It is tradition around these parts to start our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series, which focuses on the year gone by and the year to come at almost every New Mexico brewery, with La Cumbre Brewing. I managed to catch up with owner/master brewer Jeff Erway just before he left on a well-earned vacation to talk about another big year for his award-winning brewery.
“You know, it’s funny, we have seen really steady growth the last few years,” Jeff said. “We’re never trying to hit a home run with our yearly growth. We just keep on hitting singles and doubles. Some of our specials this year were home runs, our seasonal releases. I feel like we’ve continued to do probably a better job of that than anybody as far as getting things out there that the public gets really excited about.”
The specialty beers may have stirred the pot in 2018, but the biggest move of the year was the long-awaited opening of an off-site taproom. La Cumbre Westside opened in August to huge crowds and positive reviews.
“We opened up a new taproom,” Jeff said. “That was about as much ambition as I’ve put toward anything since we opened La Cumbre. It’s been a very good year for us as a company and I feel like it’s been a great year for our management team both professionally and personally.”
Of course, with such a recent opening, there is little chance that La Cumbre is eyeing a third location this soon. Right?
“I won’t lie, I am actively seeking out that next right taproom location,” Jeff said. “I know I move a little slower than some would on this, but I don’t like the idea of swinging and missing. I take my sweet time about things like that. When I find the right one, I’ll pursue that.”
Fire up the speculation engines, people! There is no pending license or anything like that, so we believe Jeff when he says he is looking, but has not yet set things in stone.
Feel like making people even more excited, Jeff?
“I’ll open a fourth taproom if I find the right location,” he continued. “Having the recipe at this point, it’s going to be much less stressful getting another one open. It’s just a matter of finding that right location. Real estate brokers send me fliers every day. Most of the time I’m just like, no. Oh, you have five parking spots, yeah, probably not going to work. I literally got a flier today for a place that has no parking spaces, zero. That was one of the major selling points with our Westside location, there was ample parking.”
Opening the Westside taproom was about far more than parking, however. When Jeff originally opened La Cumbre back in 2010, he was almost a one-man band. This time around, it was a team effort.
“It was very nice to be able to have a team of people with a central goal in mind,” Jeff said. “It’s painfully obvious that there were a lot of things that when we got open that I was not prepared for. While I certainly had some people helping me, I didn’t have a team of people constantly giving feedback (like) ‘no, that’s a terrible idea,’ ‘no, that’s a good idea,’ ‘are you an idiot? Maybe I am, but let’s keeping working on it anyways.’ The constant discussion, a Slack file that’s probably 10,000 lines long of bad ideas and amongst those bad ideas were a few really good ones.
“Being able to do that, being able to do that as a team, not only made the process so much less frustrating and less panic inducing, and that’s simply by the fact it wasn’t all my responsibility, we had a team of people. Sure, a lot of it landed on my shoulders and Jenn’s shoulders. It was so much more enjoyable, the process.”
It still took a lot of work to balance the new space while maintaining the original location.
“Getting back up and working more than 60-, sometimes 70-hour weeks is certainly something I wasn’t used to doing for a while,” Jeff said. “I will also just say that we are finally in the position where we could hire a really good architect and a really good general contractor that did a great job for us, both of them. That made the process a lot easier.
“In the beginning I had to do it myself, I didn’t have a choice. The original taproom looked really sparse. Luckily for me it was a small enough field (of breweries) at that point where it was like, ‘he’s got great beer, what the hell else matters?’ There’s a stool to sit on and the beer’s good. I feel like that’s all that mattered back then. I really lucked out in that way. I don’t know that it would be such a hit now today.”
It certainly is debatable as to whether or not the bare-bones La Cumbre of 2010 would still be a hit in the modern era, but it ultimately does not matter that much. The modern La Cumbre drew instant crowds to its taproom, and will likely do it again, wherever the third iteration eventually comes to pass.
“Getting the second taproom open also meant that at this point we have an established name and an established brand in this town,” Jeff said. “We thought it would be pretty busy immediately and it was. That made everything a lot easier. We felt as if there was only so much risk in getting it open.”
La Cumbre was also able to hire an experienced staff for the taproom, which made things run a lot smoother with those initial crowds that featured many newcomers to the brand.
“I will not mince words about this and I don’t try to gloat too too much about anything but beer quality, (but) Jenn and I knocked it out of the park staffing that second taproom,” Jeff said. “You’re always going to have people complain here and there. There’s nothing you can do to make sure no one ever gets bad service at a place. It’s going to happen sometimes. That being said, the number of compliments to critiques about the staffing at that place is 99 to 1.
“The staff there is awesome and they’ve done an incredible job of making a lot of new regulars for us and also really quickly becoming part of our company culture. I’m thoroughly impressed with all of them. They’re great people. I hope, as time goes on, we can do a little bit more cross pollination between the places and make sure the people over there can put in some shifts over here and vice versa. But, overall, I think they’re awesome.”
While Jeff and taproom manager Jenn B were working hard to make sure the taproom experience matched the original location, the brewing team led by director of brewery operations Daniel Jaramillo and head brewer Alan Skinner were constantly hard at work making sure the seasonal release calendar was always full of new beers.
La Cumbre became the first New Mexico brewery to have lines out the door for its specialty releases. It started with Postcards From Hell and continued with multiple releases throughout 2018.
“It’s a nice, big fat pat on the back,” Jeff said. “To get to a point professionally for all of us where people trust our level of quality coming out of the brewery so much that sight unseen, beer untasted, they will stand in line and fork out a good amount of money just to have the opportunity to drink our beer is very … people always say it’s so humbling, bullshit, it’s not humbling. That being said, none of us need much of an ego boost at this point. We have the luxury of being brewers for a living, so that’s enough of an ego boost as it is. It’s amazing, to develop the company that turns that kind of exuberance.”
Jeff did add that the lines are disappearing at trendy breweries in other parts of the country, so he and his staff will enjoy the sight while they still can. Still, generating the buzz is still paramount to continued growth, even if it means some sleepless nights for the brewers.
“Honestly, a lot of the times it’s exhausting,” Jeff said. “While Elevated sales and most of the sales of our year-round beers are pretty stable now, there’s not a huge amount of growth there, because we’ve completely saturated the state with it, you can find it most anywhere. The thing that’s driven most of our growth in this past year has been these releases, sometimes three times a month we’re releasing new beers. People would be really disappointed if one of them wasn’t any good. There’s a huge level of expectation there for us. That’s both energizing and a little petrifying.”
Jeff said creating new beers to be canned is “both the funnest part of the job and also the most stressful. Because it’s what people want from us. It’s what’s creating all of the excitement around our company right now is whatever’s new, whatever’s next.”
That can be tough, too, since the brewers would often rather just brew up a crisp, clean lager rather than go all-out with another hazy IPA or off-the-wall sour.
“It’s rarely the beers that really excite a lot of the brewers, too,” Jeff said. “We released one heck of a good Munich Helles this spring that none of the beer geeks seemed to give a damn about, but I loved it, I thought it was great. The Hysterical Daisy that we put out the Beer Premiere, there was a line for it, everybody wanted that. It’s not that I don’t like those beers, they’re not what really excites me. But, that being said, you cannot deny what is so painfully obvious. It was painfully obvious eight years ago when I started selling Elevated IPA, the kind of excitement that that kind of beer created. And today, it’s something completely different. Far be it for me to tell people what they should drink.”
The brewing team has already begun to put together a plan for 2019.
“We’ve been working hard on our release calendar and got two collaborations lined up already,” Jeff said. “We’re trying to figure out the third one. We’ve dropped some of the specials that didn’t perform quite as well as we’d liked them to, or we’re going to expand some. We’re going to have several more fruited sour releases. We’re going to expand sales of El Jugo and Sun Fade brands as much as we can. Those have been really tough beers to mass produce for us.”
Hey, if any brewery in New Mexico can figure it out, it is La Cumbre. Part of that reason, Jeff would like to add, is due to how everyone functions as a well-oiled machine, from the back of the house to the front.
“As we’ve grown, everybody has started to realize while growth can be really scary and it can be a lot of work and everything like that, (but) it also gives everyone involved the opportunity to spread responsibility out,” he said. “It means that when somebody goes on paternity leave or maternity leave or someone goes on vacation, it’s part of the everyday routine and it’s not going to put any one person out.
“I feel like as a team — and this is something that I don’t know how much the public really cares about, but I certainly care about — as a team we’ve done a much better job of taking care of ourselves personally as well as professionally. We were really good at the professional thing for a while. We were really good at working ourselves silly. The workplace balance I think for everybody has gotten a lot better.
“It’s been a great year, though, without a doubt.”
A huge thanks to Jeff for taking the time out of his busy day to chat with us. He was one of the first brewery owners to grant us an interview, and we will always appreciate the fact he was willing to take a chance on some beer-loving metalheads as actual journalists.
We will keep an eye out for any pending news about a future taproom or two, and eagerly await the seasonal release calendar for 2019 (let us also start speculating about which breweries those collaborations are with). For now, we will be indulging in all the La Negra we can get a hold of, on tap and in bottles.
The Look Back/Look Ahead Series will continue with around 40 to 50 other breweries (maybe more) throughout this fall/winter.