Tractor keeps the Beer Farm growing this year and into the next

Posted: December 11, 2015 by cjax33 in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2015-16
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It's been a busy year with big crowds on the Beer Farm. (Photo courtesy of Tractor)

It’s been a busy year with big crowds on the Beer Farm. (Photo courtesy of Tractor)

Week one of our Look Back/Look Ahead Series wraps up with a trek over to Tractor, where things have been on an even keel for most of 2015. Much like La Cumbre and Bosque, however, there could be some big things coming in 2016. To help guide me through what was and what will be, I was joined in the Wells Park conference room by owner Skye Devore, owner/brewer David Hargis, and event coordinators/social media gurus Carlos Contreras and Jeremy Kinter.

“It’s been a crazy year,” Skye said. “It’s been an interesting year for sure. We settled into this space and things are going well with it. It’s just been a real year of settling into where we are and trying to figure out what to conquer next. It’s been big for us. But we’re definitely fans of slow and steady wins the race. We don’t need to explode into new places all the time. That’s kind of been the year it’s been. We’ve been doing a lot more of off-site stuff, really building a whole bunch of our own events, which is fun and trying out new spaces without a full commitment, which is also fun.”

While Tractor has been smoothing out the rough edges at home, things have evolved considerably around them.

“There’s definitely a change in terrain of the craft beer industry in Albuquerque,” Skye said. “There’s more breweries, there’s more festivals, more, more, more, more! When you look back 10 years when I started with the brewery, it’s such a different world, Albuquerque and craft beer than it was then. It’s so different!”

As a brewery that packages and distributes, albeit on a smaller scale than La Cumbre, Marble, or Santa Fe, Tractor has still faced some challenges that many other breweries do not face. In particular, the issue of too many festivals has often left Tractor caught between a rock and a hard place. They need to be present to showcase their wares for sale off-site, but at the same time, they often encounter a crowd looking for different beers than what they can buy over at Jubilation or even the corner gas station.

“It’s a constant struggle that we face whenever we go and do a new festival,” Skye said. “If you’re going to look at a festival as a marketing opportunity, you obviously want to take the beers that you mass distribute because that’s what you’re trying to market overall. You take those and then you get this wave of disappointment that you didn’t bring something new and fun and exciting. So that’s something that goes into consideration.

“Sometimes you don’t even realize what’s going to happen when you get to an event. Even events that we’ve done for years completely changed their dynamic this year. The people that you’re seeing at them are changing, the expectation of the consumer are changing. It’s almost like a planned (but) new thing, that you’re trying to do. That’s really kind of hard to navigate because you have your distribution, you have your two taprooms, you have all of your special events you’re doing outside of just beer festivals. And then you have those, too, and it’s a lot to keep up with.”

As the person in charge of the beer itself, David chimed in.

“This year, we do a lot of seasonals you’d like to see in 15-barrel batches, we can last those seven to 10 days between both taprooms,” he said. “What you hate to do is show up on a Saturday with something people really enjoy and then they go to your taproom on a Sunday and it’s not even available. So there’s so many layers to doing those events, but we do have fun at them.”

“Everyone stepped up their game so much,” Skye added. “Everyone used to have a table and a jockey box. Now everyone has a tent and a flag and all of this stuff. It’s like fun, you’re like wow, everyone is stepping up their game. But at the same time you’re like when did this happen?”

Skye said it used to be beer festivals were just about “a free sunburn” and unlimited samples. All of that will lead to further adjustments by the participating breweries in the future.

Monthly events like the Desert Darlings' shows have been a big hit this year.

Monthly events like the Desert Darlings’ shows have been a big hit this year.

A much smoother issue to deal with this year were the on-site events at both Tractor locations. Wells Park, in particular, has become a go-to destination for all sorts of artists. Thanks to Carlos, Jeremy, and their staff, it is not just about beer-and-a-band anymore. Tractor has branched out to support numerous different causes, from individual artists to charities and other groups, all across the community.

“It requires the managers and staff to work to effectively execute an event that’s designed and planned and promote it appropriately right,” Carlos said. “It’s like one big working machine, and that machine seems to have gotten bigger and continued to work at a pretty high capacity. With the trust and belief of David and Skye, we’ve been given the OK to bring in more than just bands and beer. When I talk to people in Albuquerque to recognize what Tractor has done as a whole, it’s about community, it’s bigger than just entertainment. We’re more about community than everything, but that community happens to have a whole lot of artists and they need somewhere to go half the time.”

Tractor has even been able to work with others to create numerous off-site, non-festival events, like the successful Holiday Market in an empty business space across Central from the Nob Hill taproom during Shop and Stroll last week.

“We get a lot of inquiries to create space for art and artists and that’s something we take very seriously,” Carlos said. “Sometimes it’s about how many people are going to come through the door. It’s a big attraction and it’s going to have a lot of fun, but sometimes it’s because those artists need to somewhere to be and we don’t know how many people are going to come through there. It’s just as important as the business is. We’re building a brand, we’re building a space for community that is a non-traditional space for community but I think it’s being embraced by a lot of people. We have City Councilors and a lot of people that walk through this place going, ‘It’s a brewery?’ because of what’s going on it it.”

Of course, Tractor is still a business, and it can often be a tough but not impossible challenge to balance the need for profit against the desire to help out a particular artist or a particular cause. So far, the staff has been up to the challenge.

“I think it’s important to be as diverse as we are, especially with all of the competition in town,” Jeremy said. “You can go (to another) brewery and they’ll have an event one day a week. Most of hte time you come here and there will be something going on, whether you expect it or not. I think we value that, we want to give the artist a chance and people a reason to come.”

“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” Skye admitted. “We have weird, off-the-wall stuff and we’re like, OK, that was interesting, I don’t think we’ll do that again, but at least we tried!”

“Being willing to take that risk is a cool thing, though,” Carlos added. “Because your regulars, even like the folks that don’t enjoy the experience sometimes, still enjoy the attempt by the business. Everything has somewhere to go at least, and be tried it out rather than just be about beer and bands.”

Tractor even had events outside in the parking lot at times, such as this Red Light Cameras performance.

Tractor even had events outside in the parking lot at times, such as this Red Light Cameras performance.

In branching out to different walks of art and community causes, though, Tractor can also draw in crowds that are not typical craft beer drinkers.

“It’s a great win for us and an opportunity to attract people to craft beer in general,” David said. “When you embrace a group of people that’s not exposed to craft and they come to a brewery and they try something other than a mass-produced beer for a first time, and as other artists they can appreciate something that’s made by hand, made small. You introduce them to this world that’s ever growing, but there’s still, for our market, still a solid 70 to 80 percent that needs to be drinking craft that’s not doing it.”

That type of exposure benefits the various artists, as well.

“That’s also a great opportunity for the artists we work with,” Skye said. “I often see the artists we work with, another month (later) they’re at another brewery. It’s like a really great way for them to get exposure, quote, running the brewery circuit.

“Whenever you’re not big enough to play at Sister or the Launchpad, but you want to do more than play brunch at Garduno’s, I think we create a space for that.”

New hop contracts and a possible new taproom highlight 2016 objectives

Things are looking bright for Tractor in 2016. Maybe not Karl-in-his-4th-of-July-tux-on-the-bartop bright, but pretty good nonetheless.

Things are looking bright for Tractor in 2016. Maybe not Karl-in-his-4th-of-July-tux-on-the-bartop bright, but pretty good nonetheless.

Tractor has never scored as high as their many neighbors with the most sophisticated beer drinkers, especially when it comes to hoppy beers. While the darker, maltier beers have traditionally been well received, Tractor’s IPAs have lagged far behind the likes of Bosque, La Cumbre, and Marble.

“For us, IPA is always something that we’re experimenting with constantly,” David said. “So, 2016 for us is going to be very exciting we’re going to have under contract for the first time — Citra, Simcoe, Mosaic. Over the last year or two, if we ended up with 44 pounds of one of those somehow, on a random chance on the spot market, it’s great. We made some fun and I think really quality IPAs over the year playing with those. But, we never could continue to tweak the recipe or work on it because we used everything we had up. So, 2016 we have a greater diversity of hops that will really allow us to bring out some more IPAs that are maybe more in line with what IPA drinkers are looking for.”

David said Tractor has long marched to their own drum beat as far as IPAs and other hoppy beers went, but now it has become clear the public wants them to catch up with their more heralded colleagues. A good example came at the VIPA Challenge in July, where Tractor failed to even qualify for the main NMIPAC rounds.

“That’s one for us, if you want to talk about successes and failures, we just have to come out and say it, the IPA Challenge this year was crazy for us,” Skye said. “We found out the beer we put in, when you just sat down and had a pint of it, it was a great beer. But when you put it on a tray with all of these other great beers, there were notes in it that we didn’t even know were there that came out. We were shocked by that one. It was a beer we’re really proud of in the single setting of our brewery. But, it’s not one that putting it on the tray at IPA Challenge, that I think is one that is things we’d like to have back, that was one for me.”

“The thing we learned from that is back to that doing our own thing, making our own IPA, that’s not the way to go,” David added. “It’s going to have to be the one that the palate of greater Albuquerque, greater New Mexico wants to drink. We’re trying to get more in line with an IPA that fits that. Back to the IPA Challenge, it’s only 10 days, but we didn’t even make the cut. It was one of the most popular IPAs we ever made (at the brewery), but it was also one of the biggest failures.”

Oh, Turkey Drool, you are one of our favorite seasonals of all time. Malty for the win!

Oh, Turkey Drool, you are one of our favorite seasonals of all time. Malty for the win!

Tractor will not completely abandon the maltier, lower ABV beers just because they have more hops to play with, however.

“Beyond that, some other fun things this year, we came up with a California Common beer that was a huge hit at every event we went to,” David said. “Going forward to 2016, we’re going to be coming out with some more lower ABV beers. They don’t seem to be big sellers, but they’re constant sellers that people can look for and embrace. This beer that was named the Ruggles, ended up being a really popular beer for us. As we move forward into 2016 we’re going to do some seasonals out there with (tap) handles and we think that’s the area that we want to sort of explore. Light beers, or lower ABV beers, not light in the sense of light, but something that’s more approachable. Something you can drink while mowing the lawn, that beer you can count on to be there. That sessionable beer, literally that. We’re going to explore some sessionable beers.”

Tractor will keep playing around with their various seasonal and specialty beers as well. One good example of a popular beer that was not even meant to be was the Scotcholate, which went back on tap on Thursday. David said there was a mix-up in the recipe where someone put in 55 pounds of chocolate malt instead of 10, but in the end the beer was better than expected and sold out quickly. That type of quirky, random creativity will never go away at Tractor, though for the most part, everything will be a bit more intentional than pure luck of the draw.

Another big development for 2016 will see the release of several barrel-aged offerings. They will not, however, just be variations of heavy, dark beers aged in bourbon or whiskey barrels.

“So a little teaser, we started our sour program in January 2015,” David said. “So shortly we have 12 wine barrels that been aging with sour in there. We’re in no rush, but we’re going to let them do their thing. We’re in a pretty good spot right now but I think we’re going to blend those with another 12 to 24 barrels, so we can get a real solid sour program. We know not everyone is a sour fan, but we are.”

There will soon be even more equipment in the back at Tractor. Brew Crew members not included.

There will soon be even more equipment in the back at Tractor. Brew Crew members not included.

For more traditional barrel-aged fans — and clearly, yes, they were all looking directly at me — Tractor will have bourbon-barrel aged Luna De Los Muertos Russian Imperial Stout, Barleywine, and Scotcholate, plus a wine-barrel-aged Apple Cider.

To help keep up with demand, the spacious brewing area will have some new additions.

“On our side, just from a brewing perspective, just from operations, we have three new 60-barrel fermenters that just arrived last week,” David said. “We are finally getting our boiler hooked up, so our hot liquor tank will become steam on our entire system. Which will double our brewing capability, which is great. A 60-barrel brite as well, which will be arriving in a week or two. You should be able to find our beer in a lot more places; 600 new kegs arrived in the last week or two. It’s a big push to get more of our staples out on the market.”

David said there are several beers lagering at present, including new editions of the Maibock, Doppelbock, and several stout variations people have not seen before at Tractor.

“We’re the malty beer people,” Skye said with a smile.

There will also be a nitro tap at both Tractor locations soon. They will start out by trying out some of the house beers on nitro to help them perfect the process before moving on to the less plentiful seasonals.

Of course, with more beer production capability, the question shall arise as to whether or not Tractor could consider a third location. A new taproom is on the table, Skye said.

“We’re considering new taproom locations,” she said. “There’s lots of new opportunities there to look at a few new places. We have to make sure we can commit to the same atmosphere and that we bring our A game to a new space.

“For us, being able to tie back into what we can do from an events and art basis, that to me is the primary concern. There’s a lot of places you can go and there will be a crowd that’s looking into craft beer in New Mexico now. But being able to maintain that as part of your brand and doing what you intend to at one of your locations, that’s important.”

“It’s got to go into a community that it can serve, with beer but beyond the beer,” Carlos added. “How does it have a bigger footprint than just overall beer sales? What’s the endgame, what’s the brand impact on the neighborhood?”

Will crowds like this still be at Wells Park if there is a taproom on the West Side?

Will crowds like this still be at Wells Park if there is a taproom on the West Side?

The West Side of Albuquerque seems like a logical landing spot, though even that comes with some risk.

“On a real basis, the people coming through here, not late but mid-evening, are on their way home from downtown to the West Side, we have a big demographic and I believe Marble does as well, of people heading home,” David said. “I wonder, if that area and all of those people who come here (frequently), if we give them more choices will it affect us?”

“Do art fights and belly dancing go over well in Rio Rancho or places like that?” Skye added. “I don’t know. I’m not really sure how that works out. It’s all under consideration.”

Skye said they might consider going outside the Albuquerque metro area, but that would create a shakeup in how Tractor does business with their current two locations.

“I guess it’s definitely a consideration, it’s (just) hard for us to manage logistically,” she said. “Bosque has done a really great job, but Gabe (Jensen) is able to spend a lot of time in Las Cruces and go back and forth. I don’t know if I have the desire to do that. I wouldn’t say that nothing is off of the table, but you pick the low-hanging fruit for us and I don’t know if that’s low-hanging for us right now, especially with the way that we manage our taprooms. We have shared staff between them. We couldn’t exactly schedule a Las Cruces shift or a Roswell shift.”

Somewhere, taproom manager Melissa Martinez is breathing a sigh of relief.

In terms of focusing on the existing spaces, Skye and David have some ideas for 2016.

“Obviously, we’d like bigger bathrooms in Nob Hill,” Skye said. “So perhaps that will make the list some day. Here, we just have tons of square footage. Getting the new brewing equipment installed is big. Sometimes I feel like walking through the brewery I should always wear a hard hat.”

As for Wells Park, while there is a large area on the east side of the building that is not being heavily used, plans are a bit up in the air as to what to do with it.

“We found a great building,” David said. “We had 10,000 square feet in the back that’s used for storage and it’s somehow always packed. It would be good to have a ton of 100-barrel fermenters back here and we could make awesome beer and a ton of it. But at the same time, too, but we think it’s a good space for an entertainment space. More of a dedicated space inside, with the right construction, we could create another element to us that would be inside and covered.”

Skye noted that parking could then become a greater issue. At present, a site like Wells Park is required to have one parking space per every four customers. Up at Nob Hill, it is one for every six. While that makes sense to some degree, by 5 p.m. the majority of the businesses around Wells Park are closed just as the taproom gets busy.

“We can’t expand our occupy-able space even though there’s tons of parking around us,” Skye said. “If everything else around you is closing before peak hours, just like it is for Jeff (Erway) over at La Cumbre or over at Marble, should you get some leniency in the parking department? That’s one of those legislative things that the Brewers Guild is not going to take up, so maybe we need some sort of Albuquerque brewing parking coalition, or some other ridiculous cause.”

Considering how she went all the way to the City Council to get the restriction on growler sales in Nob Hill amended, no one should count out Skye when she gets an idea in her head. All of us in the Crew are quite certain that plenty of other breweries, especially places like Red Door and Nexus, would love to support anything that could help them with their parking issues.

The Crew will keep on top of all the developments at Tractor in 2016, from a possible new taproom to just being sure to try all of the beers coming out (it is a tough job, right?). A huge thank you to Skye, David, Carlos, and Jeremy for taking the time to sit down and chat for a half-hour and beyond. Though I have to imagine Nicole Duke thanks all of you even more than I, since the last two years she had to do this interview/story by herself. She seemed rather relaxed and relieved over in her office while we were meeting.

Until the next entry in this series, which should involve a certain rapidly expanding, powerhouse brewery downtown.

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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