From Broken Trail’s Website: Broken Trail — A path or trail that has been cut, through snow or deep brush or other obstructions. To break trail is to venture where no one has before. It is to find your own path, hike your own hike, and to Find Your Spirit.
This past year brought two major changes to a local distillery and brewery. In 2016, Distillery 365 changed its name to Broken Trail Spirits + Brew. It must have been a good idea, because according to co-owner and head distiller Matt Simonds, lately the beer part of the business has blazed its own trail, so to speak. We joked about how this worked out so well that maybe they should just change the name every year. Simonds said that breweries often have a theme; this could be theirs and he could hold a contest each year for customers to choose the name. This was, of course, all very tongue-in-cheek, but we had a good laugh over it.
Additionally in 2016, they opened a satellite tasting room for the spirits at Green Jeans Farmery. That effort took up a great deal of the owners’ time. Broken Trail cannot sell beer at the Green Jeans location due to an agreement with the property owners and Santa Fe Brewing, but an advantage to the Green Jeans location is the ability to collaborate with Santa Fe and the relationships that Broken Trail has developed through the collaboration.
The brewing goal from last year going into 2016 was simply to give the beer more exposure. They have “done that and more,” Simonds said. They took a couple of beers to their distributor, he said. The distributor tried them and said, “How much do you have? We’ll take it.” The beer was never intended to be a focus. Yet, as of this last quarter of 2016, the beer is getting equal billing with the spirits. Now the beer is popping up in local bars and restaurants. Jubilation bought a sixtel of the Otero ESB and it sold out in a week — it was reportedly their best seller. Simonds said it’s been humbling considering the company he keeps in this town. In the past few months, they have been brewing as much as they are distilling. They really have to be on top of their scheduling to keep up, which he said has been challenging, but a lot of fun.
Simonds said he never thought they would be in bars and restaurants, and even earlier in 2016, he just thought that they would be moving more beer through the distillery site and have more selections. Going through an entire batch in a couple of weeks is new to him. Another good thing about it is that it gives customers more exposure to the overall brand. When they go to a festival and go check Untappd afterward, it’s flattering to hear the positive feedback, Simonds said.
(Note: Simonds told me how much he appreciates the NMDSBC always treating them like a real brewery. Now they are living up to it!.He said it is great that we liked them before they were a “real brewery.” It’s still not the goal to compete with the big guys on beer, but to even be mentioned, ever, in the same breath is remarkable, he said.)
Simonds said that he also enjoys the opportunity that beer gives him to be more creative. He could come up with a new beer recipe every week and put it on tap, whereas with spirits you have to go through all kinds of approvals, formulas, labels, etc. For instance, Simonds said he is very excited about a new beer that he hopes to get out by the end of the year, a Newcastle Brown Ale clone. It’s actually a two-part beer, in that is then blended. He had previously tried numerous times to brew a brown ale to match Newcastle, but eventually found out that was not the way it was originally done. In deference to the namesake, but with a local spin, this beer will be called Old Pueblo.
One difficulty Broken Trail endured in 2016 happened on the spirit side. Broken Trail had planned to begin selling and distributing a craft beverage — a canned mule with house-made ginger beer and vodka. They went through the whole grueling process of product and label approvals, etc., and everything was all lined up. Unfortunately, they incurred issues with getting the can certified; the spirit causes deterioration of the aluminum if it is not exactly the right formula. Simonds is a chemist, so he said he was up for the challenge. He also thought about just using bottles instead, as they have higher tolerance to reactivity. The problem he found is that the feds will not allow you to put spirits in a 12-ounce bottle, although you can do it in a 12-ounce can. Oh, all those lovely regulations!
The process to make Pepe the Mule starts with a corn mash as a base for their vodka. The distillers taste it throughout the process, and the staff laughingly commented at one stage that it tastes like Zima (for all you young people out there, Zima was a clear, carbonated alcoholic beverage that was big in the mid 90’s). This was, for Simonds, an ah-ha moment. At this stage, it’s about 10-percent ABV and it is a malt beverage, not a distilled spirit. He figured that he could treat it like a beer instead; there are just a few regulatory issues required to make it a beer. As a beverage, it tastes the same. Plus, it can be sold/distributed more widely because the retailer does not need a full liquor license. This also makes the distributor very happy, Simonds said. It fits the same type of product category as, say, a cider. But, it’s unlike anything out there.
The hardest part is that when you distill the spirit, it removes the yeast. This type of product will require adding flavoring, which has sugar in it, to a yeasted beverage (because the yeast is not distilled out). That, in turn, can cause some stability issues, like possible additional fermentation. They are in the testing phase of this now. Simonds joked that the plan for 2017 is to show up at a beer challenge with “Craft Zima, bitches! We’ll get laughed out of the room, but it will be great.”
So, of course, I said to him, “And then, you’ll just change your name!”
Looking forward to 2017, Broken Trail is always looking at opportunities to grow. However, there are some concerns about saturation. Simonds noted he has talked to some of the newer taprooms and the sales are not necessarily reaching projections. In 2016, each time a new place opened, it would be reflected in Broken Trail’s sales numbers. In 2017, he says they need to further cement themselves as a player in the game so they do not end up being a casualty.
Other opportunities may exist or present themselves to further the brand. This will likely be more on the distribution side, as it is still a fraction of what they do. They are currently making a push into southern and southeastern New Mexico, because those areas are virtually untapped. There is also an opportunity available to them to add a tasting room that fills a void and a need in the city. However, they are being cautious and are looking at measured growth in 2017, Simonds said. They do not want to outgrow themselves, but rather keep the focus on quality and creativity. That, Simonds said, is the advantage of being a small brewer.