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FIU students make a splash in local beer scene

Beer drinking is a popular extracurricular at most colleges, but the study of brewing is filling classroom seats at Florida International University.

Professor Barry Gump’s brewing-science course has expanded from a summer-only offering in 2007 to one that merits two sections each semester.

Gump and teaching assistant Matthew Weintraub have begun offering homebrew workshops to the public at FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management in North Miami. And they’re awaiting completion of a high-end Brewing Sciences Laboratory that will further distinguish the school as South Florida’s leader in beer education.

Outside the classroom, current and former FIU students are making a splash in the local beer scene through their homebrew club, B.R.E.W. (Biscayne’s Renowned Engineers of Wort) FIU. Weintraub, 23, is president, and fellow hospitality senior Zhilong Yang, 24, is vice president.

The group is putting on its first Biscayne Brewers Bash on Sunday. The event will feature about 40 beers from 15 local and regional breweries, including Coral Gable’s Titanic brewpub and Tampa’s hot Cigar City Brewery, as well as the club members’ homebrew.

“We’re going to make some Apple Jack Ale; that was a big hit at Key West Brewfest” in August, Yang said of their cinnamon- and vanilla-spiked beer.

B.R.E.W. FIU also will have a presence at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February. The group will brew 40 gallons of beer — 10 each of four styles — to serve at a tasting event.

“The festival has always had wine tastings,” said Mike Hampton, dean of the Chaplin School. “So it’s a very exciting opportunity for us that they’ve added a beer tasting and they’ll be using beer that B.R.E.W. FIU is producing.”

The festival’s success has played a major role in the development of FIU’s beer programs. The school has received $17 million from the festival and its host, Miami-based Southern Wine & Spirits, in the past 11 years. Of that, $6 million is going toward the new Brewing Sciences Laboratory and an adjoining teaching restaurant.

“Southern and the festival have given us resources to transform our programs in ways we never would have thought possible,” Hampton said.

The lab and restaurant will be “key enhancements to the top-rated education that students receive at the Chaplin School,” said Lee Brian Schrager, the festival’s founding director and a Southern Wine vice president.

The restaurant, which will seat up to 160 people and include a two-story wine tower and 1,500-square-foot kitchen, will have four beer taps dedicated to brews made by FIU students.

“I envision being able to say to one of my advanced students, ‘OK, your job this semester is to make sure the restaurant always has beer — and that it’s always good,’ ” Gump said.

When the lab opens, probably in the spring, it will have three state-of-the-art brewing systems capable of quadrupling the amount of beer the school can produce. The brewing equipment and other bells and whistles have been picked out.

“It’ll be like Christmas when that stuff arrives and we move in to the new lab,” said Yang.

“We’ll be going from a basic homebrew setup, using an old kitchen stove that’s on its last legs, to having everything we could ever want,” Weintraub added.

Although the brewing capacity will significantly increase when the Brewing Sciences Laboratory opens next year, Hampton stressed that it will be a “a teaching facility, not designed for commercial production.”

But FIU is on track to make lots more beer and — for the first time — wine. The school has “paperwork signed” on a production brewery and production winery for its Biscayne Bay Campus, Gump said. Designed to be “showpieces,” with big ground-level windows, the facilities could be up and running in about five years, he said.

Gump, who was a longtime enology professor at California State University in Fresno, said he’s enjoying contributing to South Florida’s budding beer culture.

“Teaching winemaking in California is not very unique,” he said. “But teaching beer brewing in South Florida? No one else is doing that, and it’s been an absolute hoot.”

Former Miami Herald staff writer Evan S. Benn is the food critic and beer columnist for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at