Welcome to the first entry in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series for 2016-17. Just as we have done the last three years, these stories will be a comprehensive reflection on the year gone by for each of our breweries, while also taking a look at their plans for the coming year.
Just as it was in 2015-16, my first stop was La Cumbre, where I sat down with owner Jeff Erway to discuss how his last year went and what plans he has for the coming year. The good news was his office has been repaired after a mishap with a truck had damaged the outer wall. Or, as Jeff put it best, “Oh, my god, that scared the fucking shit out of me. I was next door. Scot (Nelson) and I looked at each other, ‘What the fuck was that?’ The whole building shook.”
While workers were outside putting up a new barrier to protect the building, Jeff started off by recounting the high points of 2016, which also included a gold medal for BEER at the World Beer Cup in April and a bronze medal for Siberian Silk at the Great American Beer Festival in October.
“It was really cool getting BEER into cans,” he said. “We thought long and hard about what our next can release was going to be. Several of us wanted to see South Peak Pilsner go into cans, but we looked at the sales release data and the movement in our taproom, and for run reason or another it was not moving nearly like BEER does when it was on tap before as a special. Then, to kind of have some affirmation, when we sent it to the World Beer Cup and got a gold medal for it, that was pretty good high point.”
Anyone visiting Denver for GABF who stopped at a local liquor store could also find La Cumbre on the shelves.
“Opening up the rest of Colorado for distribution was definitely a big plus for us,” Jeff said. “We were pretty stoked to do that. We were pretty stoked to find a partner in Crooked Stave Artisan (Ales) that has a real similar outlook on beer in the beer world, building brands, not jumping at sales, but truly building a brand.”
With more beer being sent out, it has in turn created more jobs at La Cumbre.
“We’ve definitely added quite a bit to distribution side,” Jeff said. “On the brewing side, there’s been some movement. We’ve definitely lost some people. We’re about to lose Dave Kimball, he’s about to open his own brewery. … He’s been very, very professional about leaving, gave us plenty of notice. He asked us if he could work some nights and off hours. We said absolutely. He certainly asked me for some advice, but he also clearly doesn’t want to burden me with the issues he’s having. Which I’m sure are numerous right now.
“We’ve added several staff (members), we’ve added several people to the packaging line. Opening up Colorado, we’re definitely doing a lot more packaging than we were a year ago. Definitely a lot of new faces in the taproom, which is good. And we added our marketing director (Cory Campbell).”
There was also one key promotion within the brewing staff that happened just at the end of 2015. Alan Skinner took over the position of head brewer as Daniel Jaramillo transitioned to director of brewing operations. So far, that move has gone “Smashingly!” as Jeff put it.
“Alan was named head brewer a little less than a year ago,” Jeff said. “I always thought that when Alan came on, this was two-and-a-half years ago, (he) was a home brewer and was heading up beer at a local Sprouts and had a degree in biology. I was like, sweet, maybe you can help us with some of our lab stuff. Daniel and I have pretty limited (hard science) backgrounds. I know what all the equipment does, but it’s not like I’m versed in setting up a QAQC program. As soon as we hired him, he doesn’t just have a degree in biology, he’s worked in labs extensively. We’d always kind of just pictured him becoming the QAQC director/lab tech.
“As we lost a few really key brewers, Alan kept on stepping up more and more. Daniel and I started to realize maybe this was what he wanted to do. We had to convince him you’re still going to be heading up the QAQC stuff, you’re still going to be able to oversee the lab procedures, but you can get a lab tech to do all that and you can remain a brewer. Luckily for us, he wanted to do that.”
Alan has managed to remain relatively anonymous in the local scene, which seems just fine for him and Jeff.
“He’s one of the least visible people in the brewing industry right now,” Jeff said. “But, I can’t think of anybody I know of that’s become such a ridiculously expert person in all things brewing in such a quick amount of time. It’s incredible, he’s a sponge.”
As Alan has found his niche at the brewery, Jeff said he feels La Cumbre has formally found its niche in the local scene as well.
“Just speaking for me personally, I feel like I’ve become a little more comfortable with the idea of who we truly are in the market and what our future holds,” he said. “The funny thing is kind of like becoming a little more self-aware and self-reflective, the fact is I like running a production brewery, I like running a wholesaling business. I really enjoy that. I like having this one taproom. We’ve had plenty of opportunities to jump at taproom locations in Albuquerque.”
While a second La Cumbre location is off the table, for now, at least, having the entire market round into form has been a plus for everyone.
“I think the highlight for the brewing industry overall this year in Albuquerque is just a tightening of the local market and breweries trying to figure out where they fit in that local market,” Jeff said. “Marble certainly has figured out where it wants to be in that local market. Bosque certainly has, La Cumbre has. The question is, with all of these new breweries entering, all these new taprooms, where is their business going to fit into that local market?”
Not every brewery will survive, as the recent closing of Firkin BrewHouse shows, and Broken Bottle before that.
“The two breweries in the last few years that have gone out of business, I don’t think anybody was surprised,” Jeff said. “I think there are going to be a couple more this (coming) year, but I don’t think anybody is going to be surprised. I know of five or six new breweries that are supposedly going to be opening in the next year. Is there enough business for them to survive? That’s one of the major reasons we haven’t opened up a taproom. We’re not going to do what Marble did. It worked for Marble to go and spend an enormous amount of money on a new taproom. It looks great. I’m sure it’s doing great business. That’s not what we’re going to do. The new taprooms that are opening up, a lot of them are fighting over $4,000 or $5,000 a week. You’re like, that’s not really a sustainable business.
“A lot of it’s also going to be how are you diversifying your business? I think when Tractor opened in Nob Hill they showed everybody that, first of all, they were reinventing themselves as a business. They were coming in with different beer than they had before, but they showed everybody that, hey, atmosphere in these places really does matter. I haven’t been down to Bow & Arrow or Dialogue, but I’ve heard good things about what they’ve done atmosphere-wise. It will be interesting to see is that (enough).”
More distribution, more space, new beers on tap for 2017
While La Cumbre may not be looking to open a taproom this coming year, there are still plenty of areas for figurative and actual growth.
“For us, we’re going to do our best to continue to be the go-to brand for bars and restaurants in the area,” Jeff said. “We’re really hoping that they fully recognize we are the brewery that’s not actively competing with them. In Colorado, our goal is to hopefully by the end of 2017 to have hired a brand rep, a full-time brand representative.”
Sales in Colorado are solid, which certainly leads to the question of what other states La Cumbre has targeted. There are a couple, though much will depend on finding the type of distribution partners Jeff wants for his brewery.
“And then, we’re going to slowly but surely add markets as we find the distribution partners that we want, that we think are of the same mind as us,” he said. “This has been the biggest challenge to me, finding market (partners). I had always kind of approached like, ‘Of course we’re going to go to Arizona next, why wouldn’t we go to Arizona next? They’re right next door.’ What we never realized was we had no interest in becoming a partner with a distributor who is kind of, of the mind that today’s sale is all that matters. I don’t want to be in a house with 120 other craft breweries. It just doesn’t appeal to me at all. We want to find business partners that are really of the same mind that not all sales are good sales, that old beer is going to ruin our industry, let alone our brand. Really, getting the best beer into the consumer’s hand is the single best way to build both of our companies.”
That is a major part of the reason La Cumbre has paired up with Crooked Stave in Central Colorado and Ska Brewing in Southwest Colorado, rather than a more traditional distributor.
“It’s hard,” Jeff said of finding a partner. “I don’t think it’s a mystery why it is that we signed distribution agreements in Colorado with two different craft breweries (Ska and Crooked Stave). From that end, kind of continuing on from there, we have every intention of starting to bring on new brands into New Mexico that are like-minded, but also are complimentary to our own brand. I wouldn’t count on us pulling in any big breweries. I wouldn’t count on us pulling in too many breweries that are going to be selling six-packs in the $8 to $12 range. We want to find specialty brewers that want to do business with another like-minded brewery that’s going to be a good partner, who’s going to care about the beer.”
As for developments closer to home, the ongoing remodeling of the existing brewery taproom could continue if a real estate deal goes through.
“For the taproom, it’s possible we’ll open up a little more indoor space with a couple of the offices upstairs,” Jeff said. “We’re in negotiations to take over a property very close to here which will house a lot more of our distribution staff. I might end up moving my office there, I don’t know. It will either be Scot or me, we’ll draw straws.”
This in turn could lead to more beers, the kind of beers that get the Dark Side Brew Crew excited.
“If we can close on that, we will be adding a 2,500-square-foot cold room in the very near future,” Jeff said. “That will be mostly for distribution, but that will open up our 1,000-square-foot cold room out back for a lot more barrel aging. What we realize in the past few years, this has been kind of a learning process for Daniel and I, we really don’t like barrel-aged beers, specifically whiskey barrel-aged beers, that have been aged warm in any way. If they’re going to be above 60 degrees, we really don’t like the results. That being said, long, slow cold-aging in a cold room, we like that a lot. So, you could see quite a bit more barrel-aged beers coming out of our place. A few more specialty releases in that vein.”
La Cumbre also quietly added a three-barrel pilot system this year, one that has already produced a small number of beers, including Caber Tosser (Scotch Ale), Can You Drive a Sticke?, and a revamped version of the old favorite South Peak Pilsner.
“We’ll probably add a couple fermenters to the pilot system,” Jeff said. “The cool thing about the pilot system is I think it feeds well into the ADD psyche of many of the craft beer drinkers nowadays. The whole, ‘What’s new, what’s new, what’s new?’ That will mean that we can kick out of a lot of stuff that’s new often, which is fun.”
As if Jeff wanted to ensure that I, in particular, will be spending the winter at La Cumbre, he also added this: “It’s a direct-fire kettle, so this winter you can look forward to some really, really big stouts.”
Then he recalled a recent trip to Bavaria (so jealous), which included a stop in a famous German beer city, and how that has inspired him as well.
“I was in Bamberg, we were staying at Brauerei Fassla when they tapped their doppelbock,” Jeff said. “Fassla is right across the street from Brauerei Spezial, which is one of the oldest breweries, along with Schlenkerla, which we also visited. Yeah, we’re going to brew a smoked bock, it’s going to be out soon.”
So, yes, new beers are coming, some via the pilot system, some via the main brewhouse.
“We’re also looking at new and interesting beers to possibly release as year-round offerings,” he added. “We’ll see.”
Fine, Jeff, just take our money. TAKE IT.
To wrap things up, Jeff offered up some positive thoughts on our local beer scene, where it has been, and where it has headed.
“It is such an interesting time to be in the brewing industry,” he said. “For the first time, it truly is in every way competitive. What I am really happy to say is the people that were my dear friends three or four years ago are still my dear friends today. We just might talk a little less shop than we used to. The breweries making great beer three or four years ago are still making great beer today. It’s just competitive, you’re fighting for every handle and for every allocation on the shelf.
“Every year, I believe it today and I think I will always believe it, I hope I will always believe it, good beer will triumph. Bad beer is not going to find too many spots on shelves, it’s going to find less and less on shelves, and good beer will continue to thrive. Luckily for all of you, there’s a lot more of it!”
We are lucky beer drinkers, indeed. Thank you to Jeff for taking the time to chat, as always. We all look forward to the many, many great beers in store for us all in 2017.