The surge in the number of neighborhood pubs around Albuquerque is showing no signs of abating. While the empty spaces on the map have been filled elsewhere, the East Downtown (EDo) neighborhood still lacked a spot to call its own.
That will change Friday when Thirsty Eye Brewing holds its soft opening at 206 Broadway SE. Located next to the Exhibit 208 Art Gallery, on the east side of Broadway near Gold, Thirsty Eye is the creation of a group of friends and colleagues. Gallery owner Kim Arthun, retired architect David Mahlman, and Shawn Turung are the partners, and they have hired brewer John Kofonow and general manager Amelia Salas to help them turn a concept into reality.
“We didn’t want to walk anywhere for beer,” Kim said with a smile. “I’ve been a part of it on the drinking side of it back to the early days of Kellys and Il Vicino in its little closet room, just tasting whatever they had. We used to go over there for their Wednesday brewer’s mystery keg. I think at that time there was maybe four places in this town.”
Later, Kim and his friends were part of a traveling group of artists and Sandia Labs employees who frequented the breweries every Wednesday.
“I’ve never been a homebrewer, but I’ve drank at every brewery, tried every beer,” Kim said. “I love what they are, the community, they’re like American pubs. In this day and age, where everything is electronic and people don’t talk a lot, the thing that I like the most about the ones I really like are that you can sit down at the bar, have two people on either side of you (that) you’ve never met before and by the time you leave, you’re friends, you end up drinking together for the next five years. In this day and age, I don’t see that a lot.”
While breweries were a home away from home for Kim, he was also running Exhibit 208, but recent years have been rough on art galleries. Then he started to notice something was happening on the walls of the brewery taprooms.
“I wanted to come up with something that could help the gallery stay afloat, and as I noticed over time how the breweries started becoming art galleries, also, and the young people that go to them, who don’t go to galleries anymore,” Kim said. “Galleries are dying. Brick-and-mortar galleries in probably 10 years aren’t going to exist in the way like we’ve known them in the past. These are the new places where a younger generation feels comfortable to look at art, to see their friends’ art, to talk about art, to have a community meeting place.
“So our plan was to have both side by side. Give the young people what they want. Give the old people what they want on the other side. And, maybe in between, we can all have a beer and bitch about everything.”
The next part was convincing other people to join him in this venture. First up was David, whose former office has no been transformed into the brewery space. As he was retiring, it was opening up half the building shared with the gallery, since David would not need an office anymore.
“We’re very fortunate that we have an excellent architect who has built public spaces all over this town — Explora museum, high school additions, neighborhood community centers,” Kim said. “We could not have made what you’re looking at without that guy right there. He’s been fundamental to the gallery’s success. Our gallery looks the way it does because of him. We do the easy part, we just put shit on the walls.”
For David, a neighborhood pub style of brewery was just an extension of his past projects.
“It was a community project from my perspective,” he said. “This art community is such a strong group of people that had this guy at their back all these years. It’s just wonderful. Kim’s place has just been like a clubhouse. People just drop in and hang out. It’s not a sterile gallery in the sense that you come in and no one talks to you. It’s really a warm and welcoming place.
“Like Kim said, most of my work has been public work, community oriented. This was like a retirement project that I couldn’t resist, really. Everything was in place to do it. You’d never (think you would) see my office transformed into a place like this. It was a thrill. It was just too much.”
Kim admitted that he never actually expected David to be quite so enthusiastic.
“The secret is that when we talked to David about doing this, I was hoping he would be the adult in the room and say no, we’re not doing this, you guys shut up about this,” Kim said. “Instead, he looked at me with this crazy look and said I want to be a full partner, let’s do it.”
The timeline started to come together.
“It was the summer of ’15 that I talked with him initially and then I didn’t close down until the next spring in ’16,” David said. “I tried to lease this space and nothing good had come up. I asked Kim if there was anything that would support the gallery, that would be number one. I was getting ready to turn it into art studios when Kim said if I was 20 years younger I would do a brewery. Then it got kicked around. Shawn, who is 20 years younger, said we have to do this. Shawn is the one who made it happen.”
“They threw gasoline on the floor and I came in with a lit cigarette,” she said with a smile.
The timing was perfect, as David noted. Innovate Albuquerque had opened just up the road, with 300 graduate student housing units quickly filling up.
“The neighborhood itself was sort of asking for a place like this,” Shawn said. “There is no brewery in the EDo neighborhood. There’s not really a coffee shop in the neighborhood. All the components were there, it was just getting the guts to seize the moment. With all three of our small business ingredients in place, we just tried to do it. We wanted a place that would complement the gallery.”
Of course, there are breweries on the west side of the train tracks, and east on Central in Nob Hill, and just about everywhere else in town. Jumping into a crowded scene still meant Kim had to hear from people telling him that he would be crazy to open his own place.
“That’s all I’ve got to hear,” Kim said. “If, for nothing else, to prove them wrong. I don’t care if we close the next day. So, we’ve made it.”
“We’d like to keep it open at least a week,” Shawn interjected.
“The other thing, I’m 66, and a lot of people said what are you doing opening another business at 66? Personally, I can’t think of a better retirement than to have my own bar to sit at,” Kim concluded.
Kim and David talked about how a lot of ”magic” has helped the brewery along. It started back when the first Exhibit 208, named for its location at 208 Dartmouth, lost its lease. An artist then helped introduce Kim to David, who was looking to lease out a space next to his office, and that space just happened to be 208 Broadway.
“David asked us if we were only looking for addresses with 208,” Kim said.
“We’ve had so many things like that that have been kind of magic, John coming in, Amelia (too),” David added. “It’s just whenever we’ve come up against something, something has appeared for us.”
Once the funding came together, David said, things were able to accelerate. That included bringing John on board to handle the brewing, and Amelia on board to run the show out front.
“I think we talked, it was probably the fall of ’16, because I was about to start the American Brewers Guild CBA program, and my wife knew some other sign makers who knew them,” John said. “I got invited to meet them. We sat down and talked for a bit. At that point, I was so shocked, because I was just starting out prepping for a professional career. The idea of working with a new brewery already was super fascinating and interesting to me.”
While the partners were hard at work on their end, John got the opportunity to complete his education as a brewer at one of the most historic breweries in town, just before its end.
“I went through the program, did a month at Chama (River) at the end of it,” he said. “Actually, I finished up at Chama two weeks before they closed the restaurant in the summer of ’17. I was really lucky to have that opportunity because that’s a very storied place. Andrew (Krosche) was wonderful there, he walked me through so much. I couldn’t thank him enough.
“The whole time I was working with these guys and planning out. Let’s get our equipment and fit it into our really small space. They put a lot of trust in me, which I really appreciate.”
“We gave him the keys to the car and told him not to wreck it,” Kim added.
The first four beers on tap include a citrus-infused wheat beer, a pale ale, a session IPA, and a brown ale. There will be a fifth style on tap Friday, John said, but for this time of year the beers will largely stick to a 4-to-6-percent ABV range.
“Especially for the summer, (plus) some of it is a little bit of dialing in the system, and some of it is David, Kim, and Shawn have this theory this is supposed to be the place for their art patrons from next door, (and) for the local EDO community,” John said. “As often as possible, I’ve been talking to people around here, finding out what their tastes are. There’s been quite a few people asking for some lower strength styles of beer and certain flavors. I’m catering somewhat to that. Let’s give them what they want, make it comfortable for them. It won’t only be that over the long term. We thought especially with summer coming up, we expect it to be a really hot summer.”
Getting those beers out to the people is Amelia’s task, among her many tasks since she was hired after her own stint on the brewery production side.
“I met them through one of their artists who shows here,” Amelia said. “Her show is currently open next door. I’ve known her for about a year. I had enrolled into the CNM brewing program and when I was close to being done, I just started asking everybody, because there are so many breweries opening up. She told me about Exhibit 208, where she was showing. I had been familiar with it, but I didn’t realize they were thinking about opening this. It was just sort of unheard of, but I came in and dropped off a resumé. We talked about stuff, and I kept checking in, watching the progress, seeing where they were.
“In the meantime, I’d been assistant brewery over at Bow & Arrow for a little over a year. I got to a point where there was some family medical issues and I needed to change from brewer hours to bartender hours to accommodate my family’s needs. That’s what made me kind of look back over here. I kept checking back in, coming for the openings and things like that.”
Amelia said her main focus is on bringing the existing gallery/artist fanbase together with the beer geeks and more casual beer drinkers in the neighborhood and beyond.
“(I was) looking at what their vision is, and seeing how I could complement that, how I could help them flesh that out, and reach that audience that they’re looking to reach,” she said. “They had no problems reaching their in-house audience, they’ve been building that for 20 years. Getting that new blood, the young blood, and creating a space where those two worlds could meld and interact with each other. That sort of has been my philosophy.”
Amelia said she wants there to be something for everybody, but that quality is still key. That will include on the coffee side of things, too.
“A lot of the bartenders, I’m calling them ‘beeristas,’ because they have to know a little bit of both,” she said. “They have to know how to do a latte and go over do a three-part pour, if they need to.”
“One of the things was we wanted to bring in other beverages for people who can’t or won’t drink alcohol,” David explained. “We still want them to feel welcomed and feel part of the celebration.”
That synergy exists already between Zendo Coffee and Sidetrack Brewing, which Kim said has been a major influence on Thirsty Eye. Having now been to both, the similarities are apparent, but the new brewery is not merely a clone. It has its own casual vibe, from the bar and the tall tables up front, to the charming patio on the east side of the building.
I enjoyed the malty Down in the Hollow brown ale, which I would love to try side-by-side some day with Canteen‘s Pecos Trail Brown and Cantero‘s Deaf Dog Brown, and both the Hello EDo (pale ale) and I Know You Are – But What Am IPA? (session) were solid for being right out of the gate. There are also guest taps from Second Street (Dragon‘s Blood Sour), Tumbleroot (Irish Stout and Maibock), and Bosque (New Leaf Hard Seltzer), plus kombucha, wine, and the aforementioned coffee.
The soft opening will begin Friday and then continue through Saturday.
“Friday 5 to 10 (p.m.), it corresponds to our gallery opening next door, the summer group show. The gallery will open 5 to 8, but we’ll stay open until 10,” Shawn said.
Saturday will feature local musicians, bellydancers, and food from Mike‘s Mighty Meats Barbecue from 5 to 8, with the entire day running from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
In conclusion, Kim explained that he plans to run the brewery much like he has run his gallery. Instead of choosing which pieces of art he would show, he would always let the artists decide.
“I never see the shows before we have a show,” he said. “I trust the people, I know who they are, and for 20 years, and I don’t know another gallery that does this, but we let you do the show you’ve always wanted to do. It’s blown me away by how many artists look at you like, ‘What?’ I think we’ve tried to do that with this place. We know who Amelia is, we trust her, here ya go, do it. John, kind of the same thing, and I think that’s a philosophy that’s served Exhibit 208 incredibly well.
“As a small business person, the people that have always worked for me, you get the hell out of their way, you leave them alone, you let them do what you’ve hired them to do. You’re not there to micromanage them. I think if we can carry that over to here, I think we’re going to be pretty successful.”
All of us in the Crew wish the Thirsty Eye staff good luck this weekend and beyond. I have to thank all of them for taking time for the interview, and for the beers.