By now, we imagine that you have heard the news that Santa Fe Brewing Company is opening a third off-site taproom in downtown Santa Fe. With the announcements on social media and in the newspapers, the word has officially gotten out on the opening of their new little speakeasy. Believe me, the irony is not lost on me.
Well, this seemed the perfect opportunity for me to catch up with Santa Fe Brewing Co. (SFBC) and talk to them about their Look Back for 2017, and Look Ahead for 2018. Last week, I met with SFBC owner, Brian Lock, who gave me a tour of the still-unfinished taproom. There, he let me in on the history of the building, the vision he had for the speakeasy-like establishment, and exactly what you can expect to experience in this very cool space. We also chatted about their big accomplishments for the year, and their bigger plans they have for 2018 and beyond.
Beginning with a look back, I asked Lock what their major highlights were for the year.
“I think the biggest highlight for (2017) was our repackaging and redesign of all of our packages,” he said. “We decided we wanted to make the appearance of Santa Fe Brewing Company as uniform across the board as possible, and make it super easy for the consumer to identify which brands were ours.”
Lock said this arose from complaints from distributor partners and even confused consumers out there in the market. The new can designs are more solid, yet impactful, and now, each bears the Zia symbol, representing the state flag.
In addition to the new designs, a big change this year was the release of Happy Camper, 7K IPA, and Freestyle Pilsner in both 16-ounce tallboys and 12-packs.
One of the goals for 2017 was staying relevant in the craft beer scene.
“Because it’s so crowded and there’s so much competition now, the only way to really set yourselves apart and stay relevant with your consumer is by coming up with innovative products, coming out with new and exciting beers,” Lock said.
For SFBC, 7K was the big objective in 2017. They needed an IPA that was current with the times. When Happy Camper was released in 2010, it was considered a pretty hoppy, but balanced beer by the craft drinking public. In the last eight years, however, tastes have certainly evolved in the direction of the West Coast style, as far as IPAs go. For Santa Fe Brewing, 7K was a good benchmark accomplishment, in my opinion, because even though many around are now brewing the hazy New-England style IPAs, I don’t believe these types of beers are a destination, but a stop (albeit delicious stop) along the way. Personally, I will never not want a good, hoppy beer leaning towards the piney, citrusy, or brightly floral. There, I said it.
7K has been very successful for SFBC this year.
“Right now, we’re on course to have 7K surpass Happy Camper in volume by May of this year,” Lock said.
On the new beer front, SFBC released Lust Garden, a dark lager with notes of chocolate and a healthy hint of raspberries.
“We really tried to focus on styles of beer that just didn’t exist out there, something that’s really unique that nobody else is really doing,” Lock said. “I’ve never seen a Dark Lager with an aseptic, organic raspberry puree.”
Just recently, at the beginning of March, SFBC released the brand new Twisted Root, a blonde ale with ginger and lemongrass, yet another turn in the evolution of this brewery.
For 2018, SFBC is looking to come out with five packaged seasonals, up from three seasonals last year. Lust Garden will be from January to February, Twisted Root from March to April, Sunsetter (a crushable farmhouse ale with lime and agave, currently in the works) will be from May to June. The other two seasonals are the still popular Oktoberfest and Adobe Igloo.
With the new seasonals coming out, one shouldn’t forget about the Ever Changing Series, which Lock has confirmed will continue to keep pumping out new beers quarterly. Schneeball Imperial Pilsner was recently released on February 16, and you may still be able to find it on draft at all of the SFBC locations. The Ever Changing Series is a New Mexico-only product, and now a draft-only product, so get thee to the taprooms! Follow them on social media for future release dates.
The “In and Out” rotating IPA series will continue as well. And, Small Batch Saturdays will continue, but in a different form. Instead of homebrewers coming in to brew 10 gallons, these small 5-gallon batches will solely be a rare taste of what’s going on in the mind of the head of research and development, Dave “Merkin.” You can bet they’ll push the boundaries of space, time, and beer style. The last small batch they did was an out-of-this-world vanilla porter. They’ll be tapped at the main location only.
As mentioned above, for 2018 the big news is the new taproom opening in downtown Santa Fe. It was not the focus at the beginning of the year, as it just sort of fell into Lock’s lap, but with a lot of hard work and a bit of a grind with the City of Santa Fe, they’re set to open a very unique space with a lot of history in the center of the historical district.
Lock said he had been looking for a location in downtown Santa Fe for the last 10 years or so. He was waiting for the right opportunity, due to the challenges all establishments face, which are parking and the lack of available building space to lease or purchase. He was looking for a standalone building, parking, and good character to the building that would fit with Santa Fe Brewing’s image, and history as a time-tested, long-standing establishment as well. They wanted something that fit with the brand.
His old partner (from 1996-2003), Carlos Muller, called Lock and informed him that he recently purchased the old Cigar Bar back in July. Lock’s interest was instantly piqued, having been a member in the late 90s early 2000s. Already having a soft spot in his heart for the space, Lock went to visit it.
“Man, this is so perfect,” he recalled thinking. “It’s already set up for a bar. There’s not much investment in a buildout. There’s no change of use, because it has already served liquor. It’s already got a liquor license. Already through zoning, and being the old brick house that it is, it was built in the early 1900s, so it’s over a hundred years old.”
It had everything Lock was looking for. It was as if the right train had pulled into the station at the right time. Parking, no change of use, and lots of historical character. Speaking of which, did you know that the bricks were once handmade by the inmates of the old state penitentiary close to 90 years ago?
Even the new name comes from a piece of history surrounding the site, Lock explained that the name of the new establishment, the Santa Fe Brewing Company “Brakeroom,” which he had just named the day before I walked through the door, comes from the history of four similar brick establishments built in a row.
“This brickhouse,” Lock said, pointing to one side of the establishment. “That brickhouse. There are four in a row that look almost identical. These were built in the early 1900s for the brakemen. The brakemen were the guys working on the railroad. They were the guys that, back in the day, in order to bring the train to a stop, had to climb up the side of the rail car and turn this big wheel to slow the car down and stop it. It was a fairly dangerous job. And, so these guys would be working on the railroad all day long, and they would need a place to come take a break. And, so these four houses were built for the rail workers, the brakemen, to basically come take a break. That’s why we’re calling it the Santa Fe Brewing Company Brakeroom. It’s in honor of all the railroad workers back in the in the early 1900s. It’s got some good history, and it’s got a good story.”
Through it was pretty much a no-brainer to snatch up the spot, there was still a lot of work to be done moving a taproom into downtown. This was Lock’s first full-foray into City of Santa Fe politics.
“It’s a very, very big challenge to get any business open in this city,” he said. “I don’t care what type of business it is.”
Because the Brakeroom falls within the historic preservation district, it meant that they couldn’t change any of the façades of any of the outsides of the buildings, the roofs, or anything without proper approval. Muller, the owner, had to get a lot of approval before changing the HVACs, making electrical upgrades, as well as duct work.
The other big challenge was making sure the Land Use Office, City of Santa Fe, building owner, and Santa Fe Brewing were all on the same page regarding land use. But, because there was essentially no change of use, there were far few barriers to opening.
“I wouldn’t have even gone down the road, had there even been a discussion,” Lock said.
But, in the end, every one seemed satisfied with the project.
In terms of the décor, SFBC wanted to preserve the historical skin and bones of the site, while turning-up the speakeasy volume a little louder, and modernizing it to be a comfortable, relaxing place to sit and really just take a break from it all. New wallpaper in one room, old wallpaper in the next. It’s not so much of a re-purposing of this history-rich site, but more of a retelling of the old story to a modern audience.
As far as food goes, Santa Fe Brewing has partnered up with Restaurant Martín (two doors down) to do a full bar menu at the taproom.
“We’ve never wanted to be in the restaurant business,” Lock said. “I figured I’d just stick to what I know, which is beer. That’s why we reached out to Restaurant Martín. They serve our beer, they have a James Beard Award-winning chef. It’s going to be excellent food in here.”
There will be 18 taps full of SFBC beers, with the occasional guest tap from time to time. It will have guest ciders on tap and guest wines in the bottle, but the taproom will offer a larger selection of wine varieties than at the other SFBC establishments in anticipation of the tastes of the surrounding crowd.
The Santa Fe Brewing Company Brakeroom will open its doors to the public today (Thursday) at 510 Galisteo St.
What’s next for Santa Fe Brewing Company?
Last year, with the focus shifting to the downtown taproom, the big expansion plans for the three-story taproom and beer garden were put on the back burner for the time being, but Lock assured me that as soon as the downtown project is chugging along, all of his focus will swing back to the large destination taproom back at home base.
With the financing having been figured out just a few weeks ago, all the building permits already signed off on, and 100-percent of drawings acquired from the architects, Lock said he is planning to break ground on April 1, and the entire project is looking at a construction period of about six to eight months. Lock said he anticipates a tasting room opening for late fourth quarter of 2018, and a beer garden opening for spring of 2019 (give or take a few months for all brewery/taproom openings, now and forever, amen).
Lastly, Santa Fe Brewing turns 30 this year. Yeah, wow! A round of applause, please. No matter what your involvement is in the beer industry of New Mexico, whether you’re a brewer, bartender, manager, cellerperson, distribution, social alchemist, or beer drinker/local craft beer supporter, you have to tip your hats to the company. The New Mexico beer scene was a big, empty frontier since 1939. After SFBC opened in Galisteo in 1988, tons of brilliant pioneers were quick to enter the scene, pushing the boundaries of what beer could be and finding acres and acres of hoppy new territory to cover and claim for themselves, but it all had to start somewhere. And, humble though it was, someone had to believe that we could make better beer than what we were offered. Lo and behold, they did, and from the inside of a horse barn, on a small used system, “craft beer” was born in New Mexico.
SFBC is already in talks about hosting a big celebration, but I’ll make sure to give you the details for that as we grow closer to the anniversary date. Until then, I’ll leave you with a few of Lock’s final thoughts.
I asked him, “After 30 years of the New Mexico brewing industry, and your involvement shortly after the beginning, what have you seen? And, what has it all meant to you, to be a part of this industry?”
“Being in this industry for 30 years, I’ve seen a lot of evolution in craft beer,” Lock said. “At the time that I got involved in 1995, there were just a couple breweries in the entire state. And, just trying to educate people on what craft beer is, and what it entailed, and to just get people’s interest in it was a difficult challenge. Now, there are so many craft beers, and everyone knows what craft beer is, it’s just a completely different landscape.
“Selling beer, back in the day, when I was doing all the sales and distribution, selling beer into an account was a challenge, because it was — hey, how am I going to get people to drink Santa Fe Pale Ale, instead of Bud Light, or Miller Lite, or the other seven or eight choices of domestic beers you had to choose from? So it was really difficult to get the consumers interested in craft beer in general, just to make the move into craft beer from domestic beer. So it’s really come a long ways in that respect.
“Back then, it was really just fighting to get a piece of mind of the general market and the consumers tendency to reach for a craft beer. To look back on it now, and to think of what Santa Fe Brewing was then, and where we are now, it’s been a very exciting 30 years. It’s been challenging, because just in the last 10 years, there’s been so much competition that’s come up, and I think it’s been good in that most breweries in this state are making really good beer.
“And, with all that competition, it helps everyone. It brings that level of beer to a different height, and what I think it does is that it helps consumers realize that craft beer really is better than domestic beer, and ultimately we’re just trying to steal share from the Bud/Miller/Coors drinkers, and that all the craft is really moving as one. That’s one of the nice things about being in this industry, and I love being in this industry and I’ll continue to love being in this industry, which is, for the most part, all the craft brewers in this state support each other. They want to help each other. They want to see each other grow and prosper and do well.
“And, you don’t find that in many industries. Most industries, it’s cutthroat. How do I kill my competitor? How do I get rid of them? How do I crush them? In this industry, it’s more about how can we ALL crush the big guys?
“In terms of a learning experience and being in a business for 30 years, looking back on it, probably the most rewarding part about it all, is that it’s an industry of people who want to help each other. It’s not cutthroat, and I appreciate the fact that I’ve been in an industry that’s not like that. I’ve learned that in our industry you can grow if you work hard at it. And, at each step, it’s been enlightening.”
To always innovating and remaining relevant in an ever changing industry, cheers!