Envision Alumni Edition Fall 2018

At Cranium Coffee alums are brewing success with a blend of tech and coffee beans


cranium coffee

By Brad Stager

Serious coffee drinkers around the Tampa Bay area may want to keep their eyes wide open for the pastel blue and peach-colored cafe on wheels operated by a pair of USF Chemical Engineering alumni.

Thomas Miller and Harry Helmrich each graduated with bachelor degrees in chemical engineering in 2013 and soon found work in Florida’s phosphate industry at The Mosaic Company, but an entrepreneurial thirst and a casual pastime of roasting coffee beans led them to start Cranium Coffee Roasters. According to Helmrich, their on-the-go coffee service offers something that no other local coffee or food truck does.

“As far as we know, we’re the only mobile roaster in the Tampa Bay area,” he says.

An interest by Miller and Helmrich in keeping busy and in their curiosity of different roasting techniques eventually led them to build a coffee bean roaster from a beer keg and propane gas barbecue grill that’s powered by a washing machine motor.

“One day we said, ‘Let’s build something,’ and we made our roaster,” Helmrich said.

Their home-roasted coffee proved popular with friends, and after getting a good deal on a large quantity of beans, Miller and Helmrich had the essential ingredients to establish Cranium Coffee and sell bags of their coffee to the public. As for serving cups of caffeinated beverages, they opted to go on the road.

“It’s good we don’t have a lease,” Miller said. “It makes it possible for us to go at our whatever pace we want and keeps our expenses low.”

He also credits some of Cranium’s success to the experience he and Helmrich gained by being active members in the USF chapter of American Institute of Chemical Engineers, as well as the sound application of engineering principles.

“There’s a lot of problem solving involved,” he said.

The Cranium Coffee truck makes the rounds of business parks, apartment complexes and special events throughout the Tampa Bay area, serving coffee drinks and promoting online sales of their roasted beans, which mainly come from Peru, Colombia and Honduras.

One of the biggest-selling menu items when the truck is on location is their cold brew coffee, which is coffee steeped over several hours at low temperatures. That process yields a bold taste that customers like Bob Lefebvre, who stopped by their truck while it was parked at a Brandon apartment complex, find noteworthy.

“This is the first time I’ve had a cold brew coffee, and I’m a believer now,” Lefebvre said.

Helmrich and Miller’s coffee truck is also a popular attraction at events like Clearwater Beach’s annual Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival, where they operated onsite for the full 10 days of the festival. Those were long days for the Cranium Coffee team.

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“It’s a lot of work besides just showing up,” Miller said. “Every single day we had to stock up on supplies and bring them in.”

When the truck is open for business, the roaster is usually on display to introduce people to the fine art of roasting coffee beans. Above all, it attracts a crowd.

With a sheet metal exhaust at one end, a bicycle rim serving as a main gear for the rotating drum at the other end and lengths of collapsible ventilation tubing, the repurposed propane gas grille may appear to possess only basic functionality. Special features like digital temperature monitoring, however, reflect an innovative frugality that add up to a machine with a roasting capacity matching some commercial roaster models that cost around $10,000.

Similarly, they reconfigured an espresso machine to run on propane gas instead of electricity and routed the coffee maker’s steam exhaust to billow out of the roof of their converted Grumman delivery step van so that it appears to be rising from a large sheet metal faux coffee cup.

Helmrich said they hope to grow their business and credited the help and support of friends and family members for their success so far. He also cited having a positive attitude toward their endeavor.

“There’s optimism, enthusiasm and being happy that we can do this,” he said.

Learn more about Cranium Coffee at its website and shop online for roasted coffee beans or connect with Cranium Coffee on social media.