John Gozigian is not some newcomer to the craft beer scene. The new executive director of the New Mexico Brewers Guild was there when the organization came into formation in 2011-12. As a former co-owner at Marble Brewery, John saw the initial explosion of our current craft beer scene. Now, two years after accepting a buyout of his shares and leaving Marble, he is back in his new role, with a new vision of just what that role is, and the role of the Guild itself.
“We had several of the packaging breweries that were facing an excise tax crisis in that we were about to hit this threshold where the excise tax would balloon, it would quintuple at 5,000 barrels,” John said of those initial gatherings in 2011. “That was going to put a huge damper on these nascent packaging breweries in New Mexico. That was the impetus to get together at first. What do we do about this? Our competitors in surrounding states aren’t paying anywhere near that kind of excise tax.”
While that initial issue brought the breweries together, keeping them together as a united front has becoming increasingly more challenging as the scene has exploded. The days where everyone knew everyone else have long since passed. It is time, then, that the Guild evolves beyond simply fighting for legislation in Santa Fe and organizing festivals.
“I had someone ask me the other day, ‘What’s the Guild going to do over the next several years?’ The answer is, there’s not really an individual hot-button issue right now that we need to rally around necessarily that we know of, (but) I think there will be (eventually),” John said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
“The importance of the Guild is to continue to maintain this ability to mobilize the craft brewers of New Mexico and their respective customer bases if we need to protect ourselves. There’s always stuff going on in legislation that might not be on your radar, but it could be potentially detrimental to you. We have to protect ourselves. That’s when we really show what we’re made of.”
John said the current 30-day legislative session does not feature much regarding craft beer (other than a bill to allow grocery stores and liquor stores to potentially fill growlers, something the Guild is neutral on), but 2017 should see another attempt to lower the state excise tax, which is the highest in the Southwest.
“Right now we’re protected up to 15,000, well, we have relief up until 15,000 barrels,” John said. “And then it goes away after that, it goes back up to 41 cents for every barrel over 15,000. We’re still way better off than we were two years ago. But, that’s a legitimate thing we’re going to have to deal with, and plus this current law sunsets in, I think, 2023.”
The Guild will push to deal with both of those aspects next year.
“First, we have to protect what we have already, and then see if we can bump it up a little, because still in New Mexico our breweries are comparatively small,” John said. “Our biggest brewery (Santa Fe) is making around 20,000 barrels a year. You go to Colorado and you can throw a rock and hit a brewery that’s doing 100,000 barrels-plus. There’s a bunch of them. In Colorado, I think it’s 8 cents a gallon for no matter what your barrelage is. They’re definitely at an advantage there. If you run a brewery, you want a lot more of your money to go back into your business.”
While those legislative efforts get the big headlines, John still has more immediate issues to deal with, from deciding on what to do with the festivals as well as making sure all the new breweries are being brought into the fold.
“For me, it’s going to be about really promoting the culture of craft brewing and craft brewers, because even as recently as five years ago, we all knew each other,” he said. “But, it was easy, there wasn’t that many of us.
“Almost all of us had worked together at some point in the past. Now, there are breweries being opened by people I’ve never met, never worked with, I don’t know anybody who has ever worked with them. So, what does that mean? It means it’s going to be incumbent upon us as the Guild to bring those guys into the fold.”
As if to prove his point, we were meeting at Starr Brothers Brewing, and owner John Starr and his staff all stopped by to introduce themselves. John had never met anyone working there before.
“We do embrace one another, that camaraderie is still alive,” he said. “We’re here to help you. We all have a vested interest in New Mexico beer being really good, whether I’m brewing it or you’re brewing it. We want to elevate the perception of New Mexico beer nationwide. In order to do that, there has to be support. If you’re one of these new breweries, you should call me. We’re not clan-ish, we’re not exclusive.”
As such, John and the Guild’s Board of Directors have numerous plans for 2016 and beyond.
“We have a lot of combined years of knowledge and helping out, whether it’s the technical aspects of brewing, the business side of brewing, rules and regs and legislation, permitting, all that stuff,” he said. “We’re a wealth of information. You don’t get that if you’re not part of the scene, not part of the Guild.
“Then you get to come to our Guild socials, come to our technical conferences, you get to participate in the festivals. You get to mix with the people who have been doing it a long time. I think that’s got to be the focus. It’s not easy like it used to be. If you were a brewer you could pick up the phone and call another brewery and you knew them all. Now, you really have to make an effort to know one another. The Guild will be reaching out a lot, bringing in new members, putting on more social functions and get-togethers, not necessarily festivals but meetings for brewery people so we can swap ideas.”
As for the festivals, John said some of them are “no-brainers” for the Guild to continue, such as WinterBrew in Santa Fe, Blazin’ Brewfest in Las Cruces, and of course the IPA Challenge. The Guild was meeting this week to determine the future of other festivals in which they have partnered, such as the New Mexico Brew Fest and Mountain West Brew Fest.
It was a tough year for some of the Guild festivals, especially in the summer/early fall, when it seemed as though there was a full-on festival overload, swallowing up their events and leading to low attendance and less revenue than was expected.
“I know there’s a lot of excitement about doing festivals,” John said. “But, the mind I do have is that not just do the breweries have fatigue, but there may even be fatigue with customers. Well, let me retract that, not fatigue, but there are too many to choose from for all of them to really be well-attended.
“They’re overlapping and competing with one another. It’s a lot of work to put on a festival, it really is. It’s time-consuming and very risky financially. It has to be well thought out. We want to do really good festivals that showcase New Mexico beer, that feature new breweries that haven’t been on the festival circuit yet.”
While most of our readers have complained that the lack of new beers being offered was a major detriment to festival attendance, for many of the breweries, the cost of attendance outweighed everything else.
“And then also, one of the big things for the breweries that participate is, especially the brewpubs, they need to at least recoup their costs a little bit,” John said. “If you have a big packaging brewery they can mark it off as a marketing expense. But, if you’re a little brewpub in the other corner of New Mexico, you can’t justify going across the state to a festival because you’re not going to get any return on that in terms of customer traffic.
“We still want them to do that, (but) they need to make a little money on it. Those are all of things we have to balance when we put on a festival and decide how many we’re going to do and how many breweries are going to participate in it.”
Another area where New Mexico has seemingly fallen behind its neighbors is in terms of promoting the state as a beercation destination. The guilds in Arizona and Colorado have been much more active in promoting their entire craft beer scenes, rather than relying solely on the individual breweries. That should be changing here soon.
“Because it dovetails so nicely, you already get a lot of tourism here,” John said. “I think it’s definitely another arrow in the quiver if you can market in New Mexico tourism the number and quality of breweries here. In that vein, we’ve actually had that the last couple of years, the New Mexico tourism department with our beer map, they’ve actually covered half the cost of that. Which has really been helpful. It’s one of the biggest tools we have; they’re in every single brewery that’s a Guild member. If you stop at a brewery and pick up a map, and you’re a tourist in New Mexico, you can see where (else) to go. It’s so neat and it’s so easy.”
Still, the Guild can go beyond just having those maps (which could probably use another update with all the places opening this month).
“That’s really an opportunity that’s ripe for exploitation,” John said. “Craft beer is a (national) craze. Around the country, people love craft beer. They love to travel to new places and try the local craft beer. Now, almost everywhere you go, there are going to be craft breweries. I might be biased, but I think we have constantly punched above our weight in New Mexico in terms of population size both in MMA and also in craft brewing. Isn’t it weird that two New Mexico breweries (La Cumbre and Marble) have won Best American Ale at the Great British Beer Festival? Two breweries from New Mexico! … We have less than 2 million people in this state, we’re not a wealthy state, so for us to be able to pull that off is amazing.”
That in turn should lead to a lot more of the Guild promoting the entire craft scene in New Mexico, which fits nicely with the idea of bringing the breweries together more so they can help push each other to bring all of their beers up to the elite level.
After all, this state has won 20 medals at the last three Great American Beer Festivals (plus Marble won best small brewery in 2014), it has two breweries (Bosque and La Cumbre) who won the last two National IPA Challenges, and those aforementioned GBBF awards.
“What I think we really want to do is promote the Guild as more of brand itself,” John said. “I think New Mexico beer as a brand has legs, because, for the reasons I just cited at the Great British Beer Festival, the National IPA Challenge, the Great American Beer Festival and all the medals. It’s become a brand in and of itself. We have a nice logo and artwork. We need to promote that so that every brewery in the state can fall under that banner of New Mexico beer is great beer. So, I think you’ll see more in the imagery going forward, in the festivals that we do. The New Mexico Brewers Guild brand is going to be more prominent.”
After all, promoting New Mexico beer as a brand has a tangible benefit beyond more medals and increased tourism.
“You want to see more growth, more of our beer exported out of the state,” John said. “(But) the more beer we sell in state, the more people spend at our breweries, the more money stays here.
“I don’t have the exact number, but this glass of beer, how many jobs does it support in New Mexico? Then compare that to a beer made outside of New Mexico, I would bet the ratio is three or four to one.”
All of us in the Crew look forward to working with John and the Guild in the years to come.