Drown me in Vantablack on my way to Valhalla, oh Boxing Bear

These were some seriously happy brewery staffers after they brought home a fairly major award.
The Boxing Bear team came home from the 2016 Great American Beer Festival with two gold medals and one major award, Mid-Size Brewpub of the Year!

At long last, our Look Back/Look Ahead Series entry for Boxing Bear is complete. Stoutmeister and I sat down with head brewer Justin Hamilton a while back to discuss the Year of the Bear, when the beers and the medals and the awards flowed endlessly. We then looked forward to all that is to come in 2017.

Solo: We’re here again, how is this a year?

Justin: Oh, man, where do I start?

Solo: Well, I remember where we left off.

Justin: Well, it’s obviously been an absolutely insane year for us. Starting early in the year with the North American Beer Awards, moving into the National IPA challenge, then moving into World Beer Cup, then moving into (the New Mexico) IPA Challenge and to GABF. It’s been great. Obviously it’s been pretty crazy and we’ve just been happy with our ability to keep up, not only locally, but nationally with what’s been going on in the beer scene for a while. First of all, to do well, that’s what every brewery wants is to get some accolades, but the fact that we were able to do it in our second year of being open, I mean we just had our second anniversary in July and turned around and got Mid-Sized Brewers and Brewpub of the Year in October. We couldn’t be happier with our run over the last couple of years.

And, when we left off talking last year we were saying that we had that silver medal from GABF for the Chocolate Milk Stout and we wanted to continue progressing. Well, we turned around and won gold for that at World Beer Cup, and then turned around and won another gold for that at GABF. It’s pretty awesome, that beer alone has done us really well, but the fact that we were able to show people that we weren’t just this one-trick pony, that’s one of the best things that we gained out of 2016. That people know that you make a great sweet stout, but you also know we can make an awesome IPA and you also know that we can make a double red ale now, and that they are worth coming out to drink. I think that’s been something that has done wonders for our image and our business in general. It’s been awesome for us. So, we’ve had a pretty good time, it’s been good to show people what we’ve been amping up for and totally keeping our nose to the grind. Our staff is really committed to quality and I think we kind of showed Albuquerque and the world that. That is our goal.

Solo: Quality, responsible growth, and all of those things paying dividends on the groundwork that you laid. All of the equipment additions and all of the logistics.

Justin: Yeah, I think the thing that’s made 2016 interesting for Boxing Bear is that we’ve been growing accolades, but it’s interesting to (still) see us as a young brewery. We’re kind of doing this weird thing where we are growing as a pub and as a presence at the same time. We did a lot of improvements on our pub and our patio this year. Since we opened, gaining the money for five new TVs, gaining the money to work on our patio, it’s nice to get the pub and everything else up to par where we originally wanted it to be. Not to mention, we are still working on that stuff, we are constantly reinvesting all of our money into either pub or brewery equipment.

It’s interesting to see that varied on if you compare us to someone maybe like Marble, who (won) Small Brewery of the Year two years ago. They were pretty established by the time they got that. Maybe it is a pretty similar kind of thing, progress not only in the beer but offering something to the community. It would be different if we opened our doors and people knew we had good beer, but we really didn’t put much into the front of house or the experience we are offering our customers. It’s kind of been a weird thing to try and grow those at the same time. I think that’s something that’s always on everybody’s mind. For the fact that we were so successful as far as accolades go, it kind of increases the pressure on us needing to make sure that the pub is to par with what people expect out of a craft brewery and out of a brewpub. That’s been one of the hardest parts for us is finding the money to make the improvements that you would expect from someone who has the caliber of beer that we do. But, dealing with a large pub, dealing with the money issue, trying to get the money to make the pub look nice and all of that stuff, it’s like these little steps. So, a big part of 2016 has been that growth on both ends. It’s like burning a candle at both ends and trying to meet in the middle somewhere.

Amid a sea of people taking pics on their cell phones, the Boxing Bear brewing team holds their NMIPAC trophy aloft!
Boxing Bear claimed its first New Mexico IPA Challenge trophy back in July.

Stoutmeister: I know when you guys first opened you had some issues with the front of house staff, this year Albuquerque the Magazine gave you, sharing with Marble, staff of the year. That has to also be a bit gratifying.

Justin: It’s a big thing for us knowing that we are looking at issues between management, staff, and ownership. What can we do better? What are the parts that are going to make us (better)? We know we’ve got good beer, that’s for me and my brew staff to worry about continuing with and growing. But, we also know that we have had issues with serving like everybody has, or just education of staff or getting everyone on the same page. So, it’s definitely been good to reaffirm that our hard work that we’ve been doing, like we said, front and back of house has been paying off a little bit. People have been noticing that when we try to give excellent service that even our cooks are talking to the customers about beer and it’s stuff that we try to take pride in.

We try to make sure that everyone on staff is willing to go that extra mile, and that’s definitely something that is not easy. It’s hard finding competent staff, and also people that are willing to work very hard and have the same passions for beer that you do even when they’re not making the beer like you do, they are just serving it. But, I think that we’ve hopefully found that balance point and that’s what we want to continue to do is to be educating our staff who will educate the public that will come back to us. We want to continue having the best staff we possibly can.

That’s constantly on our mind, how the pub is doing, what’s going on in the pub, how are people seeing us. We take reviews on Facebook and Yelp and all of that stuff really seriously. Unfortunately, a lot of people that do reviews do it only if they have a bad experience, but when that happens we try to address it. We try to talk to people, we try to let them know, hey, give us another chance, what the issue was, we can fix that. That’s always an important part of any business is customer relations.

Solo: I’ve noticed a definite uptick in bicyclists coming here over the summer, myself included, and it’s nice to see that initial vision coming to fruition.

Justin: Yeah, and that goes back to making improvements, that’s something we’ve always wanted to do and you’ll probably see that in the spring or summer (this) year is working on increasing that local traffic. And, we get so much from bike traffic. Every day I see a team of bicyclists riding through our parking lot and half of the time they stop here. Those are all things that we are aware of. We need more bike racks, we need more of an ability to chain your bike up, because we do get a lot of lot of that traffic. We have a horse hitch back there, which is great for some people. We knew when we opened that we were going to have to appease the bike crowd and that is something that we are still working on, actually. Putting it all together, then finding the funds to do that when you’re trying to find the funds to grow your brewery.

It’s this wild game of chess; it’s like playing chess with 30-some odd people all involved. It’s like a weird, terrible game of Risk where you’re moving these pieces and looking at what everybody else is doing, where you make one wrong move and you could just get wiped off the board, regardless of product. We are constantly analyzing the market and trying to figure out what’s our niche, what’s our next move, and it gets a little tiring, honestly. It’s hard to stay relevant in a world of huge craft brewing dominance. We’ve had a great year, but we don’t want to sit back and be comfortable and relax at this point. We want to progress even farther, whatever that means. Whether it means not winning medals, but knowing that our quality products are out there and people are enjoying them, that means almost as much as any medal does. So, it’s trying to find that fine line, but we definitely are making those adjustments, I think.

The second annual BearFest was a big hit.
The second annual BearFest was a big hit.

Solo: So, this year’s BearFest versus last year’s BearFest.

Justin: We had similar issues with volume where we got a little bit better. We expanded it enough to where we were able to grow a bunch. We added more vendors, more food trucks, so it worked out really well. I think last year’s BearFest, being that it was our first year, we had little issues like bathrooms, where we didn’t know how many we should have. Going into this year we said let’s triple that amount and I never saw a line this year. I think we’re getting better at understanding the little things. I’ve been doing beer festivals for the last 10 years of my life and I have an idea of how they should go, but it’s the little things like that that you don’t really understand. Do we have enough food trucks? Do we have enough bathrooms? Do we have enough tent space or enough tables to sit at so that people can enjoy their food? That’s all stuff that we had a better idea of and it was a little bit more work, but I think it paid off.

It was again one of those events where we pulled (in) a lot of people here from all over the city, people that wouldn’t even necessarily come to the brewery if they had the time. So, it’s nice to swing that crowd over on this side of town. I saw a lot of people that I’d seen here maybe once before if that. So, it’s always a good opportunity to bring people over here. I think we did a pretty good job this year. It was bigger, and we’ll see what happens with next year and how we decide to proceed with that.

Stoutmeister: In terms of the back, how many pieces of equipment did you guys upgrade this year?

Justin: Oh, man, so we added this last 20-barrel fermenter and a 20-barrel server that we just got. For reference, we’ve never had equipment that we’ve put in right into use that quickly. I mean we literally turned around, we’re brewing right into that thing the very next week, which is fine, but it’s not a position we’ve been put into before. We’re already looking into where our next purchases will be because we know that we are in our slow season right now and come March, April, May of (this) year it’s going to be another game of where we are going to be placing those investments. More than likely you’re going to see more brewing equipment and front of house renovations, all stuff that hopefully we will have the cash for to procure.

Stoutmeister: Of course the other big development that’s still ongoing is back there (the space formerly occupied by Southwest Grape and Grain). So, what all is going on back there?

Justin: We are going to be doing a few things. Our front of house kitchen, which is pretty small, we are going to be moving a lot of that stuff to the back. This is going to allow us a little more room up front and we might be putting a small cooler for bomber sales (it is now in place) and things like that in there. One of the best things that’s going to happen back there is having more cold storage space. That’s what we are putting together now is that we will have an extra cold room back there, which is mainly going to be a wholesaling cold room so that we can start stocking regularly. Once that’s built, we will have the ability to do bombers on the regular.

Right now, the storage issue is the biggest thing for us because if we produce a pallet of bombers, that’s going in our cold room next to all of our beer, next to our servers and hops and stuff. It’ll be nice to be able to have a variety of bombers, maybe one or two different styles at any given point, and also have plenty of kegs for our wholesale guys to move and the extra storage for hops and everything else we need to store cold will be a huge step for us in 2017. So, the kitchen back there, some cold room space, we’ve already got some offices back there, so that’s pretty much what’s going to happen with that. That’s our goal for next year is to try to put out bombers on the regular at least once a month if we can, of a variety that people will hopefully like.

The triple punch of Chocolate Milk Stout, left, Bear Knuckle IPA, and The Red Glove.
The triple punch of Chocolate Milk Stout, left, Bear Knuckle IPA, and The Red Glove.

Stoutmeister: A major question I’m always getting for you guys, especially since GABF, is when are you going to open a taproom on the east side?

Justin: That’s something we’re definitely looking into. Like I said, it’s this game of chess. We want to open a taproom, but we want it to be a proper taproom. We don’t want to just settle for a space, we want to make sure that it’s got everything we need, that it’s got parking, seating, and a good location preferably on that side of town. That being said, where do we find this place, how do we find the money to capitalize on that? We also know that once that happens our production is going to go way up. So, it’s preparation for all of that stuff, going back to that cold room, that’s going to really help with that. I think it’s all stuff that our customers and patrons (and) fans will see.

I can’t necessarily say it’s going to be 2017, but it is definitely something that we are constantly looking at, when to make that move. It’s more of a matter of when, as opposed to if. We look to the other breweries that have been in similar positions to see what their moves are. I’m not necessarily saying that we will follow them, but it’s interesting to see Bosque’s taproom’s evolution to a production facility. Similar? That’s potential. Who knows? Maybe we open a production facility before a taproom, or it’s both, I don’t know. We want to be sure that we’re making the right move. I don’t want to be stuck in a building that won’t move traffic, or we can’t get parking. We got really lucky when we found this building and we really liked it and it’s an amazing spot, so we want to do the same thing with a taproom.

Stoutmeister: Anything else that’s coming up on the schedule for 2017?

Justin: There’s so much going on, honestly. We want to show people that, yeah, we had a great year in 2016, but we don’t want to just sit back and be complacent. We want to continue securing our spot locally, nationally, internationally as some of the best beer there is out there. That’s my goal, that’s the goal of the back of house and the front of house to educate and to really hone in on what Boxing Bear is. 2017 is going to bring some interesting changes. I think you’re going to see a lot of the newer breweries getting settled a little better. Places like Quarter Celtic are going to start shining and finding their spot. I think a lot of people that weren’t wholesaling are going to start wholesaling, so the fight for tap handles out on the market is going to be fierce.

So, that’s something we are going to be addressing in 2017 is how do we continue to gain tap handles in such a fierce market. It’s probably going to entail seeing a lot more of our award-winning beers on the regular. You’re probably going to see more Chocolate Milk Stout, more Red Glove in production. That’s something we want to gear towards is that we’ve got these great award winners, and now we have just got to keep them out on the market as much as possible. Normally we would try to fit Chocolate Milk Stout or Red Glove in where we could, but we are going to start scheduling it (and) saying we need to have a batch a month or every other month at the least. Those beers that people really want, that we’ve done well with, will be more readily available. The people that are coming in from out of town looking for our taproom or our handles will be able to try the beers that we’ve done well with.

Stoutmeister: So, if you like this, well, try this kind of mentality.

Justin: It’s been one of those plays with supply and demand that we’ve been working on and we want to stay relevant, but we also need to give people what they want. Trying to play the market man, it’s a wild game out there. Our ability to put out the beers that we are known for and keep us relevant in people’s eyes and keep accounts active and happy too, that’s a lot of it, is making people happy.

Solo: Feed them beer, they will be relatively happy.

You had one job for this photo, Jeff. One job! At least it was safe at the brewery.
Boxing Bear’s Justin Hamilton, center, shows off his gold medal from the World Beer Cup with Nexus’ Kaylynn McKnight, while poor Jeff Erway left his back at La Cumbre.

Justin: We’re not going to have World Beer Cup again this year because it’s every two years. We’ll be back entering North American Beer Awards and the IPA Challenges again and the local IPA Challenge and GABF again. We’ll be keeping our hands full. Sometimes when I look into the future I can see January and then February kind of fades off, so we will figure out February in January. Then again, when I see people like La Cumbre and Marble who are like, 2017? Here’s our lineup of our beers and what we’re going to have. But, then again, we don’t have that solid of a reputation to put out a rotation beers like that. Those guys have their repertoire and their ability to put out specials and know that people are waiting to buy those specials as well.

That’s something that I myself want to work on in the coming years, is having that ability to look (ahead) six months, almost a year ahead of yourself. What styles are people looking for? What do they want to see as far as a packaged product? What do they want to see as far as specials that we have on tap or what your pub’s doing, what events are going on? I can do beer every day of my life, and I can get better at it, and I can hone in on that stuff. But, the front of house stuff, and the marketing and the ability to pull (in) a customer on the regular and make them happy regardless of quality of product, that’s really hard.

I give props to Marble, Bosque, La Cumbre, and those other guys that are able to kind of handle that, and it seems seamless with them. That’s all stuff that we look towards and are wanting to hone in on that, the ability to get that. It’s really hard, the marketing aspect of it, the advertising aspect of it. That’s stuff that people dedicate their lives to. And I just make beer. We are really happy with where we are now. It’s a matter of keeping that relevance and keeping our nose to the grindstone.

* * * * *

‘Twas indeed an excellent Year of the Bear all around, and we certainly look forward to increased availability of bombers, and the prospect of constant innovation of what wonders might appear on the Bear’s taps this coming year. Another BearFest on the horizon certainly whets my appetite on my birthday weekend, and the prospect of a taproom whenever that happens will certainly be a boon to the growing rumblings of the Bear. We hope for an equally productive year ahead as behind, and I would say this to those who may not have tried the brews at Boxing Bear: You simply don’t know what you’re missing!


— Franz Solo

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