The Albuquerque craft brewing scene of early 2008 was barely a scene at all. A series of closures in the years prior had left just three operational breweries within the city limits — Chama River, Il Vicino, Kellys — plus two in nearby suburbs, Tractor in Los Lunas and Turtle Mountain in Rio Rancho. There were only two breweries regularly packaging and distributing beers in the state, Santa Fe Brewing and Sierra Blanca in Moriarty, which had just bought out Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Brewing a year earlier.
Then, on April 23, hundreds of people lined up outside a revamped warehouse at the corner of Marble Avenue and First Street. It was a brewery unlike any other in the state. It packaged in the back, but also sold beer on tap out front. There was no kitchen to be found. It was just beer, a concept that no one had done on a large scale in New Mexico up to that point.
Marble Brewery was born, and so was the current craft beer scene in Albuquerque, and really New Mexico as a whole.
President and founding brewmaster Ted Rice sat down with me last week to once again recap the history of his brewery as it prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary this week.
Back in 2008, Ted had come from Chama River, which he had transformed from just another brewpub into an award-winning operation. Along with his original partners, John Gozigian and Jeff Jinnett, he set out to start a new brewery that left the brewpub model behind.
“I vividly remember the day we went shopping for buildings to open this new brewery that we knew would be 100-percent beer-focused, no restaurant,” Ted said. “The building on 111 Marble Avenue was the last one we looked at. We said this was perfect in regards to proximity to downtown, availability of parking, and inside it was already kind of split up in a way that one-third of it was (the future) pub and two-thirds was production.”
John and Jeff named it Marble Brewery after the street outside, Ted said. From there, he and Daniel Jaramillo (now of La Cumbre) got to work transforming the empty warehouse into a workable space for making beer.
“When I looked at the space, it was about 5,000 square feet for brewing,” Ted said. “Coming from Chama, where I was producing 1,600 barrels a year annually, brewing about 5,000 barrels in 5,000 square feet, it seemed like plenty of beer in plenty of space to do it in. We ended up selling 5,000 barrels in our first full calendar year. From there, it was just a matter of fitting as much equipment into this space as we could. Eventually that led to our little fermentation penitentiary outdoors.”
Ted said the equipment, everything from the forklift to the bottling line to the brewhouse, came from a defunct brewery in South Bend, Indiana. It was loaded onto trucks and shipped west. (For those who are curious, the original brewhouse is still in operation at Smog City Brewing in Torrance, California.)
“I don’t think I ever set up a brewery from start to finish before,” Ted said. “I’d worked in maybe three or four other breweries and toured numerous (others). I’d never built one from the ground up. This space evolved over time as we put in new equipment, but for the most part the foundation has named the same. It didn’t really seem all that hard to put together.
“Daniel Jaramillo and I cranked out the first batches to get us open. I’ll never forget that reception on opening day. We were just packed to the gills from the get-go. That let us know that this town was yearning and craving for more beer, new beer, and a new fun space to enjoy it.”
A big inspiration for Marble was the old Chama River Microbar downtown on Second Street behind the Sunshine Theater.
“It was a different model, for sure,” Ted said. “I’m not saying that we invented it. Nobody in town was focused on production and consumption. We saw the success of the Microbar on Second Street. It was just a 400-square foot box that sold beer. So we’re like, let’s have a brewery that’s eventually going to bottle, can, and keg, and a place where people can come sample the beers. I think it was maybe (not) originally thought of as a pub, (but) maybe where people would sample and have one beer and then grab some package beer to go. It evolved into a community beer appreciation hub.”
The idea that people would show up en masse and just enjoy beer with no food was revolutionary for New Mexico. Numerous other breweries would eventually follow that model, starting with La Cumbre in December 2010. Others would stick to the brewpub model, though often with a twist like Nexus in May 2011. The point is that Marble was the brewery that showed how much Albuquerque wanted good craft breweries. That boom has yet to ebb, with 30 breweries now in operation within the city limits, another half-dozen in the suburbs, and many more in the planning stages.
“I think the state and nation on a whole was getting (ready), because you saw it across the nation that a lot of breweries opened just after we did, but I definitely feel as though our success (here) inspired and created a lot of momentum for people to follow a single model,” Ted said, “and have the confidence that the communities and beer-drinking public were ready for beer-focused operations that embraced patrons from noon to midnight.”
It was not always the smoothest evolution from the grassroots start to the massive operation that Marble has become. There were taprooms that worked (Westside) and those that did not (Santa Fe). The revamped logo and imagery, from the old colored marbles to the maverick, was met with mixed responses when it debuted in early 2014. Then there was the fact that Marble outgrew its original footprint in record time.
“There was a point where the tanks were so close to the brewhouse, you couldn’t fit a scissor lift in there, you had to watch your head,” Ted said.
The massive downtown expansion, which eventually included an expanded patio, the rooftop deck, and of course the towering fermentation hall, greatly eased a lot of the crush for the staff and customers. The addition of the second brewery, the MavLab, inside the Heights taproom in 2016 also freed up the downtown brew team to focus on the core beers for packaging, while brewmaster Josh Trujillo got to play mad scientist again and keep the on-tap variety fresh and funky.
“I always forget, there were many pints in between then and now, but I knew when we first opened that IPA would be number one from my experience here in town,” Ted said. “We had some of our other offerings like the Oatmeal Stout and an Amber. It was at Stan Hieronymous’ suggestion that I include a wheat beer in the lineup, because he talked about how powerful the Blue Moon brand is and how much volume they do as one style. It was more than the whole portfolio of Sam Adams. The first one I developed was Wildflower Wheat. Since then I added Double White and I think we’ve seen where that’s gone.”
Double White is now the top-selling beer at Marble, but it does not hold the title of the most awarded beer. That goes to the Pilsner, which was not on the initial menu in 2008, but came about as time went along.
“We had a kolsch in the early days,” Ted said. “I might have tinkered with a blonde ale at some point, I can’t recall. We worked our way up to brewing our Pilsner, which is one of our proudest classics.”
Marble started with eight beers on tap, Ted said. That number has grown by just a bit.
“Now, with the expansions and innovations that we’ve done, with the addition of the Heights brewery, the MavLab, now we have up to 17 beers on tap here downtown and maybe close to 25 on the Westside,” he said. “Now we’re at the space where we can brew the classics that we love, the IPA, Red, and Double White, and have those available for distribution and then have the MavLab with Josh Trujillo at the helm crafting a continuous stream of fun and innovative flavors. We might have had eight beers on tap in the beginning and now at one location we’ve got 25, so that’s pretty cool.”
Marble was also one of the first breweries to embrace live music as part of its taproom experience. There are probably more than a few bands and individual musicians who owe a lot to Marble and the other event-hosting breweries in an era where music venues seem to be closing on a regular basis.
“From the get-go when I saw this space, I said let’s put a stage over here,” Ted said. “Live music has always been one of my passions. I was walking by our patio the other day and I thought to myself this was pretty cool. We’re back in music season with the (nice) weather coming up. I think enjoying a great pint, hanging out with your friends, and listening to live music is just something I can do every single day. We’re happy to support the local scene when it comes to music. We never charge a cover to come see our bands. Seeing bands is an amenity down here and we love to support it.”
Marble was also one of the first local breweries to go all-in on social media as the best means of communicating with its customers. It just had to hire the right person to run that part of the business.
“We knew it was important to have a dedicated, experienced professional communicating with a clear, consistent voice about what we love and what our brand is all about,” Ted said. “So, having the expertise of Leah Black on board has obviously gotten word out about Marble’s events. It can’t just be your (random) bartender anymore banging out tweets, at least for a company our size. Three locations, distribution, music, food trucks, new beers, it’s a never-ending conversation.
“That’s one of the things I love about our operation. We’re not just manufacturing beer for distribution. We’re crafting character and celebrating it every day.”
A big thanks to Ted for being willing to go through the history of Marble a second time (the first was for a certain book that I wrote). And for the full pint of Stout Americano, which is still tasting delicious and more people should be buying right now (hint).
We will have more on Marble’s 10th anniversary later this week as the staff shares their thoughts on what 10 years means to each of them.