For this edition of our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series, I caught up with Rio Bravo head brewer Ty Levis at the end of last week. Ty is seemingly always in motion, befitting his position. Rio Bravo has endured its share of ups and downs since opening in late 2015, but he and the rest of the staff remain optimistic for the future.
“It’s been a pretty crazy year around here, just like you could imagine,” Ty said. “(It was) our first full year of operations under our belt, getting things figured out, what’s working in the market. And then, really just focusing on super high-quality beers, driving people in here.”
Rio Bravo went big from the beginning, even putting multiple beers into cans as soon as its line was up and running. In retrospect, Ty noted that the brewery may have overreached.
“We went to market with six different products at once, just because we could with labels,” he said. “But, we found a much more focused approach on two or three core brands is how we’re going to continue forward. Those two main brands right now are our Snakebite IPA and the Pinon Coffee Porter, which are selling extremely well for us and helping to get out name out there.”
Rio Bravo will still offer up a wide variety of beers, but those will stay home, so to speak.
“Then, on premise, the sky’s the limit,” Ty said. “Thirteen-percent alcohol (imperial beers), plus wood aging, plus sours, plus everything we’ve done in the last six months, just really pushing the quality. Because in this market, you’re just not going to make it if you don’t have that quality there, if you don’t put your best effort, beers that blow people’s minds. It’s a crucial aspect that just because you’re good at technical brewing doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to get out there and wow people with what you do.”
Ty said the plan is to eventually have 23 different beers on tap at the brewery, plus one cider from Sandia Hard Cider.
“We still want to get more warm chairs,” he said. “I feel like having the killer variety of really crazy, good beer is going to help drive that. My challenge to people is if they haven’t set foot in here in six months, then they owe it to themselves to come in and check it out, because things like this imperial stout (Grab ’Em by the Putin) and things like the Level 3 IPA that aren’t available anywhere else. We’re not planning on canning a beer that has $1,500 worth of hops in nine barrels. We would never make any money on that. We can break even over the bar, at least.”
Ty has definitely embraced the company motto, “Live Bold,” in challenging beer drinkers around town to return to Rio Bravo and re-try his beers. A number of recipes have been completely redone, with one beer being completely renamed.
“From the original (recipe), we revamped the (Karl’s) Sommerbier,” Ty said. “We dried it out quite a bit more and basically renamed it La Luz, because it could sort of fall into any generic light lager category the way it’s brewed. We got a silver medal at Best of Craft Beer. This is the second time we’ve brewed this exact same recipe with a slightly drier character.”
The plan is now to get La Luz as that third beer in cans, as Ty said he felt it would sell quite well in the warmer months coming up.
“We’ve been focusing on pushing sales for our core brands now,” he said. “We’ve decided what those are. We’re in the middle of trying to get new labels going that will more closely match what the Pinon Coffee Porter looks like, on our Snakebite and our future cans. That way we can tie the branding together. The silver, while it looked cool, it’s too washy when you get on a shelf, it doesn’t stand out, it doesn’t have enough contrast.”
Rio Bravo is working on improving just about every aspect of presentation, from the look of the cans to how they handle social media and more.
“We feel like that’s one of the things we’re learning — marketing and image are crucial parts of what we do,” Ty said. “If you want to make the best beer, you have to see where your market is, you have to make sure you’re figuring out what your customers are looking for. We’ve done that with the Pinon Coffee and we’re doing that with the Snakebite. We’re getting it up there.”
Of course, with every beer success story, there have been some that have not lived up to expectations. Ty said the Duke City Pilsner will likely bite the bullet so they can focus on La Luz as their light lager offering. The Amber will no longer be canned, though it will remain on tap at the brewery, where it has sold well.
“The Amber is doing so well on draft-wise over our own bar, but we just didn’t really move a lot of cans of it,” Ty said. “We’re probably pulling the plug on Amber cans, even though it made a second-round judging at GABF and just got a silver medal at Best of Craft Beer in the American-style ESB category. It’s a top-notch, high-quality beer with just the right balance of hops and malts to be that kind of British chewy style. But, we can’t give it away (in cans). That’s harsh to say, but that’s the reality in this crowded marketplace with so many products out there that are world class. How do you get people to notice?”
Rio Bravo also earned a bronze medal in the Fruited Wheat Beer category at the Best of Craft Beer Awards with its Rubus Ruckus. The brewery technically considers it a sour, but it was only the second sour Ty has made so far. He has a peach sour, name TBA, due up next. Another beer debuting this week will be the Salted Caramel Belgian Strong Golden, which has been aging in the barrels upstairs. Overall, expect more sours and more barrel-aged offerings to come in 2017, Ty said, as Rio Bravo will keep the taps flowing with as many unique styles of beer as possible at the brewery.
“I think when you first came here to this empty shell and we talked when we were under construction, I had 182,000 miles on my car,” Ty said. “Right now I’m at 261,000. I’m a good 80,000 miles into this project here in Albuquerque, and I still look forward to coming to work every day to see what we can do better with a little bit more quality, with a little bit more flavor. Because, I want to make sure everybody knows that whatever we came out with at the very beginning — conservative, malty — we were still learning our system. Now we’re at a point where it’s kind of no holds barred and we’re really putting it out there.”
The next time you get the chance, stop in at Rio Bravo and take Ty up on his challenge to retry his beers. He is looking for as much feedback and constructive criticism as the public is willing to provide. What kind of adventurous beer drinkers would we be in Albuquerque if we just left him hanging?