It has been quite a year of rapid growth for the good folks over at Steel Bender Brewyard. To catch up on all of it and see what is coming in 2020, I sat down with owners Ethan and Shelby Chant, head brewer Bob Haggerty, and sales manager Adam Auden.
“Looking back, it was amazing,” Ethan said. “It was, once again, just so much bigger, everything moved so much faster than we anticipated. It’s been, I feel, very … I don’t want to say stressful, but everyone involved has had to step up in ways no one anticipated they were going to have to do, as opposed to preparing the way we’d like to prepare, we’ve just been bulldozing ahead and making things work.
“It’s a lot more fun to look back at it than when you’re in the middle of it. I’ve got to hand it to everyone here, especially, trying to navigate these uncharted waters, and doing such a great job, and really working their butts off to make sure it happened. They’ve come through amazingly well.”
Steel Bender signed on with Admiral Beverage Company to get its products on shelves across the state in 2019. From the outside looking in, it has seemingly been a smooth transition, but from the inside, it was often anything but that.
“I think it’s been an educational year, too, for all of us,” Shelby said. “We’ve had to learn how to be responsive in a lot of different ways, whether it’s working with a new distributor — so that’s new, obviously, this year — a marketing opportunity, (or) a beer release opportunity. I think we’ve really had to learn how to pull together and be responsive where we see a unique opportunity. I think part of that education has been to also make sure that we are being really intentional, really focusable with what we’re deciding to do. We can’t say yes to everything, so we’re not saying yes to everything anymore.”
That all put plenty of pressure on Bob and the brewing team to keep the beer flowing.
“We’re staying the course, always keeping the eye out for quality, that’s the big thing,” he said. “As we expand and grow, on my side of things it’s just making sure that the quality doesn’t suffer as we go into larger tanks and have larger production schedules. I’m just making sure they’re all still manageable and the product is coming out the way that it should.”
Bob also made sure to praise the man who has been the go-between for Admiral and the brew team.
“Having no prior sales guy with the distributor has meant that Adam has had to sort of navigate these uncharted waters as far as deciding what we need and when, and then translating that over to me,” Bob said. “Being able to discuss when and what we should brew, it’s been a real challenge. I think we’ve managed to do extraordinarily well at producing without over-producing, still giving ourselves a buffer for the unforeseen without letting beer get old. I can’t give Adam enough kudos for keeping that where it should be.”
The sales team has held fast even with the increased demands on their time and more mileage on their vehicles.
“My entire job and my team’s entire job changed in April,” Adam said. “It’s been a year of learning what that new job is and how to keep going with what we were doing through this whole time. Admiral has been a great partner for us. They’ve been very understanding with our learning curve. As the year has gone on, we’ve kind of gotten into more of a routine. The one constant we’ve had throughout this year has been change. We’ve moved (the entire) distribution setup, we’ve moved into some of the larger chain stores as well.
“As we figure it out, it’s been moving onto that next step, we’ve been constantly learning and retooling. Figuring out how to make sure we’ve got good, fresh beer on the shelves to keep making those good first impressions we’re still making, especially in the outlying parts of the state. And, I will say we’ve had a great reception from folks down in Roswell and Ruidoso, and Santa Fe has been a great market for us as well. We’ve had time to spend with accounts up there, really selling what we have and letting folks know we’re out there.”
Those sales figures have often been a bit surprising, perhaps more so than anyone on staff expected.
“I was going to say we’re surprised at how regional it is,” Ethan said. “Areas that prefer the Raspberry Dynamite, and areas that are buying up the (Skull Bucket) IPA, and areas that are buying up the (Lloyd’s 3 O’Clock) Kolsch. It’s been so varied that there hasn’t been a superstar. IPA is still going to be our biggest seller, because we’re an IPA state. Raspberry (sales) are always pretty consistent, but like I said, different regions excel in different ways. I think that’s been the most surprising.
“Things that sell really well in the taproom have (not) done great out in the wild. Things that have been medium sellers in the taproom have excelled. We always thought this would be a good gauge to determine what would sell (in package), but it hasn’t necessarily worked out that way.”
In addition to its main lineup, Steel Bender has also become well known for its many seasonal beers, from more traditional offerings like Oktoberfest to some beers that can be described as different than the norm.
“We’re still doing a really nice job out in the market with our seasonals, too,” Shelby said. “A lot of the seasonals, when we were self distributing, they were our foot in the door with a lot of accounts. We’ve still got interest. When we release something, folks are definitely interested in trying it out, and a lot are carrying it. It’s really great to see that people are latching onto our seasonal as well as our mainstays.”
The main taproom on Second Street in Los Ranchos has not seen any sort of drop in numbers, and is in fact still growing, perhaps belying the reports of market saturation in terms of physical taprooms in the Albuquerque metro area.
“We continue to grow,” Ethan said. “We thought last year would be the most we could grow. We have continued to grow between 10 and 15 percent every week compared to the previous year, which is fantastic, but surprising, still. Albuquerque is a big city. I know that people think there’s a bubble, a beer bubble. There’s a lot of people that like beer and we have a lot of good breweries. We’re very fortunate. There’s (still) room, but the product has to be good.”
“I don’t think we’re even in the top 10 as far as breweries per capita yet in Albuquerque,” Bob added. “I don’t even think we’re close. There are other cities out there who have been dealing with more crowded markets than we have successfully for many, many years. I think the idea that Albuquerque is saturated is probably an idea that is put forth by some breweries who wish to not see any more breweries open. I don’t believe we have yet reached saturation.”
Adam said that in a way, some breweries may perceive market saturation in terms of the crowded shelf space for local beers at liquor stores and grocery stores. While there may not be room for more packaging breweries in New Mexico, especially with out-of-state competition, there is plenty of room for more neighborhood pubs and the like, which Steel Bender still is at its core.
“This place, though, is still very much the face of who we are,” Shelby said. “And so, although yes, we’re almost always busy, we will to continue to find different ways that are just ours to bring people in the door, and introduce them to something a little bit different. We keep an eye on what everybody else is doing. We don’t want to do something everyone else is doing, and conversely, we want to make sure those who have done a good job bringing people in with their taproom events, we don’t want to step on their toes, either. We’ll continue to look for ways bringing them in the door, but yeah, we’re full (most of the time).”
Keeping that taproom audience happy is a priority for the brewing team, as well.
“This year we have been revisiting more of the specials that we’ve done in the past,” Bob said. “In my second full year we were going more on a bunch of one-offs. We’re now getting a chance to revisit some of those that we have determined are good selling specials, so the refining of those recipes is what I’m most excited about. The chance to go back, brew these again, brew them a couple of times, refine them a little bit. I love this year’s Brickie, the stout that we just released. I think it’s really fantastic. It’s a great beer. It’s nice and fruity, nice and rich, a lot of chocolate. It could just be the cold weather talking, but right now I’m hooked on that one.”
Other recent hits, at least as far as Bob is concerned, included the Make Mine Perfect, a Belgian-style dubbel aged on cherries, a barrel-aged version of Red Iron Red, the Judy’s brett saison, and Saison de Luxe, a brett saison collaboration with Ex Novo. Of course, with winter seemingly upon New Mexico, that also means it is time for the bigger, maltier beers, many of which have aged in barrels.
“I’m actually really excited about the beers I’ve got in tanks right now,” Bob said. “I’ve got a lot of malty beers for the cold weather coming up. I’ve got a double bock, an alt, a stout, and a dunkel. The cold-weather beers are really doing it for me right now. Otherwise, we’ve added Mañana, our hazy, as a house beer. Getting to play around with that recipe and getting it to just where I want it has been really fun. Doing some more spirit barrel aging, and the beers coming out of spirit barrels have been really good.”
Another recent hit was the Track Suit Stout, an imperial pastry stout collaboration with local homebrewer/beer geek Majin Garcia.
“The Track Suit, that was a great beer, it got a lot of the beer geek crowd excited about that one,” Bob said. “I think that was a fun one, too, a great dessert beer. Working with Majin is always fun. That one showed well at GABF.”
Steel Bender also introduced a filtered and unfiltered versions of its cider, which were canned for the first time.
“We pressed a lot of apples, a whole lot,” Bob said. “I think we pressed near 15,000 pounds of apples this year.”
More varieties of cider are due out in 2020, including the Cider Expedition Series, which will utilize apples from different regions in the state, starting with an orchard near Abiquiu.
One thing that is not on deck? Any version of hard seltzer.
“That’s a hard no,” Bob said.
“We’re not doing seltzer,” Ethan added, though he was quick to add that Steel Bender does not begrudge the local breweries who have jumped on that trend.
As for the rest of the 2020 plans, it comes off as a continuation of what was started in 2019.
“The main thing is working with distribution, honestly trying to catch up as much as we can,” Ethan said. “Taking everything that we’ve learned and move forward in a more purposeful, more measured way.”
“I think a lot of what we’ve done, we talked about how we had to bulldoze through to keep up, at this point we’re hopefully going to be finding some time to backfill, build the processes and structures to keep what we’re doing sustainable,” Adam added.
Ethan said that means beer releases must be planned out much further in advance, up to a year in some cases, to try to make sure production is not disrupted for Steel Bender or Admiral.
“I think the hope is that in being more structured and disciplined, that gives you some breathing room to find those areas where you can experiment,” Shelby said. “We just wouldn’t be us if we weren’t (doing that).”
Another way the brewing staff hopes to overcome such challenges is with the possible addition of a second, smaller brewhouse.
“We’re also considering a small system to play around with,” Bob said. “We’re considering a small pilot system so that we can brew smaller batches of our experimental beers, so that we can keep the specials rotating on our draft system without getting mired with an esoteric beer for months and months and months.”
“We like getting weird, but getting weird 15 barrels at a time is hard,” Adam added.
Bob said that Steel Bender has no plans to publicly unveil a calendar of beer releases for 2020.
“I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you,” he said with a smile. “We have a lot that we’re excited about, but not meaning to be cagey, but just so that we can have clear messaging and make sure that we have our ducks in a row, I’d prefer to not give a schedule. Look for more coming out of barrels. We’re shifting more to a spirit barrel-aging program. We’ve found that as much as we love them, the sales of the sour beers are down, the sales of the spirit barrels are up, so we’re going to be shifting our barrel program a little bit.
“But, all brett and sour fans out there, don’t worry, it wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t putting out some brett. The brett will continue both in bottles (and draft). We’ve expanded our faucets, so we have more taps now. We can have more Brett beers. Have no fear, the funk is not disappearing.”
Shelby said Steel Bender will continue to work with local charities, and in collaboration with other breweries, such as recent efforts to help with breast cancer awareness and the Agora Crisis Center alongside High and Dry and Canteen. The biggest endeavor of all will hopefully return, as well.
“The biggest one, for sure, was One for 5,” Shelby said. “It was a gargantuan effort, that’s an understatement.”
The pale ale, brewed by Steel Bender, Bosque, and Sierra Blanca, was sold at Albertsons stores and raised money for the Storehouse, a local charity. Shelby said it also raised awareness of the Storehouse, which now has more offers from people wishing to volunteer than it can actually handle.
Other ongoing features like live music on Tuesday nights will continue, and additional music nights/days could be added. Steel Bender will also continue to work with its neighbors in Los Ranchos to highlight their products as well, such as Red Hat Hops and Desert Forge. Balloons and Brews will also be back in the fall during the Balloon Fiesta.
“The neat thing about the taproom is not only do we get to make beer, we get to make food, and then we have this environment where people get to enjoy beer, and enjoy food, and then we get to have events like music on Tuesday where people can get together,” Ethan said. “That’s the whole reason we like beer so much, not only because of the product, but what it does for people getting together. How it encourages that, and this place is a nice mechanism to do that.”
The final big question looming is whether or not Steel Bender will ever look to open a second location, either in the metro area or elsewhere in the state.
“It’s something that we definitely haven’t ruled out by any means, but it’s gotta be, once again, the right place,” Ethan said. “That’s a very complicated statement. There’s so many variables that go into that in terms of simply being developers, we know what that means on one hand, to in terms of the amount of capital it would require is definitely another thing. Three, to make sure the quality of experience (is set), so you have to make sure all of your systems are in place when you’re off site, that’s another thing. We want to make sure all of those are good to go before we pull the trigger.
“We’ve been offered, we’ve been tempted. In terms of seeing some of these restrictions that we’ve placed upon ourselves, we always come up with different crazy ideas, there’s one that’s really crazy that I doubt we do, but I think it’s super cool that no one has done. There might be a reason no one has done it.”
The Crew will keep an eye out, just in case the right place is discovered in the next 12 months.
A huge thank you to Ethan, Shelby, Bob, and Adam for taking the time out of their schedules for this interview, and for the four-pack of Barrel-Aged Brickie Stout.