It is a bit trite to say, but for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As more and more breweries open around the Albuquerque metro area, there has always been the possibility that some might not survive in an increasingly competitive market. Other brewery owners have said a sort of reckoning is coming, where some of the smaller, less successful establishments will not stay open much longer. That prediction of sorts has come true as Broken Bottle Brewery will close their doors after tonight (Friday).
Broken Bottle was the first brewery on the west side of Albuquerque (if one does not count Rio Rancho-based breweries, which most of us know Rio Rancho would always prefer to be kept separate). They elicited mixed reactions from the craft beer community. They certainly had their fans, many from the surrounding area who treated BBB as their local pub/hangout. They had their detractors as well, those who criticized their ever-changing lineup and lack of consistency from batch to batch, even among their house beers.
In some ways, Broken Bottle can serve as a bit of a cautionary tale. Another brewery owner shared that there are currently 31 (!) applications for small brewing or taproom licenses with the City of Albuquerque. If we take out the four taprooms we know about (Duel in downtown, Kaktus in Nob Hill, Marble on Montgomery, Red Door in downtown), that leaves 27 new breweries. Subtracting Broken Bottle, there are 24 current breweries from small (Bistronomy B2B, Sandia Chile Grill) to medium (Chama River) to big (Marble, Tractor, La Cumbre). That would mean there will be more than double the number of breweries in town, or as friend of the Crew Matthew Reichbach likes to say, soon there will be one brewery/taproom per ABQ resident.
I had the chance to stop by Broken Bottle on Thursday night and had a quick chat, nothing formal, with co-owner Chris Chavez. As he noted, “There must be a lot of money behind those places.” Opening a brewery is not cheap, as Chris and co-owner/brewer Donovan Lane discovered. They had enough money to open, create a perfectly comfortable, semi-stylish place to drink, but they never had enough money to purchase proper equipment in the back. While they had a small brewhouse, their beers fermented in plastic barrels as opposed to stainless steel containers that you see everywhere else. Did this affect the quality and consistency of the beer? Well, as anyone who home brews knows, batch to batch, the smallest things can affect flavor and mouthfeel and the like.
Broken Bottle did try to be different. They did not brew the usual beers you see everywhere else. It was not just a blone or amber, red, wheat, IPA, and stout or porter. They were adventurous, they were experimental, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not. In the end it did not work enough. Beer drinkers demand at least some consistency in the house beers; they expect variances in seasonals/specialties. For Broken Bottle, the house beers varied too much from batch to batch. The Incident Black IPA, initially our favorite of the regulars, changed over time. But as we know, hop contracts can change, and smaller breweries can have a hard time being able to keep the same ingredients to keep their beer consistent. In many ways, it again serves as something cautionary for other small establishments, who will face many of the same challenges as they open.
“We opened this place on our own terms and we will close it on our own terms,” Chris said. He could not disclose the fate of all those tables and chairs with people’s names on the back, a unique “gift” of sorts for those who contribute to the brewery’s opening on Kickstarter. What will happen to the foosball table, the remaining growlers and glassware, and the brewhouse in the back is tied up right now. Broken Bottle’s lease was up at the end of October, and in the end Chris did not want to seek out a new location (because let’s face it, that spot near Coors and Irving at the far end of the shopping center from the street was a lousy spot, barely visible from Coors in either direction). Without his partner, Donovan decided it was time to walk away as well.
The days of two (or more) friends turning home brewing into a profitable microbrewery are likely over. Now we see more of these large investment groups starting breweries, though even they draw some skepticism. Hopefully most have a sound business plan, but in an environment where they must stack up their brews against the award-winning offerings from places like Blue Corn, Bosque, Boxing Bear, Canteen, Chama River, La Cumbre, Marble, Nexus, Santa Fe, Second Street, and Sierra Blanca, it will be up to the strength of the brewers they hire. To compete in this environment, places cannot just hire their friend who’s competed with the Dukes of Ale. You need an experienced commercial brewer or assistant brewer to make it work.
We shall see how things turn out for those 27 new breweries, and whether even half of them get as far as opening their doors. For some, they may not even make it as long as the nearly four-year run of Broken Bottle. Others could surprise us all. However things turn out for them, there are lessons to be learned from Broken Bottle. The concept of the neighborhood pub brewery is a good one, one that can work in different parts of town where a brewery is removed from the big competition. Yet it is not a guarantee of immediate financial windfall. Places can break even, but for many people these days, is it enough?
If you are on the West Side tonight, and feel like saying farewell, Broken Bottle will open their doors one last time. Stop in, have a pint of Vanilla Stout, and wish them luck in their future endeavors.
Just always remember, there are no guarantees of success of life, much less in the world of craft beer.