As I am one of two members of the Brew Crew who reside on the west side of Rio Grande, I have a certain love of breweries nestled on the riverbank or atop the western mesa of my dear ‘Burque. I was living within a short walk of the former bar space that is now Boxing Bear when the Dark Side Brew Crew was in its infancy, and I was but a babe in the land of hops and malts. I grew up in the river valley as a child and my family owned land on both sides of the river when the west side was not much more than a handful of houses. It stands to account that I hold the river lands very dear and it is a wondrous gift to be able to procure my home brewing equipment and supplies alongside a pint (or a few) from Boxing Bear. On to the narrative and a damn fine conversation with Boxing Bear head brewer Justin Hamilton.
Justin: As far as the look back, this year was a pretty crazy year for us. It was our first full year of completion for Boxing Bear. So, 2015 was pretty nuts, very busy throughout the year, not only brewing, but planning, expanding, (and) dealing with Bearfest.
Franz Solo: Boxing Bear grew as I grew into brewing my own beer, a year of growth that for me was quite incremental, for the Bear was substantially more pronounced. A good year on both accounts I might add.
Justin: We’ve had a lot of fun completing our first year and kind of being able to get a better grip. Being that I’ve been head brewer at Chama, I’ve worked at places like Marble and other places before, (so) I kind of have an idea of what people are expecting as far as specials. I’m still trying to get a grasp on how to get them out to people in time, so that’s one of the things that I’m definitely going to be working on in 2016. Our pumpkin ale is going to be available in September as opposed to October. I think that’s becoming more of a trend you see in brewing is seasonal specials come out months ahead of time of when they are supposed to be so we are going to try to be ahead of that.
But, because of course our house beers, we have to keep that going. That’s always something that’s going to be on the docket, making sure that we always are having those house beers available. Plugging in specials wherever we can, that’s kind of what we are working on, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. We have the ability to almost double our production this year with the current equipment we have, so that’s another big plan of ours.
Our wholesale was a big thing for 2015. Being able to wholesale for us was something that we’ve had the idea from the get-go, but we’ve kind of gotten run through the ringer for the last year and a half. It was a little over a year trying to make sure we obtained a wholesaler’s license just by zoning variances and all this stuff that we weren’t aware of we needed immediately. But, we grow, we live, and we learn, so that’s something we had to put up some money for, we had to do time for. We’ve just barely gotten our ability to do wholesale back in October, so being that we’ve only had not even three full months of wholesaling, our distribution is ramping up, our sales are ramping up, and we’re starting to get in some handles across the city, so we are trying to continue that.
So, that is something that happened in 2015 that is going to set the precedent and pace, I think, for the following years, and we want to continue to use wholesaling as an ability to draw in customers to our pub, and also to get our name out there to the city, to other locations. Right now, we’ve got a few handles in Santa Fe (and) Los Alamos, so we are continuing to expand throughout the state. That’s our goal to continue to do that. That’s one of our main goals is to continue that wholesale with the current equipment that we have.
Solo: And, what a year it was. A first-year championship in our annual Stout Challenge for Standing 8 Stout, and a continually impressive lineup, including personal favorites such as Sucker Punch Double IPA and Body Slam Imperial Pilsner among others.
Justin: This year we’ve purchased another 20-barrel fermenter, two more 20-barrel servers, and a 20-barrel bright tank, and also our bottling equipment. All of it is kind of working together. I see us getting into this where we are about to tip over on that teeter-totter, and that’s going to snowball (as) we are going to continue to roll into 2016. As long as we continue to make a good product, I think that everyone is going to be happy with what we are doing here. We are just going to continue to try and make the pub as good of a staple for any place in Albuquerque for people to come and drink beer, continue making it better, working on making it an actual livable place. That’s one thing that’s always on our mind is reinvesting, making it something that is not only livable for drinkers, but a place to be sought out to go to.
Solo: Certainly a great reason to head to the other side of the river for a relaxing pint nestled on the edge of the Bosque whether by two wheels or four.
Justin: I think if we can progress and keep our products good, our name going (then) I think that it’s going to be something that people will actually come and see us, make the trip over the river, and it’s something that’s going to be worth their time.
Solo: A sentiment I have embraced from the very start, being blessed to live a short drive from the Bear. I encourage anyone who had not made it over to make that happen, you will not be disappointed.
Justin: We are trying to grow at a healthy pace.
Solo: Are you looking to do more bottle releases?
Justin: Yeah, that’s going to be a big thing in 2016 for us as well. We want to try to bottle something probably about every month, maybe every two months at the most. So, if we can keep up having as many beers as we do on tap, but also doing special releases in bombers, or maybe having both at the same time (it could work). Our next beer should be a double IPA as long as everything goes well, and then after that we are looking to do a Baltic porter in February.
It appears things are going well since we have enjoyed the subsequent release of Sucker Punch Double IPA, and the release of the GABF medal-winning Chocolate Milk Stout in the time after this interview was done. If you know the true nature of the Crew, we were quite excited to hear of a possible Baltic porter and await its arrival with palates at the ready!
Justin: So, we have that stuff kind of rolling, so it’s always on the back of our minds what we are going to produce and brew next for a bomber. But, we are also planning to expand our draft selection here, so we are looking hopefully at the beginning of the year hopefully expanding from 12 to 16 taps. That is going to be something to keep up with is that we want to keep our cider on tap all the time, so that is another purchase that we made is a tank that is devoted to cider. With having 16 taps available, you want to have at least cider and a nitro on tap at any time with our 12-tap selection, and then if we have the ability to fill those extra two taps at any given point, if it’s another nitro (or) if it’s two other specials, we’re going to do that as well. It’s just going to give us options to have more consistency with ciders, our nitro beers, and everything else.
Solo: The possibility of a nitro and a pair of specials on at any time are a delightful thought and potential experience to be sure.
Justin: I see 2016 as being a big growing year for us. 2015 was as well, but being that we only had less than half of 2014 to see how we were going to get into things, and we did really well for our first year, year and a half. But, the fact that we are getting into our second year is really exciting. We are going to do Bearfest again and we want to make it even bigger this year. We are going to have more room, we are going to have possibly some more breweries, and we’re going to keep the layout that we did with samples and sales of pints as well. The patrons enjoyed it (and) the brewers enjoyed it. Everybody seemed to have a really good time, and it’s a festival that we want to make a staple, an annual event.
Solo: The desire is for it to be an annual event where the best breweries are showcased. As an attendee for what amounted to my birthday weekend, the first Bearfest was an excellent event all around. I certainly look forward to spending many more at this event in the years to come.
Justin: Expansion will probably continue a little bit this year, but not nearly as much as last year. This year we are going to finish under 1,000 barrels, and by next year it would be nice if we could get to 2,000. Realistically growing, I could see us getting to 1,600 to 1,800, hopefully. It’s all going to be about our wholesale, our name getting out there a little bit more. We are starting to gain more popularity as far as what people will think of as like the best breweries in the city. My goal for 2016 is to get less and less people to say, who are you and where are you from, at every beer festival.
Solo: Boxing Bear wants to be part of that core set of breweries in New Mexico and the foundation for such a marriage is certainly set. Boxing Bear will be joining as many beer-centric festivals throughout the coming year as part of showing people who they are and what they are about — good craft beer.
Justin: Any festival here in the city known for craft beer attendance, we are going to be there.
Solo: No matter what brewer I’ve asked, I don’t know how to do this or whatever, they will almost always say well, I don’t know half of what I want to know (about said subject).
Justin: Brewing is always going to be somewhat of a mystical beast, which is what makes it fun. Things happen for good and bad; you never know why sometimes. Someone might be able to explain it to you, but even that person that can explain it to you may not even really know. John Palmer (author of Brewing Classic Styles, among other well-worthy publications) was here a few weeks ago and I had asked him a question about oxygen intake of yeast. He was like, honestly it’s hard for us to even know that, because who knows how much oxygen one cell of yeast is taking in, what it needs to kick up its metabolism. This is John Palmer. If anyone is going to know the science behind beer, it is going to be that guy, and for the fact that even those guys will say, I don’t know sometimes, that’s something that I have to remember as well. I work with beer, and beer works with me, or against me.
Solo: The lessons learned by Justin in his journey through several breweries prior to the Bear, has helped him to maintain the consistency of the beers at Boxing Bear, which is a goal of course for every year.
Justin: Quality and consistency are always going to be something that we strive for. As we grow, and we are brewing more and more batches every year, that is where it becomes harder and harder. It is something we are going to have to consider that once we start brewing a lot more, there are going to be things that we run into that we have to be able to figure out on the fly. So, that is another thing that we are always talking about, is with growth, we want to do it properly, we want to do it at the right speed, but we don’t mind growing as fast as we can as long as it doesn’t affect the quality.
Other stuff for 2015 that was good for us, we had the IPA Challenge here, that was a great event. We had people saying that we needed more seating and it’s hot outside, and those are concerns that we are trying to work on, but it’s hard with an event like that. All you can say to that is that at least we have places to sit. I see IPA Challenge turning into something where it is almost going to have to be at a neutral location; it’s getting harder and harder.
Solo: And bigger and bigger.
Justin: But, that being said you know I wouldn’t mind hosting it again. IPA Challenge was great. Of course, you know GABF was awesome for us being one of the four breweries in the state to take home a medal (silver for the Chocolate Milk Stout). We were super excited about that, something that is going to increase our clout, I guess. We weren’t necessarily expecting anything, because it’s such a crapshoot every year, but being that we won was really exciting. It was one of the best things that could have happened to us, other than a gold, which, I’ll take a silver any day. It was great to bring home a medal in our very first year of competition.
Solo: Certainly an auspicious start to garner one of the awards, to which an ever increasing pool of breweries strive to attain.
Justin: I think 2016 is going to be a year of growth, a kind of culmination, and not necessarily a regroup, but kind of a re-strategize on how we want to move forward. I think we are also looking into the possibility of doing bigger and better things. Do we want to expand more of our brewery? Do we want to open a taproom in the future? Those are all things we are going to explore in 2016.
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The second year for the Bear certainly looks bright from where I sit. A year to continue doing what they are doing quite well, in my opinion. A year to grow at what they are doing, with a focus on maintaining quality. It is clear that Boxing Bear is pushing to be on par with the best in ‘Burque, whether it be festival attendance, GABF presence, marketing, wholesaling, or packaging. So, until next time, I bid you all a hearty pint and a fond fare-thee-well. End communication.
— Franz Solo