Marble overcomes unexpected challenges on its never-ending quest for excellence

The light shined brightly upon Marble Brewery again in 2018.

There are plenty of challenges in life, for brewery employees and beer writers. While Marble Brewery had to deal with some surprising challenges in 2018, I presented myself with the challenge of choosing to interview six key staff members separately, and then typing up those interviews in a very short span of time.

In the end, though, both the Marble staff and I have come out of this year with our heads held high. On two days across two weeks, I managed to corral, in order, Geraldine Lucero (marketing and events coordinator), Tammy Lovato (off-site event and festival coordinator), Barbie Gonzalez (director of tap room operations), Ted Rice (president/brewmaster), Josh Trujillo (brewmaster), and Leah Black (public relations and social media director). Marble is a big company, with so many aspects to cover for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series, so yes, all of their input was needed.

Big picture ups and downs

An unexpected aluminum shortage hit Marble this year, just as it release many, many more beers in cans. (Photo courtesy of Marble)

“2018 for Marble was filled with many highs and many unexpected situations and challenges,” Ted said, noting the positive impact of the big on-site festivals, something Geraldine would cover in greater detail.

The unexpected situations and challenges occurred elsewhere.

“The (aluminum) tariffs were definitely a factor into our ballooning supply chain,” Ted said. “In the heat of summer, at the height of demand, we were shackled. We didn’t have the supplies we needed to put beer in a package and get it to market. That was completely unforeseen and extremely challenging. It was a wrench in the cog of the craft machine that is Marble. So looking towards 2019, we want to alleviate those unforeseen challenges in the supply chain.”

Josh said the brewing staff did manage to learn from the sudden can shortage.

“We learned not to freak out, completely panic and lose your shit when something out of your control goes wrong,” he said. “Really, I think 2018 really reinforced our overall confidence and my confidence in the staff that we have. I really look forward to 2019 and coaching everybody along even further and really getting the best attributes out of all of our employees.”

Other than that big issue in the supply chain, it was a positive year for the largest brewery in Albuquerque, even with increased local competition.

“Barrelage was up for 2018, (but) taproom sales (were) not on the same trajectory as we’ve seen in the past, (due to) the proliferation of craft establishments around town,” Ted said. “It brings reflection to your operation and pushes you to continue to refine, which is the way our company operates as is, but just drives it even further into that introspective process of improvement.”

The many marvelous Marble taprooms always seemed to be buzzing, at least as far as we saw in 2018.

Outside of Albuquerque, Marble pushed into new territory for the first time in many years.

“Because of our proximity, Marble in El Paso is a natural fit,” Ted said. “We went down there for our launch in August. We were received with open arms and thirsty minds. That was a lot of fun. That was the first market that we’ve launched in a while. My former partners launched Southern Colorado and Arizona (so) this was the first once since maybe 2012. It was great to go down there, have tap takeovers, beer dinners, and engage all of the consumers and accounts.”

Marble will spend the coming year strengthening its position locally, while also exploring any opportunities in the region that may develop. Ted said that Marble will produce 24,000 barrels in 2018, with the potential to go even higher in a year.

“Now, looking forward to 2019, we installed some (additional) capacity and we want to flex as much of that as possible in New Mexico,” he said. “But, there’s still additional liquid to serve in the region. Now we’re looking at other areas, whether it’s deeper in Texas or back up in Colorado, that’s all in the conversation.”

Another major change has come to the packaging of the Marble seasonals. Ted noted during an interview back in April that even though he was quite proud of beers like Stout Americano, bottles were lingering on the shelves as sales of 22-ounce bombers were declining sharply, not just for Marble but across the industry. It now appears that the November release of Reserve Ale in bottles will be the grand finale of the format, as Imperial Stout will release this Wednesday in 12-ounce cans sold in six packs.

“Cans are far easier for us to package, so let’s give consumers, the people, the fanatics what they want,” Ted said. “Twelve ounces of imperial stout are a lot easier to consume on an individual basis than 22 a glass. People really like the (can) feeling and format anyway, the portability. When Oskar Blues put Ten Fidy in cans, that was a game changer right there.”

It’s got the right level of swank, but it’s still Marble at its core.

The only major hard-hat project for 2018 was the Lounge at Marble Heights, which Barbie went into greater detail about. It could be that more construction projects follow in 2019, though nothing is set in stone.

“I kind of get restless if I don’t have a big project in the works,” Ted said. “What’s on deck? A lot of it is flexing the wholesale capacity that we still have at 111, and then continuing to refine what we do. Whether it’s the pint that’s poured or the pilsner that’s perfected, that’s ongoing. There’s always something to contemplate there.

“But, as far as additional taprooms or other styles (in cans), that’s always something that’s lurking in the background. There’s nothing to comment on at this point in time.”

Or, as Ted put it even better, “I’m not eager to populate the whole town with taprooms. We have our three core locations and I’m very proud of those. I’m not trying to be McMarble’s.”

The Lounge raises the Marble bar

The Lounge at Marble Heights was the biggest construction project of 2018.

Back in 2016, a few of my old high school classmates inquired if any of the breweries in town had a private space we could potentially rent out for our 20-year reunion. I replied that we were out of luck, but two years later, things have changed. The Lounge, an upscale addition to the Heights taproom, opened this autumn.

“Well, as you know, we are constantly evolving at Marble,” Barbie said. “We’re always thinking about how to enhance the experience and the various ways of enhancing the experience, whether it’s through the actual beer or the experience that comes with the beer. Private event requests have been coming in pretty strong the last few years, especially with the deck expansion (at 111).”

The answer was already on hand. When Marble purchased the building that houses the Heights Taproom, it had just one tenant, Slice Parlor, plus one empty, unused space. The decision then came down to take that empty space and not lease it out, but instead to use it to continue the evolution of the Marble taproom experience.

“There was the idea of creating something a little more sophisticated, a little bit more polished, a little bit more upscale, and also the potential of creating a space that’s a 21-and-over-only experience,” Barbie said. “It’s not that we want to go away from the family experience, but just to create another space. … With the Lounge, as we like to refer to this space as, it’s a more refined, more elegant version of Marble that’s still Marble.”

Modulus Design handled the construction, and the result is a space that everyone on staff is proud of, from the big boss on down.

“This was a post office,” Ted said. “Now it’s filled with wood and stainless (steel) and a never-ending supply of Josh Trujillo’s insightful liquid creations.”

The chandeliers at the Lounge were made from old barrels.

The overall taproom experience remained a positive one for the many Marble customers thanks to Barbie and her staff of beertenders and servers. That continues to happen despite the near-constant turnover of personnel, something every brewery seems to experience with the front-of-house staff. A year ago, I interviewed three taproom managers. One switched taprooms, one joined the sales team, and another left for a different brewery. Keeping that continuity of service has been key for Marble to remain among the top breweries in the local scene.

“You have to invest in your people, (because) if you don’t invest in your people then they don’t want to be truly connected to the bigger vision,” Barbie said. “People matter here. Our people are very important to us.”

It also helps to have a variety of events, big and small, to keep customers coming back to the taprooms.

One-upping oneself is the name of the Marble events game

Marblefest was among the big hit events of 2018, and yes, it will return in 2019.

The events never seem to stop between the three Marble locations, and that has always left the brewery staff with a bit of a dilemma.

“I feel like Marble, we always try to almost one-up ourselves when we do events like this,” Geraldine said. “We do a lot of reflecting on the past event and we say how can we make the next one better. That’s a debriefing that happens right after these huge events. What do we different next time and how do we make it better? You can plan and plan and plan, but once you’re in it and it’s happening, you won’t really know until (then).”

The two biggest events of 2018 were the street parties for the 10th anniversary in April and then Marblefest in September. The staff built up its knowledge of what to do and what not to do from the former to help with the latter.

“I think that Marblefest, actually, when we were in the process of planning it, it was kind of weird,” Geraldine said. “We had everything in order. We had all of our permits in our, we had all of the breweries we wanted to work with, we had all the beers ready. We were almost kind of waiting for something to throw us off. We’ve actually picked up from the anniversary party and the huge Reviva party (in 2017), we were really ready for Marblefest and it was awesome.”

Geraldine said that she and Barbie were already deep into planning the 11th anniversary party for 2019, and that Marblefest will return next autumn.

Of course, a brewery cannot live off big events alone. There were many smaller ones inside the taproom that stood out.

“The Brews & Bites Challenge that we did with local chefs teaming up with one of our brewers and competing against each other was a lot of fun,” Geraldine said. “The planning that goes behind those events is always my favorite. Drinking beers with chefs and brewers and hearing them talk about pairings is something I could do all day.”

Getting the brewers out from behind the fermenters and out with the public was another plus for Marble in 2018. Geraldine said she was inspired by a trip to the Modern Times in Portland, Oregon.

“I thought why are we not doing this, we should totally do this,” she said. “We started that at the Heights anniversary party, a guided tasting in the brewery. We just opened up the MavLab and Josh and Greg Dupy did it. Barbie and I were talking about it and we asked why don’t we do this at the Westside, because they don’t get that brewer interaction the way downtown and the Heights get. We did and we kicked it off with Ted.”

Josh said that it can be exhausting sometimes to have to do a presentation with the public after a long day of brewing, but ultimately it was all worth it.

“Talking about what you do and talking your processes, it helps you become better at it,” Josh said. “Those interactions have helped me as much as it’s helped our patrons.”

Away from the taprooms, Tammy took over the role of running things for Marble at festivals and other events.

“It was awesome,” she said. “I got to learn from my awesome mentor, Leah Black, she passed the torch to me. I got to meet a lot of different people in the community. Once you start to do those festivals, you kind of start to see the same people patron-wise and employee-wise behind the booths. You start to build connections with people outside the taproom, which is really fun.”

Tammy said her top three festivals of the year were the Blazin’ Brewfest in Las Cruces, the New Mexico Brew Fest at the State Fairgrounds, and Corks & Brews at the ABQ Rail Yards. She will also be adding the title of brand ambassador in 2019, helping sales in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. She said she was particularly looking forward to spending more time in the north.

“People love us,” Tammy said. “It’s incredible how much people in Colorado, especially Denver and Durango, people are always talking about how much they love our taprooms, how much they love our staff, and of course how much they love our beer. The number one question is always did you bring Double White.”

Whether on-site or off-site, the Marble team is already deep into planning for 2019. Geraldine already has ideas about how to keep El Paso interested, for instance.

“Since we expanded our distribution to El Paso recently, something that I’m going to kind of help focus on is bringing Marble to El Paso with Xavi (Romero) on certain events, with beer dinners, with parties, and just kind of letting them know with what our brand is about over there,” she said.

Keeping everyone informed requires a guru for a new era

Getting the word out about new beers and events big and small is becoming even more of a challenge in the ever-more-crowded world of social media. It takes a lot of energy to handle all of that, and that is where Marble is lucky that Leah is still sharing away.

“It’s always interesting, let’s say that for sure,” she said. “It is hard, because we just had a discussion about this, Barbie and I, keeping it fresh. If you look at Instagram, everyone just moves that thumb or pointer finger and just scrolls and scrolls and scrolls until something pops out at you. Now we’re such short-attention-span theater that it’s if you don’t have something popping, they’ll keep going.”

Things have changed a lot since Leah joined the staff in May 2014. Back then, she said Marble had about 700 followers on Instagram. Her goal is to get that page close to 30,000 followers by the end of 2018. Other challenges have ranged from dealing with the shifting algorithms on Facebook to staying in constant contact with the brewers about new releases. Most of the activity on social media peaks whenever there is news of a new beer release or a big event on the horizon.

“Even five years ago, most breweries weren’t teasing you with the extra seasonals and specials that we have,” Leah said. “It wasn’t a thing. It’s cool that we can tell them right when we tap that, do live videos, things like that.”

There is one beer in particular that fires people up.

“Anytime we do anything with Double White, of course that’s a winner, especially when we put fruit in it,” she said. “Nothing can touch that. By the way, casks are one-day-only events, people. I mean that in the sweetest way.”

For 2019, Leah said she wants to do more with video to help people understand even more of what is happening behind the scenes at Marble.

“Now that I’m not in the taproom bartending, I really want to keep it fresh and do a lot of real mini-movies,” she said. “We want to do shoots where we’re planning out with storyboards. It’s going to be mini-Marble films. I think it’s going to be really exciting. That appeases the creative side of me. I have a lot of ideas for just video work and editing. I’d like to get better at all of that.”

Of course, it is all about the beer

Though his face isn’t visible here, that’s Josh making sure Stoutmeister tried as many of his beers as he could fit on the table.

Without the constant flow of beer from the production facility downtown and the MavLab inside the Heights Taproom, none of the events or other fun parts of Marble would be possible. Much of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of Josh.

“2018 for me was really fun,” he said. “In 2017 we opened up the MavLab. We got the place flowing really good. We got some people trained up, so I was really able to flex my wings and experiment on some stuff that normally we may not have been able to make.”

Josh said much of 2018 involved taking the ingredients Marble has always used, from hops to malts to everything else, and finding different ways to use them in new beers and varied styles.

“I did get the opportunity to run through a lot of styles that I enjoyed to drink, and dialing in a lot of the styles we already make,” he said. “We just kind of grew a better understanding. I feel like there’s still a lot to learn. With 2019 coming along, that’s another opportunity.”

Among the ongoing projects at the MavLab were running through a series of traditional Belgian-style beers (dubbel, tripel) and seeing how those turned out, while also tackling the hop-forward beers in a big way for the first time in a long time.

“I feel like we’ve never truly been able to compete in those categories just based on our overall hop load,” Josh said. “I love Marble IPA, it’s probably one of my favorite IPAs to drink, but on a grander scale of competition, pushing the boundaries, we don’t really have that ability with that beer. All of these one-off IPA specialties were a lot of fun for me to push the flavor boundaries, but also the pounds-per-barrel boundaries. Really hopping them up and getting to being a player in that range. We fared better than we ever have in the IPA Challenge this year, so that was really nice.”

The ongoing series of fruited goses was also paying off. Josh said they are up to 28 different variations, with Passionate Gose becoming so popular it has been added to the list of canned beers available year round. The hazy IPA Desert Fog and Cholo Stout also went from MavLab seasonals to year-round packaged brews.

“My passion for beer really stands out the most in lagers,” Josh added. “I did get to make a whole bunch of lagers. I’m just barely scratching the surface with what we’re able to do with lagers.”

With brewer Greg Dupy becoming a solid second-in-command at the MavLab, it allowed Josh to focus on some bigger-picture issues, too.

“I’m always striving for perfection and refining the styles that we already do well,” he said. “I think we’re kind of at a point where a lot of breweries either choose to stay the same size or they choose to grow and really crank up their volume. I’m really looking forward to cranking up the volume and learning more, rather than kind of sitting on it. We have a lot of beer releases and a lot of spaces opening up. For me, I’m looking forward to settling in and really focusing on what we do well and refining a lot of processes, rather than trying to get the next best thing.”

Doing all of that could lead to some big changes down the road.

“There’s only so much we can do out of our current footprint,” Josh said. “Really honing in this (downtown) facility and turning it into a well-oiled machine is going to be a really important factor in Marble growing bigger should they choose to open a new facility to accommodate more production. We definitely need to dial this facility in before we dive headfirst into something else. We have a lot to learn in the facility that we’re running.”

After all, the local competition alone is driving Marble forward.

“I’m really looking forward to bringing 111 production into the next level of standard for our local industry,” Josh said. “With Bosque (North) opening up, La Cumbre kind of expanding, there are a lot of breweries in our region that are looking to take business away from us just on a plain level. I’m looking forward to new challenges and really setting a new bar for our local industry, and pushing my team along to really recognize the standard that we have held up and drive us to the next mark of regional status. … 2019 is going to be big challenge, and I can’t wait.”

A huge, huge thanks to everyone at Marble, from the six I interviewed here to every other staff member, front of house and back, for all the hard work they do.

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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