Years go by faster than most people think. Anyone with children can tell you that. For those of us without kids (including all six of us in the Crew), we tend to measure time in the ages of local breweries. We blinked, and Broken Bottle Brewery turned one year old right before our eyes.
There will be a major celebration this Friday and Saturday for BBB’s anniversary. E-Rock covered a lot of this on Monday in The Week Ahead in Beer. There will be live music Saturday, with merchandise and gift certificate giveaways. It should be a fun event for everyone not going to the Isotopes-Oklahoma City game that night like poor sportswriters. So head on over in my absence and enjoy yourselves!
As it is with most breweries’ first years, BBB’s initial 12 months has been filled with ups and downs, tough lessons and pleasant surprises, so and so forth. BBB has worked hard to create some truly unique beers, with some coming out great and others disappointing. It has sparked a wide range of reaction among ABQ beer drinkers, with some people becoming big fans and others becoming vehement detractors who often let the Crew know just how much they do not like BBB’s beers (as a note, we’ve had different individuals tell us how much they dislike every brewery in town, not just BBB; even the big popular places like Marble and La Cumbre have their detractors).
For better or worse, we in the Crew have appreciated what BBB has tried to accomplish so far. It takes a lot of guts to be different these days as a lot of ABQ beer drinkers are creatures of habit. While I usually go with The Incident Black IPA among the six regular beers, I try to sample all the seasonals as they come on line. At this point, I highly recommend the Hammer & Sickle Imperial Red, while Franz Solo enjoyed the Hoppy Birthday IPA and the Nacho Brau.
Amid the din of 90s music in the background, I, Stoutmeister, sat down at BBB with brewer/co-owner Donavan Lane to talk about the last 12 months of his and co-owner Chris Chavez’s foray into the local beer scene.
Stoutmeister: Take me back through the first year, ups and downs, all of it.
Donavan Lane: It’s obviously been a learning experience. When you open a business at the start you write out a business plan and try to think of every possible scenario and everything that would come up. I think we’ve done a pretty decent job of that. But then you get open, you get open, you get going into the daily grind and there’s always things that pop up where you’re like “why didn’t we think of that?”
Would we do anything different? Maybe little things here or there. But overall the first year we did a decent job of rolling with the punches and dealing with things that come around. We learned from our experiences.
S: Location-wise you’ve had the advantage of being the first west side brewery. Then there’s the disadvantage of no one on the east side really seems to like coming over to the west side. What’s the crowd been like in your eyes? Have you developed a core group of regulars?
DL: We definitely have a big core of regulars. Chris would tell you the same thing, both of us have made a lot of friends. There are people we see here two or three times a week that prior to opening this we didn’t know them. Now it’s like how’s the kids, how’s life. So we definitely have that regular core. Then we’ve got the random people that come in.
As far as the location, we did it on the west side because the west side needed a brewery. For myself the biggest issue we’ve faced is how difficult it is to get the name out. Even a year after opening I still have people walk in and tell me I live two blocks away and I just found this place. If you saw how much I spent on advertising in the past year … That’s been the hardest, most frustrating part, how hard it is to get your name out there. Traditional advertising is just a ripoff and it does very little return. Looking back after a year, that’s one thing I would do different. What we spent on advertising I’d take all that money back and look at different ways to do that.
S: We’ve been trying to think of the same thing, we have the same group of good readers, but adding more has been hard. We tried Reddit for a while, but it dropped off quickly. Facebook seems to be fading and Twitter has never really worked for us.
Anyway, as far as the brewing process has gone, what have been the challenges of that? Has that been easier than the business side?
DL: On the brewing side, as with anything, the more and more you do it, the easier it becomes. The more (you get) used to your whole process on your particular system, the equipment, I know this pump’s really peculiar, the more you realize the ins and outs of things the easier it gets. The first few months we were open Chris and I both had other full-time jobs. It was challenging. Your work 40 hours and leave a job and come here and by the time you get here at 5 or 6 o’clock at night and start a batch, you’re not finishing that batch until 11 or 12 or 1 o’clock in the morning. After I quit my job and came on full-time I was able to take over all the brewing during the day, it’s made it a lot easier to fast-track the process.
We started out from the beginning wanting to offer unique beers. Even now, when we talk about a new seasonal, we often say “that’s boring, I want to do something different.” What have we not done? What has no one else done? What is an ingredient we don’t see at other breweries?
S: Every brewery has their fans. Every brewery has their detractors. What have you learned about I guess the palates and opinions of the Albuquerque beer drinkers in the past year?
DL: Like you said, everyone’s got their fans and their detractors. We’ve had that. We’ve had people that come in and have some beers and then go on Yelp or whatever and write a review that this place is horrible. For every one person that does that we’ve got 20 or 30 people that come and say we love your beer.
We know that, especially with our seasonals, they’re something other breweries would never even try. Last year, probably June or July, we did a watermelon wheat. Interacting with customers, they’d look at the menu and say “that looks disgusting.” We’d give them a sample, they’d taste it and say “that’s amazing.” Just because something sounds different or unique in a beer, or it’s not what you’re used to, it doesn’t it mean it won’t be good. Even so, there’s seasonals we make that I try and I’m like that’s not good, but they sell well. There’s always some we make that I like and they sell slowly. Everyone’s got their own palate. That’s our approach, I’m not trying to cater to the mainstream crowd. I want to try the unique stuff. Admittedly, I know that there are certain customers that say this isn’t my cup of tea.
S: Dealing with live entertainment has been a challenge at a number of breweries around town. How have things been going for you guys with the live music and other acts?
DL: We had tried some different approaches to it, different pay structures for bands. Most of them, they’re trying to make something out it, just like we’re trying to make something out of this. We respect that. We’ve had quite a few bands that come in here and ask for $400 a night. No. You have to understand the venue. Even if we pack this place, the difference between you playing on a Friday night and us having no music on a Friday night is not $400. It gives an incentive for the musician to push it. The more people you get in here, the better our sales are, the more money you get. If you don’t push it, you don’t help us promote it, then sales are less, and you’re going to get less money. We’ve kind of made that our standard (procedure) with music. We’ve got a few regular (bands) that we book every other month or so.
S: So in terms of year two, any thoughts, any new ideas, anything interesting coming up?
DL: We definitely have some plans and some things that we’re pursuing for the next year. We’re working on partnering up with a local New Mexico winery to serve wine as a well. We’ve got a ton of couples that come in and the guy orders a beer and the wife says “do you have anything besides beer?” and we end up serving them a Coca-Cola or a glass of water. So it would definitely be a nice thing to offer customers.
Beyond that, we’re kind of trying to work through the whole process of trying of being able to get at least a little bit of patio seating out there. The landlord’s OK with it. The City has all their hoops we have to jump through. So we’re trying to figure out the best way to get through all of those.
We’ve got quite a few different restaurants that have approached us about putting beer on tap. So we’re looking at getting a distributor’s license as well and get a few taps out there to start with and start looking at that aspect of it. I still think we have quite a bit of room to grow just in here. Now we have Friday, Saturday nights where you walk in and every seat’s full. But when we have Monday or Tuesday night when you walk in and every seat’s full, then we’re pushing the boundary of what this place can handle.
S: So what beers are coming up next? I see on the board we have Two Scoops Amber is coming “sooner or later.”
DL: The Two Scoops Amber, we have a customer who comes in every once in a while, and he likes to talk about the process. He’s got a little orchard and makes hard cider. One day he was sitting around having a beer and I was talking to him about it. He did mention that he uses raisins, he doesn’t add yeast to his hard cider, he uses raisins and the natural yeast off of the raisins starts the fermentation process. He sent me over a guide to how he did it. That will be the next one on.
I just brewed a mocha stout (as an aside, Franz Solo and his wife were sitting next to me during the interview and both of them suddenly became very interested in our conversation at this point). It’s similar to our Irish Coffee that I did a while back. I tweaked it a little bit to be more of a mocha. It’s darker as well.
We’re swapping out of one of our regulars and making one of our seasonals a regular. The Steamy Lawyer has been the slowest selling regular. We get a ton of people asking me do you have a wheat beer. Last month when we had the David Hasselhefe, it sold really fast. We’re doing another batch of it which is almost done fermenting right now. We’ll keg it in the next few days. The more and more Chris and I talked about it, this beer has sold like crazy, so why not.
To me, the funnest part of all of it is coming up with the next beer. From the first day we brewed a batch in my garage six years ago up to now we still love doing something unique that people haven’t tried. We definitely want to do a prickly pear beer. So that’s one we’re looking to do soon. We’ve got a lead on a few places where wild hops are growing out in the (forest). When those are ready to harvest we’re going to get a bunch of wild hops and create a batch of something.
S: We’ll go with you guys to harvest if you need some extra hands!
(Yes, we just came up with a future story idea right there; we’ll keep you updated)
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Some of the Crew will be at Broken Bottle this weekend to join the celebration (I will cross my fingers for a Saturday pitchers’ duel, though I know that’s not too likely if the wind is still out in force). For those who have not been back to BBB since its early days, we invite you to head back across the river (or down the hill if you live on the west side) and give BBB another shot if you didn’t like it the first time. Every brewery needs time to evolve and find its niche and BBB has done both in the last 12 months.