Three years after we first spotted the pending license, Differential Brewing (also known as Brewstillery) is finally ready to open its doors in Southeast Albuquerque. The grand opening starts this Friday at 4 p.m. and runs through the weekend. In advance of all that, I met up with head brewer Peter Moore for a tour of the property at 500 Yale SE, which is one block south of Coal on the east side of the street, not far from Quarters and the UNM sports facilities and Isotopes Park.
Rather than go for a fancy mishmash of treated wood and industrial metal, like so many other breweries in town, Differential will have a bit of a throwback look and feel.
“We’re looking for our vibe as brewery dive,” Peter said. “We all grew up in kind of the punk scene. It’s like a Joe’s except people aren’t chasing people out with knives, that kind of stuff.
“It doesn’t look pretty, but it’s functional.”
The taproom space is an old gas station/garage, while the brewery room is located in an adjacent building on the property. There is a small patio beneath the garage doors facing Yale, and a much larger patio on the north side of the building. The entire property is owned by the Nellos family, who own Quarters, and Tino Nellos is one of the owners of Differential, along with Anthony Hanson, the former liquor store manager.
“That’s how we were able to get a hold of the buildings and that kind of stuff,” Peter said. “That has saved us a lot of money not having to pay rent while we’re doing construction. That would have wiped us out.”
Like so many others, Anthony was a homebrewer first, and that love of beer led him down the path of wanting his own brewery.
“I had been a homebrewer for over a decade,” Anthony said. “(Tino) had the property here and we thought that was the location to do it. Peter just happened to stumble into our orbit and was like, I can show you how to do that for real real. I used to run the liquor store down the street, so I know that side of the business just fine.”
Peter has previously worked at Tractor Brewing and Back Alley Drafthouse, and he currently works for Admiral Beverage Corporation, the distributor for Santa Fe Brewing and Bosque, among others.
“I stumbled in when I still worked at Tractor,” Peter said. “That was the goal all-around was to just leave Tractor and be here full-time. That will happen eventually. I’m now at Admiral. I’ll stay there to pay the bills and until we figure it out financially for everyone. It’s been a fun time, relatively, but it’s also been a stressful time. It’s always interesting going into business with your friends.”
The main taproom building needed the most work, as it was built back in the 1940s, Anthony said.
“We’ve already spent like $110,000 on this place,” Peter said. “The majority of it was this (the south end) used to be a pit. This was a car garage. A lot of it’s gone into construction work. Relatively, brewing is not cheap, either. It is not an easy task, especially when you don’t have a ton of investors or a investor who’s willing to drop a lot of money.”
Every last bit of the renovation was necessary, Anthony said.
“It was a complete rebuild, from permitting all the way through fixing the bathroom side,” he said. “It was about to cave in. It was about to be a condemned building.”
While construction was underway, Differential came up just shy of being allowed to go with a 1-barrel system, such as the ones in use at High and Dry and Elkins Brewing in Grants.
“About a year-and-a-half in we were about a couple months away (from opening), and Santa Fe said no, you have to do a 3-barrel (brewhouse),” Anthony said. “We were literally a month after High and Dry. We couldn’t fit a 3-barrel into this building, but thankfully we had another building on the property that we were going to use eventually. Santa Fe told us when you have that ready, let us know.
“So now I had to do two things. One, source a company that could build us a 3-barrel. Two, we had a tenant in there. Fortunately, he was getting ready to move out. That building was in pretty good shape, we just had to clean it up and get it ready to go, get the equipment installed.”
The Alcohol and Gaming Division had one last curveball to throw at the Differential staff.
“I told Santa Fe we’ve got our equipment and they said cool, now you need a license for the other building,” Anthony said. “I was like, son of a bitch, because at first I thought they told us that two buildings on one property was OK. But, I guess that was the old director. The new director told us that hotels, casinos, wineries can have multiple buildings on one property (under one license). Breweries, bars, package, you cannot. This (the taproom) has been licensed and ready to go since November.”
Now that everything has come together, Peter has been hard at work (when not at his other job) brewing up enough beer to get Differential through the first weekend.
“Most of them are going to be (lower ABV),” Peter said. “We’re going to do some darker stuff and the light stuff, but they’re going to be low alcohol. We want to be the drink a few and then walk home, or if you do drive, we want to make sure you’re OK.
“We don’t feel the need to put up a sign saying only three beers. I understand why some places do. We’d rather people drink and still feel like you had a good beer that’s not too hoppy. Hoppy beers, you can’t really take it out of the brewing list, but I won’t be too focused on those. I’d do session IPAs. I prefer IPAs that are drier, less malty, and don’t kick you in the face.”
The two beers that will be on tap for the opening are a Blue Corn Cream Ale and a Penn Swanky, a dark lager that Peter previously brewed at Back Alley.
“We’re always still in the process of tweaking the little things,” Peter said. “I’ve got three times (the capacity) what I had at Back Alley, so I’ve got to get them all moderately right.”
Ultimately, the customers will decide what become the staple beers and what will be seasonal, Peter said. Future plans will include acquiring a winemakers license, though it will be more about making mead rather than cider, as there are far fewer meaderies in New Mexico than cideries.
Anthony noted that the beers will not get fancy names or anything, just in case somewhere down the line they decide to do any packaging. His ultimate goal, however, will be to focus on something else for packaging and distribution.
“Down the line, it becomes hard if you want to start packaging; I’d rather move into hard liquor for packaging first,” Anthony said. “There’s a little bit more shelf space, and it’s a little less crowded of a market.
“I grew up in Missouri and Arkansas, so I know my way around a still. My goal here is to expand out so we’re at full production capacity for the brewery, then I will apply for a distillers license, and start incorporating spirits as soon as we can start pulling it off.”
For now, though, the focus will be on making the space one that people want to visit and come back to, whether they live within walking distance or are driving in from other parts of town.
“The neighborhood is excited, too,” Anthony said. “Our neighbors are in the know. They’re all very supportive. I got with the neighborhood association really early on, they’re really excited about it. About all of them agree that a pub in this neighborhood is lacking. I don’t know if you’ve ever been through this neighborhood on a game day, people walk straight through this neighborhood all the time. We’ll have the garage doors open to the patio. It will look a little like Kellys on Central.”
“They were a gas station, we were a gas station,” Peter added.
Even with the punk rock dive bar vibe, do not expect much in the way of live music, at least not at the outset.
“I’ve got close neighbors, so I probably won’t do the live music for a while,” Anthony said. “I’d also like to get the back a little more shaded. We also have room to do a mirror bar on the outside there, just install taps and build around it.”
Differential could see bigger crowds on game days for Lobo football and basketball, or the Isotopes or the new soccer team, New Mexico United, but the goal is not to morph into any sorts of sports bar.
“I’ve had a number of people come by and ask if they could have a beer before going to a game, or after (they) get out of the game,” Peter said. “We’ll have TVs on in there, but we kind of want to get away from being a sports bar. We want to be more of a dive-y brewery. We’re a bunch of nerds, so we’ll have Rick and Morty playing nonstop. We don’t want to do … the brewery is called Differential. That’s an homage to that formerly being a garage. I want to hang Transformers everywhere. We want to incorporate our nerdy side growing up.”
At this point, just getting the doors open after such a long process will be enough for the Differential staff.
“We’re super excited to see it actually progress,” Peter said. “I think our biggest fear was not opening. I never worried about being open. There will be the hills, the ups and downs, that aspect, but it’s pretty fluid. It will take care of itself.”
We wish the Differential Brewing staff all the luck this weekend, and every weekend going forward. One more place to grab a brew before or after a nearby game is OK by us.