Gina Miceli: Driving the Beer Express
When it comes to using spaces in creative ways, Gina Donatelli Miceli is a pro. Before opening her own brewery with her husband, Tom, she was working as an interior designer with a passion for tiny homes, and would design tiny houses in her spare time just for fun. Meanwhile, Tom’s brewing pastime was blossoming into a business plan. As the couple, along with Tom’s family, began to envision their brewery, a shared fascination with trains became a natural focus for the theme of the brewery. In 1995, Tom’s family had rescued three cabooses from the scrap yard. At this time in railroad history, the work was becoming more automated and train crews were shrinking. The caboose, which had served as living space for the typical team of five to six crewmembers, was no longer needed. There was enough space in the engine car for the downsized crew, and the trains could run more efficiently without the extra car. The family sold one of their cabooses, renovated one as a guesthouse, and one just sat there for 20 years until Tom and Gina dreamt of using it as the taproom for Whistle Hop Brewery in Fairview, NC.
The renovation and transformation of the 1969 Norfolk & Western caboose required a team of skilled individuals. Luckily, each of the Miceli family are highly skilled! Gina’s background in interior design was complimented by Tom’s profession as an industrial engineer, his father’s career as an electrical engineer, and his brother’s background in automotive restoration and metal fabrication. The entire family was hands on with the project of disassembling, cleaning, restoring, repairing, reassembling, and painting the caboose. The process took months, and the rewards have been immeasurable.
Even before opening, Gina knew they were on to something really special in the Fairview community. “People would stop and ask us what we were doing with the caboose. They were so excited to see something like this in Fairview. Once we told them it was going to be a brewery they were even more excited! Families would stop with their kids, and you could hear the little ones shouting, ‘Choo-choo!’”
Gina said she started to learn about beer through Tom, as he homebrewed. She would learn about beer styles and help out with brew days, but she didn’t get really excited about it until she started helping to get Whistle Hop open. “Watching the community come together as we built this space, and seeing people get excited to be here experiencing the train, has really made me love this industry. Not only are we a sustainable industry, which I enjoy, we are also helping to support our local farms by donating our spent grain as cattle feed and buying ingredients from local farmers and bee keepers.”
What Gina thought would be mainly Tom’s project has become her full time job. She was excited to be part of the design work. When the caboose project came along, she had already developed several strategies for making a small space functional. She already knew how to work with the codes and building requirements of a public space, which made the buildout process smooth and relatively painless. But when it was finished, Gina was just getting started. She is leading the charge on Whistle Hop’s marketing, managing the taproom, and helping Tom on brew days. They’ve recently added a 1941 Southern Railway boxcar to the experience, and are soon to be scaling the brewhouse up from 1 barrel to ten barrels to keep up with demand.
One of the obstacles Whistle Hop faced in the much needed expansion was what to do with their wastewater. The city supplies water to their site, but doesn’t provide sewer service. The Miceli family has been working with local and state agencies for months to find a solution for managing their waste water. Now they have a solution, and are ready to move forward growing Whistle Hop’s brewing capacity.
The two Asheville natives have also been finding the balance between being business partners and life partners. Tom and Gina met after they had each gone away for college and returned to their home town to start their careers eight years ago. Gina said, “Working together definitely has its challenges. We have to define which conversations are business conversations and which ones are marriage conversations. But it has its rewards, too. We have a lot to be proud of. We can point to the brewery and say, ‘We did that.’ When we were working separate jobs, I would get excited about a project at work. When I told Tom about it, he would get excited for me, but I knew he didn’t really get it. So now that we have that to share together, it just adds that much more to our relationship.”
Gina is also excited to see more women entering into the industry. Coming from a field that is approximately 80% women to the male dominated beer industry has been eye opening for her. She sees more women choosing to enter the field in recent years, especially in Asheville. “Women have been brewing beer for thousands of years before men did. It’s nice to see a return to balance.”
To learn more about Whistle Hop visit www.whistlehop.com
Anita Riley is the Cellar Tech and Assistant Brewer at Lonerider Brewing Company in Raleigh, NC, and serves as Co-Chapter Leader of The Pink Boots Society’s Eastern NC Chapter. Her book ‘Brewing Ambition’ (Lulu.com) benefits The Pink Boots Society’s Scholarship Fund, which encourages, inspires, and assists women beer professionals to further their careers through education. Anita is a Certified Beer Server Cicerone and studied Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation at AB Tech in Asheville as well as Rockingham Community College in Riedsville, NC. You can find her blog Brewing Up a Storm, which focuses on women in the beer industry at www.metrowinesasheville.com/brew-blog. Anita is a native to North Carolina.