Greetings everyone, Stoutmeister here with the seventh post in the Look Back/Look Ahead Series for 2014-15. Our La Cumbre story, Kaktus story, Bosque story, Ponderosa story, Tractor story, and Santa Fe story have already appeared. As the year draws to a close, rather than just write up a single summary review of the last 12 months in beer, I decided to take what free time I have and go talk in person to brewery staffers in the ABQ area to get their thoughts on both the year that was and the year to come, while Luke handles the Santa Fe series. I’m not going to put up any sort of schedule for this series, as it is definitely going beyond December and into January with other Crew members chipping in as well.
The west side of Albuquerque got a major beer boost this past summer when Boxing Bear Brewing Co. opened their doors. Located in the old Elliott’s space near the intersection of Alameda and Coors/Corrales, Boxing Bear gave the west side its first true full-sized brewery and taproom located within the ABQ city limits. Just like at other new breweries, Boxing Bear had to deal with some ups and downs en route to opening and then shortly thereafter, but brewer Justin Hamilton and his staff were able to stay off the ropes and kept right on punching.
“So we opened the 25th of July and it was pretty crazy,” said Justin, who had previously been the head brewer at Chama River. “We didn’t know how quickly we were going to open. We knew that we wanted to open before August. So we just had barely made it. That was our goal. Originally we wanted to open in May or June. Just like any other brewery opening, it takes time.”
For anyone who had been to Elliott’s in recent years, it was easy to see how hard it might be to turn the wannabe-upscale bar into a functional brewery and taproom. The Boxing Bear team had to do a lot of painting, cleaning, and other maintenance in the west side of the building that is now the taproom. They had even more work to do on the east side where the brewery itself now sits. That included completely redoing the floor, both to make it structurally sound and to put in the trench drains and make it suitable for all the brewing equipment.
“We were pretty happy with ourselves being that we didn’t get the keys to this place till around February,” Justin said. “From February to July we just worked our asses off painting, cleaning, doing every little bit we could to prep this place. (And) on top of that, getting our equipment in and making sure it was ready to go.”
The 10-barrel brewhouse began humming in early July.
“That was really cool, once we got to that we started playing with the tanks and cleaning them, getting ready,” Justin said. “(Then) we started actually brewing. We busted out and filled all our fermenters within a week, within four days, actually. We did all our brewing and that we had to wait for it to finish.
“After that it was kind of wait on our seal from the City, our green tag. We got everything literally the day before we opened. We said hey, let’s do it. We had our little private gathering and then we opened the next day, which was a Friday. So it was a pretty wild ride. It was pretty cool.”
Once Boxing Bear was open the crowds started to arrive in droves.
“And then you know the next couple weeks after that were pure madness,” Justin said. “Luckily we were able to get a hold of our serving needs and a our ability to take care of our patio and our pub at the same time. After that, things started running a lot smoother. We started to see a lot more regulars and people coming in here everyday to just enjoy our place and our beer.”
Justin’s career path included a stint at another popular local brewery when it opened several years ago, helping to prepare him for what he faced at Boxing Bear.
“At first, I wouldn’t say I was surprised (at the crowds) being that I was there when Marble opened their doors,” he said. “I remember how crazy that was. Being that Marble started with a 15-barrel system was a little bit of an (advantage). We were like, ‘We’ve got a lot less fermenters and serving vessels, so we’re going to be doing a lot of work and a lot of juggling over the next few months.’ That’s what we did.”
Even though Boxing Bear has had trouble at times keeping pace with the thirsty public, it has not affected the feedback that the staff has received.
“Everyone seems to really enjoy not only our beer but our place,” Justin said. “I think we have an amazing staff, we’ve got a great location. Everything about this place just screams beer, screams beer culture. I think that’s not only something that people wanted on the west side but in town in general there’s always a need for a more beer-forward establishment.
“There’s lots of other breweries and pubs that are opening up, but they kind of seem to lose a lot in translation that it’s about the customer enjoying themselves and being able to have a good beer and a good environment and feel relaxed and comfortable. Feel at ease to have some beers with friends and not feel so stiff, I guess.”
That relaxing atmosphere was something that Boxing Bear strove for since the beginning. It’s also something that Justin and the staff have had to lean back upon at times.
“The biggest lesson learned in 2014, let me think about that,” Justin said. “There’s lots of lessons I learned in 2014. … I guess it’s just to go along with the ride. There’s so many peaks and valleys with any business, with any opening of any business. Sometimes my initial reaction is to freak out on things and start worrying about stuff. If I’ve learned anything from the last year of doing this, it’s that there’s going to be good times and bad times and just keep a level head during both.”
The only major disappointment in 2014 was that due to the late opening, Boxing Bear was not able to trek north to a certain event in Denver in October.
“Not being able to attend something like GABF during our first year was kind of hard,” Justin said. “The timing that worked out we weren’t able to go or even enter our beer. Just watching the presentation online was really anxiety-ridden even just watching New Mexico (breweries) win. I think next year when we attend it’s going to be about going there and having fun. If we win something, great. If we don’t, that’s OK, too. I think it’s important to keep all of that stuff in mind. I love beer and I take it very, very seriously, but I have to remind myself that it is just beer.”
2015 shapes up as the main event
Boxing Bear has already received a boost for 2015 with the arrival of new equipment. The brewery received a new 20-barrel fermenter that is already in use, while the new 20-barrel serving tank and three 10-barrel serving tanks are in the process of being hooked up.
“So there are five new tanks back there,” Justin said. “That should help us to first of all be able to do some lagers every now and then. We have one planned in the next couple weeks. So that will probably be out sometime in February (or) March, is my guess.
“But it will also allow us to do more than a couple specials at a time, which is where I really love to have fun making new and different beers. Making the house stuff is fine, but making something interesting is what I really like to do. That will be great to be able to play around more back there, create some more new (and) interesting recipes and different specials that are going to be something hopefully that people will come out of the woodwork to try and hopefully put Boxing Bear on the map.”
Beyond new beers — and it should be noted that Boxing Bear’s first black IPA is now in the fermenter — Justin hopes to start hosting some major events.
“We’re planning to do maybe do some special events, something that may rival, not necessarily in the time period, but something along the scale of what (Marble’s) Septemberfest has been,” he said. “That’s been a really big thing in the brewing community and people really enjoy that. We have the ability here to do something like that, where we could have festivals in our parking lot and even something smaller in our patio and pub.”
Boxing Bear has, like almost everyone else, started a mug club called Champions Club. They would like to set it apart, however, from those that just offer discounts on pints, growlers, and other swag.
“That’s something we’re looking into, doing special events not only for the general public but doing events for our brew club members as well,” Justin said. “We want to be able to really give our members a reason to join every year, a reason to seek out membership. We want people to not only join for the free gift and for being a Champions Club member, but also if you’re not a Champions Club member you might miss out on a real cool events that otherwise you wouldn’t have known about We’re really going to try to push that, make it a really exclusive, esoteric thing that ‘oh, did you hear what the Champions Club members are doing this week?’ That will be something we want to play with, definitely.”
Customers who enjoy looking through the glass windows into the brewery may see some new sights back there this year besides the new fermenter. Justin said he plans to start barrel aging some of his beers. In addition to that, for everyone that cannot make it to the west side on a regular basis, Boxing Bear may soon bring their beers closer to you.
“You’ll definitely see us start picking up some (tap) handles around the city in the next few months,” Justin said. “That’s going to be a big goal of ours is to see Boxing Bear in lots of pubs and restaurants and other bars. That will be a big thing for us, starting our distribution more on a our own.
“We’re currently going through Bosque, which is working out great, but as you know the real marketing aspect of that is having your own trucks and having your presence out there on the street. We deliver our own beer, we clean our own lines, we provide you with great service. That’s something you’ll see, Boxing Bear tap handles around the city in the next few months. That will be fun.”
Boxing Bear will also become more of a presence at beer festivals throughout the state this year, something that will further raise awareness of the brewery.
“In fact, that will be starting in the next few weeks with WinterBrew, we’ll be up there (in Santa Fe),” Justin said. “That will be only our third festival, I think. We haven’t been able to do too many because we kind of joined in right at the end there. It will be fun to get a presence at those this year. Everybody will start to learn our name and see us as a regular brewery around this city.
“It’s cool to see that we already have a lot of regular customers and people that frequent other really great breweries. You start to see the clientele that circulates from good brewery to good brewery. It’s a really good sign that we’ve got that clientele here. I see a lot of friends on Facebook and they’re promoting other breweries, they come here and promote us and talk about us, Marble, La Cumbre, the Canteen. That makes us feel really good that a lot of people have kind of embraced us as a part of the brewing community, knowing that we’ve had lots of experience doing this for a while. We’re not just the new kid on the block. We’re actually someone that deserves to be here.”
Considering how good Boxing Bear’s beers were right out of the gate, and how they have only continued to get better, this year should be a big one for the brewery and their loyal customers.
“Other than that we’re just really excited to be in our actual first full year of business,” Justin said. “It will be great to see how things continue for us and the brewing community in New Mexico with the expansion of breweries that are going to be coming out soon. It will be good to see who makes it and who doesn’t. Hopefully with our business model and our product that we’ll definitely be up there with everybody else, succeeding and putting Albuquerque on the map for good, craft quality beer that’s something to be sought out.”
Thank you to Justin for taking the time out of his day to chat and the quick tour to see the new equipment in the back. I only wish I could have stuck around to try that Iron Lung Smoked Porter, but alas, my other job beckoned.