On March 3 in Tampa, more than 2,000 people raised a glass to Greg Rapp, founder of Largo’s Rapp Brewing and a pioneer in Tampa Bay’s craft brewing community.
It was a special toast at the Brewers Ball, an annual event that gathers beer lovers from around the state. Members of the Pinellas Urban Brewers Guild, which Rapp also founded, held sticks with Rapp’s face on them, so their friend could be there, even though he wasn’t well enough to make the trip.
Rapp, 60, died Sunday after a nearly three-year battle with prostate cancer, his daughter Candi Rapp said Monday. She also noted that it was the final day of Tampa Bay Beer Week 2019.
“It’s something that had never been done before,” said PUBGuild member Carol Dekkers about the Brewers Ball toast. “But it’s a testament to how great a person he was. ... It seemed his three passions in life were his family, the beer community and laughter.”
Rapp opened Rapp Brewing Company in an off-the-beaten-path industrial park in Largo in 2012, when the local beer scene was blossoming. He specialized in classic and forgotten German and eastern European styles, and saw the brewery as keeping with his European beer heritage. His great grandfather Rudolph Rapp operated a brewery in Mohrungen, Germany, around the turn of the century.
At Rapp Brewing, the huge board above the bar listing beers could be intimidating to the uninitiated — a whopping 40 different brews on tap, and all of them made on-site. But accolades poured in at places like the Best Florida Beer Championships, where Rapp received multiple gold medals, was named best small-batch brewery, and earned a best in show for their gose.
The brewery’s acclaimed gose, a sour German style made with coriander and salt, was the first commercially produced gose in the Tampa Bay area, and among the first in the United States. Today, the style is everywhere.
Rapp was known as an always-smiling presence, and a generous teacher with high standards for crafting quality beer. He employed, trained or influenced a number of brewers who went on to open their own businesses, including Arkane Ale Works in Largo and Woodright Brewing Company in Dunedin.
“Our brewery and a lot of others would not exist without him,” said Jessica Bledsoe, who owns Overflow Brewing in St. Petersburg with husband and head brewer Troy Bledsoe. She said Troy was a brewer at Rapp when plans for Overflow came together. “The whole time we were working on it, (Rapp) let Troy keep his job, helped us plan the best ways to open Overflow, made sure we were set up for success.”
“People became his competition,” Dekkers said. “But he never seemed to see it that way.”
Woodright owner and head brewer Eunice Painter said that “among the brewing community, he’s known as Yoda. The master. ... To sit and listen to him talk about different grains and little tweaks ... the guy was like a musician of everything related to yeasts. He made cheese and all types of smoked meats. He liked old-school stuff.”
Arkane’s Joe Scheibelhut was the first official employee at Rapp Brewing Company.
“He was always so upbeat and positive — it was inspiring,” Scheibelhut said. “I remember I knocked over this huge fermenter, 50 gallons of stout all over the walk-in cooler. He was busy, he had family visiting, and I had to walk out there and tell him what happened. I thought, ‘I'm going to get fired.’ He just said, ‘We better go grab a mop.’ After cleaning all night we just sat there and had a cigarette. He wasn’t mad at all.
“And,” Scheibelhut said laughing, “he loved his fried gizzards, every Thursday.”
Rapp graduated from Largo High School and the University of South Florida. He had a career in technology before his interests turned to beer. He was laid off from an IT job at St. Petersburg’s Catalina Marketing in 2006, he said in a 2017 interview with the podcast What Ales Ya, then spent several years with his wife “homesteading” and foraging at a secluded farm in Tennessee, “growing all my own food, living off the land ... having a blast.”
He eventually returned to technology, helping create a digital coupon system now used in thousands of retail locations, and sharing in the patent. When that company was bought out, he decided to finally pursue his longtime homebrewing hobby as a business, partly at the urging of his wife, Dawn.
“She had an ulterior motive,” Rapp told the podcast. “The hobby had gotten so out of hand ... it’s very equipment-centric ... so eventually I took over the back yard and back porch with all my equipment.”
On Tuesday, Great Bay Distributors placed a tribute to Rapp on three digital billboards around the Tampa Bay area. Rapp was one of the distributor's first craft brewer partners.
Rapp is survived by his wife Dawn and daughter Candi.
In a post to Facebook, Candi wrote: “We plan on continuing his legacy of Rapp Brewing Co. in his honor, vowing to brew on! Prost!”
Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected] or follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.