The Crew met Angelo Orona back when he was working in the sales department for Marble Brewery. We could tell from the beginning that it was not just a job for Angelo, but a passion for good craft beer. Even after Marble’s early 2014 upheaval left the entire sales staff heading off to new jobs, Angelo stayed involved with the beer scene, working with Abbey Brewing, Santa Sidra, and numerous other breweries and cideries. He also created Craft King Consulting, a company designed to help further promote and educate craft beer through recent events like Tart at Heart and Palate Fatigue.
When the Crew ran our story about the future of the New Mexico brewing scene, Angelo was one of the first to respond and offer up his views from both inside and outside the industry. Since we are never afraid to pick the brains of the people in the know about craft beer in our state, I sat down with him last week at Matanza. Once I found a beer that was both on the menu and still on tap (a downside to having so many taps, it seems), we got down to business.
NMDSBC: So you read the article we wrote about the future of craft beer in New Mexico. Give us your thoughts on the industry and where it’s headed.
Angelo: I think right now I see this industry as sort of a gold rush. A lot of folks throwing their hats in the ring, many of them that don’t have any meaningful experience in commercial breweries. I think that’s one thing as an industry we have to focus on is getting people trained so that there aren’t any weak spots, especially in our small microcosm like Albuquerque. We want to make sure that every single brewery is up to snuff and putting out quality beer.
I saw a poignant article written with the owner of Hill Farmstead (Brewery in Vermont), Shaun Hill, and he was talking about how there’s this mad rush for breweries to open now with many of the folks opening breweries have maybe brewed one or two times and fermented a beer in their basement. This example uses the fact that electricians have to go through an apprenticeship just to install an outlet. He was saying people that want to open a brewery, even though it’s this romantic notion of ‘Hey, I’ll own a brewery, I’ll be able to make beer, and bring people happiness through my beer,’ there are people that are devoutly committed to making amazing beer every single time they get on the brewhouse. We have to get to a point where as an industry we say I want to open a brewery, but do I have the skillset that’s going to make it a successful brewery, a unique brewery, and something that’s going to be representative of craft beer and shine a light upon it?
NMDSBC: I think the one thing I’m seeing in regards to a lot of the new places opening up is it’s not just two friends who liked to home brew together anymore. We’re seeing more of these investment groups, sometimes people with restaurant/bar/brewery experience, sometimes not, but at the very least they’re hiring experienced brewers. Bow & Arrow would be a good example. So that might be changing a little bit.
But changing subjects, what in your mind is the best way to get the word out about New Mexico beer? Do we sit back and let the awards roll in and let that be the draw? Or do we need more breweries packaging and distributing in state and out of state? Are there too many breweries content with what they’ve got? People are bagging on Rio Bravo with their inexperience essentially going into distribution while still in their infancy, but at least you can argue they’re showing ambition, whereas many others are not. Where do you see things heading?
Angelo: I see the direction of the industry going in a way where regional breweries will become less and less prominent. Breweries like New Belgium, breweries like Sierra Nevada, breweries like Ballast Point where they started as nice, regional breweries and now they’re sending beer from coast to coast, I think that trend will soon be a harder mountain to climb. Just because people are trending to their local breweries. We’re getting towards the point of the number of breweries exceeding pre-Prohibition levels in the country. And that was a time where everyone drank beer from their local, neighborhood brewery. There was literally one brewery to serve every 10 or 12 city blocks in every city. So I think we’re getting to the point of where we’ll see small, local breweries dominating their local markets.
The tough part from the distribution standpoint is, I’ll take obviously New Mexico as an example, (is that) the folks here, on average, drink 38 gallons of beer per year. That’s our per capita consumption rate. So can we brew enough beer (locally) to come up and meet that demand? Yes, probably. But the more breweries that come online and that open, all it’s going to do is split the volume between more breweries. Speaking from experience when I was at Marble Brewery, when La Cumbre decided to open at the end of 2010, the places where Marble was once selling 10 or 20 cases a week, or one or two kegs a week, all that happened was that volume got cut in half.
The amount that people are drinking is not going to exponentially rise, all that’s going to happen is there’s going to be more segmentation between what brands they’re choosing. Ultimately better beer will win. At some point the folks that are getting into the brewing industry because they see it as a good investment with a lot of upside, will realize it’s a lot more competitive and harder investment to make money at than they realize now. It’s a gold rush, there will be a bubble at some point. The industry will reach equilibrium. The number of breweries will just plateau.
Along those lines as well, I think part of the reason there’s so much excitement around brewing is obviously it’s an amazing industry to be in. It’s fun, you can indulge both the scientific and artistic sides of your personality from a brewing standpoint, which is really nice. And lastly when you see deals that went down (last week) between Constellation buying Ballast Point for a billion dollars, that’s obviously going to attract a lot of folks that weren’t interested in this industry before. If you take the barrelage that Ballast Point currently brews, extrapolate that, and you correlate it to some of the barrelage that some New Mexico breweries are brewing as of 2014, it would put some breweries in this state north of $100 million in value. That’s obviously going to attract a lot of competition.
NMDSBC: One of the other major points we discussed last week was this growing issue between the bars in town and the breweries. We’ve kind of seen this shift, from my perspective, that fresher beers are better. It’s not just the hardcore beer geeks, but the more casual craft beer drinker. People want to get local beer, but they’re rather go to the local breweries and not the bars like they used to. That’s leaving the bars wondering why they should even bother to carry local beer. Now, I’m not sure I buy the argument that they’re really losing anyone from the post-9 p.m. crowd; I think the crowds at breweries late wouldn’t go to the bars and vice versa. But the bar managers talked a lot about how the breweries in Fort Collins close early to help the bars. Do you think there is a middle ground for breweries and bars to coexist?
Angelo: I think there is a middle ground. The thing that you have to take into consideration, I think, is that the vast majority of places that are carrying craft beer now are also serving food. They’re serving very nice, creative dishes, and craft beer tends to complement those dishes very well. So from that perspective I think that craft beer is a great partner for those types of bars and restaurants. I do see the point that if you are going to distribute beer as a brewery and you decide you want to keg beer and get it out to local bars and restaurants, and those folks have been supporting you for some time (but) you decide to open a pub in their neighborhood, I see a bar owner’s point. ‘Hey, I’ve supported you, why would you come to my neighborhood and potentially take some of my business?’
What I think, though, is that there is a lot of upside especially for New Mexico in that the Brewers Guild recently said that something like 5- to 10-percent of Albuquerque’s population is now drinking craft beer. So there’s obviously a lot of upside there. What we have to do is educate folks to trade up to better beer. We have to be smarter about how we pair our menus at food establishments with beer. We have to be advocates or acolytes and sort of torch-bearers for the industry. If those of us that are really big fans of craft beer take time to educate folks, there’s no reason why a local neighborhood brewery’s taproom can’t coexist with the restaurant down the street, even a restaurant or bar that serves craft beer. I think there’s enough volume to go around. We just have to get more people to trade up to craft beer and that’s going to take a lot of education and persistence. Frankly, it’s going to take every brewery that opens putting their best foot forward when it comes to quality.
NMDSBC: You’ve talked a lot about educating people more and more collective promotion. We were talking (recently) about festivals …
Angelo: Reaching critical mass.
NMDSBC: Yes, exactly. The casual drinkers are deciding to go to the macaroni and cheese fest rather than just the craft beer fest, or something like that. People said in response to that maybe the organizers need to do a better job of explaining which fests are more craft-specific and which ones benefit the Guild. Do you get the sense this state still has a ways to go promoting craft beer as a whole, whether through the Guild or through the combined efforts of the breweries? Because right now everyone just seems in it for themselves. It just seems there isn’t the funding behind a push to really advertised the state’s entire scene as a beercation destination. Do you see that?
Angelo: Yeah, I do. What I see is that the Brewers Guild is doing a good job at promoting all of New Mexico’s breweries. What we have to do as folks that are fans of craft beer and in the industry, is help grow this industry by grass roots efforts. So when you’re in the beer aisle at your favorite local place like Jubilation and someone’s there and they don’t understand anything about beer and you see them reaching for an out-of-state brewery or some macro lager, I take that opportunity to say hey, what kind of beer do you like? If they say they like ABC macro lager, then that’s a great opportunity for me to take a few minutes of my time and educate that person. I think it’s just a group effort. Just host a beer-and-cheese dinner party at my house and have 15 people come over and just sort of let’s just enjoy beer and cheese. That’s the type of thing that’s going to make our industry grow.
There’s been some really bright spots from a perspective of a legislative standpoint. We had some nice, beneficial laws that were passed in the last legislative session. The determination of the Brewery District on the I-25 corridor was really great for our industry as well. What I would do now is maybe look to bigger markets as models for how we can sort of develop into a beer vacation spot. I think the allure of Albuquerque is there in the sense that we have this diverse ecosystem where you can be in the snow and two hours later you can be in 50-, 60-, or 70-degree weather. All of these attributes that New Mexico has can be used to help make this a beer destination spot.
One place that comes to mind is Asheville (N.C.). So Asheville has done a great job in saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to get behind this industry. We’re going to put in an infrastructure that makes sense. We’re going to study what these beer drinkers like. They are generally more educated demographic that has a higher disposable income.’ Those are the types of folks that we want to come here (too). It will take some commitment on the part of the leadership in New Mexico to get there. But I think it’s a great sort of idea. In New Mexico, there’s a couple of bright spots in our economy. Brewing happens to be one of them right now, which is really, really great. In light of the last couple days, I was getting my wheels turning in saying, ‘How do we become a beer and mixed martial arts sort of destination?’
NMDSBC: Easy, you just take pictures of Holly Holm at each brewery.
Angelo: (Laughs) How do you highlight what New Mexico wants to highlight? … You want to show ourselves in the best light possible. I think luckily for the leadership in New Mexico, we have some really bright spots int he brewing industry. It’s just a matter of them getting on board and backing them up.
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Thank you to Angelo for sitting down to chat about these issues. The Crew is still planning to try the impossible and get the majority of the brewers and brewery owners in the state to sit down for one huge roundtable in the coming months, but I have a feeling many of them may share their thoughts early in our upcoming Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
Before we all break for Thanksgiving, the Crew plans to get our annual Brewery Merchandise Guide online (yes, before Black Friday, if at all possible). As for Black Friday, we will be over at Jubilation in the morning for the Bourbon County Brand Stout bottle release, followed that night by the special tapping of BCBS at Nob Hill Bar & Grill. See you all out there, and if you want to share your thoughts on the future of the brewing scene with us in person, please do not hesitate. We love getting the discussion going and keeping it going.