With regards to Steel Bender Brewyard and their amazing staff, sorry for the late write-up! Moving on with said group in mind, we move into our next entry in the annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
I was surprised, and extremely lucky, to get four major influences within the Steel Bender world to sit and talk with me about their ideas, goals, and successes over the past year, along with their insight in how they plan on taking their brand into the 2019 market with what could be called a steady, but reactive hand. Situated along Second Street, just south of the Paseo del Norte intersection, this brewery has had landmark success since inception, reminiscent of the early decade boom era for the craft beer industry.
This coming weekend, they will be celebrating their second anniversary. We highly encourage everyone to stop in and participate in the anniversary and holiday events, a full list of which is now available in a separate story.
For my visit, I was greeted by marketing director Shelby Chant and her husband and co-owner Ethan Chant, and we were soon joined by sales manager Adam Auden and head brewer Bob Haggerty. We grabbed a table in the south hall section of the restaurant, an area lined with oak of various intent, which made for a laid-back and easy backdrop to go over the year’s proceedings. To start things off, we dove into a review of 2018 in what I described as “in a nutshell/highlight” sense.
“Last year we were shocked at how busy we were, especially how quickly,” Ethan said. “Like opening up this room (south dining area), we weren’t supposed to, and expanding the kitchen, the amount of vessels we got — that was a shock. So we thought this year, 2018, it would mellow out or stabilize, and it’s been the opposite. Everything in terms of here has increased 20 percent from month to month compared to last year, and that’s been steady in terms of our sales.”
It has not just been the sales on site, as Steel Bender has already jumped into the packaging-and-distribution game.
“Our distribution, that has taken (off) so much quicker than we anticipated,” Ethan said. “And, we are really happy about and trying to navigate those waters, especially (with) who our distribution team is, which is Bill Hymen and Adam Auden, neither of (whom) has done any distribution or sales in that capacity. So that was a huge learning experience. I think that was actually really beneficial for us, because they are beer enthusiasts, and not necessarily salespeople, so they are able to communicate and explain our product really well and be able to understand different markets.”
Shelby said a big part of that positive response from customers has been towards the specialty/seasonal beers, noting how Raspberry Dynamite went from an experimental one-off to a lineup fixture, with numerous other fruited versions of that kettle sour now popping up on an almost routine basis.
“It seems like we hit our stride with those seasonals, those rotating beers,” she said. “Yeah, it’s been pretty cool to watch it that way. We say this every time — if we built this place on predictions, we would have been completely wrong. I mean, our audience, there’s so many different slices in that pie, many more slices than we thought there was going to be. We’re constantly listening to what we’re getting back from guests, and starting to get word back from accounts now, trying to give them what they want.”
All of it has kept Adam quite busy, as Ethan mentioned.
“It was a year of a lot of firsts, first year of canning, really the year where distribution got under way in any significant aspect,” Adam said. “We’re doing an order of magnitude more in the market compared to where we were in 2017, month to month. We’ve established ourselves as a real presence by this point, iIthink. So yeah, it’s been quite something.”
It certainly has kept Bob and the brewing staff busy, too.
“I think canning is a huge aspect that we didn’t talk about (before opening), nor anticipated doing canning this quickly,” Bob said. “We were always talking about distribution — doing bottling and doing small bottle amounts. That’s what we were planning on, but (with) the canning there was an opportunity. We jumped on it and learned a lot in a very short amount of time; we’re still learning a lot.
“The canning distribution, which is different than the restaurant distribution in terms of what’s selling and not selling. We’ve been very fortunate again that folks have embraced our beers in the can form, as opposed to just wanting it in the growler or (on) draft.”
Back when Stoutmeister first visited Steel Bender, the small barrel room on the west side of the taproom was one of the highlights that Bob presented. The barrel-aging program at Steel Bender has grown far beyond just that space.
“I think the barrel program that I think (Bob) wanted from the get go has proven as another place where we are really going to make our mark,” Shelby said.
“Absolutely,” Bob replied. “The barrels take a long time to become ready. Some of these are year long, (even) multiyear prospects, and so for them to start coming ready now and having some really good bottles to put out there has made me real happy.”
Steel Bender had plenty of goals in 2018, with some being met, and others that were not. The constant growth and change required plenty of adaptability for everyone on staff.
“We exceed everything on a scale that exceeded anything we could have (imagined),” Ethan said. “I’m just so impressed with these guys that they’re able to handle it and keep control. You hear this with different businesses all the time of expanding too quickly and lose control. I certainly feel like we’ve been surfing a tidal wave, but we’ve been able to handle it.”
Steel Bender exceeded 2,000 barrels of production in 2018.
“Which we never thought we were going to do that, basically within a year and nine months (of opening),” Ethan added. “And, our projections for next year are crazy. None of this (was what) we planned on doing at all, so yeah, we surpassed our craziest projections or anticipations.”
Shelby said it all came down to teamwork, from the staff working with Bob on the brewhouse to the sales team to the front-of-house staff that interacts with the customers.
“We very quickly built very good teams around this,” she said. “Which means we are looking into the future and can look into it knowing (it‘s) not just … quality staff who wants to be here, but because they’ve become brand ambassadors for us, which is what we want out of everyone who works here.”
Ethan said the same lessons learned from the strengths of the distribution team can be applied to the serving staff.
“We’ve tried to let that influence restaurant part,“ he said. “All of our servers have to be Cicerone (beer server certified). That’s a requirement and that has definitely help them understand what our intent here is — our intent is to introduce people to beer, and not only beer, but good beer.“
While Steel Bender has become well known for trying so many different styles of beer, its list of offerings has expanded for those who want something besides just beer.
“Cider! We’re in the cider business,“ Shelby said.
“We’ve been doing a lot of experimentation with cider over the past six or eight months and are continuing to experiment,“ Bob said. “We’ve got some draft ciders. We’ve been working with some heritage ciders that will be coming out in bottles fairly soon, and we’re going to keep going down that path. We’re having a lot of fun with it and a good response for what we’re putting out. A little bit different, a little bit on the drier side, and people seem to be enjoying it.“
Getting all of Bob’s creations out to the public beyond the brewery’s walls has fallen to the distribution team. Adam said they have found a receptive audience.
“Albuquerque and New Mexico, it’s very supportive of local businesses and we’ve certainly experienced that,“ Adam said. “We’ve been welcomed in the market. People are excited to see the stuff that we’re doing. We try to provide the best service we can, and that’s certainly an aspect of what I think what has contributed to our success. It’s been a pleasure working with the restaurateurs and liquor store owners, and the city commissions.“
During the construction and the move to the new building across the street, painstaking measures were taken to ensure that the beer remained consistent throughout the big transition.
(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the completion of the new brewery building located just west of the restaurant/taproom. — S)
“Right now, we are paying attention to what we are doing, not what we’re going to do,“ Bob said. “As we get closer to moving everything over, we’re going to try and make it as seamless as possible, and try to not really interrupt production that much and just try to maintain quality. That’s A No. 1. We are going to move the lion’s share of production into the new building. I am very excited.
“We are going to be able to have a geographic distinction between our sour and funky production space, and our clean production space. The existing brewhouse (area) will be full of oak. We are gonna do lots and lots of barrels. Keep your eye out for maybe some larger format oak. We’ll be doing a lot more stainless brett production, and just keepin’ it weird over here.“
That strategy of keeping it weird did help on the competition front.
“We did extraordinarily well in the Santa Fe Open,“ Ethan said. “Bob got best in show.“
Bob agreed, and also said that Steel Bender advanced past the first round of tastings at the Great American Beer Festival, getting good feedback from the judges.
“We didn’t enter a whole lot of contests this last year,“ he said. “We’ll probably be doing more on the competition side this year. We were more focused on just making sure the beer was good for us and for our guests, and our customers out on distribution. We’ll take the accolades as they come, but really I just focus more on what’s in front of me rather than the medals.“
The new brewery building will help in that regard, as well as in managing the explosive rate of growth.
“I would think the building across the parking lot certainly suggests that plateauing is not in the cards,“ Adam said. “We’re quite optimistic that we will be able to maintain growth along the lines like what we have seen. We’re investing to build that infrastructure to enable that.“
All of it goes beyond just the amount, and quality, of beer produced.
“One of the most important things is that we’re doing everything very calculated,“ Ethan said. “But, and Bob pointed this out to me today — and it’s true and it’s so easy — we’re in an extraordinary business, and with that there are extraordinary people, and with that you see breweries helping each other all the time. In fact you see breweries helping charities all the time. It’s such a giving community.“
Ethan noted the recent Resilience IPA as one example, where Steel Bender brewed a beer for Sierra Nevada that raised $9,500, all of which goes to help victims of the Camp Fire in Northern California. Steel Bender also donated 100 percent of taproom sales of one beer to The Storehouse in November.
“There’s a lot of joy in creating beer and selling beer and seeing people enjoy that, even though beer business is a serious business,“ Ethan added. “It allows us to have fun with it and enjoy each other.“
Ethan pointed out how the brewing community has embraced the Steel Bender staff. That camaraderie keeps everyone on the same page.
“There’s healthy competition, but there’s a tremendous amount of joy in it,“ he said. “And, as Bob said today, beer’s fun, and we gotta make sure everyone knows beer is fun. I think that’s something, if we keep getting bigger and bigger (and) our projections hit, that’s something we don’t want to lose track of. (It) is that it’s really a blessing that we get to do this, and it’s something that’s amazing.“
Shelby added that the cooperative spirit extends beyond the brewers, noting that other marketing directors and general managers have been a big help to her and Steel Bender as a whole. She added that a big goal for 2019 is to work with the New Mexico Brewers Guild in more cross-marketing efforts.
“This is one of the things we have to be proud of in this state is that we have brought a lot of of money, we’ve brought a lot of jobs, and we’re doing something that is keeping people happy, keeping people creative, and we’re enjoying what we do,“ Shelby said.
“(It’s about) keeping the beer in the community, and the community in the beer,“ Bob added.
In keeping with the spirit of community, Steel Bender will continue to do charitable events. Shelby said she wants to make sure they put in a comprehensive effort, making those events even more profitable for the participating organizations, which could include spreading those out among breweries beyond SBB.
“I think (what) we can look forward to in 2019 is that we will start streamlining (the number of events), she said. “So that (way) we have a strong association to those partnerships, so that it’s actually doing — of course doing some promotional good for us — but that the associations are so strongly tied with us that they will be able to enhance their marketing by being associated with several breweries.“
Working with The Storehouse will happen again in 2019, and Shelby she will work on expanding the scope of their efforts with several other charities and causes.
“I think bringing that focus, it does help make it more effective, and that means that we can do more good for the same amount of work,“ Adam said. “Working with the other breweries, it’s a force multiplier, it’s not just doing two separate things. The kind of profile we can raise by working together just makes it that much more effective.“
Whether charitable or not, just about every brewery hosts some sort of special events, from beer dinners to live musical performances to just about anything else staff members can conceive.
“You have to do your events,“ Shelby said. “There’s a couple this year (2018) that we probably won’t follow up next year, but you know, you’ve got to do ‘em. Then there are smaller things, like Los Ranchos — we are the only licensed brewery in Los Ranchos — (and) this village is very important to us. They have been good to us, so you know, we had the North Fourth Holiday Stop and Shop, and so there’s 20-plus businesses all up and down Fourth (Street), and we were lucky enough to be included in that, (even with) being the only business on Second Street. We’re all doing what we can to support each other.“
With the expansion into the new building and the addition of a canning line, Steel Bender has the potential to become an even greater influence in the local craft beer market market. As an update since this interview took place, Shelby has confirmed that Steel Bender has signed a distribution agreement with the Admiral Beverage Co., which Bob called an “agreement that allows us to expand our audience and give more people the chance to try what we are proud of.“
Adam said that the distribution footprint will not grow by leaps and bounds overnight.
“We’re still just a small team, so we are still focused very much on Albuquerque and Santa Fe as it stands for the minute,“ he said. “With the building going up in the parking lot, we certainly have ambitions to expand that footprint, and seeing how the year develops.“
“And, we’re not pushing in too quickly, (because) once you get into canning …,“ Ethan began.
“It’s a whole ‘nother can of worms,“ Bob concluded.
All puns aside, Steel Bender will take a mindful, planned approach to its distribution with Admiral. Even as more beer flows out the door, however, the company will not lose focus on its home base.
“We never want to forget the taproom,“ Shelby said. “This physical baby in this whole game is this place, is this building. So we’re constantly looking for ways to bring people here. We built this place for a reason, otherwise we would have gone much smaller and not done the kitchen.“
Whether its the regular Tuesday night music events, or just having people come in to watch sports on TV, Shelby said the brewery now has a consistent number of regulars who have made Steel Bender their second home. Keeping those folks happy, as well as every customer that walks in the door, is critical to the future of the pub.
“This is where our front-of-house managers are really crucial,“ she said. “We put in a lot into keeping this building, this place, to really bring all these things together as a focus.“
It is all another extension of the sense of community.
“The way it was described to me when I joined the company was that this was a community hub,“ Adam said. “It was a place where people can come together and have ideas and work together, and just enjoy each others company. Bringing people craft beer is a big part why we do what we do, and the taproom is a impressive tool for that.“
Getting back to the beer itself, Bob has just a few ideas for what will be appearing on tap and in cans and bottles for the rest of this year. Unlike other notable local breweries, there are no plans to shake up the core brands.
“As far as our house beers go and our lineup, we have always been a kind of collaborative organism as far as that’s concerned,“ Bob said. “So we sit down together and figure out what’s working and what doesn’t, and (we) like to see what we want to see accentuated, or what needs to be played down. That’s on an ongoing basis. As of right now there are no plans to drastically change anything, (but) we make those micro adjustments as we go.“
Bob said customers will never see the brewing staff stop working on improvements, big and small. Oh, and of course, there are more specialty beers are on the horizon, including those that have been aging in barrels for quite some time.
“You’ll see the barrel program expand, as I’ve said, as we’ve been aging for longer,“ he said. “We have some more things coming up. I’ve got some tasty treats, barrels that are going to be showing. We’re going to be doing some smaller stuff in bottles and bottle conditioning, doing small batches. That way I get to play with some weirder stuff, so it’s less of a commitment volume-wise, and having a little more fun there. We’re just going to keep playing and have fun, that’s it!“
To finish things off, and to bring us all back down from all the serious talk, I issued one final challenge: What were your top three beers for the year?
- Bob: “Not necessarily in this order, but the Mañana, Ned’s Sour Pale with Boysenberry, and I’m having a current love affair with the Blue Bullet Nitro Stout.“
- Adam: “I really really enjoyed the Dortmunder, the Schnitz’n’giggles, (and) the Bullet’s Reserve was a lot of fun, very tasty. I’d go with the Ned’s Boysenberry as well right now; it’s drinking exceedingly well.“
- Shelby: “I’m gonna say, and because I frankly think it’s one of the best beers across town right now across the board, the Lloyd’s 3 O’Clock Kolsch, it’s always gonna be up there. Definitely the Mañana, and I’m gonna say the Brickie American Stout.“
- Ethan: “The Oktoberfest, the Make Mine a Dubbel, and this is a cliché, but the Skull Bucket (IPA). It’s changed slightly throughout the year, and I’m so excited about where it is right now that I like it too much. I always make a big deal (when ordering), but I always wind up going with the Skull Bucket.“
As the taproom started to pick up volume, we wrapped up the conversation and I let the four of them get back to their work. The conversation left me with a great sense of encouragement for their continued success. The business as a whole is steaming ahead, while also navigating with razor precision through the use of customer and empirical data. For those looking for how they should be running their brewing operations, or those who need inspiration with the whole picture in mind, I would dare say that these folks are perhaps one of the finest examples in town.
Thank you all again for you hospitality, Steel Bender staff, and for taking time out of your busy schedules!
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