It was all about the little things at Ponderosa Brewing in 2017. Whether it was doing a bit of remodeling, experimenting with new beer styles, introducing a canned beer for the first time, or just focusing on making the brewery into a true neighborhood pub, it all seems to have paid off.
“2017 was really good, actually,” head brewer Antonio Fernandez said. “Everything was kind of on a pretty big uptick for us. Our customer base was bigger, our sales were bigger, I brewed more beer than we’d ever brewed before, we sold more beer than before. The business growth was really positive this past year. We’ve had a pretty steady curve of growth.”
Antonio and I sat down recently over a goblet of his Russian imperial stout, which he named Bernalillo County Stout, for Ponderosa’s turn in our Look Back/Look Ahead Series. It was a busy early afternoon on a weekday, which seemed to back up his point about business being up at the Sawmill District brewpub.
“One of the other big things that we’ve seen is that while we’ve sold a lot of food … at this point we’re selling as much beer as food,” Antonio said with a smile. “It’s 50-50 now, which is cool. That makes me happy.”
Ponderosa also continued to branch out beyond the confines of its four walls in 2017.
“We increased our distribution quite a bit,” Antonio said. “Last year at this time we were having our beer distributed through Bosque. They sold their distribution (to Admiral Beverage) and we got out of that deal. We had to get a rezoning thing done with the City and get our wholesaler’s license. You probably saw it on the way in, we’ve got our little van.”
Antonio said Ponderosa now has beer on tap at around 20 other establishments, ranging from bars to restaurants, mostly in downtown and the North Valley.
“It’s been really nice (feedback),” he said. “What’s been good for us is a couple of our normal styles are ones that no one else makes regularly, our kolsch and our brown ale. I don’t think anyone makes a kolsch year round. Our brown ale is really popular for the same reason. It’s probably one of only three or four browns made year round.”
This past year also saw the first canned beer from Ponderosa as its India Pale Lager was sold at liquor stores and retailers around town.
“It was basically kind of like a test run to see if there’s any interest out there in the market,” Antonio said. “I decided to go with something different. You see a lot of IPA out there in the market. We did a small test run on the cans with Mother Road (Mobile Canning). It’s been most popular here in the taproom, we sell a lot of six packs (here). It’s been successful enough for us that we’re counting on doing a couple more brands (in the future).”
Antonio said the Blood Orange Wit, a big hit in the taproom, is one under consideration. The other could be a German-style pilsner.
While more cans are on deck, the biggest project of 2018 remains the first off-site taproom. It is still under construction at the El Vado Motel redevelopment on Central near Tingley.
“It’s been delay after delay,” Antonio said. “That’s how it is with construction. It will probably be open later in the spring.”
The cold room was under construction, with the draft system to follow. Antonio said they were still waiting for some of the equipment to arrive.
“My ultimate goal is that it will be open by (ABQ) Beer Week,” Antonio said. “That would be perfect if we could make that happen. But, I’ve been in this town long enough to know that if you say you’re going to open by June, I’ll see you in December. That’s just the way it is with any place that serves beer in this town.”
The first retail outlet, Metal the Store by Metal the Brand artist Michael Wieclaw, opened this past Friday at El Vado. Even Mayor Tim Keller was in attendance, which shows how much support the project is receiving from the City of Albuquerque. Plenty of folks in attendance said they were looking forward to the Ponderosa taproom opening in the future.
“It’s going to be a small taproom,” Antonio said. “It will have 10 taps to mirror what we have here on tap at all times. We thought about doing some more taps and bringing in some guest taps as well. That could be nice, but I don’t know where we are on that.”
There will be up to six different eateries at El Vado, and Antonio said they are hoping to be certified to where customers can purchase beer and take it out to any part of the complex. That might be a tough sell with the State of New Mexico, which did not allow that at Green Jeans Farmery with Santa Fe Brewing.
While all of that is going on a few miles away, Antonio is staying focused on the beer.
“I’ve been experimenting with a lot more beer (styles),” he said. “I brewed a lot more lagers. I’ve been getting into that lately. We’ve got a few more coming out. There will be a lot more fruit beers, actually. They were really popular.”
Another new beer is the result of a conversation with a couple of Ponderosa customers.
“We’re going to have a cool project coming up in a couple weeks,” Antonio said. :We’re going to partner with General Mills. We have a couple guys that work there that are regulars here. We got to talking, so we’re going to brew up a Cinnamon Toast Crunch Stout. We’re going to get a big bag of that and throw it in the mash tun.”
If the beer is a hit, expect more cereal brews in the future, he added.
In addition to new beers, there have also been some physical changes at Ponderosa.
“There are some different innovations on the south side of the restaurant,” Antonio said. “We pulled out all the booths and put in the high-top tables. It really opened up the area. It’s a lot brighter and more inviting now. It’s turned from overflow seating to where people want to go sit down.”
With that area done, the next bit of remodeling will be behind the bar.
“We’re going to move the office back in (the southeast corner),” Antonio said. “I’ll be taking over this entire (central) space. We’re expanding some more stuff into my brewery. I can move all my grain into that area. I’ll be able to add another tank. We’ll get a little more capacity, take some pressure off when I’m doing lagers.”
Speaking of lagers, Antonio said he hopes to have more fun with those during ABQ Beer Week in late May/early June.
“We’re trying to organize a small beer festival that we’ll do here just for lagers,” he said. “There will probably be six to eight breweries, everyone brings over a keg of beer. Kind of your standard format, get a sample at each one, then a glass of your favorite.”
Overall, Ponderosa will be a more active participant in the annual 11-day series of beer-centric events.
“We’re planning on doing quite a bit more for Beer Week this year,” Antonio said. “Last year we did the beer and tapas pairing every day. We’re planning on doing that again this year because we had some pretty crowds every day. We’re also going to do a full beer pairing dinner in here one of the nights now that we’ve got a stable, veteran kitchen staff. We’re going to be on track to do that.”
All of that is part of the plan at Ponderosa as the beer scene evolves around the country.
“There are over 6,000 breweries nationwide now, but if you read all the statistics, the beer-drinking base is actually shrinking,” Antonio said. “It’s making it tougher and tougher. I’d really like to focus on being a neighborhood pub, being a regular place for people. We have a lot of regulars. That’s what I personally see as the future of craft breweries.”
Thanks to Antonio for taking the time out for an interview, and for being patient when it came to this story being published (it got bumped by breaking news more than once). Make sure to head over to try the Bernalillo County Stout before the supply runs out.