Thursday, February 22, 2018
Bars & Spirits

University of South Florida St. Petersburg Brewing Arts program going strong

When there's talk about growth of craft beer in the United States, it typically revolves around market shares, shifting consumer preferences and whether or not the current boom is a bubble ready to burst. One detail that's commonly overlooked is the creation of new jobs accompanying such rapid growth.

With demand for new beer on a continuous rise, a lot of breweries are hiring. While the traditional method of learning to brew at home and receiving on-the-job training might still hold some viability, new methods of training have gained traction, promising better tools and a better foundation for learning, both of which could be useful in an increasingly competitive market.

Jim Leonard is a retired pharmaceutical chemist who helped set up the quality assurance lab at St. Petersburg's 3 Daughters Brewing. He's now the director of that lab, as well as of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's Brewing Arts program, which entered its third term earlier last month. I paid him a visit at the 3 Daughters lab to see how the program started and how it has been going since.

"After setting up the lab, I said, 'You're going to need someone to do this work and it's not going to be me. I'm not doing this hands-on stuff right now,' " said Leonard. "So I thought, the university has an internship program for seniors in biological sciences."

The idea led to a meeting with Frank Biafora, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at USF St. Petersburg, and the resulting internship program evolved into a Brewing Arts program, sponsored by 3 Daughters and Great Bay Distributors and composed of 17 faculty members, including employees from eight local breweries. It consists of 10 online modules, followed by 40 hours of hands-on training over two months in a professional brewery.

For amateur home brewers, the $5,000 tuition price tag may be steep, but Leonard cites the program's comprehensive training — apart from brewing itself, the modules cover everything from the business of opening a new brewery to anthropology and beer's role in the development of modern agriculture — as well as realistic job placement opportunities as benefits over other methods of learning.

"I see it as a trade school, a vocational program," he said. "It's a fraction of what [students] would pay if they went to the Siebel Institute in Chicago for a brewing certificate, or if they entered a university like University of California, where they'd have to be an enrolled student and be on campus for four years. We offer this program in six months for a third of the cost of other programs."

Two classes totaling 31 students have already graduated. So how many have parlayed their new education into a career in brewing?

"Almost all of them," Leonard said.

"Prior to the Brewing Arts program, I had home-brewed for just over nine years," said Josh Kaufman, who now works at Seminole's Rapp Brewing. "I had also interviewed formally and informally at a few breweries in the Philadelphia area without any luck. With no professional experience or formal education, the brewers were reluctant to hire me based on enthusiasm alone. The Brewing Arts program helped me secure an assistant brewer position at Rapp Brewing Company even before the course was complete."

Jay Jones graduated with the first class and has been working as a professional brewer at Lakeland's Brew Hub since. "Nothing beats getting in there and getting your hands dirty," he said. "The part of the program that I feel is most important is the hands-on training. After six months of being employed at Brew Hub, I have been promoted to head cellarman and take care of all of the fermentation."

While the program has paid off for students like Kaufman and Jones, Leonard notes that the program isn't just for home brewers in search of a paid gig. Some students have no pro brewing aspirations, while others aren't necessarily looking for an existing brewery role.

"We actually had two students in the first class who are retired. All they want to do is home brew; they're not looking for a job in the brewing industry, they just want to make the best beer that they can. We had two students who are partners and they already had a name for a brewery, they already had investors — they wanted to learn more about brewing for themselves."

More brewery jobs suggest a need for a more skilled brewing workforce.

"We'll have 42 students graduate in within a year, and I'd say a large percentage of those have found positions in the brewing industry, which is pretty amazing," Leonard said. "I think we're fulfilling what the students are looking for."

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