Nexus righted the ship in 2014 and aims to get back to warp speed in 2015

Posted: January 15, 2015 by cjax33 in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2014-15
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Greetings everyone, Stoutmeister here with the 11th post in our Look Back/Look Ahead series for 2014-15. Normally I would list the previous entries, but that’s starting to chew up space, so just go ahead and click on the category link above in the byline and you will find everything we’ve written so far in this series. We hope to get the remaining entries published by the end of January.

Yes, it took a while to convince brewer Kaylynn McKnight to pose like this when she took over at Nexus last year.

Yes, it took a while to convince brewer Kaylynn McKnight to pose like this when she took over at Nexus last year.

This time around I trekked over to Nexus Brewery to chat with brewer Kaylynn McKnight and owner Ken Carson. 2014 was a year of one major change — Kaylynn succeeded founding brewer Manuel Mussen — and some smaller but equally important efforts to further improve the dining and drinking experience. One major change that did not happen was the opening of a secondary location, but that is not to say it is out of the realm of possibility for 2015.

“It was a little rough to start,” said Kaylynn, who officially took over on St. Patrick’s Day. “When I came into this place there were a lot of things that needed to be fixed, updated, and remodeled. So the first six months I was here I focused on that. I kind of didn’t know where to start when I first got in. Eventually got everything that really needed to be fixed our updated done. The last three months I’ve been really focused on recipes and making beer, which has been really nice.”

Kaylynn had worked as an assistant brewer at La Cumbre, where she learned the ropes from Jeff Erway and Daniel Jaramillo. Even then, they could not prepare her for everything she would have to deal with as a head brewer working on her own.

“At first it was a little bit of a shock,” she said. “But in brewing beer, you know what needs to get done, when it needs to get done. It’s kind of on its own schedule. You just have to be paying attention and you’ll know when to transfer a beer or (cold) crash a beer. It’s pretty much the same, but being independent on my own has been kind of nice, actually.

“It wasn’t too hard. I’m still used to the whole process coming from Cumbre. You know, you brew it, you ferment, you move it, you drink it.”

There was a lot of work to do in the back of Nexus when Kaylynn took over.

There was a lot of work to do in the back of Nexus when Kaylynn took over.

Most of that early work revolved around making Nexus run as efficiently as La Cumbre.

“Cleanliness (and) organization were two things that this place really needed when I stepped in,” Kaylynn said. “Just even knowing the right chemicals to use, I changed a lot of that, what sanitizers to use and just being a little bit more thorough and detail-oriented than Manuel was. That’s something I definitely took from working with both Jeff and Daniel.”

Ken agreed that the brewery half of Nexus needed some work.

“We’ve basically spent a lot of this (past) year fixing things,” he said. “I think we fixed a lot of the problems we had in the brewery. I know we did. Kaylynn did a great job on getting that stuff out of the way. It was stressful but it had to be done and so we did it.”

Kaylynn did not institute any major changes on the beer front, just a modification here and there, while bringing some of her own recipes to tap for the first time as seasonal beers.

The excellent Scottish Ale is the one beer that will never change at Nexus, mostly because it's the owner's favorite.

The excellent Scottish Ale is the one beer that will never change at Nexus, mostly because it’s the owner’s favorite.

“A couple of the recipes I tweaked,” she said. “The one I have not touched is the Scottish Ale, that’s Ken’s favorite, so that one stays the same. Most of the recipes were pretty solid, they just needed a little bit of help. I had to go and recalculate IBUs on a lot of the beers. Manuel was using a home brewer program rather than what tool that I usually use called Hop Bitterness Calculator. That’s more for professional brewers.

“I wanted to up the IBUs on the IPA and make it more of an IPA instead of a pale ale. The Cream Ale I tweaked just a little bit to make it a little bit smoother. Other than that, the Red has remained pretty much the same. I’m still working on the Porter recipe, trying to make that a little bit smoother. Everything recipe-wise pretty solid when I got here, just needed a little bit of help.”

Kaylynn liked a couple of her seasonal beers in particular and has some interesting ideas of what to produce this year.

“I really liked the Alt Bier, that was the first recipe I did on my own here,” she said. “Actually I’m a big fan of the Dry Stout right now. I kind of want to experiment more with some single-hop pale ales, learning about some of the hops here I haven’t used, get a little more comfortable with them. I’m a big fan of saison. I’d really like to do a couple more maybe like Belgian or saison recipes and just spice them up a little bit more, make them more exciting.”

For the overall business, Ken said 2014 was a good year as Nexus focused mainly on improving the internal processes rather than overreach trying anything new.

The Crew has always agreed that Nexus' food is wonderful.

The Crew has always agreed that Nexus’ food is wonderful.

“Well, it was an interesting ride,” Ken said. “We had record sales through the middle of the year, a lot of those prompted by repeat showings of ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.’ We won several awards this year from The Alibi, then we won Albuquerque the Magazine, and I think we have from (Local) IQ. Almost every foodie-type organization that gives out awards we at least picked up a couple of awards from each one of those. It’s not just the soul food, it’s also things like Frito Pie. It’s kind of interesting we can still pull that off.

“By far the biggest sales item we have on our menu is chicken and waffles. That still is the leader in sales in regards to food. On the beer side, it’s basically been pretty consistent with the sales. It’s going proportionally, stayed about the same at about 60 percent food and about 40 percent other. And the other is comprised of T-shirts and glasses, (but) about 35 percent of that is beer. It’s a good percentage.”

Ken said stability was the keyword for how he handled things in 2014.

“I completely revamped and remodeled the kitchen with new, higher-tech equipment in order for us to get the food out faster,” he said. “We were getting into situations where the restaurant was full, we were not able to get the food out on a timely basis. The Yelp comments we’re getting now, and on Friday I was out working the floor, people were shocked at how fast we were getting food out.”

The one thing that did not happen in 2014 was the opening of a second Nexus location. Though they talked about taking over the old J.B.’s restaurant next to the Plaza Inn, that deal fell through due to cost concerns.

“I know we were talking about another location last year, but that never happened,” Ken said. “I really want to find a place where I don’t have to leverage, I don’t have to borrow a lot of money. I also don’t want to pay an exorbitant rate in lease rates and stuff like that. I think with the proliferation of new breweries coming into the Albuquerque area, you need to keep your foundational expenses as low as possible. However, I do believe the market is still wide open throughout the city for taprooms, to have neighborhood taprooms. I think that’s the way things are going to go.”

Overall, 2014 was good to Nexus.

“It was a good year,” Ken said. “The bottom line is it was a good year for us. I think the growth rate was around 30 percent and that’s not bad.”

2015 will feature more beer and hopefully maybe finally that elusive taproom

This location did not work out for Nexus' taproom, but owner Ken Carson is still intent on opening a taproom.

This location did not work out for Nexus’ taproom, but owner Ken Carson is still intent on opening a taproom.

Now that Kaylynn has her brewery in good working order, she hopes 2015 will enable Nexus beers to really take off and re-enter the discussion for the best in the metro area.

“I would like to be a little bit busier, just keep brewing more beer, focus definitely on quality at the same time, just keep making our beers here better and better,” she said. “I was looking back at the last Look Back/Look Ahead interview and we were talking about opening a taproom then and I think we’re still trying to get to the stage of opening so we can focus more on selling our beer — I think we might have a little bit of food in it — but it would be mostly about selling our beer.”

Ken said that definitely fits his plan of having an eventual 50-50 split of revenues between food and beer.

These fermenters will soon have company in the back of Nexus.

These fermenters will soon have company.

“I would say that a lot of the reason why I didn’t go into the (second taproom) was spending money redoing things internally, reinvesting in the business to improve customer service and improve the way we do things,” he said. “I’m ready to go for it this year.

“We’ve increased our capacity, the other thing is we’re primed, we’ve increased our number of tanks to double our production. Maybe not 100 percent, but at least 90 percent. We can probably do twice as much beer as we have previously. We have a fermenter coming this month, hopefully, a 15-barrel.”

Nexus has four new serving vessels in the back, giving Kaylynn the opportunity to brew more beers and keep the lineup fresh.

“Me and Ken have talked about (how) he wants to have a good amount of stronger, imperial beers on tap at all times,” she said. “He kind of wants that to be our thing, to do like maybe styles that not a lot of people have done before. I was thinking since I liked my Alt Bier so much, maybe do an imperial alt. We already do the Imperial Cream. That’s the direction he’d like to go in. I’m always open to anything. Being a first-time head brewer, I’d like the opportunity to just make some recipes and figure out what I do well and what I don’t.”

Kaylynn said Nexus will not be at WinterBrew next week in Santa Fe, but they will be getting back out there more later in the year.

“I’m going to start getting back into festivals in the next couple months,” she said. “When I first started I was having trouble keeping up with the beer. Now that I have those new tanks it’s nicer.”

Nexus' ugly sweaters were quite the hit in 2014. We just posted this photo of them again because seriously, who would wear this in public?!

Nexus’ ugly sweaters were quite the hit in 2014. We just posted this photo of them again because seriously, who would wear this in public?!

Ken said the theme of 2015, Nexus’ fourth year, will be “building the franchise.”

“Right about this time is when an organization needs to start establishing a real solid foundation of how they do things and how they train their employees,” Ken said. “We’re going past that mark when you get to what you call maturity. We’re in that little gray area right before you hit that five-year mark, which is an interesting point. We’re continuing to just try to do improve our services. I am looking at some new menu items to add to what we do, to kind of change things up. But it’s probably not going to be a drastic change from where we are right now. It’s just going to be an enhancement.”

Employees like Kaylynn will always help keep Ken grounded, he said.

“I don’t want to lose track of providing great service and a good experience for our customers and focus on doing things right and not get too distracted,” Ken said. “Because I can, I can get distracted doing too many things. Kaylynn helps me focus on that. It’s a good balance, because she’s kind of a conservative. (Note: she laughed at this comment.) Well, I guess in some ways. I’ve always had that dynamic of having good employees that help you see reality.”

All of us in the Crew are looking forward to another year of good beer and tasty food from Nexus. To whet our appetites, Kaylynn said look out for a Double IPA (7.7% ABV, 100 IBUs) due out late this week or early next week. We figure that will just be the start of goodness this year.

Oh, yeah, and for the love of the beer gods, get over there and help drink up the Dry Stout (if the name bothers you, forget it and just enjoy the beer) and the new Beam Me Up Scottish is excellent as well. Throw in some chicken and waffles and what more could you really need in life?

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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Comments
  1. […] Nexus is still aiming to open that elusive second location this year. While owner Ken Carson hopes to finally nail down a location, brewer Kaylynn McKnight will be able to brew more beer and some different styles this year. She has more equipment at her disposal this year, which will give her the opportunity to experiment more often. […]

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