Nexus Brewery owner Ken Carson is a busy man these days. We had originally scheduled an interview for a Look Back/Look Ahead Series entry back in December, but it had to be postponed until last week. When we did have the time to sit down to talk about everything, from the early challenges in 2018 to the forthcoming third Nexus location tentatively expected to open in February, I also ended up getting a bit of a lesson in local history, which fits particularly well on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
First, a bit of background. Yes, the long-awaited Nexus Blue Smokehouse is getting close to finally opening its doors. Its location at 1523 Broadway SE, just south of Avenida Cesar Chavez, has a connection to the past that made it too important for Ken to pass up when he was looking for a third Nexus location.
“I know some people are probably wondering why that location,” he said. “My family is from Albuquerque. My dad, his parents brought him to that neighborhood back in 1929. Our family has been in that area for a long time. Now, the neighborhood doesn’t look like it used to be (because it was) the black neighborhood. That was the only place you could buy a house in Albuquerque back in those days.”
The demographic of the neighborhood has shifted in the decades since from African-American to Hispanic, but the previous owner of the building was still tied into the original history.
“The guys that owned the building were the Navajo Elks,” Ken said. “The history of the Navajo Elks was the Navajo Elks were all over the country, (they were) the African-American Elks. They separated from the regular Elks, in fact they just stole the name. They got sued over it, but then ultimately the Elks just gave up and said forget it.”
Segregation caused a need for separate establishments.
“Then what happened was because blacks couldn’t go to the nightclubs and stuff … they put various nightclubs across the country especially in parts of the country where the population of blacks was not that big,” Ken said. “The reason being, say you’re in a town in Mississippi where the population was 50 percent, there’s going to be a guy that owns his own nightclub. Well, in New Mexico, I don’t what it was in the 50s, but back in those days the population wasn’t big enough to support it, so they created these nightclubs across the country. I’ve been to ones in Denver, there was here in Albuquerque, (and) there was one in Phoenix. A lot of them were in the Southwest.”
The tide of history eventually saw nightclubs and bars open to people of all races, ending the need for nightclubs such as the one operated by the Navajo Elks.
“Their membership and the ability to fill that building diminished over time,” Ken said. “A lot of people from Albuquerque told me to go try to help them. I even went down there and told them I would start a restaurant with them in their building. We talked about a lot of different scenarios to try to help them, (but) at some point they decided they needed a smaller footprint and to sell the building. That’s when we started talking about it.”
Eventually Ken purchased the entire building to honor the past and, he hopes, to start a trend of revitalization in that part of town.
“I liked the location from the standpoint from its proximity to the stadiums, UNM, and all of that,” he said. “There aren’t really many locally owned businesses on that side of town. It’s all franchises and nationally owned companies. There’s hardly any business down there in that area, period. I’m really kind of staking out to see if we can revive that part of town. I think that’s part of our goal. The reception for us from the neighborhood was outstanding. The neighbors came out in droves. I had like 15 people there at the hearing saying they wanted us to open in their neighborhood.”
Ken said he wants the Nexus Blue Smokehouse to be a destination for everyone in town, not just people who live within walking distance. It certainly could become a major pregame destination before Lobo basketball and football games. To make it attractive to all, Ken and his staff are working hard on everything from the decor to the food.
“We started on the construction project before the plans were done, doing the things that you can do without a permit,” Ken said. “We started in May, but we weren’t official and we didn’t get our plans approved until down in the fall, maybe August or so. Now, construction is finished. We’re just like a week away getting from a CO (Certificate of Occupancy).”
Though the location will primarily focus on barbecue, it will include other Nexus favorites on the menu.
“The new location will mainly be a barbecue restaurant, but I went to our computers and looked to find out what were our hottest selling items that we have, so we’re taking the chicken and waffles, the fried fish, the gumbo, and all of our top hits to that location,” Ken said. “So you’ll have the ability to have a really good, solid barbecue menu, in addition you’ll be able to have the New Mexican soul food that we have over here. We won’t have everything, but we’ll have the favorites. It should be a really good showing.”
The building itself is set up a split-level format. The top level at the north entrance from the parking lot will feature the kitchen and serving area up front for takeout. To the right (west) of that is a short flight of stairs down to the small dining area, which will seat about 36 people, Ken said. For now, only 1,500 square feet of the available 4,000 will be put to use. There will be a patio on the top level behind (south) of the kitchen, adjacent to the area with the barbecue pits.
“The concept of the barbecue pits, I’ve been all the way from South Carolina/North Carolina to Dallas to Austin (and) I’ve probably hit over 50 barbecue places over the last three years since I started thinking about this idea,” Ken said. “One of the things that I wanted to have was the pit room. The other thing I wanted to do was cook the food with only man, fire, and machine. I did not want to have an oven where smoke is blown into. We are actually cooking it with all wood. There’s no propane, it’s just fire and wood, and that’s all we’re using.”
The massive barbecue pits are already on site and ready to be fired up.
“Our barbecue pits come from Georgia, a guy named Bubba who’s (real) name is Lonnie Smith,” Ken said. “I traveled to this small town about 30 miles outside of Atlanta. It’s not really a town, it’s one of these tiny spots that you just drive through. I went out to his place and I look at his pits. He makes top-notch pits. They’re really large propane tanks that have been converted with rib boxes on the end. They’re pretty intense. We’re looking forward to start using those.”
Ken has already hired his pit masters, who have been working on their technique at the main location, with dishes being served at the Silver Taproom on the Westside as a sort of trial run.
“It’s been interesting, we have learned a ton in a short period of time of things we wouldn’t have known until we started,” Ken said. “It’s actually working really well. I’d say that I think we’re starting off slightly above average in Albuquerque as far as the barbecue is concerned, but we are going to master them. I think with our sides and the fact that you can get a combination of all kinds of different food, it will be a really attractive place to go to.”
It would nice, of course, if customers would understand in advance that there will not be as much seating at the original Nexus, which itself tends to get quite crowded at peak hours at nights and on the weekends.
“Initially, though, we’re not going have that much seating,” Ken said. “We’re trying to build the business backwards. I’m going to focus on catering, takeout, and a small dining area first. Then, we open up the rest of the 4,000 square feet it’s going to be on. Now I’ll have a stage, a big a bar, and if everything works out … but, the phases were to keep the debt down. This is phase one. Phase two we’re hoping for the fall. I’m hopeful we’ll build a business slowly and well, and do it right. I want to do the food right. We have a big reputation to uphold. People’s expectations, if they walk in and our barbecue doesn’t taste the best in town, it’s going to really be difficult. That’s what they expect from us, and I really don’t want to disappoint them.”
While Ken has been busy leading the charge to get Blue open, head brewer Randy King has been hard at work at the original location.
“It’s been a lot of learning experiences of fixing problems with equipment, a lot of learning,” he said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot over the last year.”
The biggest lesson learned was that equipment is not always reliable.
“It was a good year, with I guess maybe what everybody else is saying — a lot of different challenges,” Ken said. “The challenges this year were we got Randy in, he’s a new brewer (and) he’s done really well. I think that the beer is solid that he’s making. At the beginning of the year, however, we had problems with our boiler, that went down. That was kind of a fiasco. We were down probably about a month-and-a-half.”
Randy’s predecessor, Kaylynn McKnight, actually saved the day before she left to join Toltec Brewing.
“Thank goodness Kaylynn had left behind a ton of beer,” Ken said. “So we were able to survive on our several of our main beers and then only had to bring in other beers later. We have the boiler fixed, everything is working well, all the equipment is working, so now things are back to kind of normal on the brewing side.”
Getting everything running smoothly at the brewery has been important as Randy and his brewing team prepare for the smokehouse opening.
“We’re going to have to increase production by a considerable amount,” Randy said. “We have not ordered any new equipment, but we’ve had talk of replacing our 7-barrel (brewhouse) with a 15. That building is bigger than the brewery here itself, or our square footage here. We’re expecting it to do well.
“I’ve already had the barbecue and it’s fantastic. We’ve already had that out at Silver. That menu will be expanding when we move into Nexus Blue. When that place is full and rocking, there’s going to be a lot of beer consumed over there.”
Ken said that despite the time lost to the boiler failure, production was almost up from 2017, though growth has slowed in the industry as a whole due to the sheer proliferation of breweries and taprooms across the city and state.
“I think our beer production is down slightly because of the month-and-a-half missing,” Ken said. “I think Kaylynn had us up to around 800 (barrels). It looks like we’re doing 780. In effect we’re higher than last year if we had brewed all of this year, but only slightly. I think that’s an issue with the market.”
Randy has gotten some help on the brewhouse in the past year. Nexus added Misha Lockamy, formerly of Flix Brewhouse, as an assistant brewer, and also added Jerrad Manning (yes, the same Jerrad who writes for the Crew) late in the year when Misha had to take a leave of absence. Ken said the plan is to now keep Jerrad on board even when Misha returns. That should come as good news to Randy.
“It’s been fantastic; both Jerrad and Misha have been doing great,” he said. “They both bring a good attitude, even when I’m grumpy and pissy, they have a smile on their faces. They’re both solid, hard workers. … I certainly appreciate them. I don’t know if I tell them a lot, but I do.”
Nexus did not add to its medal total in 2018, but Randy was still proud of several of the popular seasonal beers they added, including the Hot Chocolate Porter and Strawberry Mlikshake IPA. He also added the new King’s Keg Series, with some small-batch experimental beers offered out of a single small keg from time to time.
“Most recently, the feedback (from customers) has been very positive,” Randy said. “It’s not always been all positive, but you take it with a grain of salt, because you never know what you’re going to hear tomorrow. I really try to listen to what the customers say and try to interpret that into how I can implement that into my brew day and the beer itself.”
One thing customers should note that is if one plans to critique a beer on Untappd or social media, please take note of how the food at Nexus can affect the palate.
“I don’t know if this is a great example, but I got an Untappd review that was like a low star, like a single-star or two-star review on the Hot Chocolate Porter,” Randy said. “Most of those don’t have any comment, but this one did. He said he couldn’t taste any of the pepper or cayenne in the porter. He was very disappointed in it. He ended it by saying he just had the Hot Chicken.”
Yeah, that might burn out the taste buds a bit. As for what is coming down the pipeline, Randy had mentioned the Hot Chocolate Milk Stout and Brut IPA when we talked in December, while keeping his eye on some additional styles that he hopes to try out in 2019.
“I’ve really been wanting to do a Belgian dark strong, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen,” he said. “I want it on during the colder months, but I haven’t been able to schedule a time. We’re starting to get a lot more variance in IPAs on the menu. I think they would go well with barbecue, but they’re very popular (in general).”
With more beer and more food on the way, Nexus seems poised for a big year ahead. The Crew certainly plans to be at the Blue Smokehouse when its doors open. We cannot think of a better pregame meal before New Mexico United games start in March, with the Isotopes returning shortly thereafter in April.
A big thanks to Randy for the interview and the Beam Me Up Scotty, and to Ken for being able to squeeze an interview into his jam-packed schedule.