By Eric Peterson | Jul 05, 2015
Salt Lake City, Utah
An avid skier and homebrewer, Will Hamill moved to Utah to launch Uinta in 1993. With 78,000-barrel production in 2014, it's the largest brewery in Utah.
He turned to Mills, a 19-year veteran of Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing, in 2015 to manage the brewery through a serious growth spurt.
"We decided it was crazy enough it might work," says Mills, who officially started as Uinta CEO on June 15. How did Hamill lure him away from the flatlands? "Uinta makes incredible beers and Salt Lake's a beautiful city."
The nearby ski areas are a bonus. "I've never experienced the Utah snow," says Mills, "and I'm looking forward to skiing on the Wasatch Front."
But first Mills is learning his way around the brewery, and that's no small task. "We have 28 beer and more on the way," he says. He's exploring the catalog firsthand. "I'm a beer consumer first."
Beer drinkers "are looking for complexity," he says. "That's the fun thing about beer. We would put a tire in a fermenter if we thought it would make the beer interesting in a good way. We can do spice, we can do fruit, we can do herbs -- and we are. We're not even close to being done with innovation."
"What are the beers that are going to be relevant today and tomorrow?" asks Mills. "What beers are good and what can we do to make them great?"
So what's the next IPA? Mills is a bit cagey. "I'm afraid to tip my hand on that one as we work on our 2016 innovation plans." But he's quick to highlight barrel-aged beers of all kinds, especially sours.
Hopnosh IPA is Uinta's top seller. Cutthroat Pale Ale, available in Utah only, is the top session beer.
Uinta finished an $18 million expansion in 2013 and has grown by 30 percent each of the two years since, and Mills sees plenty of runway for more. "We're on pace for a 20 percent lift this year," he says. "To manage that growth, you need to invest in people and equipment. We've added 33 jobs this year to date and we're adding more." Mills says it was a necessity: "We've been at a breaking point for two years."
Uinta recruited Mills to navigate the projected growth, a task not unlike what he saw firsthand at Boulevard, Missouri's largest brewer with roughly 200,000-barrel production level in recent years.
"I've been here before, and hopefully I've learned from my mistakes and won't repeat those mistakes," he says. One key strategy is interfacing with grocery chains, he adds, noting, "I can tell you they're not going away. We want to educate them."
Sustainability is another priority. Among the country's first wind-powered breweries, Uinta now has solar panels contributing about 20 percent of the electricity.
Mills sees a bright future for Uinta as well as the industry at large. "Craft brewing and Mexican imports are what's growing in the United States," he says.
Favorites beers: "My favorite beer of the moment at Uinta is our Baba Black Lager," says Mills. "It's a nice organic black lager and it's only 120 calories per 12-ounce.'
Beyond Uinta's tap handles, "Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is never wrong," he adds. "It's always very clean, technically flawless, and always consistent."
Challenges: "Managing this growth," says Mills. "Prioritizing our needs moving forward is so important. Every brewery has bottlenecks. You have to manage that bottleneck -- and look ahead a few years."
Market awareness is both a challenge and an opportunity, he adds. "There are a lot of people who enjoy better beer who haven't even heard of us."
Opportunities: Mills sees plenty of opportunity for Uinta to grow in the 32 states on its distribution map, pointing to a 15 percent uptick in Utah in 2014. "We're incredibly healthy in our hometown and our home state," he says. The brewery also has strong sales in North Carolina and Florida, a testament to the brand's shelf-stability. Mills notes, "We have really good partners there and our beer can travel." For this reason, he also sees potential for growth in exports.
Session beers -- under 4.0 percent alcohol by volume -- are a big opportunity and a Uinta forte. "People are realizing beer is the beverage of moderation," says Mills. "That's what sets up apart from other breweries and we've been doing that since 1993."
Needs: "The next big thing is fermenting tanks we'll be installing at the end of this year," Mills says. The project will increase annual production capacity to more than 200,000 barrels.
"Human capital is our next big investment," he adds. "We're going to continue to build out our team. We have needs in every single department."