Mill Scale Metalworks in Lockhart has become synonymous in the food world with high-end offset smokers, multilevel grilling tables, and fire pits. Courtesy Mill Scale Metalworks

Like finely tuned hot rods, the models gleam in the brightly lit showroom. While their designs and styles are all different—some feature shiny chrome that sparkles under the recessed lighting and others bear sturdy black paint and brass accents—they’re all here to inspire and catch fire.

But these aren’t cars—this is Lockhart after all, the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Instead, they’re cooking products on display at Mill Scale Metalworks’ new retail center, located just past Kreuz Market as you drive down Highway 183, not far from Lockhart’s increasingly busy downtown area. And they’re no less impressive than what you’d find in a Tesla or Cadillac dealership.

If you’re a chef or a backyard griller with big dreams, you’ve probably heard of Mill Scale. Its name has become synonymous in the food world with high-end offset smokers, multilevel grilling tables, and fire pits. The company’s often custom-built offerings are being used not only by family barbecue obsessives who demand a perfect brisket smoke, but also by chefs in Europe, South America, Asia, and all parts of the United States.

The brothers behind the operation, Matt and Caleb Johnson, grew up in the small town of China Spring near Waco and learned trades from their father, Jim, who had an auto-body shop. That included woodworking, plumbing, gardening, and welding, the latter of which would end up becoming the brothers’ mutual passion after they moved to Austin in the mid-2000s. They worked in various metal shops in town before opening their own place in 2018. The brothers found entrée during the rise of Central Texas barbecue. “We built a lot of friendships and community in the culinary world with chefs and pitmasters,” Matt says. “We were always working on some kind of grill, some kind of smoker.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mill Scale relocated to Lockhart where the Johnsons say they’ve found a community of artists, artisans, and, of course, meat lovers who inspired them to create a showroom. At the Lockhart store, opened in February, fans of Mill Scale can buy merchandise such as hats and T-shirts, accessories including Fogo charcoal, and ready-made smokers and grills that aren’t customized. The retail store also regularly hosts cookouts and music events, which are posted on Mill Scale’s Facebook and website Events pages.

The grills and smokers are pricey—from about $1,560 for a small Yakitori-style grill to a $23,400 base price for a gigantic Cabinet Smoker—but, Matt says, these are heirloom products. They’re meant to be passed on from one generation to the next.

Brothers Matt and Caleb Johnson stand inside a showroom with their ironworks and brand T-shirts in the background

Brothers Matt and Caleb Johnson, the owners of Mill Scale Metalworks, at their new showroom in Lockhart. Photo by Omar Gallaga

The metalwork and craftsmanship are exquisite on the smokers: lifting the lid with its rotating handle feels smooth and the Mill Scale logo on each product is a statement. Even the small retail items feel substantial: You’ve never held a basic metal egg ring (for cooking an egg into a perfectly round shape) with such heft. Every item Mill Scale creates, from pizza cutters to 94-gallon smokers and commercial grilling tables, are meant to last.

Matt says that the company could have chosen to focus on one product and mass market it, but instead he and his brother try to challenge themselves and further their education through travel to events such as Meatopia in London and by collaborating on cooking products with chefs abroad, such as the duo behind Holy Smoke BBQ in Sweden.  In addition to Mill Scale’s popular offset smokers, they also make multilevel Japanese grilling stations and elaborate smoke tables and hanging racks for Portuguese-style cooking (their mother hails from Portugal).

The brand has fans across Reddit and YouTube who debate about smoking methods and which custom options to add such as high-temperature paint or a plancha, a flat surface to cook with inside a smoker or grill. Legendary pitmaster Roy Perez, who has been smoking meats down the road at Kreuz Market for 37 years, is also a big fan. He says the four Mill Scale smokers purchased a year and a half ago for Kreuz’s, one of which sits on a mobile trailer, cook more evenly and use less wood than the pits he’s been using for decades. That means a pitmaster doesn’t need to continually flip briskets, rotate them around a grill to take advantage of hot and cool spots, or keep refilling the pit with post oak wood for brisket smoking that can take up to eight hours.

Those smokers are so easy to use that pitmaster-level experience isn’t required to smoke great meats. Such products might have put him out of work a while back, he muses, but it also would have been easier on his body. “I wish I had this 37 years ago,” Perez says. “My knees would be a lot better, my back, my overall health would be better. You save wood, you save your body.”

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