Veteran Thomas Creek Brewer Davis Continues to Learn and Adapt

Tom Davis has called Bull Sluice one of the best beers he has ever made. But the beer is only on its second run, selling out once again this past winter. The ability to even produce a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Belgian Quad and sell it so quickly would have been a foreign idea for Davis, the co-founder and Brewmaster for Greenville, South Carolina’s Thomas Creek Brewery, even a decade ago.
“That’s what people are looking for,” he said about helping introduce consumers to the brand first and leading to repeat sales with core brands. “They want something different and then hopefully right alongside it, they find our core brands as well. [Specialties and core brands] help each other in my opinion. I see the industry itself is going to a lot of that, a lot of one-offs.”
Bull Sluice is a culmination of what has been the start of a barrel-aging side of the business that Thomas Creek, which opened in 1994 with Davis and his father Bill as founders, is exploring — both clean and sour beers along with other barrel-aged flavors. Consumer desire helped lead the charge, but also the chance to experiment was a part of the “passion” as Davis explained.
“If it was day-in, day-out the same thing over and over and over again it would get monotonous as hell and it would not be nearly as enjoyable as the ability to experiment and … come up with something different these days,” he said.
“It’s hard to come up with something different. You think you’d come out with this great idea and you find out that 10 other breweries have already done it. So it’s a challenge to me as a brewer to try to change things and change it up a little bit and not follow that cookie-cutter pattern. If you don’t make that, you don’t have that excitement with your product, then they’re not really going to pay attention to you.”
Little by little Thomas Creek has been replacing contracted beers with its own production, but Davis said he can’t ever discount the contracts because it actually helped his brewery get to where it is now.
“That also helped keep the juices flowing,” he admitted, saying that helping contracted brewers come up with beers and tweaking recipes gets to be a challenge.
“Just to get in their head and figure out what they actually are saying they want,” the veteran of three decades of brewing said. “That’s another fun part of the business that will keep your interest.”
It’s an ever-changing learning curve Davis noted. When it comes to barrels, the bugs and funk that he learned to keep out of his brewery is now welcomed. Consistency from barrel-aging is a new trial-and-error effort as well.
It’s also meant working on aging in Merlot barrels, barrels from Bacardi with a dark Rum for an Imperial Brown Ale and many other aspects that have helped teach the veteran a whole new way to up his game in brewing and barreling.
Upping the barrel’s freshness helped Bull Sluice increase in quality over the first batch Davis noted.
“I had [brewed] a Quad a couple of times before and we just took it to the next level,” he said. “Putting it in the Four Roses barrels for the second round was even better than the first. I believe that was due to us really pushing the freshness issue.
“We got fresh barrels. We literally watched them dump the barrel and put them straight on my truck. You can’t really get them fresher than that and within days of us getting them back to the brewery, they were full. We kept them at a nice constant temperature for nine months and it just really shines through. We were hearing back from the public that they kind of agree with me.”

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