A little while back a friend of the Crew told us that Albuquerque Brewing Co. had fired their founding brewer, Mike Marsh, after just five months of being open. We emailed Mike to confirm or deny this, and he said it was true. He also said that he would be willing to talk about what led to his dismissal by the fledgling company that helped create. Over a couple pints of beer at nearby Bosque, I learned just how this start-up brewery managed to implode so quickly that it cost a brewer his job.
NMDSBC: Why are you no longer the brewer at Albuquerque Brewing Company, the brewery you started? What the heck happened?
Mike: I don’t know where to start. It was a couple of different things. We got a board of directors together. The board of directors decided I wasn’t producing enough beer. The board of directors also decided they didn’t want to pay me anymore. That’s pretty much how it happened.
NMDSBC: Your setup there was always unique, the physical structure of the building. Was it even possible to produce more beer out of that place? I can’t imagine it was.
Mike: I didn’t think it was. One of the issues was that the time right before I left, it was taking about 12 to 14 days to produce a batch of beer and we were running out in about 11. So, that kind of puts things in perspective as to how you keep up with that kind of demand.
Plus, another thing that happened was we got our chilling system, at one point in time, it failed on us twice. And so that killed two batches of beer back-to-back, so that kind of put us in that holding pattern.
We can only brew six kegs at a time, that’s not cool.
NMDSBC: So what are they doing with you gone? Who’s brewing? Are they brewing?
Mike: To be honest, I’m really not sure. I haven’t been over there since the 27th, 28th of August. They brought in a guy from Santa Fe Brewing Company. He’s been brewing, I don’t know what. He was being paid on a contract basis, on a per batch basis.
NMDSBC: So he’s a freelance brewer, basically.
Mike: More or less.
NMDSBC: There’s always that step up from making beer for friends, to step up to that commercial level, and it’s a huge transition. The quantity of beer being brewed, the accelerated schedule, and everything else. For yourself, what lessons do you take from all this? What do you say to yourself at this point? All right, I’ll try it again, or something else? Do you want to try to catch on at a commercial brewery? What are your plans going forward?
Mike: No, I’m not opposed to jumping back in. It was definitely a steep learning curve, for sure. The system design, too, was one of the many issues. I talked to the guys from Santa Fe. They said I’ll come and hang out with you for four or five hours. I laughed and said try 11, because that’s how long it took to brew a batch of beer with that system.
NMDSBC: The setup you guys had, with the multiple rooms and everything, how much of a factor was that? Or was it more the equipment? What were some of the factors that went into slowing you guys down?
Mike: It was really just the equipment itself, the equipment design. When it takes you an extra 45 minutes to an hour to get your batch up to a boil, that’s an issue.
NMDSBC: So who actually brought that system in there? Was that them, or you, or all of you?
Mike: I’m actually a part owner, too. We talked about it, we budgeted for it, we figured it all out. … I got it down to where the brewing time was actually eight hours, (but) the cleanup time took forever. That’s what tacked on the extra time. There’s a couple things, too, like the transfer from fermenters to brights. Pretty much, anything in the process was going to take you forever. You couldn’t brew and transfer to the brights in the same day unless you wanted to take 14 hours.
NMDSBC: So this is all the stuff you were finding out as you were going along.
Mike: So there was an equipment list of things that would make it faster. I guess our biggest thing, too, was hot water. If you don’t have hot water, you’re not brewing.
NMDSBC: You talked about the board of directors, how many people are actually involved? You don’t hear of too many breweries having a board of directors. You hear of maybe two or three people. Were there too many cooks in the kitchen kind of situation there? Were there too many people on the money side who didn’t understand the brewing side?
Mike: Yes. (Laughs)
NMDSBC: Was this one of those “if we brew it, they will come” kind of situations?
Mike: Part of it was that. What we had done, I don’t know if you guys are familiar with the regulation that changed in September of 2013, where you could actually sell equity on a private basis and not actually have to, under certain exemptions, you didn’t have to basically ask for people’s finances and tax returns. That’s how we structured it. In order to protect those people’s investments we brought on a board of directors. So that’s where that all came from, because, granted, the three of us could have made the decisions, but it would be nice if other people would be involved in the process with us. That was the idea behind it.
NMDBSC: It’s good for a lot of people to have a voice, but sometimes people removed from the day-to-day operations, they’re going to look at the raw data, those sort of numbers. Was that part of what happened? They weren’t back there with you so you couldn’t say “this is why it’s taking so long.” They were just looking at the number saying “this is a bad number.” Was it mostly that?
Mike: That’s mostly what it was. Their perception of it.
NMDSBC: You were running out of beer, so people were coming. It wasn’t an issue of customers. The customers were there. But it was an impossible production schedule to keep up with.
Mike: Well, some people had the idea that we should have all of eight of our taps be ours. From the get go, I told them four was the max, four was the max we would ever have be ours. The only reason why we bought the eight-tap system was it was (only) $50 more than the four-tap system. We figured we would throw on some guest taps. That was kind of where a little bit of the misconception came from. I bet that from day one we’d have four beers on tap, that was the max, that’s how we explained our system.
NMDSBC: Would it ever have been possible to expand the system in that space back there? It didn’t seem like there was enough room.
Mike: The only thing we might have been able to do was to get some custom-built seven-barrel fermenters. That was about the extent of it.
NMDSBC: For yourself, what’s next? With all of these lessons you’ve now learned, what’s your plan going forward? Do you have one at this point?
Mike: It’s still kind of up in the air. I mean, I wouldn’t be opposed to brewing, but …
NMDSBC: I imagine you’d be little more cautious.
NMDSBC: You wouldn’t want to go into something where they say “we’ve got 20 owners!”
Mike: Just don’t make it 21.
NMDSBC: Do you get any kind of severance or anything? Or was it just “bye”? When they let you go, how did it all come down?
Mike: It was an email. It was here’s the game plan, this is what’s going to happen. Pretty much that was it.
NMDSBC: Is it still kind of raw right now, still kind of bitter, or have you begun to detach yourself from it?
Mike: At first I was angry, of course. (But) iff it becomes successful, I still benefit. It’s not like I’m completely out of the picture.
NMDSBC: You still retain your ownership?
Mike: I still retain my ownership.
NMDSBC: So you’re a silent partner.
Mike: Very silent.
NMDSBC: Is there a part of you that wants to scream to the heavens about it?
Mike: Nah, not really. I’m beyond that now. I have bigger things to worry about.
NMDSBC: For yourself, what is in the immediate (future)? As far as work and things like that?
Mike: That was the phone call I just took. The reason I was in Sacramento yesterday was I was interviewing for a job out there. I’m going back into finance. So do that, figure things out.
NMDSBC: At some point, if they’re successful, would you try to sell your ownership share for a profit? Or can you?
Mike: I think eventually. The way it’s structured is that you have to hold onto your shares for X amount of time. Then the company has the right of first refusal.
NMDSBC: If you do get that opportunity to run a startup brewery again, what would you be looking for now, coming off this experience?
Mike: Partners, if there are any. Partners are crucial. Everybody has to be on the same page. I think that was the biggest issue, the vision wasn’t the same.
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Thank you to Mike for coming to talk about what happened. Oftentimes when a brewer departs under less than cordial circumstances, nothing is said by either side. If someone at Albuquerque Brewing wants to contact us about their side of things, we would welcome it. Since we do not have any contacts there now that Mike is gone, we did not pursue their input for this story. They can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The future of Albuquerque Brewing is anyone’s guess. Their Facebook page is gone and their website is just a single page listing (mostly) outdated information.
It is unfortunate that this situation came to pass. It does show that it is far from easy to open a brewery and be successful in such a competitive environment these days. Everyone involved in a brewery needs to be on the same page about all aspects of the business.
Let this serve as a cautionary tale for one and all.