Rio Bravo Brewing counting on experience as they barrel toward a May opening

Posted: January 29, 2015 by cjax33 in New Brewery Preview

One of the best parts of WinterBrew is that it can be a great event for networking, not just beer sampling. As an example, representatives from the forthcoming Rio Bravo Brewing were on hand and one of them passed along a business card to our Santa Fe writer, Luke. He in turn gave that card to me, and voila, I found myself standing in a spacious future brewery on Tuesday afternoon.

My tour guide for this massive project was Ty Levis, formerly of Santa Fe Brewing, who will serve as the head brewer at Rio Bravo. Located at 1912 2nd St. NW, the former Firestone showroom is now being converted into a 14,500-square foot brewery and taproom. If all goes according to plan, Rio Bravo will be open in May.

The outside of the future Rio Bravo Brewing. This area to the east will eventually be an outdoor patio.

The outside of the future Rio Bravo Brewing. This area to the east will eventually be an outdoor patio.

There is a lot of work to be done, then, in the next three months. At this point the building has been almost completely hollowed out. To the average observer/beer writer, that close of an opening date seems downright daunting.

“The folks building this brewery, they own DRB Electric,” Ty said. “So they’ve been in the industry and in business for 30-some years. They know their way around construction projects, things like this. Randy is acting as the general contractor and he’s hiring all the sub-contractors to plumb, electrify, and get everything going.”

Randy and Denise Baker are the owners of Rio Bravo. When word of their proposed brewery first hit the rumor mill, it sounded like a small place, just a neighborhood pub not dissimilar to Lizard Tail or Broken Bottle. Over time, though, it began to grow into something much more ambitious, an actual production/distribution brewery. Fate smiled upon the Bakers, in a way, when Ty parted ways with SFBC, the company his father founded back in 1988. He needed a job as a brewer and they needed someone with experience.

“I’ve been a student of what I’ve been doing for 20 years,” Ty said. “I used to brew on like a rudimentary, seven-barrel like homemade wooden thing that my dad had bought from Boulder Brewing Company in 1988 and installed in Galisteo, New Mexico. I learned that and then we built our own (brewhouse) out of dairy tanks back in 1997.”

Ty has brought on his brewing mentor, John Seabrooks, to help with the initial start-up. Seabrooks is a former research-and-development director for Miller-Coors and brings 30-plus years of his own experience to the project. The two of them guided me on a tour of the building, inside and out.

The massive interior of Rio Bravo, looking east to west. The taproom will be on the far west side, extending underneath the visible mezzanine, which will have storage to the left and a private tasting area to the right.

The massive interior of Rio Bravo, looking east to west. The taproom will be on the far west side, extending underneath the visible mezzanine, which will have storage to the left and a private tasting area to the right.

Rio Bravo will start out with a 15-barrel brewhouse that will be located along the building’s eastern wall, running north-south. There will be up to eight fermenters inside, with the plan to put any future needed fermenters outside along with a grain silo, glycol chiller, and more equipment. The idea, Ty said, is to constantly maximize the space and never let things get overcrowded, something he has seen happen at SFBC and more recently over at Marble.

“Certainly the way things happen in a brewery, at least from my experience is, ‘Hey, oh shit, we need to get more beer out!’” Ty said. “What happens? You throw another tank in where it shouldn’t really go. Or you put another machine in that you weren’t really planning on doing for a long time. Before you know it you look around and you’re like this in your brewery, ‘Holy crap, I can’t move.’ And now I’d like to buy a really well thought-out machine that’s going to help me get to the next level and you can’t. If I designate a filtration area that then becomes a centrifuge area, then it’s always going to be marked off for that. There’s not going to be something that shows up.”

Even the brewhouse itself will be capable of being expanded as needed for production.

“And what we did was we started out with a four-vessel system,” Ty said. “I’m leaving two extra spots on my brewhouse platform. If you look at traditional brewing, a four-vessel system could easily brew six to seven times in 24 hours. But, the two vessels that get the least amount of occupation during that are your mash tun and your whirlpool. Those only end up holding beer for maybe 60 minutes per brew.

“So, you share those with two more vessels, which would be a second lauder ton and a second kettle and you could actually get pretty close to 12 brews a day on something like that. That’s the idea is that it’s scaleable. In three years if you’re really busy, you add those two vessels and it only costs you an extra 45 grand at that point and you double your production.”

Ty said that Randy will put in his final building permits Tuesday, which should take two weeks or so to be approved. After that approval, “it’s going to be a flurry of activity.” The brewhouse and other equipment should begin to arrive February 15, Ty added.

Setting up the equipment should be easy compared to everything else. There will be construction everywhere. The taproom bar will be located on the west side of the building that faces 2nd Street. There will be two storage rooms in the southwest corner, one or both of which could later be converted into a kitchen, though that will certainly not happen right away.

“The idea is to get in and get running with hopefully not a whole lot of problems with the City and development, things like that,” Ty said. “We’re going to start out with the minimum number of things that they would want to ask us to (get permits). Don’t put in a kitchen now.”

Checking out the mezzanine, the huge support beams above will have to be redone lest anyone smack his or her head. The private tasting area/events room will up against that far northern wall.

Checking out the mezzanine, the huge support beams above will have to be redone lest anyone smack his or her head. The private tasting area/events room will up against that far northern wall.

The other projects will include indoor and outdoor patio seating areas, plus there is an existing mezzanine in the western half of the building that will be split between a private tasting area/event space and storage. The main outdoor patio will be located on the east side of the building adjacent to the parking area. The plan for an indoor patio would be located along the north side of the building, though Ty said that aspect will not be put in until later. In the interim, he will get to have the entire eastern area of the building for brewing. Once everything is settled and in place in the brewery, then they will figure out how to make it all work, with the possibility of an another indoor patio on the south side of the building if the north side one is popular.

As for the mezzanine, that will require redoing the existing staircase on the east side and adding one on the west. In addition, the huge support beams above it will need to be redone as they are currently too low and would be a hazard to most folks over 6 feet in height. There is already a plan to redo them underway, though, so it should not be a problem. The private tasting/events area would be in the northern half of the mezzanine, while the southern half would be storage, likely including the barrel-aging area.

Down below, there will be glass walls almost everywhere, giving patrons the chance to see into the brewery and watch the operation. Part of that operation will eventually include a small bottling line for 22-ounce bombers, plus a much larger canning line for eventual regional distribution of Rio Bravo beers.

“It’s pretty easy to ramp up a brewhouse,” Ty said. “You can add a vessel to almost anything. The real difficulty is having room for packaging people to work and produce without being cramped and without filling in the space with unnecessary stuff. Any space that’s available, people put stuff there. It’s the nature of people, it’s the nature of being in a hurry. With a lot of foresight we’re going to be able to have a really nice, workable space that we can grow with.”

Part of that workable space will include hard piping between the various vessels, rather than hoses all over the floor.

“It’s a micro-control issue,” Ty said. “At the same time if you can take the time and lay out some thoughtful piping work, then all of a sudden you don’t have all of those things on the floor. You don’t have to drag hoses around for 30 minutes before you can even start work. From that moment on, it just changes the efficiency.”

Looking down to the future brewery floor, the brewhouse will be located against that wall in the upper right corner.

Looking down to the future brewery floor, the brewhouse will be located against that wall in the upper right corner.

That desire to have everything well planned out in advance was born from Ty’s past experience at SFBC and watching how other breweries in New Mexico have outgrown their space, time and time again.

“If you look at numbers and I always do, Santa Fe Brewing Company was on track for 20,000 barrels (in 2014),” Ty said. So what does that mean? Well, that’s three brews a day, four days a week. That’s not even round-the-clock brewing, necessarily, yet that’s how we did it because we shaved that half-an-hour or an hour of cleanup, we had to drop everything and start over again. That’s still not even utilizing the max, even at their level. The last thing they needed to do is buy a new brewhouse (but rather) add another vessel to their current one, potentially.

“But what we’re doing, we already know it’s going to be easy to expand. The infrastructure is going to be built to support 15,000 barrels. Chillers, Co2, silos, storage, that’s our ultimate goals, to become regional (distributors) in year four or five or six. But lots of things have to happen to even get off the ground first. We’re trying to be conservative. We’re trying to spend every dollar smartly and then I think so much of it is just going to be organization. The maturity of our organization and how we’re going to set it up is hopefully going to be the right way to do it. We’re going to share what all of our quality standards are with everybody that comes in the door.”

When everything is up and running, Rio Bravo projects to have an annual output of 15,000 barrels a year, with the ability to scale up to 25,000. Of course that begs the question, just what will they be brewing.

“We’re going to definitely have an IPA, because you have to,” Ty said. But what we’re going to try to do is we’re going to have six serving tanks to start with. We’re probably going to have 10 tap lines total. Some of those are very likely going to be guest taps from other brewers. Some of them are going to be rotating seasonals. We’re very interested in doing a nice amber ale. We’re talking about either a traditional dry stout or oatmeal stout.

“One of things that I’ve been kind of toying with is a session type IPA, where it’s not quite crushing alcohol and not very dark, but still hoppy and maybe delicate to a point. That was always one of my goals that people could have at least three of what you’re making.”

Ty did add that Rio Bravo will still have some big ABV beers, like double IPAs and imperial stouts, though probably not at the outset.

“But I think our bread and butter are going to be really solid, balanced beers with a real attention to detail of fine qualities and refinement,” Ty said. “Certainly, I’m looking forward to coming up with all new recipes.”

Rio Bravo has just about everything well planned out in advance to get their beer out by the time they open.

“I am concentrating pretty hard on what (ingredients) we’re going to buy, where it’s going to go, when I need to order it by in order to have it meet up with our system,” Ty said. “But our goal is May brewing, to be in full production and have our grand opening in May. If they’re able to actually build out everything else sooner than I’m actually ready to brew, we’re going to have a grand opening and we’ll have all guest taps. We’ll do it up and get people interested in our space and what we’re going to help bring to the Albuquerque beer scene.”

The beer will be served internally over the summer, Ty added, with the hope for canning to begin in the fall along with distribution to taps at bars and restaurants around town. Despite all the recent brewery openings, no one at Rio Bravo is worried that they are entering the market at a point of over-saturation.

“Certainly it seems like there’s no end in sight right now with the way people are growing,” Ty said. “The craft beer industry is so well embraced by this area. I’ve seen it in Santa Fe, it’s been double-digit growth as long as I can remember. … Basically with an eye towards the future we’re going to have a lot of things in place that would only come with experience.

“May is our goal and I’m looking forward to providing a new experience in such an ideal location, having a good team of people around me in support of our goals.”

The Crew will keep tabs on the progress at Rio Bravo over the next few months and in turn pass that along to our readers. We look forward to seeing what this major new brewing operation can do when it is up and running.

Thanks to Ty and John for the tour. Good luck to them, Randy, Denise, and everyone else down there. It is about to get busy at Rio Bravo Brewing.


— Stoutmeister

  1. Thank you for the very informative article. Rio Bravo Brewing is definitely a community project in collaboration with several local sub contractors lead by Randy Baker at DRB Electric as the General. We will keep you posted on our Facebook, website and twitter accounts as to when the doors will open and the beer begins flowing.

  2. The Bakers have run a success business for years having to do with system installation and repair and that is exactly the knowledge required to run a brewery. They have an experienced brewer onboard, and presumably sufficient capital to fund those predictable unpredictables. The only I wonder, is this another brewery offering the same beer styles available all over town? One wonders how a niche brewery would fit in – say, lagers only, or sours only, or English ales only?

    • cjax33 says:

      You’re not going to see a large, production brewery with plans for packaging and distribution go the specialization route that you’re talking. Lagers, in particular, just take too much time and too much space. Despite the beer geeks’ love of sours, they have yet to catch on with the masses on the level of, say, IPAs.

  3. […] Bravo Brewing: Located on 2nd Street just south of I-40, we already visited them back when they were in the early stages of build-out. There have been a few permitting delays, […]

  4. […] the last time I visited, a heck of a lot has changed inside Rio Bravo. What was once just a shell of a building is now on […]

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