Looking back, looking ahead after one year at Nexus

Howdy, folks, Stoutmeister here with another recap of the Crew’s latest behind-the-scenes trip to a local brewery. This time around we hit up Nexus, where owner Ken Carson, Jr., and head brewer Manuel Mussen talked about the challenges they faced in the brewery’s first year of existence, where they are now, and where they are heading in the future.

With E-Rock in tow, and pints of the award-winning Imperial Cream Ale in hand, we learned about the evolution of a brewery from an idea to implementation to evolution.

The Past: From an idea to a reality

Beware letting Stoutmeister loose in your brewery, you never know what ridiculous faces he will make while checking out the beer freezer.

Ken Carson was not a beer guy. Oh, sure, he liked to drink beer, but he had never brewed his own or even fancied the idea of becoming a brewery owner. Instead, he was a bank president for 14 years, he told us, but after a board of directors squabble, he moved on to another bank. Then the economy cratered in 2008 and Ken soon began to wonder how much longer First Community Bank was even going to stay open. Luckily he had sold the stock he held in his previous bank, giving him some money to fall back on. So he started looking around for a business to invest in, rather than gambling on the stock market.

“I said I’m going to invest the money in creating a business,” Ken said. “One of the businesses I visited a lot was Marble Brewery when they first opened. I watched them grow and accelerate.”

Ken asked questions about the clientele and the business operations first at Marble, then at other breweries he visited around town.

“I decided that a really good business model that would succeed in a down economy was a brewery,” Ken said.

The next batches of Nexus beer were fermenting as we learned about the brewery’s history.

Ken trekked up to Ridgway, Colo., to attend a conference chaired by Tom Hennessey, one of the founders of Il Vicino. Ken said Hennessey showed how someone could put together a brewery for very little money.

“If I would have done it in a small town, it could have been for a little money,” Ken added. “But I think in Albuquerque it’s hard to use a little tiny system. We’re already at capacity right now.”

After doing his homework, Ken set about to open his own brewery. The process has not been without its ups and downs.

The original plan for the building itself was to have a small kitchen serving “simple food,” such as sandwiches and appetizers. As Ken looked around at the various tap rooms opening up around town, some without any kitchens at all, he changed his mind and decided that Nexus needed a full kitchen.

“We expanded the area and doubled it,” Ken said of the kitchen. “My budget was written with us expecting it to be 20 percent of the sales for food. That’s as high as I ever expected it to get. Within three months it was already going to 40 percent. Right now we’re sitting around 60 percent.

“We haven’t lost any (money) on the beer, either. The beer is going up, too, but it’s not going up as rapidly as the food is. We’re appealing to people that aren’t necessarily beer drinkers.”

The food menu itself has evolved over time to feature a number of signature dishes, including chicken and waffles, that are hard if not impossible to find elsewhere in Albuquerque.

“I wanted to have unique food,” Ken said. “What’s natural to me is barbecue, but I’m not going to fight that battle. I’ve seen too many people get into the barbecue business. It’s a low-margin, high-loss.”

So Ken did his research and soon found an untapped market in terms of soul food. He went to Phoenix to check out a couple of soul food chains with restaurants in town. He noticed the popularity and large crowds and brought it back to his own kitchen.

It was not easy to convince his own kitchen staff to go with the plan — fried chicken is not nearly as easy to make as one might think — but eventually the customers’ desire for soul food won out. Over time, Nexus’ menu grew out of customer suggestions beyond “simple food” and appetizers into full entrees and more.

“Food consistency, I think that’s the hard part, making everybody understand every dish has to be the same,” Ken said. “That’s probably been the biggest challenge. The service on the front end has worked really well. Really, right now our kitchen is as solid as it’s ever been.”

Nexus’ head brewer Manuel Mussen showed us around the brewery’s all-important back room, where the magic happens.

As for the most important part — to the Crew, anyway — the evolution of Nexus’ beer styles and brewing process came as a result of conversations between Ken and Paul Farnsworth, a master brewer with a PhD who works at UNM.

Rather than join the long list of hophead-centric breweries found around town, Nexus went in a different direction.

“It took a while to gain popularity, but now I think it’s working pretty good,” Ken said. “We’re still not going to sell as much beer as La Cumbre or Marble. I don’t really plan on going into (off-site sales) production.

“I think we’ve carved a little niche with the Scottish and the lighter beers that we have. They’re an English style, that comes from Farnsworth. Farnsworth collaborated with Manny on our beer menu based on what I wanted. I wanted to go to the malty side as opposed to the hoppy side.”

Of course, things rarely go to plan, as Ken and Manuel found out in the first month of Nexus’ existence. They were unable to get any beer into production due to problems with their boiler, plus the fact that the lone city inspector for breweries suffered a heart attack and was out of action for a while. Nexus spent its first month serving other breweries’ beer.

“It took a while for Manuel to fine-tune, because he’d never brewed on this system,” Ken said.

Manuel came to Nexus after working as an assistant brewer at Rock Bottom Brewery in La Jolla, Calif. He had also spent time at the RBB in the Chicago suburbs.

“Paul helped me identify Manuel among the other candidates,” Ken said. “We put an ad on Pro Brewer. We got responses from South America to Africa to India. We had 90 applications.”

Luckily for Manuel, Farnsworth was friends with a professor from UC Davis who had taught Manuel. Ken and Farnsworth conducted their second interview with Manuel via Skype, as he was in England serving as a beer intern and learning about English styles.

Manuel aced the interview and was hired two years ago, almost six months before Nexus even opened. Once all the initial equipment problems were out of the way, the beer started flowing, with the IPA, cream ale, and Scottish ale topping the list of the crowd favorites.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever brewed the same beer the same way here,” Manuel said. “I don’t think a lot of people notice the change because it’s a gradual change.”

Those changes tend to be very minor and usually occur early in the brewing process.

“The earlier you notice you’re not happy with something the more options I have to change something,” Manuel said.

Manuel noticed that the stout that the Crew had at our Beer Battle on Super Bowl Sunday was not up to par (“if only you guys had the one that went on tap three days later!” he said).

The barleywine and Imperial Cream Ale are the toughest beers to keep consistent, Manuel said, while the regular cream ale and the IPA tend to be the easiest to brew.

The Imperial Cream, though, helped Nexus truly put its name on the map when it captured a silver medal at the most recent World Beer Cup, held in San Diego in early May.

“That was the first time we entered a beer contest ever,” Ken said. “I think that beer was inspired by us sitting around and talking about it. It’s just because the cream is so popular here, so we just decided to make it imperial and it worked out.”

Look for part two of our visit to Nexus, focusing on the current state of the brewery and its plans for the future, coming soon!

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