Southwest Grape and Grain forges ahead

Posted: June 19, 2017 by Franz Solo in Interviews
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Southwest Grape and Grain has been reorganized by its new owner.

As the member of the Crew who does quite a lot of consistent home brewing, I was intrigued when I heard that ownership of Southwest Grape and Grain, my main local source for brewing supplies and ingredients, had changed hands. It turns out I already knew the gentleman who took over for the previous owner, Kevin Davis of Boxing Bear.

Donavan Lane may be known to some of you as the former co-owner/brewer at the since-closed Broken Bottle Brewing. As he told me when we met, he had an interest from the beginning in opening a home-brewing supply store, but at the time Grape and Grain had just opened and there was also Victor’s Grape Arbor in the metro area as well, making a third shop likely unsustainable.

Fast forward to the early stages of this year and Kevin approached Donavan about taking over Grape and Grain, due to the increasing demands on his time due to the success of Boxing Bear. Kevin said he knew that Donavan had the interest and knowledge to continue the success he had started. From my initial and subsequent visits to Grape and Grain, this has been a productive transition. On to our conversation.

Donavan: So, initially we were going through the product mix of what we had and we’ve got our clearance rack. We’ve been trying to go through and clear out stuff that doesn’t sell or that we had for awhile, or that we had multiple similar items of. We’ve been slowly pulling items that we know we don’t want to keep anymore, or maybe we can get a better quality item from a different vendor. Prior to Broken Bottle, I spent nine years in retail management, so stepping into here the scale of things is different, but a lot of the things you learn in corporate retail management apply here. Simple things like consistent signage where we went through the whole store and replaced every sign so it has the same font and the same style, little things like that.

Solo: The devil’s in the details.

Getting everything organized was a major goal inside the store.

Donavan: It’s kind of been a process of shifting things around where before you move one thing, you’ve got to move something else. Over the years, as different products came in and different vendors, well it got to the point that everything in the store was fairly disorganized.

Solo: It was a bit of clutter somewhat and kind of an adventure walking around trying to pick out this or that.

Donavan: Yeah, you had this piece for kegging over here, this piece over there, so we wanted to get draft equipment in one area, beer-brewing equipment in one area, wine-making equipment in one area, beer ingredients in one area, so that you’re not having to go back and forth all over the store. That’s been a little bit of a process to get it all moved around, but we’re finally pretty much there where we’re not going to be shifting much more.

Solo: At least for awhile.

Donavan: The other things were getting displays out, trying to have every single item have a display model where people can actually see it. And, it’s a simple thing, like put up a bottle tree and put some bottles on it so people can see what its actually used for. It makes a big difference, especially for beginning home brewers who don’t necessarily know what all of the equipment is.

Solo: Yeah, if you can actually see it out you get sort of a sense in your head of, oh, this might be what I need to do this, and you can start to build a picture of how the whole process goes and that’s, well, what a good store should be.

Donavan: We are starting to get there with moving everything around, and we’ve already been bringing in quite a few new products, but there’s more and more that we’re looking to bring in. We just recently got in kombucha-making kits.

Solo: I saw your Facebook post about that. I’ve seen a lot more of a media presence as well.

Donavan: Well, exactly. Kevin, what with time constraints, just got to point where he wasn’t able to dedicate the time here that he was in the first couple years that it was open. So, a lot of that stuff went to the wayside. We’re working on using Facebook, social media, getting our email list back up and running, where we’ll start sending out monthly newsletters. The basic stuff that Kevin did initially, but then kind of got away from with time constraints on him.

Solo: Definitely, well with Boxing Bear doing so well that they had to expand over that whole building.

That grain is just waiting to become beer.

Donavan: We’re also looking at things like kegerators and things like that, so we started looking at actually making them and selling them to customers where previously we would have the parts and Kevin would show how to do it, but we didn’t sell the units put together.

Solo: Yeah, they’re not too bad to build.

Donavan: A lot of home brewers want to build things themselves. That’s part of the hobby, but there are quite a few home brewers, too, that either don’t have the tools or don’t have the mechanical ability to build something like that. In the latter case, they’d rather just say can I simply buy it?

Solo: There’s an extent to which people want to go this far, some people want to go that far, it just really depends person to person. Do I want to build a kegerator or do I want to just buy this thing outright? Do I want to make a wort chiller or is this something I’d rather procure pre-made so that it’s streamlined instead of my own crazy wire contraption? (Which works quite well I might add, though she many not be the prettiest.)

Donavan: On that account, we are starting to make some of our own products here in the store. That’s part of my long-term goal is to start manufacturing some different home-brewing equipment ourselves, like for example wort chillers. We are buying wort chillers pre-made and these ones here (available in store) we made. We designed a jig and comparing these to the ones we were buying, they look identical, and we just made a jig to be able to wrap it really tightly and neatly and do all of the bends properly and such. Little things like that, where we want to start getting our own line of some different equipment, which allows us to offer some of our different ideas on design and on a basic thing like this (wort chiller), save cost and offer it for a little bit less cheaper than what we had.

The other thing we just started doing and we are still in the process, we haven’t gotten it completely stocked yet, but we are starting to do our own ingredients kits.

Solo: Nice, that’s awesome.

Donavan: The brewer’s best ones, they have quite a bit of variety, but we’ve been trying to pick different styles that they don’t necessarily have available.

Solo: So you’ll get to throw in some more creativity into the recipes.

Add a few barrel chips to give your home brew a new dimension of flavor.

Donavan: Yeah, so we’re just starting to put those together we got them out on the shelf in this last week. I’ve started reaching out to all of the breweries, because with doing our own kits I want to do a line of clone kits of New Mexico breweries. So, I’ve started talking to several of the breweries and there are several that are on board already. They’re going to give us one or two of their recipes where we’ll do a clone kit there and it will be branded with XYZ brewery. So, it gives them a little promotion and we are looking to get that going in the next few weeks.

Solo: That’s a great idea.

Donavan: You know that the brewery industry, the people outside of it think they’re all in competition, and to people who work in it realize that they all work together, they all help each other out.

Solo: Yeah, there is competition, but there is also a desire to build something better in this community and in our state. Every time I interview someone from a different place they will tell me, ‘Yeah I lent a bag of grain over here, they lent us a keg washer while we were doing this.’ Everyone helps everyone else out and the industry as grown because of it and is better for it.

Donavan: We really want to work on building relationships, too, with the breweries. I mean, we’re not necessarily in the same industry, but a lot of their customers are our customers and our customers are their customers. A lot of the brewers started out as home brewers, built their knowledge, and worked their way up to that. We’ve been doing classes and for every class I’ve tried to get a brewery to sponsor it, so they will bring some beer in for people to sample and send one of their brewers to hang out during the class, and give themselves a little plug and chime in on a question or two. The customers like it because it’s not just me giving a class, it’s a professional brewer doing it and reiterating what I’m saying. So, we’ve been trying to build those relationships and do those as well.

Solo: Yeah, I always thought it would be fun to have more variety, because it’s fine, I started off on kits as most of us do, but having more variety there, that gives you more ideas and starts your creative juices flowing and leads to better things.

Donavan: That’s our goal to maybe fill in some of these spots and try different stuff. All of these are extract kits. We are also going to start to do all-grain kits, too. Customers make that jump from extract to an all grain, and sometimes some of that hesitation is well, OK, now I understand the all-grain process and I’ve created my equipment and have what I need, but finding the recipe of what they want to do is a little daunting.

Solo: Getting a good recipe and then getting to know the actual grains well enough to where you feel comfortable enough to say, oh, I’m going to take this grain that grain and this other grain in roughly these quantities and come up with something on my own. Having an all-grain kit and recipe definitely helps to bridge that gap.

Everything a home brewer needs to make his or her own kit.

Donavan: So yeah, those all-grain kits we will be putting together will make it easy for those customers that are just now making that jump to all grain, and so for their first few all-grain batches they can do just like I did with extract brewing, and just buy a kit for a certain recipe.

Long term, ideally we want to find a more centralized locationm since at present we’re in one corner of the city here, so when our lease is up here we will look at the possibility of finding something more centralized. We are looking to get out to events as well, we did the Science of Beer event at Explora, and we’ve definitely gotten a lot of good feedback on events like that. (Editor’s note: SWGG was at BearFest this past weekend.) Customers who don’t even necessarily know that we are here might go to an event like that and over the summer we are looking at maybe trying to get out to farmer’s markets.

Solo: You are (part of our) local community, so you should be a part of something like that.

Donavan: A lot of the people who are going to farmer’s markets are the same type of people who make their own beer or kombucha or wine, et cetera.

Solo: Yeah, you get a person who wants to have more control over their food, their drink, and own that whole process as much as they can.

Donavan: We do have some other long-term goals as well. At some point, we might look at getting a (small) brewer’s license here in the store, not to necessarily try to be a brewery, but if someone walks in and they want to have a beer, then you could have a beer while you are shopping. Bring in local beer on tap, and if we have a clone from a certain brewery we can say hey, we have that on tap here if you’d like to try it. (Then) here’s the recipe right here, you can try to make that beer at home. Things like that are kind of long-term goals, a few years down the road, probably. Here, obviously, space-wise we don’t have room to add something like that. But, it’s something we will definitely be looking at in the future when we look at new locations.

Solo: That would be awesome, to be able to have a pint while you are thinking up a recipe would be just amazing.

Donavan: Just a matter of taking all of the steps to actually get there.

Solo: Yeah, organization being first and expanding your base, (then) looking for a place that’s going to accommodate that and grow those ideas and so forth.

Donavan: The other things we’ve talked about doing is having a corner that’s just all schwag from all of the local breweries, where if we end up doing the brewer’s license and have a bunch of local beer on tap, that would just localize it to where you can just buy it all in one place, rather than going from brewery to brewery. That’s something we might look at talking to the breweries about as well. We might look at doing a section of the store that’s just man-cave stuff as well.

Solo: Totally, the two things absolutely go together. I mean, I have a room that’s just all my stuff, and then the closet’s just filled with my home brewery (equipment).

Donavan: Whether it’s brewery signs or bottle openers or different things like that.

Solo: Cool stuff that all ties in together. These are good ideas, I like all of them.

Donavan: It’s a matter of just taking the steps and slowly working our way from one step to another and getting it all in place. Other than that, it’s just the day-to-day running the store and helping people make beer and wine and enjoying it.

* * * * *

The results speak for themselves, as Donavan has the time to dedicate and the knowledge needed to make Grape and Grain successful now and in the years to come.

“It wasn’t like we had to come in and reinvent the wheel or anything,” he added. “I came in and said let’s tweak this and put my own touch on that and refine that and take it to the next level.”

There are frequent events on brewing and such for all different levels which are offered at the store typically on weekends so check out their website or check them out on Facebook for details. Above all, if you have an interest in beginning to brew or learn more about your craft, I heartily recommend heading down to Grape and Grain. Happy brewing!

Skål!

— Franz Solo

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