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Brewing scholarship recipient promotes diversity in the industry

The St. Pete Brewing Arts Program scholarship was awarded to Marrisa Thomas as part of an incentive to diversify the brewing industry. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/PIXABAY

USF alumna Marrisa Thomas is the first recipient of the Yuengling USF St. Petersburg Campus Diversity in Brewing Scholarship Award. Without the aid of the scholarship, she likely wouldn’t have been able to enroll in the program.  

Last year the scholarship was created when the brewing company Yuengling approached USF and its Brewing Arts program hoping to introduce new diversity to the industry, in which male and white brewers outnumber other demographics. 

The program consists of 23 weeks of online course material, as well as hands-on training in local breweries. The class is broken up into 11 modules, covering the science and history of brewing, practical information on brewing and instruction on owning a business.

USF and Yuengling have continued a connection since the beginning of the program in 2015, when the growing brewing industry prompted USF to establish the program in response to the burgeoning demand for specialized brews. Yuengling has also supported the program with a scholarship for veterans.

All expenses in the program are covered by the $5,000 award and the fund was created to “fund an individual from traditionally underrepresented groups.” Brewing Arts Program Director Jennifer Sedillo said the brewing industry has historically lacked diversity.

“As far as diversity in the industry — it’s not diverse, and that is the issue,” Sedillo said. “It’s very Caucasian and very male, and it has been since the craft brewing industry has gotten really popular.”

Being one of the few Black women in brewing encourages her to introduce others to join the industry, Thomas said.

“I have been used to being the token Black chick in basically everything. I was influenced by my classmates who are white, [who helped] introduce me to brewing,” she said. 

“It doesn’t make me sad, per se, that a lot of Black folks don’t really care about beer. Being the token Black chick, it makes me want to introduce more of my friends and my family to it.”

Thomas completed her bachelor’s degree in biology from Oral Roberts University in 2013 before receiving her master’s in public health from USF in May 2021. While at USF, she worked in the lab of John Adams, professor in the College of Health, focusing on research in malaria. 

She said the experience helped her discover her interest in microbiology and antiseptic technique which applies to brewing. Thomas was later introduced to brewing by a friend, who she aided in his homebrewing projects.

Thomas began brewing beer and kombucha in her own home when she was pregnant in 2020, despite not being able to drink it.

“I was bored because I couldn’t really work as much as I previously was, because I was just getting bigger, and the job that I had at the lab was kind of physical,” Thomas said. 

“So I couldn’t really lift all this stuff, and really, that was the main thing I missed when I was pregnant.”

While showing her boyfriend how to brew, she discovered her passion in teaching other people how to brew but wanted to take an official course before actually teaching others.

“It made me want to teach, but I feel like I can’t teach because I’m kind of a technical person,” Thomas said. “I feel like if I were to teach, it would be kind of half-assed at this point.

“That’s why I applied to [the program], because I feel like they know what they’re talking about and I’ll get the best education I can from this program.”

Thomas said without the assistance from the award, she likely would not have been able to enroll in the program, mostly due to the pressure of saving for her daughter’s future. She says she might have been able to do it in the far future, but the award allowed her to attend the program immediately.

In the future, with the certificate from the program, Thomas said she hopes to teach smaller groups of three to five people.

“I want to get better at brewing the types of beers that I like and [knowing how] to make my own recipes,” Thomas said. “Then be able to introduce my favorite parts about beer and beer-making to the people that I care about and other Black people.”

Since the introduction of the scholarship last year, Sedillo said the program has begun recording the demographics of the program’s participants in order to track the levels of diversity.

“We don’t actually have demographics for our program and because it’s online, we don’t always know [because] we don’t always meet everybody,” Sedillo said. 

“But we are starting to now gather that information so that we can see if we’re making incremental improvements in diversity.”

Sedillo said that with this award, the goal is to ensure that more underrepresented groups have the potential to enter the brewing industry and add their creativity to brewing culture. 

“[We want] to make sure that we’re being inclusive in the industry and providing equal opportunities to everybody,” she said. 

“The more we are able to be diverse, the better the whole industry will succeed because we’ll be more creative and have more perspectives.”