A marine sciences professor 12 years ago wandered into FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management. He had a hobby brewing beer and wondered if maybe he could teach it.
School leaders eventually decided, a bit reluctantly, to take a chance on an introductory class. It wasn’t that they were turning up their noses at beer. It’s just that back then the Florida craft beer market barely existed. No one was sure if brewing was something students needed to know because there simply weren’t many jobs in the beer industry.
But after a slow start, the class took off. A few years later, some of the students came up with another idea that would give the dean and others pause: an FIU-sponsored beer event.
The students planned it, and one of those early organizers, Matthew Weintraub, recalls that it was far harder than they had imagined. “Honestly,” he says, “it was all over the place.”
Now, five years later, the North Miami BrewFest expects to attract thousands of attendees and dozens of brewers to its Dec. 9 event.
Students drive creation of BrewFest
In 2007, Barry Gump arrived at FIU as an eminent scholar in beverage management and took over teaching the class. Gump had some home-brewing experience, and as an analytical chemist by trade, he decided to call the class Brewing Sciences.
“Maybe the ‘sciences’ part scared people away, because I had three people in that first class,” he recalls.
There also just weren’t many students interested in beer back then, and Gump had to scour the university to find his first teaching assistant, a religious studies major named Alexandra Nowell. But word and enrollment grew quickly, with eventually about 30 students taking the course each time. Soon students started a home-brew club.
David Rodriguez had taught himself how to brew by reading online chats and forums and then took Gump’s introductory and advanced brewing classes.
“We really learned a lot of the things you need to know about brewing beer, like quality control, and which ingredients do what, and how to maintain the equipment,” says Rodriguez, who concocted his specialty in the alley behind an apartment building. “There was not really a local beer industry at that point, so we were really learning things on our own.”
Soon students started a brewing club and set up brewing operations in the Chaplin School kitchen, and in 2012 one had the idea to hold a beer festival that would bring home and professional brewers together to give out samples.
School leaders were skeptical at first, worried that the event would be seen as an opportunity for attendees to get drunk. But the students proposed a plan in line with the school’s educational mission. The festival would focus on teaching people about beer. There would be seminars, and the samples would be less about quantity and feature conversations between the brewers and attendees talking about what makes each beer unique. Despite a shaky start, an annual festival was born.
By 2013, the school had built a true home-brewing science lab in which students and faculty not only brewed beer but experimented and conducted research. Meanwhile, Florida saw a burgeoning interest in home brewing and craft beer consumption.
In 2016, the City of North Miami offered to sponsor the festival and has since signed on for five more years. Mayor Smith Joseph says the event fit into the town’s re-branding and new marketing campaign: “A city on the move.” No longer is the city a “drive-through community” of commuters but one that has developed into a community of its own, he said. When he heard about the chance to sponsor BrewFest, he saw it as an opportunity to promote a more vibrant city with its own culture and activities.
“The city of North Miami has really nurtured this relationship with FIU, and it’s a relationship that can only become stronger,” said Joseph, a fan of pale ales.
The renamed North Miami BrewFest will be held in the plaza next to the Museum of Contemporary Art. In addition to samples poured from dozens of craft breweries, there will also be a lineup of seminars on brewing.
Many of those who will be pouring were the very students who helped pioneer FIU’s beer program.
From avocation to vocation
Shortly after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management in 2012, Nick Armada had an idea to spread what he had learned about beer at FIU. He opened CerveTech Brew Institute out of a factory space, filled it with home-brewing equipment, and started classes for the public.
Armada moved his equipment a year later into a shop he opened called Daddy’s Beers, which sold ingredients to home brewers. Then he spent a year as brew master at the newly opened M.I.A. Beer Company in Doral. After that, he became a consultant for other breweries.
“Florida was behind the eight ball on craft beer for a long time,” Armada says. “But that has really changed, and I think those students at FIU had a big part to play in it.”
Armada will be back at BrewFest this year as an organizer, and he will be joined by many of his former classmates. Those early FIU beer program students now dominate the staff lists at breweries in South Florida and elsewhere.
Rodriguez, is now missionary of beer/sales representative for Wynwood Brewing Company. Zhilong Yang, who dreamed up the idea for BrewFest, now owns a Miami company that manufactures kegs and brewing equipment. Nowell, Gump’s first teaching assistant, is now the master brewer at Three Weavers Brewing Company in California.
Weintraub, one of the festival’s early organizers, helped build The Tank Brewing Co., for which he hired several other FIU grads, among them a lead brewer, a finance guy and the taproom manager. The Tank will showcase its brew at the festival, as will M.I.A. Beer Company, owned by FIU grad Eddie Leon. He earned a degree in architecture and worked in IT before founding his own company, but he wanted to diversify during the economic slowdown in 2009. A home brewer, he was at a local brewery one day when “a lightbulb went off.”
Leon got started in 2012 and by 2014 poured beers for the first time at BrewFest. “Any time you have a chance to engage with the local community and help them learn about beer, it’s great,” Leon says.
Another FIU grad, José Mallea, opened Biscayne Bay Brewing Company in 2014. A one-time political science major and former campaign chief for Marco Rubio, Mallea had always had an interest in craft beers.
“FIU gave me great exposure to a lot of experiences and a lot of different types of people,” he says. “Being a university that’s as diverse as it is, it’s a great way to meet people from different backgrounds and figure out what you want to do.” And now the beer festival is providing him the same.
“At BrewFest, you have this chance to chat with other people in the industry about really fun things they’re doing.”
North Miami BrewFest
More than 40 breweries will pour 120 different craft beers at this year’s festival on Dec. 9. Tickets, at $40, include unlimited beer sampling from 1–4 p.m., plus food trucks, vendors, live music, a commemorative glass and access to beer seminars. VIP tickets, at $75, allow for access an hour earlier, a VIP tent with unlimited food samples, a limited edition North Miami BrewFest shirt and a commemorative beer mug. Visit northmiamibrewfest.com for information and to purchase tickets. Proceeds support the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and its brewing science program.