tests on Jai Alai, a hoppy beer from Cigar City Brewing.

This semester, for the first time, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg offered its biology students internships at breweries across the Tampa Bay area. They're counting yeast cells, taking pH samples and tossing around brewers' lingo like "IBU" — international bitterness units.

The craft beer industry exploded last year, with 10 new breweries or outposts thereof opening in Tampa Bay. At the same time, USF St. Petersburg's new biology department blew up: Formed in the fall of 2012, it has already drawn 600 students.

Breweries need scientists to make sure their beer tastes right, and USF St. Petersburg is hoping these internships will open biology students' minds to careers outside of health care.

Beer, after all, can do many things.

• • •

Before civilization, there was beer.

Since the 1950s, scholars have said there is evidence that early humans grew grain for beer long before they cultivated it for bread. Social rules, hierarchy and structure were good for running societies. But waging wars, exploring oceans and declaring undying love takes guts, and any man who has ever spotted a pretty woman by the jukebox will tell you beer can provide just that.

But when Kaminsky saw the application headed "Microbrewery Student Internship," she didn't think about society-building, but red plastic cups. She wondered if medical schools would take her seriously: "This is either going to make us look awesome to the people interviewing us, or they are going to shun us."

Kaminsky is interning at Cigar City, the largest craft brewer in Florida. Molly Swango and Jessy Weber, also 21-year-old seniors, are interning at newer St. Petersburg ventures Green Bench and Three Daughters.

All three were planning careers in health care when they signed on for the internships. Most biology majors are "easily" pre-medicine or pre-pharmacy, instructor David John says.

So when Frank Biafora, the dean of the college of arts and sciences, contacted John about starting the internship program, he was game.

"I want to at least reveal to students, science is not just health care," John says.

He waited for the applications to pour in, but only three came. Perhaps some of the students he emailed didn't have the necessary classes — organic chemistry and microbiology — or had already chosen internships.

"There was a little bit of that fear of going off the beaten path," John says. But he was happy to see that Kaminsky, Swango and Weber had strong applications. "I knew they could get a good work experience out of it — not just, 'hey, tell your friends, I'm working in a brewery.' "

• • •

The sample in the test tube spun around until a mucus dropped out and glommed to the bottom. This beer was from a batch destined to become Jai Alai. Kaminsky dipped a machine into the tube until it read "4.1"

"This is not done at all," she said. "This is still fermenting."

The number refers to degrees plato, a measure of the beer's gravity. In overly simplified terms, gravity is a way to measure the sugar in the beer.

Kaminsky's sample of Jai Alai wouldn't be done until it reached 3 degrees plato.

Beer's scientific side has implications for the finances of brewing, too. At Three Daughters, where Weber interns, principal Leigh Harting says a small anomaly can do a lot of damage.

If there's too much oxygen, the beer will taste like popcorn butter (diacetyl). Too much yeast could create a green apple flavor (acetaldehyde).

Weber spends most of her days counting yeast cells and checking how much is viable enough to be reused. "If we had to use new yeast every time, it could cost $600, $800," Harting says. "We're talking about the ability to run a business."

• • •

Last month, the Brewer's Association released an analysis of craft beer's impact on the 2012 national economy: $33.9 billion. Florida's share: $875 million.

Not only did Green Bench and Three Daughters open in St. Petersburg last year, but so did Brewers Tasting Room and Cycle Brewing. Before 2013, the city didn't have any breweries. Tampa got four new additions, and Treasure Island and Clearwater got in on the game, too.

And in the back of these breweries, there's an egghead. At Three Daughters, chemist Jim Leonard says with pride that yeast was the first cell to have its entire genome mapped, and that a career in beer is much less of a time commitment than medical school.

Four weeks in, Kaminsky and Swango say they're not quite convinced to pursue careers in beer. "If someone was going to take all these science classes, it would be unique. I mean, you wouldn't expect someone to take Orgo so I can make beer," says Kaminsky.

Brewing, Swango says, "could turn into a hobby." But it's not like she would order beer at a bar. She'd want something "ice-creamy." Playing pong, she makes her partner drink her cups.

Weber's different. She grew up drinking Coors and Bud, the occasional Corona with lime. Her Three Daughters internship has made her appreciate Irish reds, blond ales and a fine IPA.

She was planning to get her doctorate, a three-year commitment, in physical therapy. But working in the brewery's lab has made her rethink those plans.

"I actually apply the science I learned here, and it's useful, making good money for a good business," she said on a recent Friday, sitting by the bar. "I love the atmosphere here. It's gorgeous. It's not like going into a bright lab room."

She squinted, like she could see the fluorescent lights. It was 3 p.m., and customers were beginning to fill the stools. Light coming in through the windows hit the taps. Beer was poured.

Lisa Gartner can be reached at

On their way to becoming doctors, pre-med interns learn to brew beer 01/30/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 30, 2014 11:33pm]
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