Rio Bravo Brewing has experienced a bumpy ride in its short existence. It went big right out of the gates, from the sheer size of its taproom and brewery to the early decision to mass distribute a whole slew of canned beers. Now, with more than two years in the rear view mirror, the brewery is pulling back a bit before it forges ahead in 2018.
To get the lowdown on just what that will involve, I sat down with head brewery Ty Levis, and owners Randy and Denise Baker, for their turn in our Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
“The fact that we came in as big as we did, in this space, it put a lot of people on notice,” Ty said. “Yet, we’re still now just getting into that traction phase where I think we’re starting to move and we’re going to see a super dynamic 2018. I feel like people were put off by how big this place is.”
It was not just the space. Rio Bravo learned quickly that making an impact in all facets of distribution, from keg accounts to package, was not going to be as easy as the staff had hoped.
“Distribution has been hard for us,” Ty said. “I can tell you right now going with a distributor (Admiral Beverage) early has plusses and minuses, and I’m still not sure what outweighs what. Here I am in the second plus a little bit full year of production (and) I’m still wondering what is happening to get our beer in front of people. Yet, we probably jumped the gun a little bit. I’ll tell you, it might have been nicer to put the restaurant in early and have a good food menu, then worry about packaging. But, with a brewery this size, we really wanted to utilize all of our space and equipment to kind of make it work both ways.”
Rio Bravo has cut back to four canned styles with the Roadkill Red, Snakebite IPA, La Luz Lager, and New Mexico Pinon Coffee Porter. That, as well as the other changes in house, will hopefully lead to simpler, calmer times ahead.
“I can tell you, shelf space is tight, tap handles are especially tight,” Ty said. “I don’t think anybody is going to come in and totally dominate, but I love to see new people like Steel Bender come in and do really well. I wish we had been able to come in that hot. I’m telling you, we’re going to make up ground this year.”
Randy said that one way to do that is for the staff to be more proactive.
“We’re looking to get some more impact in the community,” he said. “I’m not sure if we need to start pushing it more ourselves. We’ve generally relied on Admiral to do some work for us. That’s something I think we may try to increase.”
The bulk of the focus in 2017 that will continue into 2018 will be on improving the experience for people at the brewery. That began with the addition of Amberley Pyles, formerly of Marble Brewery, to take over as the marketing and events coordinator.
“We want to expand our services here, increase the beer garden activities we’re doing here,” Randy said. “Bringing on Amberley obviously has brought another dimension of information … just her knowledge of the bands and the entertainment. I think that was one thing that we missed out on (in 2016) because we didn’t have someone specifically handling all the bands and entertainment and activities. We tried to do it in-house, but you have to have assign someone specific for that, because it’s so complex.”
The sheer size of Rio Bravo can be useful when it comes to events. At different points in 2017, there could be a ticketed concert in the beer garden outside, an event in the barrel room upstairs, and a free musical performance in the main taproom.
“The whole holiday season, we had a lot of parties on premises,” Ty said. “We did really well. There was probably 25 different Christmas parties that we hosted here in all of our various event spaces. By and large, everything went off without a hitch.”
Turning Rio Bravo into a major event space has also helped the Bakers with the many charitable causes they like to support.
“Denise and I have been very philanthropic throughout our whole career with the electric company,” Randy said. “We’ve done the same thing here. Up to date, we’ve had almost 1,100 free pint cards come back for the Pints for Pints, where you donate a pint of blood for a pint of beer. We’re trying to do a lot of this without recognition. If you want to be helpful, do it all the time, not just when the cameras are rolling.”
While Amberley was the big addition to the staff, 2017 also saw the departure of John Seabrooks, the director of brewing operations. John left his position on November 4 to spend more time teaching, Ty said.
“There was a lot of stuff I was trying to get caught up on before he left, organizationally and administration, which is what his primary goal was,” Ty said. “He also loved to brew. He was helping me in a lot of ways that I didn’t know until now. I had to go back and figure out, where’s this spreadsheet, what’s going on, how do I enter in this information. There was a little bit of stress there in early November.”
A new assistant brewer will be joining the staff in the coming weeks, while other staff members often rotate from the front of house to the back, especially on packaging days, Ty said.
Rio Bravo finished at 1,254 barrels for 2017, which Ty said was a 45 to 50 percent increase from 2016.
“It’s a tall order, but I’m thinking we can do another 50 percent growth at least,” he said. “If I finish the year (2018) closer to 2,000 barrels, I’m going to be pretty happy, in this market especially, it’s frickin’ crazy.”
Rio Bravo did pick up arguably its biggest award to date in 2017 when it was awarded a shared bronze medal at the Great British Beer Festival for best American cask. Its Russian imperial stout, Grab Em by the Putin, tied with Canteen’s Strawberry Basil Gose.
“I was really excited about that,” Ty said. “I still think that was just awesome, the way that came about, especially. It’s all your (big-name) local guys that usually win. I know others have won it outright in the past. I think it was close to 90 casks that went (from New Mexico) last year.”
In addition to the beers and events, Rio Bravo also added another major component in 2017, a full kitchen. After initially contracting with The Burger Stand, a partnership that did not last, the brewery will now run the kitchen on its own.
That development will carry right over into this year.
2018 will feature expanded food menu, new beers, and maybe a taproom
Getting the kitchen up to full operating capacity will be the most immediate change at Rio Bravo.
“We’re launching our revised menu on February 1,” Denise said. “It’s actually going to be something that Ty is working very closely with our kitchen and we’re excited about it. It’s going to tell you which beer pairs with what dish. We’re going to be using a lot of the beers in our products, which is something we always wanted to do. We’re going to expand on the menu we have. We’re able to play with it now that we have our own kitchen.”
Nailing down everything with the kitchen, as well as the beers and events, is the primary early goal for 2018. The idea of expanding with an off-site taproom is on the table as well.
“We want to increase the quality of our product here (first),” Randy said. “We have the food, the beer, the service, and the entertainment. We have a very unique space and we want to take advantage of that.”
So where is Rio Bravo looking to put a taproom? Randy pointed out that many of the best places in the metro area are already taken, or for various reasons (zoning, high rent costs, conflicts with schools and churches) are just plain off the table. That could cause him to look in different directions.
“Looking forward, definitely we’d like to nail down in the first quarter the best location for us to posture ourselves for a new taproom, and possibly even two this year,” he said. “That’s something we have to do, but it’s not necessarily going to be in the 505. We may be looking at further south. It will be something I’m familiar with, whether it’s Los Lunas, Belen, Las Cruces, Roswell.”
“Don’t do a taproom until you have your image set at your first place,” Denise added. “It’s so tempting to open a taproom right away.”
This will also be a big year for beer competitions, and Rio Bravo has already picked up its first award, which just arrived at the brewery. The NM Pinon Coffee Porter earned a bronze at the Brussels Beer Challenge, which was held in December.
“It’s mostly a European event,” Ty said. “There were 220 brewers from the U.S. There were 330 from Belgium. It’s an international thing that they do. It just happened to coincide when I was shipping cases for another event. … It was in the coffee beer category. There was 1,500 beers in the competition across 77 categories. The gold and silver went to Brazilian coffee and beer companies. Whatever the Brazilians are doing with their coffee beer really resonated with the Belgian judges.”
The Best of Craft Beer Awards are up next, followed by the National IPA Challenge and World Beer Cup. Ty said he moved the Level 3 IPA into the Imperial IPA category at NIPAC. That big IPA was one of several beers that he has been playing with recipe-wise.
“I’m just kind of working on everything, a little bit of tweaks on everything else,” he said. “I’m just trying to make sure it’s not because of the beer.”
This year will also mark a major milestone for Ty himself.
“At the end of this year I’ll have been brewing full time for 25 years,” he said. “In 25 years, I’ve seen a lot of beer problems, I’ve seen a lot of hyping problems, I’ve seen a lot, especially in the last five years, of new breweries in this huge, dynamic flow. Unlike when I was a kid, the information is out there. People know how to make clean beer, how to make interesting beer, how to make fun beer. When I started, you had to figure that out. Even if you could afford a (formal) education, you had to take this book learning and apply it to the real world in craft brewing. The real world in craft brewing hardly existed. That’s kind of one of the things that’s interesting in how I look at things compared to most places.”
In other words, it is not going to suddenly get less competitive out there for Rio Bravo or any other local brewery.
“It’s really anybody’s game, but I can tell you right now the market is the most competitive and the beers in Albuquerque, they’re all top notch,” Ty said. “Even the new guys, right out of the gate they’re able to make good, clean beer. It’s not like it used to be back in the old days when craft beer was a novelty. Now it’s a standard (and) the standards have risen so much higher and in such a quick way, if you’re not constantly innovating and making things better, you’re going to find yourself like Smuttynose, which is totally lost and wondering why your old standard from 10 years ago doesn’t sell.”
With a little luck and a lot of hard work, 2018 should finally be the year Rio Bravo truly comes into its own. A big thank you to Ty, Randy, and Denise for taking the time out to chat. They have a lot of work ahead of them, but in truth, they would not have it any other way.