Third generation Muleshoe, Texas farmer pioneers innovative new use for black-eye peas.

By Dario Bard

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The drought of 2011 was, to say the least, unkind to west Texas black-eye pea growers. Like many others in his shoes at the time, Trey Nickels doubted whether the dried out crop was even worth harvesting. As he combined his 3,500 acre farm in the town of Muleshoe, he felt he was wasting fuel. The thought of letting the cows onto the bean fields crossed his mind. Then one night, after a hard day of work, he sat on his combine with his brother Guy, taking a break over a cold beer, and, looking over the farm, said in frustration, “Man, I just don’t know what I’m going to do with this stuff.”

“Well, why don’t we make beer out of it?” suggested Guy.

“Heck,” said Trey, “let’s make vodka!”

And so from Texas’ 2011 withered black-eye pea crop emerged an idea that would lead not just Trey but his entire family to produce what is likely the world’s first liquor made from a pulse product.

Introducing TreyMark Black-Eyed Vodka. This unique spirit is distilled in a refurbished historic firehouse in Fort Worth, Texas, and has been available for sale to the general public since July of 2014.

Photo: TreyMark Black-eyed Vodka
Photo: Chad and Trey Nickels

IFT had the chance to speak with Trey and his older brother and business partner Chad about this novel pulse-based product.

IFT: How did you first get involved with pulses?

Chad: In ’95, our Dad and Granddad, with two other partners, went into the dry bean business, reasoning that the crop would do well in the dry climate of western Texas. They started off processing their own product and eventually expanded to working on their neighbors’ product, as well. In 1999, business grew dramatically. Worldwide consumption of black-eye peas stands at about 100 million pounds per year, and that year, right here in Muleshoe we processed 54 million pounds. So we realized we had a great product and started to really market Texas black-eye peas. That really had a lot to do with Trey and I getting involved with a great product that we can grow in our community. But there is only so much of a market for black-eye peas, and so we started looking at other uses, and that eventually led Trey into the alcohol business.

IFT: So you represent the third generation of Nickels family black-eye pea farmers?

Chad: Yes. I’m the oldest, Guy is the middle-brother and Trey is the youngest.

IFT: And Trey, when Guy suggested making beer out of the black-eye peas, why did you decide on vodka instead?

Trey: Well, I didn’t think pea-beer would taste that good (laughs). Also, craft distilleries are really popular in the U.S. right now and are really impacting the market. There are 55 distilleries in Texas and they are producing some really good products. We are only the second distillery in Fort Worth, but it is more than likely that there will be several distilleries popping up in the state in the near future.

IFT: Right. I understand there is a burgeoning vodka industry in Texas. How does TreyMark plan to compete in that market?

Trey: We are unique because we use black-eye peas; I think that will carry us a long way. We are also working on getting the word out. I think we also have an edge because we have a farm-to-firehouse finish. We have our hand on every bit of the process and I believe people will appreciate that. I’m not aware of any other distillery in Texas that is involved in every step of the process like we are.

The label reads TreyMark because I’m marking my spot in the vodka world.

IFT: Tell me more about the field-to-firehouse finish.

Chad: Our brother Guy does most of the farming. He plants the black-eye pea crop in June all the way through mid-July. It’s a 90-day crop. Once it’s harvested, we run it through the processing facility I have in Muleshoe, where the crop is cleaned and shipped out, and of course we keep enough for ourselves to make the vodka.

Photo: Nickels family farm in the dry climate of western Texas

IFT: Can you give me a sense of the volume the distillery is producing?

Trey: Right now, we are cranking out 1,000 bottles per week. I think with some adjustments, getting the equipment finely tuned and the employees in a good rhythm, we can get that to 1,500 a week.

We haven’t been in the stores that long, so that is one of the big challenges, getting product out there. We are in Spec’s, a huge liquor store here in Fort Worth, and also in Liquorama, so the vodka is available statewide. We are working on several others, and have interest in Las Vegas and Canada. Right now, we are working the distillery really hard to build up inventory. We are trying to be prepared for what will hopefully be a big influx of buyers at the end of the year.

Chad: Black-eye peas have a special holiday. Here in the south, people eat black-eye peas on New Year’s for good luck. Now Trey and I are saying you can drink your good luck instead of eating it. Responsibly, of course.

IFT: What was it like getting the idea off the ground? Tell me about your early challenges.

Trey: The financial aspect was a challenge. I had a farm sell and sold all my equipment; that helped get us started. It was a major struggle financially. For instance, you have to buy the equipment and get serial numbers on it before you can apply for a distiller’s permit. So it takes a lot of time before you get a return on your dollar. It took me a year to have the equipment built and then another year to find a place and build the facility. We built the facility in Fort Worth ourselves and there are a lot of codes and permits to work through. We spent eight months getting the place ready to run. There is nothing fast about the alcohol business. The time it takes is one of the toughest challenges.

Then there are also new, unexpected challenges that pop up almost every day. Like today I found the upstairs bar flooded. Looking into it, I discovered it was a sprinkler leak. So we have a faulty fire suppression system. That’s kind of ironic in a firehouse (laughs).

IFT: On the financial front, I understand you had some help from family. Can you tell me about that?

Trey: My mom (Deborah Nickels) came onboard this project with me and really helped me through it. Also, I’m a young farmer and getting through the paperwork was not my forte; she really helped with that kind of stuff, too. Right now, Chad and I are in the process of buying her out and giving her a retirement and letting her enjoy the creative stuff—the fun tours and events, the stuff she really enjoys, like helping us market and do tastings. She is really good at it.

Chad also stepped in and helped us move the business forward. Chad and I are of like mind, so it wasn’t a hard decision to pick up the phone and call him and tell him his little brother needed a bit of help. Chad is just awesome as a people person. And that helps in this business. He brings a lot to the table.


Chad: Trey did a lot of it, really. Basically, the support my wife and I lent was having the processing facility and making sure he had enough product. We also have an agreement in place with a wholesaler, Rainwater, and we started shipping out a few bottles and it seems to be going really well. That’s a part of the business I really enjoy. It’s a lot like selling beans, except now we are selling vodka made from the beans.

IFT: The distillery is located in a historic firehouse in Fort Worth, right? How did you end up there?

Trey: I went through a hard time in Muleshoe. I went through a divorce and with the drought it was becoming tough to be a young farmer. So I decided I was ready for something cool and fun before I got too old. I really wanted to build something and I didn’t see that happening on the farm. Chad and I are both pilots, so I flew all around Texas looking at different places: Austin, Dallas, San Antonio. I settled on Fort Worth because I felt at home there. It’s got a country feel to it. You can drive around without getting stuck in traffic; I’d go nuts if I lived in a big city where I couldn’t move around.

So in Fort Worth, I drove by that firehouse like a hundred times, looking at it and thinking it wasn’t going to work because it was a two story building and the ceilings weren’t high enough to stand up a vodka column. Then I thought, hey, this is a fire station! I wonder if it still has the hole where the fire pole used to be, because that would be perfect. Sure enough it did. The stars kind of lined up and here we are.

It really hits home being in this old firehouse. Back home, Dad was the fire chief for many years, and then Chad became fire chief and I was also a volunteer firefighter and EMT.

Chad: The family has a long history of being involved in firefighting. We grew up north of Muleshoe, in a small town called Lazbuddie. I was the fire chief there for ten years. My Dad was the fire chief for probably 20 years. Trey, Dad and I were all very committed volunteer firemen and I’m still on the fire department in Muleshoe. I’m also a paramedic with the Bailey County EMS. We all believe in serving the community and I really enjoy it. It can be tough in a small town because in the majority of cases, you know the person you are working on or helping, and that adds an emotional element. That is one of the things I miss. In Muleshoe, I volunteered as a firefighter and EMS, but here in Fort Worth, it’s all paid service so I don’t have the opportunity.

Photo: TreyMark’s distillation column producing approximately 1,000 bottles of vodka per week.

Trey: We’ve opened the firehouse up to tours and events. This month, we have a wedding rehearsal and a birthday party. There is a bar on the second floor and we can mix cocktails using my product. We can also send folks home with a couple of bottles if they want to purchase them right here at the fire station. That’s part of the reason I wanted to be downtown; I wanted to get a crowd. Hosting events and opening up the place is a good, economical way to advertise.

IFT: It sounds like that would also be really good for community relations.

Trey: It is. We had a black Escalade drive around the facility once. And I thought who in the world is that, and I thought we might be about to get robbed. When the Escalade stopped, a big, muscled-up guy got out and we’re thinking this isn’t good. The guy walked around to the passenger side and opened the door for this lady. It was the mayor of Fort Worth, Betsy Price! She dropped by to welcome us to the community. That big fellow was her bodyguard!

Then there is the Fort Worth firemen; they come by at least once every two weeks. The fire marshal drops by now and then, and I think now I’m in trouble, but no, he just wants to see the building. They are so excited to have us there.

IFT: What are the firehouse tours like?

Trey: Mom is going to be doing the tours and I’ll help when I’m there. We charge US$ 20 for a 45-minute tour, and at the end you get to come upstairs to the bar for a free sample of the vodka. You can also buy a cocktail or take a bottle home.

Chad: Mom is a really good storyteller. You definitely feel the sense of pride in her voice when she speaks about our roots. As we said, we run the whole process. We own the land, grow and harvest the beans, move them in our trucks, process them with our machinery. Trey was telling me, “You know, people don’t really know what a combine is and what you do and how you do it.” So I started shooting video and I sent it up to Mom and she’s putting together a story so people can see us in the field doing what we do.

The tour will also cover the history of the firehouse. Trey and I are both big history buffs.

Photo: TreyMark’s distillery located in a refurbished historic firehouse in Fort Worth, Texas

Trey: The original stationhouse #5 was right next door to us. It burned down in a great fire that they had here in Fort Worth. The station was rebuilt on this spot. Stationhouse #5 had the first mechanized fire truck in Fort Worth. They had a big race against the Dallas Fire Department and to get the truck ready, they didn’t have any red paint, so they painted it white. Since then, all the fire trucks in Fort Worth are white.

IFT: I read that you had some private tastings. How are people reacting to the vodka?

Trey: We are getting really good reviews, especially on martinis and Bloody Marys. The vodka tastes very earthy. Some people describe it as a bit nutty. It lends itself well to cocktails, especially martinis, and it is also a very good sipping vodka. I think someday the process is going to lend itself to a very good bourbon or whiskey. We do have the capability to produce black-eye pea whiskey, and I think we will be producing whiskey in the next couple of months. Of course, it will have to sit in oak barrels for four years before we release it, because there is an aging process to it. In the meantime, we can offer you some vodka.

IFT: Are there other alternative uses for black-eye peas that you are exploring?

Chad: I have a patent on a process for making black-eye pea chips. Being a paramedic, I’m always looking at the health side of things. When you look at our glutens, wheat and certain grains, we eat a lot of unhealthy things. With these chips, I was targeting the snack food sector. We started with it in ’06 but never got it out there. We have the processing line and can start making it, but the mountain before us is marketing. I’m not sure as a society we are ready for a healthy chip. Although, to get some honest feedback on the product, I took some of these black-eye pea chips to my daughter’s third-grade class, and the teachers told me they loved them; the kids cleaned their bowls.

Another thing we are working on is a pre-cooked bean because no one has four hours anymore to cook a pot of dry beans. The idea is to harvest the black-eyes a bit green. We really haven’t had a lot of time and people to help us develop it, but I think it could work. With pre-cooked, dehydrated beans, you just add water and in five minutes you have beans that are ready to eat.

So here in western Texas we can grow a good, healthy product, and we can grow it in abundance, like we showed in 1999, but they are still being primarily consumed in traditional ways.

IFT: Well, it sounds like you’ve got a good start with TreyMark vodka in terms of having people rethink what you can do with black-eye peas. That has to be satisfying.

Chad: It is. What is also really awesome is to work with family, with my brother. We are a close knit family. That’s how we are making this work. Leaning on each other. It is hard work, but it is important to keep persevering. No matter what obstacles you face, you have to keep going forward.

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Dario Bard, IFT Journalist

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