New Mexico Brewers Guild earns big legislative victory during year of transition

New Mexico Brewers Guild executive director Leah Black, second from right, led past and current members of the board of directors on a tour of Northern New Mexico breweries such as Blu Dragonfly in Cimarron. (Photo courtesy of the Guild)

The New Mexico Brewers Guild accomplished a lot more than just hosting a few events during 2019. It pulled off a big win at the state legislature, changed executive directors, and continued to do its best representing each of its 81 members, big and small, urban and rural, throughout the year.

To recap all of it, I sat down with executive director Leah Black at Rio Bravo Brewing last week. She took over the big chair from John Gozigian in April.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “It’s been overwhelming, exciting, really a lot. It’s awesome. I’ve said this before, but there’s no training manual that comes with this role. John Gozigian is incredible, he set so many things in motion, that in some ways were there already. They have a formula and they are working. We’re adding things, too, because if anyone knows me, I’m pretty excitable. I came in really hot, saying we’re going to do this and this and this. The most valuable thing I’ve learned in the last eight months is I need to get better saying no.”

The job has certainly held a few unexpected aspects to it, as well.

“I think surprising is just, man, there’s so many things, how do I cut it down to one thing?” Leah said. “Surprising is how many jobs are in the role of executive director of the Brewers Guild. It’s like 50 jobs rolled into one, that was a big surprise.”

Leah did add that she has gotten nothing but support from the active Guild members.

“And really, I’ve run into very little sort of hesitancy about where we want to take the Guild,” she said. “Everybody has been so supportive and kind of open arms to me. That’s what John said this industry is about.”

Leah Black and John Gozigian had a little fun with the transition earlier in the year. (Photo courtesy of the Guild)

The start of Leah’s tenure was a roaring one, as Senate Bill 413 passed through the state legislature and was signed into law by Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham back in April. We already covered how it benefits breweries through setting the excise tax, licensing standards, and much more.

“So huge, and it was really good to come in with that fire,” Leah said. “The coming legislative session (in 2020) is only a 30-day session, thank goodness for me because I want to ease in slowly. I’m really excited to be up there, be present for it, and learn about the process.”

One of the more tangible ways for customers to see the impact of SB413 has been on Sundays this fall.

“That win with Senate Bill 413 has just been so incredible,” Leah said. “It’s cool to (see) breweries advertising on Facebook like, hey, come watch the football game at 11 a.m. and we can save you beer, or if you want to go home and enjoy responsible drinking get a six-pack to go and enjoy the football from your couch, while supporting a local craft brewery. That’s so huge. The NFL season right now, it’s one of the biggest things how it’s affected everybody.”

Another major push for Leah so far has been to integrate the Guild and the breweries into the ongoing tourism campaign for the State of New Mexico.

“Nothing has really been put into play yet, but I am definitely very active with New Mexico True and the tourism campaign,” she said. “I’ve been really trying to make people aware that beer tourism is real. I keep using that term beer tourism, because we know for a fact that people come here for the beer. People come here for the Balloon Fiesta, sure, and they also seek out breweries while they’re here. But, sometimes they come to New Mexico just for the beer.”

Leah started her time in the brewing industry as a beertender, going from Hallenbrick to La Cumbre to Marble. She said during those years she meant plenty of tourists, both American and foreign, who had heard of New Mexico beers through things such as Great American Beer Festival medals and then decided to vacation here.

“Even when we were up at GABF (this year), we had our New Mexico Brewers Guild booth, and it was amazing how people that were from Denver or the surrounding states, (I told them) ‘I don’t know if you know this, but it’s like a six-hour drive down I-25 and then you’re in this amazing land of beer that you may not know about,’” she said. “They were really excited. The awareness just needs to happen.”

Bosque’s Jess Griego, left, a member of the Guild’s board of directors, and Leah Black manned the booth at the Great American Beer Festival this year.

That awareness extends to here in New Mexico, where the Guild has upwards of 40 associate members in addition to its member breweries.

“That’s something I want to build on, too,” Leah said. “You don’t have to be a brewery to be in the Guild. You can be an associate member. I want to let people know about the associate membership, too. When we have these Guild social events, they can come and be a part of it. … It’s a really neat way, if you’re a fan of craft beer or you want access to that community, it’s a great way to get your foot in the door.”

The Guild is also working hard to make sure every brewery is represented, regardless of size or location.

“I would say that the biggest concern that I’ve heard is that the smaller breweries just don’t want to be forgotten,” Leah said. “That’s where I’m really trying to shine a light. Some of them feel in the shadow of our bigger breweries in the state, and I want everyone to know how vital they are to this industry. I’ve really been trying to build relationships with people that I would have never met before I was in this role. Just somebody might brew more beer than you doesn’t make them more important. It’s really important that everyone knows how valuable they were. That is a concern that has been expressed to me by the little guys.”

Events like the Blazin’ Brewfest in Las Cruces every May have helped shine a light on the breweries in the southern part of the state. That could lead to more regionalized festivals sponsored by the Guild.

“We’re having ideas like maybe we’ll do a Northern New Mexico brewery festival, and have it actually way up in Northern New Mexico, not just Santa Fe,” Leah said. “It’s like a summer destination. Maybe people can even come up and camp for this event.”

Events like the Blazin’ Brewfest in Las Cruces will return in 2020.

Leah said she had all sorts of ideas for more festivals and events for the Guild when she took the job, but she has quickly learned that taking things slowly and methodically is good for planning out what is to come.

“I’m still getting my feet under me,” she said. “I hope that a full year cycle of this job will prove to be more solid footing. I’m still getting so many questions all the time and I’m trying to calm down. There are definitely new ideas that we have. I’ve talked about the Brewers Games, which would be really cool at some point. It would take a whole lot of participation, maybe a lot of waiver signing. I don’t want anybody to get hurt, but you know these brewers, they’re excited about competition. Remember when we were kids, we had the field day games. There’s a lot of things we’ve talked about.

“I don’t know if you know, but a ton of brewers in our community are really good musicians. We’re talking about doing a talent show, or forming up a giant all-star band. I think I would love that, if we could do our side loves, that would be amazing.”

An all-star brewer jam band would be something to behold, that is for sure.

While Leah previously made her mark doing social media for Marble, and has certainly made the Guild much more active on all the major platforms, she also came to realize that the Guild website needed a lot of work as well, particularly in one area.

“The other big thing I’ve heard, especially on social media, is people asking from other states and even other countries, believe it or not, is how do I get some of your merchandise,” she said. “I just launched our brand-new website. We’re still working out the kinks, but that was a six-month process alone. I would like to eventually get our online store to get competitive with any big brewery in the country. That’s something that is an opportunity to have an actual store with merch year-round. That’s something in 2020 that I’d like to focus on.”

The new Guild merch is pretty sweet, and soon you’ll be able to order it online.

Beer lovers should also expect to see some smaller Guild-related events in 2020, while most of the bigger festivals and such will also return.

“Right now we don’t have an event every month, but I’m down for doing pop-up happy hour,” Leah said. “I can pop up a table, people can come up and (ask) what is the Guild about, what do you do. I can show them, they can buy a shirt, support local breweries, so I can do that every month. But, we want to work on where there’s an event every single month. It’s not to say like one event (has to be) three months of build up. WinterBrew is coming up (in January) and I’ve already been working it for six weeks.”

WinterBrew will take place on January 17 at the Santa Fe Farmers Market at the Railyard, and tickets are on sale now. We highly recommend buying them ASAP, because it sells out every year.

Also set in stone are Stout Invitational at Bathtub Row in Los Alamos on February 15, and the New Mexico Brewers Conference on March 27. Toad Fest will return to Little Toad Creek in Silver City in April, with Blazin’ back in Las Cruces in May, the Guild golf tournament fundraiser in June, and of course the IPA Challenge throughout July.

“I just want to do so many things,” Leah said. “We’re expanding upon what the Guild is, and growing. The board (of directors) has been instrumental in deciding on new endeavors. It’s been extraordinary.”

We have no doubt that Leah, the board of directors, and the member breweries will continue to push the Guild forward for the benefit of all in New Mexico.

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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