Recently, Blue Corn Brewery lost an incredible manager in Gustavo Azurdia. He left amicably for a more personal business venture, but when I learned of his departure, I began to worry about the future state of craft beer at one of my favorite breweries in Santa Fe. Through many conversations, I knew how much he had worked behind the scenes to make Blue Corn a real craft beer establishment. And no, not all breweries are designed that way.
Blue Corn’s history tells us that it started off as a café downtown with traditional New Mexican cuisine. Beer, it seems, was kind of an afterthought. A while later they realized they wanted to serve their own beer, as was the growing trend at the time, but there was no room for a brewhouse in that space, unless they wanted to give up precious dining room realty. To solve the problem, Blue Corn opened a second restaurant on the Southside of town in 1997 and started brewing their own beer on a 7-barrel system. That was the birth of Blue Corn beer as a viable part of the business. But, it was still very much a brewpub. And a brewpub is different than, say, a production facility. The focus can be different. Many brewpubs can focus instead on music or menus and just supplement their sales with the beer they brew in-house, and still remain in business. Of course, every place is different.
As for Blue Corn, that worked just fine for a long while until something happened. The craft beer industry boomed and the kind of beer that people were drinking suddenly became terribly important to them. Now, of course, I’m not saying that Blue Corn hadn’t made good, quality beer for a long time. They did. Some of the best brewers worked their way up through Blue Corn. But when the market changed, the focus of the brewery and café management, hadn’t, not yet. Any “beer success” rested squarely on the shoulders of the brewers. And, as I’m learning in the industry, even the best beer does not sell itself.
Not until Gustavo Azurdia walked through the door, fighting the good fight in the name of beer, the real Craft Crusader, did Blue Corn become more than just a local watering hole, but a destination for craft beer aficionados, beer geeks, and the like. It was at the last Thursday at the Brewer’s Table that I was making my way through another delicious and unusual pairing between beer, food, and offerings from Santa Fe Spirits, when somehow it came up that it was Gustavo’s last beer dinner. Immediately I knew I had to talk to Gustavo, say good-bye to a friend, but not before I got the full story, and really talk about the impact that this man had on Blue Corn and the success they’d become as a great brewery and “beer-centric” brewpub.
Azurdia: When I started here, I’d seen so many different menus. Food-wise, nothing was beer connected. There was nothing related to beer. So I talked to Chef (David Sundberg), and I said, you know from now on, any menu you want to make, it’ll be okay with me, but it has to be connected to beers. There’s gotta be a relationship. Whether beer is to be included in the recipe, or whether it should be a beer-friendly meal. The second thing is, why do we have so many menus with drink specials and happy hours? There’s too many things that are not beer-related. We gotta stop that. Everything that we do has got to be beer-related. And we should have a small menu and a solid drink list for the people who don’t drink beer. The wine should still be small. We had a huge list, so we needed to shrink it, get good quality wines for those people who don’t enjoy beer. In my case, my wife doesn’t drink beer, so I was thinking about that, too. We still have to have something for everyone. But everything has to be (centered) around beer. And also with the help, when I started hiring people, that was the first thing I asked them, “What do you know about beer?” You don’t need to be an expert, but you need to be proficient. I always gave this example, you go to a car dealer, and you talk to a car dealer who doesn’t even drive.
DSBC: How can you trust the guy?
Azurdia: Exactly. You need to know what you’re selling. And slowly but surely, we’re getting there, and one example was tonight. So this dinner (beer/cocktail dinner) was supposed to happen about a year and a half ago, but it was strictly cocktails. No beer at all. So, when Kate Collins was here, I sat down with her and said we’re not gonna have this dinner now, because there’s no beer included. And then, a little bit later, for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. But we had this planned. And then the next guy took over that position. And I talked to him, and was like, hey man, we’re gonna make that dinner, but it has to be a mix of both. And that’s how we came up with a menu like this.
Azurdia: They’ve never been as related or connected like we are now. You know, we put this beer in their barrel. We’ve talked and talked and finally we were getting there, slowly and slowly.
DSBC: So, how did beer become an important focus for you? It was a brewery already, but you seemed to understand that fact better than the brewery itself.
Azurdia: That was a big part. You know, part of the challenge they gave me when they brought me over, because I was downtown, which is a different animal, and I was lucky enough that I was in charge of opening the new bar. It’s kind of funny because over there it was the same thing. The focus wasn’t on beer, but I always fought for it. Like, OK, we have the same name but there’s nothing that says (at the downtown location) that we sell beer. All they did for me was they sent me a few medals from here, but it was a good start. But on the other hand, I was lucky over there, because all the servers were beer drinkers and beer lovers. So I went with that, and we worked on it. And later when (brewer) John Bullard was here, I had invited him over to talk to my servers, and at the end he said, “You’re so lucky. These people like beer. They know my product. They’re selling my product.” And now, beer sales over there are great. So, when I came over here, the first thing I asked them was, “OK, what’s the challenge here?” They said, “Well, business went down. It’s not what it’s supposed to be. It’s not busy.” We didn’t really have nights like tonight. I told them, “We’re wasting time. We’re unique. There are so many other restaurants and bars in this area. But who else is a brewery that has a restaurant?” So, we have Santa Fe Brewing Co. down the street. But they don’t have a restaurant.
Azurdia: And then we have Second Street on that side, but it’s far, far away. So, everybody else that is around us, they sell beer; they have a restaurant, but it’s not as unique as we are. We have a fresh product that travels from back there (points to the brewhouse) right to the front. And we gotta capitalize on that. That’s what makes us unique. So that’s what inspired me to push and push and push. And so James (Warren) and I, let’s see, we started almost at the same time. I think he started about a week later. I didn’t know what he was gonna be like. I sort of knew John, but I didn’t know what James would be like. And I got so lucky. We had these long conversations about beer. And we started beer education. First it was Kristen, then Nick, and now Kyle (assistant brewer) who were doing these classes, trying to further the beer education of our staff. And it’s just been great. It was a great team. Chef likes beer. And he got it, when I told him, “It has to be beer related.”
DSBC: How integral was Chef in Blue Corn’s craft beer revolution? How important was it to have a chef that was on board with the beer idea, beer in food, a menu that would go with the beer? How important was that for you?
Azurdia: It was huge. Because when I told him, I didn’t have any push-back. He immediately got it. As a matter of fact, a dinner like this, I remember the first one that we did together. Every time we had a dinner, I was dedicated to the dinner. I would work the shift. And I’ll have two managers doing what they’re supposed to be doing. But I would be making sure that the dinner is going well. So the first dinner we did together, I remember I was at the bar pouring beer, and he came in running. We almost ran into each other. “What are you doing?” He asked me. I said, “I’m making sure beer goes out.” “Well that’s what I’m doing!” And I told him I also wanted to be in the kitchen, cooking. Getting food out. And he said, “Well, that’s what I’m here for.” The next day we talked. He said, “You gave me this speech about doing this and doing that.” I did, because I didn’t know how it was going to work. But I looked at him and after that night, I knew that I could count on him to make these events successful.
DSBC: And you said, “Let’s do more beer dinners,” right?
Azurdia: Yes, and from there we took it, and we all knew what we were trying to do. We’re gonna work together and make things successful. I knew I needed to make everyone who comes here for these beer dinners happy and want to come to the next one. So we did several. And it started growing and growing. I mean, you’ve seen the growth.
DSBC: Definitely, I’ve seen it.
Azurdia: And the very last thing that happened to us was the Imperial Stout release. And you know how we used to do the big table?
Note: Thursday’s at the Brewer’s Table was once held at one long table where all in attendance could fit easily around it, and the brewer could sit at the head and comfortably discuss the beer. As you may have read in my other stories on Thursday at the Brewer’s Table, there are now several long tables set up to accommodate the popularity that the event has achieved. Now, Brewer James and Chef D will come around and talk to each group, at each table, about the food and the beer and how they pair.
Azurdia: So he was set on doing the big table. I said, “I don’t think so.” He said, “But we have to.” And I said, “No, we are not! Because we’re gonna have over 100 people …”
DSBC: Was there that many reservations?
Azurdia: We did 106. So we had some words. There was a little bit of a fight. Things were said. So anyway, during the event this whole part of the restaurant had been filled, even part of the bar side. At the end of the night he came to me and said, “I don’t know why I question you. You know what you’re doing. You were absolutely right.”
DSBC: That was a big sign that craft beer, and these beer dinners had really taken off in a big way.
DSBC: In all my interviews that I’ve done with James and Chef, they referred to you as a fearless leader, someone that saw the bigger picture, and held that vision together.
Azurdia: I don’t know about leader. It was never my intention to be any kind of hero or whatever. All I wanted to do was to make sure that people knew that Blue Corn can put it out and do it great and highlight this product, because James has done such a great, great job!
DSBC: He’s had to fill a giant’s shoes, and I think he has.
Azurdia: And he’s shown you that, he’s won medal after medal.
DSBC: Bringing back Gold to the Oatmeal Stout, and recently those five awards he won at the NABA.
Azurdia: I could talk about James and beer for hours. I’m sure the servers got sick of hearing about it from me, because I kept saying, “It’s not just beer. If you go back there and see how hard he has to work. He’s not just pushing buttons. He’s physically working, making sure that glass after glass is a great product.” And I wanted to make sure that the restaurant focused on his efforts. And I hope that that continues now.
DSBC: That’s right. You’ve always wanted to make sure that Blue Corn was “Beer Centric,” is the word, right? Now, thinking about the future, I won’t get into where you’re going or reasons for leaving. That’s your business. What I would like to talk about is the future business of Blue Corn. How do you feel Blue Corn is equipped to handle this focus on craft beer without you?
Azurdia: Well, I think that’s the big question. But you know, I’ve had conversations with Jim and the others and other managers.
DSBC: Do they understand that beer should remain in the spotlight to continue as a beer-centric establishment?
Azurdia: Oh, yes, absolutely. They get it. And as a matter of fact, I had a conversation with Jim Hargrove yesterday and he said, “You and I need to sit down together, and you’ve got to tell me what you want to see happen for this place.” So I did, because I want to see Blue Corn succeed. And I wanna come back as a customer and be able to enjoy it as much as the customers have.
DSBC: That’s great.
Azurdia: And I keep telling them, just because I’m gone doesn’t mean that they can’t call me and ask me questions. If they need help, I’ll come back and help. Because seriously, I really respect Chef and James a lot. I expect big things from them.
DSBC: Anything lastly you’d like to say about Blue Corn and the direction of its beer, or how far it’s come?
Azurdia: I’ll say something that I kept telling everyone, that this is a community, that this is bigger than Blue Corn. It’s a whole brewing community. If there was ever any negativity, because sometimes as people we become competitive by nature, and I said, I don’t want to hear any bad from anybody, because we’re all struggling, we’re all trying to be successful in our own way. We shouldn’t just be proud of Blue Corn. We should be proud of the whole brewing community of New Mexico. We’re family.
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Every brewery has their own fair share of struggles, no matter how big or small, the struggles are there, and the struggles are different. We’re all still learning how to increase quality, handle crises, and even get our products out of the taps or off of the shelves. Gustavo did a great deal of good to make Blue Corn a true craft beer establishment. It sometimes takes a special person who really “gets it,” to support a great brewer, or in Blue Corn’s case, the long line of amazing brewers that preceded him.
As this industry grows into a bigger entity, it takes more than just a menu to sell a product. It takes education, it takes product awareness, it takes special beer dinners, and focused beer-related menus. Sometimes it takes social media and sometimes it takes allowing a scruffy writer to sit down with you for a few minutes. But the question is, now that Gustavo is not there, what does Blue Corn plan to do, to make sure that their brewery remains a true beer centric establishment in spirit and body and not just a cafe that happens to have its own beer, albeit great beer, on tap? In my second part of this article, I’m going to sit down with head brewer James and the new manager. Maybe even Chef D will give me a few words. But together, we will spell out for you, beer readers, just how Blue Corn intends to answer that tough question.
For more #CraftBeer news and @nmdarksidebc info, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro!