Bathtub Row Brewing (BRB) in Los Alamos will be entering its fourth year of operation in 2019, and the business is entering a period of relative stability. To get the lowdown on where things stand with the brewery, I sat down with general manager Doug Osborn and head brewer Brandon Venaglia.
“The Tub,” as it’s affectionately referred to by many, has now been around long enough that people can’t imagine a time when it didn’t exist. It’s become a mainstay in people’s social lives on the hill. But, it’s also only been four years, which is not a lot of time in the lifespan of a business. At this point, after establishing itself and proving its business mettle, it’s clear the place will be around for many years to come. After an unusually slow start in early 2018 (which Doug said he thinks may have been industry-wide), sales have been on a record pace, up nearly 15 percent over last year.
One of the main points I took away is that BRB is at the point where the staff and Board of Directors are trying to take care of all of its financial burdens and fine-tune its processes and facilities, while at the same time beginning to think about what the next major course of action should be. The initial funding needed to open BRB was in part funded by loans provided by 56 individuals in the community. Those loans are slowly being repaid. Like many people, Doug said he doesn’t want that debt over his head for any longer than is necessary.
“It’s a five-year loan from the time we start paying it off to the time we’re actually done with it,” Doug said. “If I have my way, (it) will be done in two and a half.”
Even with the loans being repaid, there will likely be new equipment purchases in 2019. Brandon and his crew have been working like mad to keep up with demand. The original plan was to brew 350 barrels a year, but they said they’re approaching 1,000. Their most popular beer is, of course, the Hoppenheimer IPA, and they do quadruple batches of that one to keep enough on hand.
They also will be continuing to brew plenty of lagers, including a Mexican lager, so they’re planning to invest in a lagering fermenter. Additional fermenters and a serving vessel are also on the wish list. And, in addition to equipment, the area behind the bar will likely be redone to promote better server efficiency.
“We’re probably going to redesign behind the bar to make it more efficient; we have a bit of a log jam,” Doug said. “Whoever put this bar in never had any idea that we were going to do the volume that we were going to do. It was designed more for comfort, and less for speed.”
At the time of the interview, BRB had two beers available on nitro. They said they plan to use nitro with their stouts and porters, as is common, but also with other styles, as well. They were very proud of their new gas system, which allows them to extract nitrogen from the air and customize the mixtures of the gases they use. They explained that altitude can play a large role in brewing, and at 7,200 feet, BRB is one of the highest breweries in the country. Only Red River Brewing, at 8,600 feet, is higher in New Mexico.
Staffing has been mostly consistent. At least one-third of the roughly 25 people on staff have been around since the opening. Doug and Brandon spoke glowingly about Justin, a former intern and now staff member, who they call their “Young Padawan.” Ashley, the front-of-house manager, will be stepping down to take a position at the National Laboratory, and will likely be replaced by someone in-house. Doug credits much of his success to his wonderful staff, as well as the Board of Directors that guide the ship.
Addressing industry trends, they said that high ABV brews aren’t as popular as they once were. At one point, a year or two ago, every entry on their list was over 7 percent.
“People come in here to spend several hours,” Brandon said. “They don’t come in here to get really wasted on an 11-percent beer or triple bourbon barrel stout at 16 percent. They’re intriguing, people enjoy them, but we get groups in here that want to sit here for two or three hours of conversation. More of a pub atmosphere with their kids, their dogs, their friends.”
Brandon said he is happy to take suggestions for brews and likes to just do what’s fun, but he noted that he did cave in to a recent trend and is making a hazy IPA.
Longer term, Doug said he has big ideas about investing in renewable energy and water reclamation systems. He feels that a co-op (which BRB is) has an obligation to be more community-oriented and environmentally friendly.
“We go through a ton of water,” Doug said. “There’s the photovoltaic and then the thermal solar. You can heat water up to 500 degrees with a proper thermal solar setup up on a roof, which would save us a ton of money, time, and effort. It’s not cheap. It’s expensive. But, you know, every time I drive by the food co-op coming into town, I love seeing those solar panels. I’m like, they’re doing it right.”
This is an issue that will have to be given a great deal of thought by the Board of Directors of BRB, so don’t expect anything overnight.
Also, in terms of the big picture, Board members and staff are trying to determine what the next big steps should be. Should there be a new taproom in town or in neighboring White Rock? Should they start distributing BRB beers regionally or nationally? Doug wants to make sure things are running smoothly at the current location before anything else is considered.
Events at BRB have included many concerts, notably a few by Vanilla Pop, a very popular regional band. Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham stopped by while campaigning and shared a beer and gave a speech. The NM Brewers Guild’s Stout Invitational was held back in February, and it is turning into a reliable annual event, seeing as how there will be another held in 2019.
A charity golf event for the local charity “All Individuals First” (which provides assistance to adults with special needs) raised $10,000. BRB was given an award by Big Brothers, Big Sisters for raising so much money for that organization. Speaking of awards, they won their second Business of the Year award from the local Chamber of Commerce as well.
BRB also participated in Sierra Nevada’s national fundraiser, brewing an IPA with a recipe provided by them (and with grains and hops provided by Proximity and Yakima). All proceeds (not just profits) from the sale of the Resilience IPA will go to fire relief efforts in California. This reinforces how tight-knit and supportive the brewery community is in New Mexico and nationwide.
BRB is getting into a groove. The new patio seating and fire pit have been very popular. The beers are excellent. 2018 broke records, and with some fine-tuning in 2019, expect things to be even better.