Around this time last year, the staff at Rio Bravo Brewing told us that some big changes were coming in 2018. Not all of those that did occur were obvious, but arguably the biggest move of all will start to have a telling impact in 2019.
That would be Austin Giorgetta, the new head of brewing operations, who is tasked with bringing Rio Bravo beers up to par with the rest of the vibrant Albuquerque craft scene. I sat down with Austin, and co-owner Randy Baker, for this entry in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
“We had to make the change to bring our beers up to what people expect,” Randy said.
Head brewer Ty Levis is still working at Rio Bravo, but Austin is clearly taking point on revamping the entire beer lineup, with an emphasis on making sure that all the Rio Bravo brews reflect the tastes of the modern craft consumer.
“I’m the head of brewing operations, so I pretty much decide what goes in the kettle, what we’re going to be producing, things of that nature,” Austin said. “There’s only two of us, so we’re still both brewing, we’re still both doing other work around the brewery. I guess, to say the least, I have the executive order on what we’re brewing, when we’re brewing it, how we want to change the taps, what we want to put in, things of that nature.”
To begin with, Austin will refocus the sizable beer menu.
“I’m looking to really change the menu here, make it unique,” he said. “We’re going to dwindle down to 16 different beers, probably actually 14, with two ciders on tap. I’m looking to keep eight core, three experimental, and three seasonal-type brews.”
Beers already on tap from Austin include Dunk a’ Chito, an imperial dunkelweizen inspired by biscochitos, and Freak Juice, a New England-style hazy IPA. The former ranked as a top-five seller for a couple weeks, Austin said, while Freak Juice has been the top seller on tap at the brewery since it debuted. More creative beers are on deck.
“What I can tell you are coming out soon are the Peanut Butter Hazelnut Brown,” he said. “We’re going to do a Vienna Lager in February. For springtime, I’m trying to do a ginger lime Berliner Weisse. In the summer, I definitely want it to be two rotating or two sort of sours on tap.”
Rio Bravo is also reaching out to other local breweries for some new projects.
“We’re going to collab with High and Dry, we want to do some sours, something crazy with some herbs in there,” Austin said. “We haven’t decided (exactly what), we’re still working on that. I had to push that back, just because right now production-wise we’re (focusing on) to manage contracts, to manage the new beers, and maintain the old ones. We’re pretty much firing a bottleneck on our three 15-barrel fermenters.”
Austin said he hopes to add more tanks, but it might not happen in 2019.
“Yeah, it’s what I’d love to do,” he said. “It’s going to be maybe after this year. It’s contingent upon production schedule and what we can allot for money. I’m thinking to make this possible we’d have to get a (walk-in) cooler outside that we could use strictly distribution-wise. We can do more of them than (in) our current cooler.”
Austin also said he would like to add some small, mobile tanks that he could wheel in or out of the cooler. Then he could create a base porter or stout and put different additives, like coconut or Amaretto, into different tanks.
“Right now, my mind is thinking like how much can I push?” he said. “But, I’m not here to push the amount I’d like to push, we’ve got to push (the existing) beer out of the taps first.”
For the moment, Austin said he is taking careful note of what customers do and do not want. The Dirty Penny, a new copper lager, is meant to bridge the gaps between people who drink La Luz Lager, or Roadkill Red, or ESB Amber. The information gleaned from that could help decide which of those beers remain, and which will go by the wayside.
One thing Austin has quickly learned is that IPA is still king in Albuquerque, and that in turn will shape part of the beer lineup going forward.
“We’re scrapping Snakebite, DRB, and Basket Case with the IPAs,” he said. “We’re getting rid of all of our IPAs. We have Beer Against Humanity. Ty created that recipe. That’s one of our best IPAs, I’d like to say. Once those go dry, that’s going to be the house IPA. I think it’s one or two tweaks away from being solid, or at least where I’d like it.”
Rio Bravo already trimmed down the list of canned offerings in 2018, and more changes could be on the horizon.
“Currently canning is Piñon Coffee Porter (and) Beer Against Humanity,” Austin said. “Freak Juice is going to come out in cans, and we’re going to have an Send It Series, that’s where the Czech pils is going to going to come out, and that’s going to be late March. Then we have our (El) Lobo Red, and next year it’s planning to change (the recipe). I think we’re going to change that. That’s not official, yet. It’s on the back burner.”
Rio Bravo has supplanted Kellys Brew Pub as the primary brewery of the University of New Mexico Alumni Association, with numerous events ranging from alumni gatherings to hosting the weekly Lobo Talk on 770 AM with football coach Bob Davie and men’s basketball coach Paul Weir. Those sort of tie-ins can certainly help with attendance at the brewery, as Randy noted, but it has not produced a huge uptick in the sales of the official UNM athletics beer.
“Production-wise, yeah, that’s one of our top sellers,” Austin said. “It’s top five, it tinkers on four or three at times. … It definitely has helped our taps, but it’s not selling at the rate that I’d like it to sell, or that I think it should be selling. But, then again, I don’t know this town really well. I feel though it’s selling well, it’s just not where I’d expect it to be. But, maybe that’s just because of the style, it’s a cherry wheat beer. I could see how a lot of people don’t really want a cherry wheat. It’s one of our top sellers right now, but the trend is to brew an IPA, and then you follow that with a hazy IPA, and when you throw a new hazy on it’s usually the top seller.”
A Colorado native, Austin had previously interned at Crabtree Brewing in Greeley. He turned jobs with Crooked Stave and Coors to come to Albuquerque.
Randy expressed how happy he was to have Austin on board, noting that the beers were already tasting better and getting more positive customer feedback. It is just one step in the ongoing process at Rio Bravo to keep the focus on the main brewery location. Randy said last year that he was looking at possible taproom locations, but he said that is no longer on the to-do list.
“There’s so much going on here, it makes more sense to focus getting the front patio up, moving the stage out back,” he said. “This event space up here (in the barrel room) during December, it was doing as much if not more than the taproom because we had it booked (almost) every night. … The only downside is we don’t have an elevator up there, but it makes for a nice event space.”
All of the events, whether out in the main taproom, upstairs in the barrel room, or out in the beer garden during warmer months, have been a net positive for Rio Bravo.
Back in the brewery, Randy also noted that one of the long-term goals is seeing some success, as Rio Bravo has been working as a contract brewery for other, smaller places.
“We’re canning for two or three different people and brewing for six, as long as we can do it around our schedule,” he said. “If someone wants to do a lager, they’re going to have wait for us, because it’s only going to be in that one (fermenter).”
It is all just part of the goal to keep moving forward, even as the market around Rio Bravo gets more and more crowded.
“The market is showing it can handle that,” Randy said. “What are we at now, 73 breweries in the state?”
When told it was around 85 and counting, Randy seemed surprised.
“When we opened (in 2015) we were like number 28, or maybe lower like 24,” he said. “Wow.”
In that sort of environment, it is good to see Rio Bravo being willing to shake up just about everything in order to stay relevant. We will keep an eye on how many more things change throughout the year.
A big thanks to Randy and Austin for taking the time for such a candid conversation. It is always appreciated.