A common and not so common year for Back Alley

Posted: January 7, 2016 by amyotravel in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2015-16
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Back Alley hopes for some stability in 2016.

Back Alley hopes for some stability in 2016.

On a recent, ice-cold December afternoon I sat down with Peter Moore, head brewer for Back Alley Draft House in downtown Albuquerque. We discussed the previous year as well as what may lie ahead in 2016. We started out by continuing a discussion we had in October at the New Mexico Brew Fest.

I told him back then how much I appreciated the fact that they brew a California Common, because I love the super refreshing style on a warm day. It’s one of my favorites and it’s not easy to find locally. It’s not on tap at Back Alley now, so I lamented about that fact. Peter said that they tried to tweak the recipe and make a honey common, but it came out really smoky and people could not recognize it as the style. Right now that experimental version is on tap as Smoky Honey, its own thing. But, good news, the highly regarded California Common will be back on tap soon! It’s currently back in the fermenter.

I asked about other new beers. “It’s very sporadic,” Peter said. “We do sort of different stuff all the time. It’s ever changing. Nothing really stays on. Unless it goes out really fast, we will usually then throw it on again and again.”

They have smaller equipment, so it is easy for them to make small batches. Right now they have a chocolate-coconut stout called, appropriately enough, Mounds Stout. They also have Wild Hop Pilsner. This beer is unique because they picked the wild hops all over the Jemez wilderness. It’s similar to the Neomexicanus.

Peter just took over as head brewer about four months ago. He was a home brewer and worked at homebrew stores, both Southwest Grape and Grain and Victor’s, before apprenticing for about a year at Back Alley with Brandon Venaglia, who is now the brewer at Cazuela’s.

“Brandon would come in to buy supplies and it sort of just worked out that he was like, ‘I really could use some help. I’m kind of struggling right now,’” Peter said. “And I was like, well, I really need you, you don’t have to pay me, like I just want to learn. So, it turned into he just paid me in beer. We kind of clicked together and when he moved on he was, like, do you want the job? I don’t know who else I’m going to get to take the job. So it’s yours or it’s nobody’s.”

Currently, Peter does not have his own apprentice and does not plan to change that. Winter slows down for them traffic-wise, other than holiday parties, so he has been able to get ahead on beer. In fact, he has so much of his own beer ready he is going to have to “steal” one of the guest taps to get everything he wants on.

The hard part, Peter said, is marketing. It’s something Back Alley has struggled with for a long time. He said, “At all the brew fests, everyone is like, oh, when did you open? I say, oh, four years ago. They are like, what?!?”

I asked Peter about his favorite beer to brew.

“Probably the Righteous RIPA — red rye IPA,” Peter said. “It’s my spin on an IPA, and it’s actually pretty much a double. It’s 106 IBU, but has a little maltiness on it. And, it’s about 7.6-percent ABV. It was my first beer here with Brandon and I have been trying to improve on it. We have another IPA as well that we do for IPA Challenge. It’s hard to compete with IPAs here in Albuquerque. Most of my IPAs are large grain bills and hop bills and I actually still buy from Victor’s. There’s no point for me to have a BSG account yet. So, I have to pretty much go with whatever he has. Either substitute or brew something else.”

That flowed into a conversation about 2016. One of Peter’s main goals is to educate their servers and have them push their beer. He said he had a guy who was in on a regular basis for about six months, but didn’t know they made their own beer because the servers weren’t pushing it. They are a beer bar with great taps, but they are also a brewery. He also created a new sign (see photo) that lists their beers in a more prominent fashion. They were using paper menus, but he wanted to stop that because they frequently changed and had to be reprinted so often. Also, Peter is hoping to change the taps around so the Back Alley beers are featured on the best set of taps visually.

These are all economical fixes. Some of the other plans will take more funding and therefore require prioritization due to the fact they are such a small brewery. He has no advertising budget. In fact, Peter reported that he has not even been able to buy merchandise. (Note: That means there aren’t a bunch of people walking around in their T-shirts, advertising the brand.) The reason is they are hoping to buy a 3.5-barrel system, hopefully in June or July. That started my head spinning, because I could not fathom where they would put it. It turns out they will need to take some space from the bar itself.

Other future plans include looking into getting a distributor license and getting some of their beer on tap at other venues. They currently have two locations for their beer, the other being in Las Vegas; Las Vegas, New Mexico, that is. It’s another location of the JC’s New York Pizza Department (the restaurant that occupies the front portion of their downtown Albuquerque space; the part that faces Central). They also hope to work with the State (probably through the Brewers Guild and Chris Goblet) to try and revise a strange growler sales licensing issue in the Huning Highland/East Downtown part of Albuquerque. But, since they don’t have growlers to even sell, that is a lower priority.

Their biggest event of the year as a brewery is the Tower of Sour. Peter admitted to a lack of experience in brewing sours, so there is a learning curve. But, it is something he definitely wants to continue.

Back Alley has had its share of turnover in brewers. No one has stayed much longer than a year, but Peter said he hopes to change that. Hopefully they will acquire the new equipment, and as a result see increases in both consistent core beers and the longevity of the brewing staff. Oh, and on a personal note, hopefully the California Common never, ever runs out. Ever.

Stay warm, Albuquerque!

— AmyO

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