Every brewery that opens an off-site taproom hopes that it provides a decent boost in sales and revenue. For the folks at Ponderosa Brewing, they had those hopes when the small taproom at the renovated El Vado Motel on Central opened this past summer. The results, however, went well beyond what head brewer Antonio Fernandez expected, as he explained when we sat down for the Ponderosa entry in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series on Wednesday afternoon.
“2018 was crazy,” Antonio said. “Of course the biggest thing was getting the taproom at El Vado open. None of us were ready for what was going to happen with that. I was thinking like most taprooms it would probably give us a little kick when it first opened and then ramp up business. But, man, we just hit the ground running, selling tons of beer out of there and it never slowed down until like Thanksgiving.”
That was all well and good from a sales perspective, but not necessarily from a brewing perspective. Antonio said he had to scramble to keep up with double the usual demand.
“I took a big hit over here, actually,” he said. “We have draft accounts, I was brewing beer for (putting beer in) cans, and the next thing you know we had gone down to only five beers on tap at both places while I tried to get caught up. I had to modify my brewhouse slightly so I could double-batch in a single day without taking 14 hours. That was a big change. I had to get on the new paradigm.
“I was brewing twice as much beer as the year before. Our output was way up compared to the past. This is our fourth year now. We brewed and sold way more beer than we ever had before and it’s been our most profitable year as a company, also.”
Over the past four years, Ponderosa has endured its fair share of bumps in the road before things finally settled into a groove.
“I just keep dreaming up new recipes all the time,” Antonio said. “I’ve been the head brewer here for about two-and-a-half years now, which is a lot longer than anyone else was here. I did the count, I’ve added about 80 new recipes in addition to our normal beers. We’ve had good luck trying new beers, some hits, some misses.”
Among the things that have helped fuel that growth in the Ponderosa customer base range from simply better signage to let people know the brewery is back there off Bellamah, to simply having more apartment units being built in the vicinity, and having Hotel Chaco pop up nearby.
“This area has grown,” Antonio said. “That all went up fast. I think all the units are rented. The flamenco school is moving in on the ground floor, so I think we’ll get a lot of parents come in while they’re waiting. We could have a whole new demographic in here. Hotel Chaco is a big one, too. We have a lot more tourists in here. During tourist season, we have a lot more in here and coming from Old Town. We have a lot of people driving across the country and they stop in here for lunch and beer. I think it’s because we’re right off the freeway.”
People visiting the nearby New Mexico Museum of Natural History and the Explora! science museum have also made Ponderosa a regular stop afterwards, even if it means bringing their children along.
“Anytime there’s an event at the Natural History (Museum) or Explora, we fill up fast, either at lunch or at happy hour,” Antonio said. “Sometimes it gets loud with all the kids. I think the more screaming kids there are, the more the parents drink. It’s not too bad, I can hide back there with my music on.”
As a smaller brewery with only limited canning/bottling runs for some of its specialty beers, Antonio said he has remained focused on keeping the in-house customers happy, both at the brewery and at El Vado. Over at the latter, he has seen a different rate of consumption for some of the beers than at the home base.
“A lot of the lighter style beers really do better over there, for the most part,” Antonio said. “There’s a lot of tourists, so they’re not necessarily craft beer fans, they’re just hey, here’s a place we can get beer. We still a good bit of IPA over there. This is still Albuquerque, and the regulars from the neighborhood there still come in. American Wheat, the Kolsch, pilsners, lagers, those are our other most popular beers over there, for sure.”
At the brewery, a few beers have stood out as customer favorites, even though they range from different ends of the brewing spectrum.
“This last year, (one) of the crowd favorites for sure were the Blood Orange Wit,” Antonio said. “It was big on tap and the cans have done well for us.”
The other fan favorites have come from the growth of a rather unique collaboration with the local General Mills plant. A few of the workers there are Ponderosa regulars, and that led to an ongoing series of cereal-infused beers, with another currently in the works.
“A couple of the cereal beers have been the most fun for our customers, for sure,” Antonio said. “Cinnamon Crunch Toast Stout and Golden Grahams Amber Lager, and right now in the fermenter we have Cocoa Puffs Baltic Porter. It’s almost done fermenting, it’s doing its rest right now. We’ll try to get that one transferred over, let it do its lagering time.”
Wait, rewind that. A Cocoa Puffs Baltic Porter?
“Almost four or five gallon buckets of the cereal went into that beer with the rest of the grain,” Antonio said. “The guys from General Mills have been having a lot of fun with this. … We’re trying to work on a new deal for it, too. There’s a lot of cereal that doesn’t make it all the way through due to their quality control standards. A lot of that ends up just as animal feed. It’s totally fit for human consumption, it’s just the wrong size and things like that. I’m hoping that we can start getting our hands on that regularly and put it into a regular beer rotation. That would be really cool.”
Not every beer brewed turns out to be a big hit, no matter what the brewer happens to like. Rather than do a wet-hop IPA or pale ale this year, Antonio did a wet-hop saison, which he said he rather enjoyed making. The customers, well, they were not as keen on the experiment.
“The other most fun one for me this year was the wet-hop beer again,” he said. “We were able to (acquire) the wild picked-and-foraged Neo Mexicanus hops. I used them in a saison this year. It was probably my favorite brew to do this year, which of course meant it was probably the slowest seller in the taproom. My tastes aren’t exactly aligned with all of our customers. If it was up to me, I’d brew all lagers and Belgian ales.”
In order to keep things creative with the customer in mind, Antonio has also reached out to do more collaborations, whether with other breweries or other local businesses. One of those collaborations goes on tap this Friday. It all stems from a chance meeting with High and Dry brewer/co-owner Andrew Kalemba.
“The High and Dry one kind of fell into place just by chance,” Antonio said. “I actually met Andrew at the Greek Fest last year when he was still planning the brewery. We got to talking here and there. It’s going to be a fun one. We did a black IPA featuring all hop oils instead of dry hops. It’s an experiment for me, for sure. I like the results. That will be going on tap Friday on both places. We’ll have half the taps up there for the whole month. I’ll be up there Friday talking to people.”
It also has a tremendous, very Burqué name — Shut the Lights Black IPA.
Among the beers sampled during the interview was one that is not yet on tap. It is being saved for a special event in February.
“Another fun collaboration that we have coming up is probably going to be set for the week of Valentine’s Day,” Antonio said. “We’re going to do a beer-and-donut pairing with Rebel Donut. I brewed a Red Velvet ale. A red-colored ale with lots of cocoa and vanilla. It’s similar to the signature red velvet Rebel Donut. That’s going to be a real fun one.
“There will be four mini-donuts and four 5-ounce pours. We haven’t finished up pricing and everything. I want to keep it like 15 bucks or something. Who doesn’t like donuts and beer, right? I know it will be pretty limited, because we don’t have the biggest place, and they can only make so many donuts.”
As for the rest of 2019, Antonio said he is looking to increase the brewing capacity in advance of the busy summer season, particularly with El Vado expecting another wave of tourists.
“I’m hoping to get another fermenter or two in here,” he said. “We’ve been starting to look over the numbers on that. That will take the pressure off me for keeping the beer up. Most of the time, I’m waiting on a fermenter to open up. Most of my tanks are running at 100-percent capacity all the time. It will give me a little more time to do lagers and things like that. I’d like to get back into doing more sours.”
Ponderosa also did some remodeling in 2018 that included moving the staff office out of the brewing area, which has given Antonio even more space just for himself. He has an idea of how to fill some of that still unused space.
“I’ve got more room, and I’d like to add a couple little barrel racks,” he said. “I’d like to do some limited barrel aging. It’s something I’ve wanted to do.”
Hey, the more barrel-aged beers in town, the merrier, as we like to say.
Antonio said he is also focused on making sure the Ponderosa staff is better prepared to serve customers and provide knowledge about the beer this year.
“One of the other big things coming for us this year that I’m focusing on is beer training and education for our staff,” he said. “I got my certified Cicerone this year. I think I was number 12 in the state, finally. I’ve been rewriting our entire training protocol for our serving staff. They’re all going to have to get their certified beer server certificate, things like that, just a general craft beer knowledge I want them to get in tune with. If they’re going to work at a craft beer place, it’s important for them to know that.”
Things definitely seem to be looking up for Ponderosa, and we will certainly be back for the Red Velvet Ale (it is quite tasty and a bit decadent) and Cocoa Puffs Baltic Porter, among other beers. A big thank you to Antonio for taking time out of his brewing schedule to chat, and for being willing to wait an extra hour for someone to show up (Franz Solo needed help bottling his latest batch of Ragnarok Barleywine).