Boxing Bear still punching above its weight heading into the fourth round

It has been a busy year for Boxing Bear brewer/owner Justin Hamilton and his staff.

Franz Solo here, continuing our annual series of looking back and looking ahead for our breweries all around the Duke City. I was able to sit down with brewer/owner Justin Hamilton over at Boxing Bear Brewing on a fine Monday afternoon and what follows is an account of a strong and busy year of the Bear.

Solo: So, here we are Look Back/Look Ahead once more, so successes and other things, obviously having two years in a row of hitting that New Mexico IPA Challenge was pretty awesome.

Justin: Yeah, that was really good for us. It was cool to get another one of those under our belt and continue that tradition of breweries being able to stagger their wins year after year with Il Vicino, Bosque, and us. So that was really cool, especially with the increased competition. We’ve never had closer IPA Challenges than we had these last two years, so it was cool to keep that progression going even with so much more people involved and such heated competition. It was really awesome for us to keep that going, especially for the same beer. That was really awesome for us, and then continuing to get into this last GABF, and taking a win with a bronze medal for Featherweight (Session IPA), that was awesome for us. We couldn’t have asked for more, especially with so much more competition.

Solo: How many people were in that category?

Justin: Like 130 or something, but as far as one of the biggest as far as the the medals we won collectively in New Mexico, that was one of the biggest categories entered for a win. So we were super excited. We had a really good year across the board. We’ve been busier, trying to keep this place going and we got more equipment in earlier this year. Our production has finally been able to catch up just the last couple of months. We’ve actually been able to keep specials (on tap longer).

The taps were flowing this year, and the specialty bomber releases were big hits.

Solo: Keeping up with your 16 available taps?

Justin: This is probably the only time we’ve had consistently 16 beers on tap for more than a few weeks at at time. We would have a full board and then we would run out of a special and come back and run out of another special. We’d be down to around 12 to 14 beers on a regular basis. So now it is nice (that) we have the 16 beers on tap at least for now. We will see how things go next year. That’s been a really good thing for us to keep that variety. People always want something different and something new, so it’s been nice to kind of have (a) full winter beer (lineup) on around this time and keeping them on for more than a week or two. It’s been nice for us, and also for our customers who can come back and enjoy the same thing they had (before), as opposed to that stuff just going poof and disappearing. Other than that, we’ve just been trying to keep things moving. It’s been a really busy year up front and in back getting new equipment. We are getting into our third year of brewing.

Solo: Which equipment did you add?

Justin: This year we added two more fermenters and two more brite tanks, so that’s been a pretty big thing for us to help with that gap in production. So now we’ve been able to keep up with doing more double batches of specials and that’s why they’ve been lasting a little longer. Getting into next year our big thing is finding a taproom. We are really trying to find a taproom right now. It’s up and down with progress and where we find potential places. We are trying to solidify something right now, so hopefully getting in next year we will have a better idea of where we are going to be. Our goal is to hopefully have something done by the end of next year. It’s ambitious, but I think it can be done if we find the right place.

It’s getting crowded back in the brewery.

Solo: With everything you guys have done, you take your time, you make sure you are doing it right.

Justin: That’s it, we want to make sure we have a good location that’s got parking, that’s potentially got a patio or a deck, and all of that stuff is like a big part of making sure we continue not only our portfolio of beer but also having a cool place. I mean, we could just set up a draft system in a shed somewhere, but that’s not our style. We want to make sure it’s a solid location. But, with that we also want to start doing improvements on this place. That’s always been something on our minds. Those are things that we are continuing to do. As you saw this last year, we got more TVs, getting an actual sound system indoor and outdoor, getting patio covering, better outdoor lighting. All of that stuff, (such as) continuing to take care of our patio furniture, we will probably get new patio furniture and continue to get new stuff indoors. All of our money gets reinvested. Our profits over the past three years have gone right back into our business. That’s another one of our goals for next year is we would like to start to make a little bit of a profit on what we are doing, as opposed to simply having to re-invest our capital solely back into the business. It’s a cycle where we do well, but then we buy 50k worth of equipment and so that’s good, but we want to keep things improving and also to look for new locations and things like that. Our big goals are looking towards just what we’ve done the last few years where we have a lot of good competitions coming up.

Solo: National IPA Challenge for one.

Justin: Yeah, National IPA Challenge is going to be in February and March. Shortly after that we’ve got the World Beer Cup, and just after that we’ve got IPA Challenge locally again, and then back to GABF, so we’re going to have our hands full next year where every couple of months we’ve got a big thing going on. We still have December left this year and we are trying to do a couple of big events in December, including a bottle release where we’ve got a bourbon-barrel-aged stout that’s our collaboration that we’ve been trying to put together with Jubilation. They actually provided us (a) Buffalo Trace barrel, so that’s been aging for over a year in that barrel, and then we’re going to blend it and bottle it hopefully next week is the plan. So in the next two weeks we will have that and hopefully available some very limited run of bombers, some here, some at Jubilation, but that will be it. We might have a little bit of it on tap, but that will be a really big release.

We are also trying to plan a Festivus party for the 23rd, which just happens to be a Saturday, so we have a beer planned for that. We are working on getting an actual event going that day. So we’re trying to do a couple of fun things in December maybe even another one that we’re trying to put together, but we are trying to end the year with a bang and get ready for January, in which hopefully we might see another special bomber release. We are trying to plan that guy, too. Last year we thought we might put out bombers every month and try to push specialty beers, (but) with our current schedule it’s too much to be able to bottle that many beers that frequently. So we are definitely going to keep up with Chocolate Milk Stout in bombers, and then you will see specialty bomber releases when we have time or if we have something special.

TKO was one of the new beers to earn a bomber release this year.

Solo: So if you’ve got another Black and Blue or Red Glove and such.

Justin: We are talking about if we could get a batch of session IPA and if people were willing to buy that in a bomber, (but) we’re not really sure, I think so myself. Either way, we will have more of that kind of thing coming out on draft.

Solo: I mean you’ve got Founders with All Day IPA in 19.2-ounce cans, so there’s definitely a market for it.

Justin: I love that beer (Featherweight). I’ll drink it in a bomber all day, plus it’s something that you can actually finish a whole bomber of but not be overly inebriated. Some of those big beers like even the heavy barrel-aged ones are great, but …

Solo: It’s better to share, really.

Justin: It is hard to drink a whole 22 ounces of something that’s that rich. Those ones are something that’s meant to be shared. I think a session beer would be something you could enjoy the whole bomber by yourself and it would be great. That’s all stuff that we are trying to work on other than building improvements, potentially (a) taproom, and we really want to solidify our identity more and the culture of who we are. I think we’ve been doing that the past three years, but it seems to never stop the need for that.

Things have been buzzing around the taproom.

Solo: No, it doesn’t. I mean, you start creating an image of yourself and a vision for yourself, and no, you can never stop fighting for that because it will fade far too quickly.

Justin: I mean, Marble’s one of the most established breweries in our state other than Santa Fe and a couple of others, but they never stop marketing. They never stop showing their image and progressing it, and I think that’s something to look forward to creating ourselves. That’s another reason we want keep reinvesting in our brewery. We don’t want to lose our focus and our vision for what this place should be, and it is constant, there is always something. When you open and run a business, you think, oh yeah, that will work here and this will work there just fine, but no, it is constant improvement, so everything changes every few months and that is the hardest part about running any business, especially a brewery. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster, but I think we are on the track that we need to be on, but we kind of have to play our cards right over the next years and make sure that we are sticking to our plan and also not getting too comfortable. I think if we had the mindset of, hey we did well at GABF this last year, we got (mid-size brewpub) of the year, we’ve been doing good with local and national competitions and all of that stuff, we’ve found our place, (but) I don’t like that idea. I want to continue to strive for excellence so our QC and QA is constantly being revamped, and hopefully from the brewery to the front of house and getting into the kitchen, so that all of this continues to stay relevant and we keep that from becoming stale.

With the kitchen, that’s something we continue to make improvements back there. We are putting out different specials every now and then. We have our core set of sandwiches, which is how we started, but we grow that stuff. We’ve added wraps, we’re adding a really nice charcuterie plate, we’ve been doing tacos and some stuff like that, so we’ve been able to give our customers a little more variety. Myself and John (Campi), the general manager here, are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other. The carnitas tacos was just something where we had most of the ingredients here and it was just this idea of we’ve got our pulled pork, why don’t we take that put a little red chile, put it in the oven bake it, and that turned out great. It’s been nice for me having that separation where now I have that general manager so I don’t have to do that position. I can pay attention to what is going on in the brewery portion rather than having to also run the kitchen and all of that other stuff. I almost had time for all of that, but now there’s just no way I could properly attend to both aspects of the brewpub.

Our staff has been changing and we’ve tried to get that more solidified with not only our hiring process, but also our ability to retain our good employees and make this place really function well. Being that we serve a little bit of food, one of the things that we decided to do was table service. Looking back, I don’t know if we would do that again. It’s really hard to keep up with and with a lot of the breweries that we visited recently in Denver, but locally even if they have food they don’t necessarily do table service. It can really be confusing sometimes to especially new customers, especially if it is really busy and we’ve got so much real estate here. People will just show up and sit down and unfortunately sometimes they sit in a spot where you don’t see them and it’s busy and we miss their table and then we get a bad review. So those are all things we are trying to work on. We want to make sure our staff is watching people come in and make sure on busy nights that they are checking the whole place.

Awards season was good to Boxing Bear again in 2017.

Solo: Employee awareness of customers in any good business is paramount to have great success.

Justin: It’s hard since we’ve got corners inside here and outside, so there’s a lot of places where if you are not actively looking for someone, they could easily walk in this side door and sit down and wait and not get service right away. So that’s something that we are really trying to address for us and we are constantly evaluating that, trying to ensure that we have enough people on staff while also have the right people on staff at the right times. It’s all stuff that we have been learning. I knew a lot of this stuff coming into the business, but once you are in charge of it that’s when it changes, when you have to make sure that you are balancing employee coverage with labor costs and all of the rest of that. I’d love to have 20 people on at any given time and each of them just has one table, but that’s simply not something feasible nor affordable in the long run, since none of those employees would make anything from tips with that much staff. It’s just that balance, that’s what we are striving for and working out those little kinks just as every brewery does even five or seven years into it. Being that we are just past three years we are doing well. We are staying on track for what we want to do, but that being said, there’s still plenty of improvement and adjustments to make in lots of areas.

So that’s what we are trying to address and not only that, but like I said, expose ourselves to more people in the city. (We will) hopefully getting some place on the other side of town as far as a taproom will do, and then getting that extra exposure. Because we see that a lot, we see a lot of people that haven’t really heard of us in spite of some of our good successes. It’s exposure. People don’t want to cross the river, I get that (too). I used to live on the other side of town. It’s not easy to do the commutes in this city, especially if you are going and having a couple of beers. It’s not going to make it your priority if you’re going to come out here just to grab a bomber and a growler or something and go back to the other side of town. That doesn’t make that much sense, especially when there’s so much good beer in town. You’ve got Bosque and Marble and La Cumbre out there with plenty of taprooms and other choices, so I get it. If we can help the customer have a little ease of convenience to getting to our products, then I think that’s just going to help us across the board with exposure and everything else. It’s all trying to play the hand that you’ve been dealt and hopefully making the right call, because every year this industry changes. It is more competitive, and also very different every year with what’s going to be on the docket this year. Who knows? Who knows what style, what trends, and what people are looking for as just the taproom?

Seeing some place like Chama River go down scared the shit out of everyone. We all kind of knew what was going on in that place, but we also saw it as a standard that was never going anywhere. And so to see something like that change, I think it kind of shifted the environment for breweries that you are not bulletproof in this society. People have always said that breweries are recession proof, but if you are looking at what is happening now you are seeing a lot of instances where breweries fall off that are just making good beer, and Chama was making great beer! It’s not always just the product, it’s the politics.

Solo: It’s the ability to stay relevant.

Justin: So that’s what we keep looking to is how do we continue to grow this business into something that will actually last a decade or more. These are all things that are constantly on our minds. We are continually meeting and discussing these issues — direction, money, and experience, for not only the customer, but also the brewery scene itself.

Bearfest moved to the ABQ Convention Center for 2017, but it could have a new venue in 2018.

Solo: So Bearfest is another one that you changed up this year.

Justin: Bearfest has been a changing thing as well, being that it grew so much the last couple years. We’re not really sure what we are going to do with that this year. We might be looking at a different venue this time or just changing the whole festival, but Bearfest has been kind of crazy. It’s been really fun the past three years and I don’t know what we are doing for this next year. We’ve been talking about it and throwing ideas around, but it comes down to our ability to find a good location that can host a lot of people that’s just going to be excellent. The convention center worked well, (even though) the spot we had wasn’t the best. There are better locations in the convention center that were already booked, so we are looking at maybe changing that venue at the convention center, or just looking at other places to go. In the future I could see us continuing that, hopefully in some place that will hold enough people and will …

Solo: Allow you to do what you want to do?

Justin: Yeah, and also we will have to evaluate how many breweries we (invite), because I think last year we had so many breweries that some people kind of didn’t get as much attention as they should have, because there was so much going on. So it’s either attendance has to go up or the quantity of breweries will need to shrink down a little bit. Either way, we are good with it as long as we can make sure that the experience is worth going to every year. I can’t think of too much else that’s on the docket for this coming year other than what we’ve covered.

Solo: So continuing to make specialty beers and or bombers as you have the chance.

Justin: You’ll see us do that. We are always looking to make different kinds of beers, and I’m also trying to work with scheduling on having new equipment and having 20-barrel specials instead of 10-barrel specials. (Plus) the timing on all of that as well, trying to make sure we have fresh beer and different varieties for different seasons. That will be something that I am personally working on. But, other than that, I think everything is going to be pretty much rolling into 2018 with the same attitude, just trying to really keep ourselves relevant and making good beer, trying to keep up. Especially if we open a taproom, the keeping up is going to be a bit of a bear.

Solo: That’ll be a whole can of worms on its own.

Justin: And with that, if we do get a taproom going, we will probably need more equipment, so it’s going to be this whole cycle.

Solo: That vicious cycle of hey, we need more stuff so we have to get more stuff to make more stuff.

Justin: And, buy more ingredients to make more beer, so a lot of times you need so much more (than just) money just to get involved in something that will hopefully, maybe, make you a little money. So that’s what we’re looking towards, and hopefully with 2018 we will continue to do well and just make good beer.

* * * * *

There are good things to look forward to, with the hope for a taproom on the eastern side of town, a delightful sounding barrel-aged collaboration stout with Jubilation which will be forthcoming, the Festivus party, and perhaps more in December, plus more various bombers to enjoy as the year progresses, the continuation of Bearfest, and another grand festival season looming. A strong year has come and gone for Boxing Bear, with Featherweight Session IPA claiming bronze at GABF (it was quite quite tasty), Bear Knuckle IPA repeating as the NM IPA Challenge champion, and TKO Triple IPA, which was a delicious third anniversary bomber release, among a plethora of delicious seasonal and specialty beers which took us through one helluva difficult year. On a personal note, I was simply amazed and pleased to be able to enjoy a pint of Vantablack after biking to the brewery on my 35th birthday. I could not have asked for a better seasonal even if it was the very end of May! All the best for the year ahead and Boxing Bear Brewing!


— Franz

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