Change is the one constant at our local breweries, even the long-established ones like Tractor Brewing. A frenetic 2017 is nearly in the books, so I sat down with co-owner/president Skye Devore, co-owner/brewmaster David Hargis, and marketing director Jeremy Kinter last Thursday to try to sum it all up and preview what is on deck for 2018.
“I always have a hard time remembering,” Skye said. “I’m like what did we do this year, I always feel like we didn’t do anything, but we did a lot.
“We opened a (new) taproom. We went into distribution in El Paso. We did some seasonal cans, that was new and exciting, and transitioned everything to 16-ounce cans except for (Mustachio) Milk Stout. I think that’s all.”
Jeremy added that the recent Stranger Things Arcade Carnival was the single largest event, in terms of attendance and sheer scope, in the history of the Wells Park location.
Most of the headlines this year were about the new Four Hills taproom, which proved to be a relatively easy project for the brewery staff.
“We’re pretty fortunate that we didn’t have any big construction delays at Four Hills,” Skye said. “It was pretty quick. We signed the lease in April and opened in August.”
The locals in the area, many of whom had never tried Tractor before, quickly embraced the taproom.
“It seems to me it’s also been the fastest adoption by a neighborhood,” David said. “The neighborhood was very welcome to us right off the bat. We saw our distinguished guests coming in from the first day.”
Since David was largely responsible for the buildout, he was quite glad to avoid any major stress with the project.
“Given all the new taprooms that are opening, it’s kind of cool that that level of stress was a little bit relieved.”
Skye said the traffic has not slowed down since August, which has been a pleasant surprise.
“They’re going really good,” she said. “Going into winter you’re always nervous opening something. We really weren’t sure of the audience we were going to capture up there. We’re really surprised that it’s an older audience than we get at our other locations. We have a lovely group of retired ladies who come in after Sunday chatter and drink 6-ounce beers and eat sandwiches.
“Early on, we got some interesting reviews from folks about our choice of music was something their 18-year-old daughter would listen to. So we’ve had to adjust part of our style to their style in some ways, but there’s also a younger crowd that comes in, too, that lives around the area. It’s definitely the most diverse population, but I feel like we’ve been able to have and I feel that’s good for us as a brand.”
As for the other off-site taproom, Nob Hill has managed to weather the storm of the Albuquerque Rapid Transit construction that tore up Central for much of the year.
“It was supposed to be done with construction before Shop and Stroll in Nob Hill (on December 7), and then have it full up and running February,” Skye said. “That’s kind of a big deal for us. Having all that construction in Nob Hill, having that landscape of the neighborhood change so much with things closing down has been very interesting for us.”
Dealing with A.R.T. also brought the businesses in Nob Hill together like never before.
“We did the Superhero Pub Crawl and everyone jumped on board immediately — Bosque, Kaktus, (Zinc) Cellar, Nob Hill Bar & Grill — it was super awesome,” Jeremy said.
Skye said the need for unity will continue going forward.
“Businesses are pulling together a lot more because everyone is like how do we tell the story that A.R.T. is over and Nob Hill is still fun, so you should come to Nob Hill,” she said. “It has been kind of cool because when we first opened there we wanted to be the neighborhood bar and we feel like we lost some of that whenever things got super busy, whenever Nob Hill turned into a bar district. It’s gone back that way. Of course, that doesn’t always feel that great in your pocketbook, but as far as the vibe of regulars and people you see all the time, stuff like that, it’s been positive for that.”
Tractor also has a new landlord at the Nob Hill location, who has already talked of helping out his tenant “do some expansion of our footprint,” Skye said, in addition to putting a new bakery and cafe into the old bike shop space next door. What that expansion will look like is to be determined, but it could involve adding more bathrooms (rejoice!).
Down at the main brewery at Wells Park, there have been plenty of popular events, from as big as the Arcade Carnival to many smaller ones. Change, though, is afoot there as well. The rising popularity of neighboring breweries has actually been more of a positive than a drain on business.
“Something new opens around you and you’re like what’s going to happen, but it’s been pretty constant,” Skye said. “I definitely feel like we’ve seen an uptick since we started doing our own food in-house, which we were definitely pretty nervous about.”
Ah, yes, the other big change saw Tractor open a small kitchen in what used to be the merchandise room located off the main taproom area at Wells Park. As the Crew noted recently, the decreasing number of reliable food trucks has forced some changes at breweries and taprooms around town.
“I think it’s been great,” Skye said. “It’s allowed us to consolidate what we feel are the easiest to work with who offer us food all over to the Nob Hill location. A lot of them shut down in the winter, so it’s been easier to deal with and manage. Dealing with that many trucks’ schedules across two locations was taking too much of Jeremy’s time.”
Jeremy, looking a bit more relaxed than he has in recent months, agreed.
“It’s significantly reduced time spent on my end just literally calling food trucks for an hour or two,” he said. “I feel like we’ve moved our best and brightest (to Nob Hill only) and I’m really happy in December with our food truck schedule, in the variety we have to offer and the following that those food trucks have. Soo Bak, Cheesy Street, Route 66 Grill, all really top-notch food trucks.”
Beyond all the taprooms and kitchens and events and such, Tractor also saw some changes to its beer landscape in 2017. From new 16-ounce cans to new styles, it was a diverse year, with special limited canning runs replacing the 22-ounce bombers of the past. Only Mustachio Milk Stout remains in 12-ounce cans, though that will transition over in 2018.
“We put New Mexican Lager in a can this year, it’s a full-time can offering,” Skye said of what has become one of the brewery’s most popular styles. “Seasonally we’ve done Honey Wheat, Big Sipper, (Golden) Dry Cider, and now Turkey Drool coming out, so we’ve done limited runs of all those. We put out our first barrel-aged sour this year (Flanders Red).”
David said he plans to close out the year in style with a couple more big releases.
“We will have our second sour release, it just needs to be kegged,” he said. “These will be three-year-old, barrel-aged sours. I thought the Flanders was very approachable. It still had a level of malt blended with the sourness. The next batch is going to be advanced in its palate requirements.”
The number of barrels tucked away in the back continues to increase.
“We’re continuing to expand the sour program, so that’s a lot of fun for us,” David said. “Coming out this year, a different change, the Luna fans may be a little disappointed, but the barrel-aged is going to be the Luna de los Muertos, but with chocolate and milk. Barrel aged in bourbon barrels for 13 months. It comes out December 8.”
If anyone wants to know where the Crew will be that day, well, your question has been answered.
This year also saw an explosion in the popularity of cider. In addition to winning multiple local and national awards with the main Delicious Red Hard Apple Cider, Tractor added Berry Cider year round and also produced a slew of seasonal ciders that were big hits.
“We can make a batch of a seasonal cider and be out of it in like two to three weeks,” Skye said, with Jeremy adding that two of the biggest hits all year were the Thai Basil Mint Cider and the Blood Orange Cider.
Tractor also picked up some awards for its beers over the course of the year, with longtime Crew favorite Double Plow Oatmeal Stout winning a gold medal at the Los Angeles Beer Competition. There should also be two more local awards to add to the list before the end of the year.
“And then, it hasn’t been officially announced, but we assume we won Best Stout and Best Cider for Best of the City in ABQ the Mag, because they came and took pictures,” Jeremy said. “They said you finished top five in each of these categories, but we want to take pictures of the cider and (milk) stout.”
Overall, it was a solid year on the Beer Farm.
Another new taproom among the many projects on deck for 2018
For a good chunk of the year, the Crew was asked to keep quiet after we learned from a couple of our readers that Tractor was planning on opening a taproom on the West Side near McMahon and Unser. It was mainly due to the fact that nothing had even been built yet. Well, things are finally moving ahead to the point where the command staff is willing to talk about it.
“We finally started moving dirt on our Westside taproom,” Skye said. “That’s finally in the works enough we can maybe talk about it, hope we don’t jinx it.”
The new location will be the first where Tractor does not have to re-purpose an existing building, as it did in Nob Hill (a former yoga studio), Wells Park (a furniture factory showroom), and Four Hills (a pizza restaurant).
“It will be our first new construction space ever,” David said. “This will not be a remodel. We’ll be handed a clean canvas. A lot of our budget every time goes to solving an issue because the space doesn’t fit us. Now it’s going to be designed for us. We can go in there and start cleaning. I’m looking forward to that.”
David said they expect to get their keys to the space in February, after which it should take about 60 days to build it all out. He also added that Skye will probably want him to get it done in 30 days.
“We’ll have a little race,” she said. “When I file for the permit, can I get the alcohol permit before you get the construction done.”
Tractor has been seeking a location west of the Rio Grande for three years, David said. They have been waiting on that spot for about 18 months.
“We’ve been looking at potential spots (for longer), figuring how is it zoned, how is the exposure, how many square feet do you want,” Skye said. “All the things that go into it. I’m fairly content this will be our last Albuquerque taproom. … I don’t see us having a geographic need for something else in the city limits.”
Tractor also has a wine growers license, so technically it could still open another three off-site taprooms outside the city limits. That is something to file away for the future, but there is another big move coming to Wells Park.
“So, we’re getting our distillers license hopefully the first quarter of next year, so that’s exciting,” Skye said. “It’ll be here (at Wells Park), we’ll distill here, but then that gives us three distillers taprooms. We haven’t decided if we’ll put them with three of our current taprooms, probably not one in Nob Hill because they won’t let us sell package.”
David and the brew team will be in charge of that as well.
“We’ve been talking about it for a while,” he said. “I think it’s going to be fun to see what the customers expect from that, what we want to do. We don’t have some grand plan, it just makes sense us for to have a license because we do 60 percent of what a distiller does, so why not take advantage of the process we already have in place.”
Skye said she was excited to finally mark it off her to-do list, where it has sat since 2014, but was always placed on the back burner due to more pressing matters coming first. As to what exactly Tractor will end up distilling, that remains to be seen.
“Distilling, we can distill anything,” David said. “We can distill wine. Then blend those things. It’s going to be a whole new frontier. We’re excited about that.”
As for the rest of the brew team, they will remain a busy group.
“In the brewery, (head brewer) Josh (Campbell) is doing a whole lot more on his shoulders,” David said. “It’s preparing for me to be in more of a position to do construction and move the company forward in our current environment with all of our competitors, spend more time kicking ideas around with Skye.”
David said another brewer on staff has also stepped up.
“Peter (Moore), who joined us last year, is pretty talented, so we’re going to hand him some recipe formulation stuff, along with Josh,” he added. “Those guys are doing a great job.”
There will be plenty of new beers coming out in 2018, plus one popular series of beers that will continue.
“I hate to talk about stuff until it’s had a successful fermentation,” David said. “We’re doing our first pecan beer. That’s in the fermenter. We’re going to do our first winter spiced cider. That comes out very soon.
“What else have we got? We’ve got the whole Three-Two series, inspired by Skye. What’s cool about that is we’re pretty deep on session beers these days. She took it to the next level. The cool twist that she put on that, because my opposition was always the price, so we’re going to make those always available at $3.25. We’re going to have a few of those on.”
Skye said there are plans to do a lower alcohol version of Turkey Drool (7.2% ABV) that would be sold in cans outside the Albuquerque market, though David noted those are not set in stone and Josh would have the final approval as TD is his recipe (and a Crew favorite).
There will be specialty can releases throughout the year again in 2018 for all markets.
“Things that we have going in cans next year for sure that are seasonal, beyond whatever we just decide we want to do (in the moment),” Skye said, “so this spring we’re going to do Thai Mint Basil Cider. Then for IPA Challenge we’re going to do Ghost Ranch IPA. For fall we’ll do a Pumpkin Spice Cider and then Turkey Drool again.”
David noted that with the constant change and evolution in the hops themselves, there could be more changes to beer recipes in 2018, even some of the lineup staples.
“The hops seem to be changing quite a bit these days,” he said. “We’re going to be playing around with some different recipes of a flagship beer that may evolve a little bit because we’ve noticed the hops are going left and we’re going right. There may be some things changing around with some beers.
“Hops have been the interesting stress of David Hargis’ life for 2017. A lot of things are going right, but those are a big challenge. Keeping the right amount, what is the expectation going forward.”
As for the events that are the lifeblood of Wells Park, expect plenty of popular ones to continue like Drag Queen Bingo, plus new and innovative events debuting as well.
“We’ve been trying out some new events,” Jeremy said. “I want to do some different things. It seems like everything we do anyways gets imitated. I’m just kidding. I just want to do some different things you don’t see at breweries.
“This year we did some live karaoke, molding that into something different. Also, maybe hopefully getting some arcade games in here full time. And then, working at just at different nights. We’re going to have a Lego night, a Lego building contest. We’re looking at working with other businesses.”
Jeremy is already deep into planning out all the events Tractor will host for ABQ Beer Week in May.
“Looking ahead to Beer Week, I feel like we had a successful Beer Week (in 2017),” he said. “We’d like to continue working with partners. We worked with Rowley Farmhouse Ales for sour hour. That was a really big hit.”
Tractor will even shake up the type of live music it hosts.
“Also, not just doing music by itself, because every place has music and has the same solo acoustic musicians,” Jeremy said. “We did a live (film) score this year (of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I’ve never seen the taproom as quiet as it was then. Everyone was just 100 percent focused on it, it was really cool.”
Everyone at Tractor is certainly going to stay busy, so a huge thanks to Skye, David and Jeremy for taking some time out to chat. (And for the Turkey Drool, of course.)
Look for more entries in our Look Back/Look Ahead Series after Thanksgiving.