Sidetrack Brewing opened just a few blocks from Central Avenue, but lives in a different world. The little brewery that could has become a true neighborhood pub for the locals who have long since grown weary of the hustle and bustle of Old Route 66 and its trendy clubs and hip dive bars. This development for Sidetrack has gone (mostly) according to plan for co-owners Dan Herr and Anne O’Neill, who sat down with me recently for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series interview.
“It’s been going well,” Dan said. “We’ve always just kind of had this, I don’t know if you’d say inferiority complex or just an intimidation kind of situation, but just getting into this business has been a great adventure (even though) we didn’t know what to expect.
“The first year, I don’t think we could have asked for a better first year, and the second year was even better than that. So we’re grateful to have the business that we’ve had. We’re trying to just recognize who we are and who are patrons think we are and want us to be. That’s been the biggest thing, despite what you think your identity is or you want it to be, it is what it is, and it is what your customers say it is. We’ve been trying to recognize that and try to be as responsive and as accommodating as we can to the people that come and spend money here.”
That recognition for Sidetrack has meant a pivot back to what worked in the first place, a sort of simplicity that other breweries have long since abandoned.
“I think after our second year we tried a lot of things with events and with beer styles and beer releases, and we learned a lot through the daily business and those things that we tried,” Dan said. “I think what we learned is that we’re not really an event place. We are a place to come and chill and talk and that’s one of the things we really hoped to be, just a neighborhood pub, a gathering place for local folks. I think we are that. There are some details as to what that actually is that have to sink in over the course of a year.”
Dan said Sidetrack will try to focus on three major events per year, with the first being the anniversary party held every January. An autumn block party that also features neighboring businesses like the Orpheum, Sanitary Tortilla Factory, and Zendo will remain an annual event as well. A third event, likely for late spring or early summer, is still up in the air, but Dan said they are exploring their options there.
One thing that will continue is the bring-your-own vinyl night, which has quickly become the most popular weekly event. All the credit to that success goes to the Sidetrack beertenders.
“We’ve had really great success with the vinyl and with our fantastic staff that we have,” Dan said. “We’ve been really lucky and fortunate to find people that are tuned in and can really take the reins of driving this thing when we’re not here. They do a great job with the music. As simple as it sounds, the vinyl thing is really a draw for us. A lot of the success is due to the folks that we’ve got standing behind the bar. They know the cool stuff. We’re not the coolest people, Ann and I; we think we (still) are and we might have used to be, but we’re a bit out of touch these days. We’re happy to have those (staff members).”
As for the beer, Sidetrack will continue to adapt to the tastes of its customers.
“Beer-wise in general, I think our first year we were just kind of learning everything,” Ann said. “We really played it safe and we just had the same rotating beers, we had a stout, we had a red, and a pale ale. We just kind of stayed safe with what we knew. The second year we finally started a lager. We started experimenting a little bit more (such as) Buzz Bomb. We just kind of gotten out there.”
Ann noted that Dan, who doubles as the head brewer, has also been playing around with the yeast strains and new hops that the brewery has been able to procure. Of course, as beer demand goes up, space becomes tighter and tighter.
“Our plan is not to expand or get bigger, except within ourselves at this point, even though we’re outgrowing our space,” Ann said. “We could use another fermenter. We find it hard to do lagers with just three fermenters. Finding that space in that little brewery is a challenge. I think for us it’s just keep working on our recipes, trying new things.”
Dan said that Sidetrack has no plans to get into keg distribution or anything like that. Right now, the only kegs sent off site are to Desert Dogs in Santa Fe, the taproom co-owned by nearby Boese Brothers. While Dan said he is grateful that George and Sam Boese are willing to do that for Sidetrack, it also shows him that distributing beer off such a small system can put a strain on the supply.
“We’re just trying to refine our little place here,” Dan said. “That goes for the taproom, as far as the physical parts of the taproom, and just the day-to-day business and events and how we treat our patrons. The beers, we’re just trying to evolve. My hope this year is to keep two IPAs on draft at all times. We’ve found, for better or worse, is that IPA is what people want. So the better we can do with keeping that demand met, the smoother things run for us.”
There will be some on-site construction going on in 2018, though few customers figure to notice. Dan said they plan to expand the walk-in cooler in the basement beneath the taproom, while adding some additional plumbing to help things run more smoothly. In turn, that should enable Sidetrack to expand its draft tower from six taps to eight or 10.
“We’re just able to maintain this space,” Ann said. “Beer-wise and everything, with our system and how small we are, we couldn’t add accounts or anything. A lot of people ask, but we can only do so much.”
All of that simply fits with the original plan for Sidetrack.
“That was sort of the vision from the very beginning, the corner taproom,” Dan said. “We’ve been well received, I think, as being that. We get good feedback as far as the look of the place, the fact we don’t have a television, and the fact that our staff is attentive and courteous. It’s just all the very simple things that seem to be appealing to folks.”
There has been one positive development for Sidetrack outside the four walls of its taproom. Ann has been a sitting member of the New Mexico Brewers Guild board of directors for a while now, and she has been named president for 2018.
“I think the nice thing about me being on the board starting last year (2016), we’re a small place and many of the members are bigger places, so I’m kind of representing and looking out for the smaller brewers and what they need as well,” Ann said. “It’s nice having that balance of where we’re all very different sizes and (objectives). Some are into expanding and distributing, while some of us just want to have a taproom and we’re happy with that. (We’re) having a voice on the board for all the smaller brewers.”
As for that aforementioned second anniversary party, it will go down this Saturday from noon to 11 p.m. There will be live music from AJ Woods (2-4 p.m.), Brian McDaniel (5-7 p.m.), and Cooper CW Ayon (8-10 p.m.). Malaguena’s Latin Tapas will be serving food all day. There will also be two special beers on cask (Pub Ale with Earl Grey Tea and the new IPA dry hopped with Simcoe) and two more on tap.
“On tap literally we’re going to try to bring two new beers out,” Dan said. “We’ve got an IPA (Locomotive Breath) that we’re going to try to release on that Saturday. Then we’ve got just the infancy of our micro barrel program. We’ve got a stout that we are hoping is ready. … We’re going to carbonate a keg of that and have that available.
“Otherwise, we’ve got three bands that are going to be playing throughout the day. They’re just tiny bands that are the size of our taproom, so they’re basically just one-man shows. We’ll set them up in the back corner. Then we’ll have a live screen printing guy coming in. We’ve got a graphic we’re developing for an anniversary T-shirt.”
I was lucky enough to try that Single Barrel Stout right out of the barrel. It has a big, boozy aroma, but the flavor is not too hot. Instead it is just smooth and decadent, the kind of good sipping beer perfect for a chilly winter afternoon.
A big thanks to Dan and Ann for taking the time out of their day before the brewery even opened its doors. That, and the sample out of the barrel, was a nice gesture and greatly appreciated.
Cheers to more years, Sidetrack!