It would be perfectly understandable for everyone at Tractor Brewing to just take it easy in the coming year. After a year that saw so many new developments it was almost hard to recall every single one, no one could blame the staff if they just decided that they could rest on their laurels. That will not happen, of course, because Tractor will always continue to push forward.
Brewmaster/co-owner David Hargis and marketing and events director Jeremy Kinter joined me for a lengthy recap of all that happened in 2018, and what is to come in 2019.
“There’s 2018, it was a busy year,” David said. “Moving forward for us in 2019, we want to continue to innovate and get new things out there. But, I think a lot of effort is going to be taken in looking at how we do things, how we can always do them better, and taking a moment to just reflect on how big 2018 was, and continue to execute that well. From putting the right people in place, to finding out what different people’s skills are.”
The biggest development of 2018 was the opening of the Westside Taproom in the spring. David said they had been working on the project for two years.
“We had even thought it maybe wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “All of a sudden it came together pretty quick. That was a lease that we had entered into over 18 months prior to even breaking ground, which was a little bit of a motivation to get Four Hills open (in 2017). We wanted another taproom. Of course, as soon as you get another one done, you break ground on the one you’re not sure about.”
The Westside Taproom has gotten off to a flying start.
“Now that taproom is doing really well,” David said. “(We’ve gotten) good feedback from the customers and our taproom manager is already wondering how we can expand. It’s been a great experience for us to be over there and find out we have fans and the beer is doing really well.”
Westside and Four Hills have also produced an interesting contrast in the respective crowds at the two taprooms. The biggest challenges have fallen on Jeremy’s shoulders when it comes to planning events.
“It’s interesting with the demographic on the Westside versus Four Hills,” he said. “I think it’s people on the Westside that want that craft beer culture there, they’re really thirsty for it. The moment we opened the doors we were pretty flooded with customers and have been since.
“Four Hills, we adopted the food model there. As you know, it’s probably an older demographic, movie goers and what not. We pivoted a little bit with that kitchen, which has actually worked out well in Four Hills there for us.”
David felt compelled to briefly interrupt Jeremy.
“Is it an older demographic or a more distinguished demographic?” David asked with a smile.
“It’s more distinguished,” Jeremy replied with a laugh.
“It’s been interesting getting to know that taproom and what works there and what doesn’t,” Jeremy continued. “I can’t just take what we do at Wells Park event-wise over to Nob Hill, and then throw it to Four Hills. Now we’re doing stuff that’s more family oriented, like bath bomb making classes, trivia nights, stuff like that has been working out really well. We actually don’t have music there anymore because that was something that didn’t drive a lot of traffic.”
David praised the staffs at the taprooms for their efforts to keep the Tractor culture alive at both locations. Tractor has always been a brewery that is known for its events as well as the diversification of its products, with cider becoming a big part of things alongside the beer.
“We embraced the cider a little bigger, added more flavors,” David said. “That continues to grow. We think that the craft cider is something people are curious about and interested in and willing to give it a try. You can even find a craft customer that maybe didn’t necessarily fit into the beer profile. The unique challenges of cider, that’s been fun.”
The Nichols Winesap Cider that went on tap this week is an example of that. It is part of the new Tractor Orchard Series, which will be a quarterly release and made with 100 percent New Mexico-grown ingredients.
“Finding those people took a little while, but they’re there, and we’re starting to build those relationships so that we can successfully do that,” David said. “The challenge before that was we would find the farmers that thought they could do that and they’d show up with 50 gallons. Not a whole lot we can do with that.”
Tractor did limited runs of specialty ciders in cans, which proved to be quite popular. The plan is to do that again in 2019 with varieties such as Blood Orange Cider, Cranberry Ginger, Thai Basil Mint Cider, and maybe even making one specialty a year-round packaged release.
“Berry Cider could become a flagship can, because it’s one of our real popular ones in-house,” David said. “We’re also going to, well, we’ve done a Rosé. We’re currently in the process of working on more Rosé Cider recipes that will be out for our focus groups to try and get some opinions on for the next few weeks. But, that’s also, just based on the national trend, an opportunity that we think is there.”
Fear not, Tractor has not forgotten about the beer. One seasonal style has become so popular it might also earn a promotion of sorts.
“That was another one that we continue to sort of feel like it’s a seasonal, but the customers may be telling us it’s not a seasonal,” David said of Turkey Drool.
“That’s the one I get hit up about the most,” Jeremy added.
The El Paso/West Texas market that Tractor jumped into was particularly excited for Turkey Drool.
“How many flagships can you have in cans? I don’t know,” David said. “One of the great things about what we do is we get to make things we like to drink, but in the end it’s really about making the things that our customers like to drink.”
David said that another classic style could be getting an update/upgrade.
“We are also looking at refreshing the Almanac,” he said. “That might include a new name. But, definitely a new recipe there. Times are changing, so we’re trying to keep that pertinent as well. IPA is key to a lot of the drinkers that walk through the door. So far, we’ve had the most success with limited releases on the cider front.”
Tractor has also moved beyond just beer and cider with the addition of a third license. It was something the staff really wanted, only it arrived at a bit of an inopportune time.
“The (distilling) license came through right in the middle of the construction on the Westside, as the Crew here at Tractor always takes the DIY too far; we were all over there building a taproom,” David said. “We finally got the opportunity to start distilling. Once we got over being exhausted from building a new taproom and getting it open, and getting people in the door, we took a little break and were able to focus on putting some distillation together.”
David said he cobbled together most of the distillation equipment from what Tractor already had on hand.
“Some of the crossover didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but we think we have ironed out those problems … probably,” he said. “Definitely before the end of this month we’ll give it another go at a big distillation run.”
While David may not have been completely happy, Tractor is already starting to build an audience of craft spirits lovers.
“Hopefully distillation design 2.0 gets it done,” David said. “It’s been embraced pretty well, but we’re just kind of taking it slow. We’re only serving those cocktails here at Wells Park currently. This team has done a good job of putting together some unique cocktails for us here. It’s been received really well. The nights that we promote it, it’s a whole different crowd. It is bringing in some new people for us.”
Jeremy noted that Tractor has a mixologist who has put together a number of craft cocktail recipes that have proven to be quite popular. They are looking to expand the menu in 2019. In turn, that has also left Jeremy to come up with some cocktail-centric events to bring in new customers and get existing customers more interested in this new addition to the Tractor bar lineup.
“That’s also changed how I’ve done events here,” Jeremy said. “The Gin & Jazz event, it’s a different type of crowd. They love that jazz night, it’s become a very popular monthly event that we have.”
Jeremy said he is also working on some off-site events involving spirits, in addition to beer. One is set for this week with the Chocolate Dude in Nob Hill. For the most part, though, the cocktails will remain in-house.
“That has a lot to do with that diversification in all three of those licenses at this point to expose ourselves to a larger part of the population,” David said. “Then once they’re in here, maybe they try something different. Maybe a beer drinker tries a spirit, or a spirit drinker tries a beer. They find something that they have not tried had they not been somewhere that all of those were available.”
Tractor is the only full-fledged brewery with a distilling license in the Wells Park neighborhood.
“We finally got our act together and it’s available in bottles from here,” David said. “While we have big plans, it’s going to be sitting down and developing those plans early in 2019 to get that out there on shelves, getting more exposure. Currently, you can come by and buy a bottle of gin, vodka, or bourbon. Well, we’ll call it American whiskey instead, so we don’t get called out for that.”
In addition to the spirits, Tractor has also gone in on improving its small kitchen setup at Wells Park.
“I guess the other thing is our kitchen, we’re expanding that menu as well, not just offering sandwiches,” Jeremy said. “We’re offering mac ‘n cheese and deviled eggs. We’re going to be diversifying that and hopefully becoming more a lunch spot as well. When we first started we were getting supplied by Swiss Alps. Then our current kitchen manager took over, Nathan DeLay, and he started making all the stuff in house.”
Another big project that almost fell by the wayside in 2018 was making some improvements to the Nob Hill taproom. The oldest Tractor location in town saw things get pushed back a bit while the focus was on opening the Westside and starting up distillation at Wells Park.
“Going back to the hard hats, we’ve got some exciting things happening in Nob Hill,” David said. “This year we moved the refrigerator from out back into the walk-in cooler, which was a bit of a job. By the end of this month, we will have two new bathrooms, much-needed new bathrooms at Nob Hill. If that’s what’s been keeping you away, please come back.
“And, just because we have been so busy, we didn’t get the full conversion by moving the walk-in cooler inside, we were able to open up the back patio. Now we will, definitely by the time summer is ready to kick off, we’re going to have a space that is going to be lit with live music out back, it can also be a private (party) area. We’ll be expanding the seating and have new and improve bathrooms to handle that. Nob Hill has been there for a while, now it’s getting a little bit of an update.”
As noted before, Tractor is also a brewery that is known for its variety of events spread out between the four locations. Jeremy and his co-pilot, Valerie Osburn, have been hard at work keeping things fresh and vibrant for 2018, and now for 2019 as well.
“Event-wise, 2018 was by far our most successful year to date,” Jeremy said. “We had our single largest event with the Stranger Things Arcade Carnival. Then, also, our most successful (ABQ) Beer Week ever. That was a lot of fun. Looking into just adjusting things, events that we’ve had here for years, back when Carlos (Contreras) was here that we just kept on doing, changing those up and adding some new stuff.”
The monthly Art Fight event, for instance, was replaced by the aforementioned Gin & Jazz, but will return as a quarterly event in 2019.
“Looking forward to next year, I’m still getting to know the taprooms from a marketing and events perspective,” Jeremy said. “But, I’m very to happy to see it just keeps moving up, the events are more and more popular there once they’re tailored to that area. The Westside, people are more open to live music and entertainment there, (so we are) expanding and bringing certain weekly events there like karaoke. Space-wise, you can’t really do much, kind of like Nob Hill (where) we have solo acoustic musicians. I’m looking to get more touring acts out there, because people seem to be more open to live music in that capacity.”
Jeremy and Valerie are already hard at work on planning on what events Tractor will do doing Beer Week in 2019. He noted that they will work hard to make sure they never run out of things, like they did for the unexpectedly popular Rebel Donuts and beer night at Four Hills this year.
“We’re also looking to work pretty closely with our non-profits for BBB (Beer for a Better Burque) and create some cool events around them,” Jeremy said. “We’ve got some cool stuff in the pipeline, including a Bloody Mary and michelada bar. Hopefully we’ll try that out down the line again.”
While the Stranger Things Arcade Carnival was the biggest event of the year in terms of attendance, it will get a shake-up in 2019. Jeremy said they will change up the theme, moving away from the Netflix TV series to something else, which will be determined in the coming months. The overall structure and setup, however, will continue, with plenty of live acts, arcade games, and vendors.
“We’ve experimented a lot this past year with new events, seeing what works and what doesn’t,” Jeremy said. “How I gauge success, beyond just attendance and sales, is if another brewery copies it, which happens very frequently. They’ll just openly admit it, we’ll just copy what Tractor does. It’s a lot of trial and error. Sometimes stuff hits, then the next time it doesn’t, you just never know what’s going to happen sometimes.”
For now, there are no major hard-hat projects in 2019 for Tractor, David said, but the brewery staff will keep plenty busy with all of the beers, ciders, spirits, and events at all four locations.
I would like to extend a big thank you to David and Jeremy for being able to find the time to sit down for a half-hour and go over everything. It is always appreciated.
Oh, and the entire Crew fully endorses Turkey Drool becoming a year-round beer.