New Mexico Brewers Guild executive director John Gozigian and the board of directors had a busy, but fairly by-the-numbers year in 2018. That figures to change a lot in 2019, both in terms of events and at the legislative session in Santa Fe.
I sat down with John over lunch at Nexus last week to recap how the past year went and what is to come when the calendar flips in a few weeks for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series. While the more immediate changes with events will affect the beer-loving crowd more right away, the more lasting changes for the entire industry will come when the state legislature meets in January.
“It’s going to be a busy session for us,” John said. “We’ve had an economic turnaround in the state, where our state government is not starved for funding. (That) means that we can go after some of the issues that have been in our back pocket for many years that it just had not been an opportune time to address.”
The first change the breweries hope to make is in the state excise tax. New Mexico breweries currently pay more than their counterparts in any other neighboring state, save for Utah. The current excise tax setup will end in 2023, but the Guild hopes to negotiate new terms now.
“We’d like to make that permanent so our small breweries can continue to benefit from a lower excise tax rate that allows them to grow,” John said, “And, it’s also a tax rate that’s in line with our surrounding states, as opposed to being double, or triple, or quadruple what our counterparts pay. So that’s on the agenda.”
A lower tax will allow the breweries to continue to grow, add more staff, and continue to make what is currently a sizable, positive economic impact upon the state. There are no guarantees, however, that it will pass in this session, even with state revenues in the black for the first time in a long time.
Other changes sought by the Guild should stand a good chance of passing. A couple of the bills almost passed last time, but in a shorter 30-day session, there was ultimately not enough time for a full review by Governor Susana Martinez.
“Last year, we also ran a bill asking for Sunday sales hours to begin at 11 o’clock, which is the case for all liquor license types in New Mexico except small brewer license and wine growers license (holders),” John said. “We’re going to ask for that again. It passed both chambers, but was pocket vetoed by the governor.”
NFL fans should be in full support of that measure, so hopefully enough of them are in the legislature, not to mention Governor-elect Michelle Lujan-Grisham.
Another bill will focus on helping more of the breweries in the outer reaches of the state.
“We’re also going to go for a private celebration permit, which will allow breweries to cater private events,” John said. “Right now, we can do public events, but if you’re in a small market in Northeast or Southeast New Mexico and want to have a catered even for a wedding or any other sort of private event, the only licenses that can allow you to do that are dispenser holders in their own local option district. But, a lot of those regions don’t have anyone with a dispensers permit anymore. They’ve all migrated to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces. If you live in one of those pockets, it’s a very challenging, so we’re going to ask for that again.”
Another issue that has come up among the Guild membership is the problem where a few holders of small brewer licenses are actually no longer engaged in brewing, but use those licenses to bring guest taps into their place of business.
“The last thing we want to do is revisit the definition of a small brewer in New Mexico,” John said. “Right now, the language is such that the requirement is to be a bonafide brewery engaged in bonafide production of beer. But, it’s not very well defined.
“So one thing that’s happened is there are operators that use the small brewer permit to circumvent the dispensers permit in order to operate a taproom. That was not the intention. The intention was for manufacturers, actual producers of beer to be able to sell their own product, rather than for operators to open up a brewery or winery and operate a taproom and not produce any product.
“We’re going to work on a language of that definition so it’s still inclusive of the smallest operators, as long as they’re actually making beer, and actually making a meaningful amount of product relative to their size.”
As for events, the Guild has the same slate planned for 2019 as in 2018. Those are, in order:
- January 11: WinterBrew, Santa Fe
- February 16: Stout Invitational, Los Alamos
- April 27: Toad Fest, Silver City
- May 10: Blazin’ Brewfest, Las Cruces
- June 2: Guild Golf Tournament, Santa Ana GC
- July 13, 17, 20, 27: IPA Challenge, sites TBD in Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Northern New Mexico, and Albuquerque metro area
- October 26: Beer Premiere, site TBD in Albuquerque
The Guild membership is still growing and evolving, so change will always be a constant in how it has to handle the events that serve as its primary fundraisers in order to work in Santa Fe.
“2018 was (still) pretty busy,” John said. “In 2017, it looked like our brewery population was starting to plateau and level off. As it turns out, that ended up not being the case, and our membership has really grown a lot over the last year. And, it continues to grow going into the new year. We’re having a lot of new breweries coming on board. I’m aware of a lot of breweries out there, both in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and around the rest of the state, that are in planning or actively under construction.”
That continued growth means the setup of events will continue to change, beginning with WinterBrew in a few weeks.
“Clearly, one of the challenges we’ve had that’s sort of something new is that our membership has grown so much that a lot of the events and competitions that we did, where we were able to accommodate everyone or at least everyone that wanted to participate, that is no longer the case,” John said. “We have to move to a lottery system for almost all of our events, where we’ll put out the word for an event, breweries register, and we’ll put the names in an internet randomizer and select however many we can accommodate.”
In the case of WinterBrew, that sort of lottery was especially necessary due to size constraints at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. There is only room for 18 breweries, so the Guild board of directors made the decision to break it down with six spots for Santa Fe area breweries, four for new breweries (defined as less than two years old and having never been to WinterBrew before), and eight spots for all remaining breweries. That meant some familiar faces at festivals got left out, like Blue Corn and Duel among the Santa Fe breweries, and the likes of Boxing Bear, Canteen, La Cumbre, and Tractor among the Albuquerque breweries.
“I used to set aside some slots for board members, but that’s kind of become contentious,” John said. “Now that there’s so many breweries and you have seven board members, (so) that takes up a lot of the available slots.”
Tickets for WinterBrew are going fast, so get them now, as it will sell out. For the curious, the participating breweries are Abbey, Bosque, Bow & Arrow, Chili Line, Cloudcroft, HoneyMoon, Lost Hiker, Marble, Picacho Peak, Red River, Rowley Farmhouse Ales, Santa Fe, Second Street, Sidetrack, Starr Brothers, Truth or Consequences, Tumbleroot, and Turtle Mountain.
“The nice thing is, we have a lot of new breweries going in because of the fact it’s randomized,” John said. “We have a very different lineup this year.”
The biggest brewfest in Southern New Mexico remains the Blazin’, set for Las Cruces in May. That event has evolved in a positive way over time. After moving to downtown a few years ago, it has also changed days, going from a Saturday event that conflicted with the local farmers market, to a Friday night event.
“We can get into the plaza as early as we want to, and take our time getting set up and do it right,” John said. “Being on the plaza itself, it’s a nice venue. We still do the street closure, but I think not having vendors set up there makes it a lot easier for the flow of the event. The plaza is a couple years old. We don’t have to rent a stage anymore, they’ve got the stage (in place).”
The Guild has capped ticket sales at around 1,200 now, instead of 2,000, as the beer lines were too long and things tended to get a bit too chaotic for everyone evolved.
“I would rather have a smaller festival with a better experience,” John said. “Just based upon the size and the logistics, this way we’re able to keep the beer lines not as long. I think the flow works better. It’s just really nice.”
The Beer Premiere, another popular annual event, will return next autumn. The decision to rotate it from brewery to brewery has proven to be a hit, John said.
“It’s definitely (more of a) beer connoisseurs’ event, as opposed to one that attracts the general public,” he said. “They’re looking for a huge variety of beers, and to consume as much as possible. This is more about trying all brand-new beers. You have to be a beer geek to truly enjoy it.”
The price point of $25, as opposed to $20 for most of the other events, has not hindered the crowds as they seek out first-run, often small-batch or one-off beers.
As for the biggest fundraising annual event for the Guild, the 2019 New Mexico IPA Challenge will have a different look and feel than in 2018 and other recent years.
“We’ve also come up with a new format for the IPA Challenge next year,” John said. “We’re going to take the elimination round private. It won’t be a public event anymore.”
That certainly answers the question of what was going to happen to the elimination round after the Duel ABQ Taproom closed. The new setup will take place at an as-yet-undetermined location. John said each brewery that wishes to participate will send a single representative with one growler of their own IPA, with no limit as to the number of how many breweries can take part. The IPAs will be evenly divided over multiple trays, maxing out at 15 per tray, and each brewery rep will not have their own beer on the tray they receive. The top 15 overall beers will still advance to the public rounds, only it will be brewery staff members making the decision instead of the general public.
“It was the headache round, by far,” John said. “People would complain that they couldn’t taste all 45 beers, or however many we were pouring. It was really, just logistically, pouring and plating that many beers in that short of a time was very difficult. I think now that we’ve got it to 15 (per round), all of our venues can put all of the beers on tap.”
We rather prefer our IPA Challenges without social media fireworks, so all of this sounds like a good idea to us. Now we can all just get back to arguing West Coast versus haze.
“We’re going to have four (public) rounds still,” John said. “We’re going to divide it up now so we’ll have a permanent round in Las Cruces, we’ll have a permanent round in Albuquerque, we’ll have a permanent round in Santa Fe, and we’ll have a round in Northern New Mexico. The final round will still be in Albuquerque.”
The Crew will be keeping a close watch on everything involving the Guild at the state legislature, as well as covering all of the events from start to finish. As always, we thank John for taking the time to talk to us, and of course for that tasty Nexus lunch.