Rio Bravo revs up for what should continue to be a busy year

Posted: April 4, 2016 by cjax33 in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2015-16
The new canning line at Rio Bravo is almost ready to go.

The new canning line at Rio Bravo is almost ready to go.

Sometimes there are quick interviews. Sometimes there are really long interviews, where the conversation ranges from focusing on concrete details to going off on wild tangents. Such was the case last week when I sat down with brewers Ty Levis and John Seabrooks at Rio Bravo. It took me a while to sort out the valuable information from us rambling about the lack of good craft beer at local music venues and plenty of other random subjects.

Ty and John have been exceptionally busy with the installation of their canning line and a whole lot more. Even though the winter months are typically the slow season for breweries, it has not been the case for Rio Bravo. Now, with the summer months looming, they took what little free time they had to chat about how far the brewery has come.

“I still look back at the last year with an immense amount of pride for getting a lot done,” Ty said. “I know it wasn’t done in the cheapest manner possible, but it was done right. I can guarantee that we went after it, we pulled back dollars where we could, but we went after it and did it the right way.

“As a brewer, this has been like a dream, you know? I’ve had to not butt heads, I’ve had to not be like this is the line I’m drawing, this is the minimum standard I need to meet with what we’re doing, and it was always met. With the canning line, brewing system, everything has been at that standard, doing well.”

The day I visited was right around the official 18-month anniversary of when owners Randy and Denise Baker closed on the building that Rio Bravo now occupies.

“In the grand scheme of things, though, what we’ve been able to do in such a short time — 18 months (ago) they closed on the building, for five months there was no installation of anything, it was all gutting, renovation, plumbing work,” Ty said. “We didn’t even really start framing until after April. When stuff started hitting, it hit fast.”

John pointed out they started with four beers, the two IPAs (Snakebite and DRB), amber, and weizen. Now they have more than 10 on tap, with plans to eventually can eight of the most popular styles.

“We initially thought we were going into the market with four products, but given the diversity of what’s out there now and the response we’re getting for some of our other beers, we’re probably going to have eight products out there in cans,” John said.

“We’re looking at Snakebite IPA, DRB, Amber, Red, Stout, Porter, Weizen, and Marzen,” Ty said. “That’s our primary eight. We have our top three or four here (in sales) and then the rest are pretty close.”

Of course, it is never quite as simple as to just rev up the canning line and get to work.

“There’s a lot of pressure for aluminum cans right now,” Ty said. “We’re trying to work with supplier chains and get everything sewn up without having to commit to 25 pallets of any brand we’d ever dream of attempting to sell. That’s a pretty risky proposition.”

Rio Bravo has been working on some solutions for that.

“A lot of the stuff we’ve rolled with has been really good,” Ty said. “And then just getting into production has been awesome and pretty smooth. We certainly have some big plans to start canning this soon. A lot of people are pushing for us on certain beers. We want to try to figure out a way to be flexible with what we come to market with. Do labeled cans potentially, where we can do short runs, we can do custom beer, we can do a lot of things like that. We’re actually looking at actively adding that to our line so we’re not having to commit to 25 pallets of aluminum cans for any brand we pick. We’d like to even do a test run.”

Doing test runs will enable Rio Bravo to get samples out to bars, restaurants, and other establishments that they hope will carry their beers. Ty said they are already on tap at 60-plus locations with plans to add more accounts in the future.

The canning line is one of the most advanced of its kind. It can fill 33 cans with 16 ounces of beer apiece in one minute. It also has a special sensor that will tell it if any can is not completely full and immediately bump that can off the line.

“I wanted to get one set of eyes away from babysitting the filler, so whatever goes out the door is perfect,” Ty said.

Rio Bravo has also been working with other breweries, with their next construction project being attuned to that spirit of cooperation.

“We’ve been selling grain to Carnie (Bevz) over at Albuquerque Brewing,” Ty said. “We’re going to do some custom milling for him once our silo is up and running, which should be within a few weeks we’ll have the silo fully operational.”

“They just finished the steel (foundation) work over the weekend and the equipment to support the transfer line,” John added. “We’ve got our stage up, too.”

That outdoor stage went up recently on the back patio/beer garden area.

The outdoor stage will be a popular music spot on days with nicer weather. (Photo courtesy of Rio Bravo)

The outdoor stage will be a popular music spot on days with nicer weather. (Photo courtesy of Rio Bravo)

“That thing is going to be crazy,” Ty said. “We’re already looking at some really killer shows. I can’t wait to kind of get … I think we just need a few breakthrough events to really pull in a bunch of people. I know we can have 300 or 400 out back and we can fit 200 easily up front. We have our game room, and our upstairs space.”

With all of that increased space, plus the external accounts, it has all added up to Rio Bravo needing to make even more beer.

“We’ve added 90 barrels of fermentation capacity, we’ve added 90 barrels of bright capacity, 30 barrels of server tank capacity,” John said. “We’re going to do custom milling for other brewers, which we’re excited to do.”

“And it also cuts our cost on a per-batch basis,” Ty added. “Every little penny is going to add up.”

Rio Bravo has already released three barrel-aged beers, including versions of their porter, barleywine, and a certain imperial stout created by a Crew of beer writers. Those will hardly be the last unique beers coming in addition to the brewery’s regular lineup.

“We’ve gotten to play around with a lot of stuff now,” Ty said. “I’m getting ready to launch a sour program which is probably going to release some time in the middle of the summer. I’ve been developing and working on exactly what I want to do with that during the winter months. A portion of it’s going to be wood-aged. Then the other portion is going to be straight fruit fermentation. I think we’re going to come out with something that we’ll all be super proud of.”

The staff is expanding as well. Jennifer Baker, the daughter of the owners, is now training in the brewery to do a variety of cellar roles, Ty said. In addition, Ty and John discovered a hidden talent of one of their servers.

“We’re also very fortunate because one of our servers (Gaby Chacon) is also a graduate microbiologist,” John said. “So, she double dips and works with us. It’s been really helpful in terms of setting up our micro programs. That was a hidden gem, we just stumbled on that.”

Ty said he feels the operation, from front to back, is now running much smoother.

“Front of the house is one of the places where we struggled a bit in the beginning,” Ty said. “I think now we’ve got all the right people and it’s perfect timing to gear up for summer.”

Rio Bravo has added plenty of additional tanks since they opened last year.

Rio Bravo has added plenty of additional tanks since they opened last year.

Like many new breweries, Rio Bravo has dealt with a fair share of criticism, but the biggest lightning rod for the brewery has ended up being their approval for a Bernalillo County Industrial Revenue Bond.

“(Randy) keeps hearing rumors about his IRB, and how he got it, and what we did, and how we’re just swimming in a big pool of money over here because we got an IRB for $5 million,” Ty said. “It’s quite the opposite. It’s a deferment of your property tax for a period of 20 years.”

It was certainly not a windfall of free cash for the brewery.

“And the commitment to spend at least $5 million on economic development, which includes more jobs for people,” John said. “The up-front (cost) was essentially (paying) one-tenth of that, just write a check for that. There’s a couple requirements, including you have to own the (building). The rumor mill has been active in terms of wow, how did this business get $5 million?”

John noted that Los Poblanos also recently received an IRB, but has not received any overt criticism.

“The paperwork alone was a $48,000 check from the business to the county,” Ty said. “We prepaid the next two years of income tax just so that we could gain access to deferment of property tax. But, it also helps out on equipment purchases as well, so like all the stuff here and there that we buy in state, if we know it’s going to be a decent-sized purchase, we go ahead and turn in a non-taxable and it goes toward that IRB cap that we’re working towards.”

The aforementioned external silo is one piece of equipment that will be counted in the IRB, as will other external developments, including a bulk CO2 system and an external cellar.

For the most part, Ty and John have just been able to focus on the beer without worrying about the big-ticket purchases. That figures to be especially important with the change of seasons.

“Right now is when you traditionally start gearing up for summer months,” Ty said. “We’re trying to get to that. We’re probably going to brew four times next week and start building up a little bit of back stock. When we finally get our labels and everything together, I guarantee we’ll be super busy every day.”

Ty said that both the Black Angus Stout and DRB IPA are getting some tweaks in response to what customers want in those beers. There will also be a few other beers in the works for the warmer months to come. Chief among those will be a Level 3 IPA.

“That I’m going to start executing sooner than later,” Ty said. “The idea of that is for the New Mexico IPA Challenge. We weren’t even close to getting something crazy for the national one. But I’m really psyched for Bosque, back-to-back, that’s awesome.”

Another batch of the popular barrel-aged version of the Old Town Porter is currently aging upstairs. The previous batch was so popular that Rio Bravo sent it to the World Beer Cup competition.

“We’ve made a splash,” Ty said. “We’ve got a dichotomy of people. We’ve got feedback, we know what’s selling for us tap-handle-wise, we know what we sell on premise, but there’s such a wide scope out there we just want to keep generating information so that we make the customer happy. We give them the quality, the consistency that they should be getting from everybody.”

“We’ve been collecting a lot of data on brew-to-brew performance,” John said. “Just looking at can we drive the consistency we want with this system? Are there small tweaks we need to make? Every time we brew we find another little thing, let’s watch this.”

Overall, though, Ty has few complaints about his first several months of running the show at Rio Bravo.

“As a brewer, this has been like a dream, you know?” he said. “I’ve had to not butt heads, I’ve had to not be like this is the line I’m drawing, this is the minimum standard I need to meet with what we’re doing, and it was always met. With the canning line, brewing system, everything has been at that standard, doing well.”

We wish Rio Bravo continued success in the future. Next time we will just try to keep the interview under 30 minutes. After all, we do not want to get Ty in trouble with his wife by delaying his drive home.

Oh, and if you have not already, head over and order our imperial stout. We only brewed so much of that behemoth!


— Stoutmeister

  1. 8bithitman says:

    Sounds like a great deal for them. I wish they would focus on the quality of the beer before the quantity…. The Darkside Stout is by far their best–no need for QC on that one. The others however… Not trying to be a jerk; it’s just that nothing blows me away there (above-mentioned stout the exception).

  2. N says:

    The front of house is improved and in place?

    You must be joking.

  3. Nmx8 says:

    Nobody knows. Nobody cares.

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