By Bobby Bush
Tom Davis is one of those instantly likable people. Outgoing, industrious and business minded, his eyes sparkle at the mere mention of beer, even though he's toiled at the craft, as a professional, for nearly seven years.
He'd already been brewing for two years at Henni's, a downtown Greenville, South Carolina bar turned brewpub, when I first visited the lanky brewer in 1996. Before our barstools could even warm one degree, he'd already hustled us off to tour the cramped brewery. His three-and-a-half barrel brew kettle, along with an odd array of fermentation vessels, were slammed into a closet size room hidden way behind the kitchen. Tom's enthusiasm was unfazed by the tight quarters. Henni's beer was good, very good, in fact.
Burning with the desire to get it right the first time, Tom spent 18 months reading about homebrewing before his first attempt. Unlike most fledgling homebrewers, Tom did not start with beginner brewing kits. He entered this hobby as he would his profession: at the top. His first beers were the real thing, all-grain, filtered and force carbonated, straight to kegs. With some pride, he states: "I've never primed a bottle in my life." Ten years of homebrewing and later a bartending gig at Henni's lead to the bar's brewpub conversion.
In 1997, after three years at the rustic brewpub, he left with his brewhouse and his experience, ready to try something new. With assistance from his father William T. and wife Terri, Thomas Creek Brewing Company was founded. The Greenville microbrewery offered opportunities unavailable to SC brewpubs because of the state's alcohol regulations. At last Tom could satisfy the many requests for off-premise beer sales that had haunted him at diminutive Henni's. With a used 30 barrel brewhouse and two (now three) 60 barrel fermenters, the first batch of Thomas Creek beer hit the streets in July 1998.
In typical Tom fashion, the groundwork for Thomas Creek began years before. While still a homebrewer, homebrew samples offered to Henni's patrons served to refine his recipes. He considers his tenure at Henni's as in-depth market research in which he learned to make what local people wanted to drink. The program appears to be working.
Four-fifths of his Thomas Creek's output is kegged. Bottles and his brand new six liter Tap-A-Draft system comprise the rest. (This innovative take-out beer unit is unique. It's already a hit in the Greenville area). Thomas Creek Pilsner is nothing but excellent. One of the hardest European styles to brew correctly, Tom has discovered the secret recipe for this light, tartly bitter lager. Medium-bodied malty Red Ale is becoming Thomas Creek's flagship beer. IPA, also sold at the three Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria restaurants as the house branded beer, is big, bold and hoppy. Multi-Grain is chewy, with hints of cereal within its crisp medium mouthfeel. Brown is sweet and sassy, while the traditional Dopplebock lager is hefty and challenging. Porter sees only limited availability. Oktoberfest is a seasonal crowd pleaser. Tom also brews special recipe house brands for several local restaurants.
Thomas Creek is truly a self-contained family operation. Wife Terri runs the website (www.thomascreekbeer.com) and helps out at nearly every festival. Father William crafts the company's distinctive tap handles and point-of-purchase promotional material. Tom etches pint glasses, fires labels on others and makes logo mirrors for barroom display. Busy as he is, this personable guy with the instant smile - when he's busy selling and promoting - brews great Thomas Creek Beer too. Look for it in western North and South Carolina.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush