Back when Ex Novo Brewing was announced, there were skeptics that anyone would head deep into Corrales to enjoy a beer or two. Oh, how times have changed, as the taproom has become a major draw, the canned beers are flying off the shelves, and our entire craft scene is better for it.
To catch up on everything that has gone down the last seven months, I sat down with owner Joel Gregory and head brewer Dave Chichura for Ex Novo’s first entry in our Look Back/Look Ahead Series. I wanted to make sure we talked before today (Friday), when the Kill the Sun release party takes over the taproom, with three versions of this epic barrel-aged stout — classic, mocha, horchata — appear on tap and in cans, plus Nevermore Black Barleywine will also be tapped.
Anyway, back to the interview at hand, before I drool on the keyboard.
“We opened the taproom May 24, so I guess we’ve really got seven full months by the time this year is over,” Joel said. “Dave and crew were brewing for about a month before that. Looking back, it seems like our big obstacles were so long ago. The government shutdown holding up TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau), we thought it would be a big deal, but we ended up waiting for utility companies more than anything. We got our TTB license and now we can brew, but we’re still waiting for PNM to hook us up so we’re waiting another month.
“That was a big thing for me, coming from a remodeling background, not new construction. It threw me off my timeline with how slow some of those organizations move. We landed on our feet, got it all ready to go, and did not dump our first batch of beer. That’s a win.”
Once the doors were open, no one at Ex Novo knew who would show up to 4895 Corrales Road.
“On the taproom side of things, we had no idea what to expect on that front,” Joel said. “How to anticipate the traffic, if people would make that trip, 7 minutes in on Corrales Road, but obviously it went pretty well this spring, summer, and fall. It kind of blew us away that we had the number of people not just come once to check out a new thing, but repeat, repeat, repeat customers. We definitely counted on the local support in Corrales, but we were blown away by people coming from 20 to 25 minutes away.”
That strict 30 MPH speed limit on Corrales Road even inspired the name of the first beer that Dave brewed, 30 MPH Pale Ale. That beer, plus Mass Ascension IPA, Perle Haggard German Pilsner, The Most Interesting Lager in the World, Cactus Wins the Lottery, and all of the many seasonals and specialties started to draw in a major audience.
“I think the taproom being so tiny, we didn’t know what to expect there,” Joel said. “Having the patio and being able to put a good number of people in here has been fun. There were some great evenings this summer that I remember, just good vibes out there. It’s been a challenge in the colder weather. We’re learning how to navigate that. We put that tent out there, it’s heated. We’re trying to experiment with the seating space as best we can. People aren’t out as much as they were in the warmer months. It’s our first everything, so we’re figuring it all out.”
Figuring out the beer tastes of the greater Albuquerque craft beer community was the next step.
“It looks like we’ve got some people that are really into the (British) mild at this point,” Dave said of Where the Mild Things Are. “We did brew a batch of amber (1995 Called), whether that was people were expecting, I don’t know. I’m not sure what their standards for an amber is. We found ourselves making an English mild, I think three batches at least. We got an account who was really excited to have it on tap. People really like it here. Joel really likes it. We’ll keep stuff like that on.”
“It’s totally not our worst seller, which almost always is up in Portland,” Joel added. “It’s never going to be our top seller, but for middle of the pack it’s a huge win.”
Other beers have hit it big as well.
“People really seem to like the Scotch ale (Sons of Scotland), too,” Dave said. “That one wasn’t as surprising. Now that it’s gotten cold, I think the first batch maybe was a little slow when it was released in August or early September, but now we’ve made two new batches of it, did a batch in cans. People seem to like it, they’re constantly remarking how much they enjoy it.”
All of it speaks to a bigger pattern among local beer fans.
“The bottom line is how well received our lagers have been,” Joel said. “We’ve leaned pretty hard on them. Two of our five core beers are lagers, the Mexican lager and the Perle Haggard Pils. On top of those two, we usually have two more, sometimes three more seasonal lagers like Vienna lager and Oktoberfest. We didn’t make it to October with that one. Now we’ve got a Helles on. We like that we can experiment with some styles on there.
“The Mexican lager for much of the summer was our best-selling beer (in the taproom) over Mass Ascension by a very small amount. That’s shocking to me.”
Unlike many other breweries that add a smaller brewhouse later in order to divide up the mass produced core beers for packaging and the taproom-only seasonals/specialties, Ex Novo was built with a 5-barrel brewhouse alongside its main 20-barrel workhorse.
That has paid off quite well for Dave and the brewing team.
“I think it’s been probably not the hardest thing, really, because we’ve got the two brewhouses and the smaller fermenters that are mostly for the one-off beers for the taproom and some limited self-distribution that we do for key accounts,” Dave said. “The bigger tanks are mostly being reserved for the bigger production beers. It really hasn’t been that difficult other than when we just run into how we juggle the four yeast strains that we try to maintain.”
Distribution has gone well so far, Joel said.
“Premier (Distributing) has been doing an outstanding job for us so far,” he said. “I think we’re getting better at it every month as we know what to expect. Mass Ascension has been the clear runaway best in the market. That’s not been surprising to me, but just the velocity that they’re already able to do being new to the market is great. We’re leaning pretty heavily on that. Everything else is there to support it. The chain stuff here takes time to get into places. We’re definitely not everywhere yet, but we’re out there winning accounts every week, every month, and it’s just going to continue to grow.”
Ex Novo’s customers have been pleased with both the off-the-wall beers, like Hello My Name is Indigo Montoya, and the core styles.
“I think I hear things that are sometimes viewed as opposite sides of the coin,” Joel said. “‘You guys are doing some cutting-edge stuff, some things that are new, exciting, and innovative.’ People really like that and are excited about that in the New Mexico beer scene. On the other front, I keep hearing similar (things about) nailing core, traditional styles of beer, and that’s probably what makes me proud of succeeding on things that have been brewed for hundreds of years.”
Dave and his team have been able to maintain that balance between the new and the classic styles.
“I gotta say, knowing that coming into this that Mass Ascension was supposed to be our flagship beer and that clearly was my goal what it is envisioned to be, having never had it before,” Dave said. “I was very, very happy to hear pretty much from the first batch from Joel that that’s it. We’re always trying to keep that refined. There’s always something we can do to make things better when it comes to the overall quality of the beer. Consistency, we’re trying to for that, and then also working on yields of it as well. It is a highly hopped beer, we don’t filter, we don’t have a centrifuge, so we want to maximize that beer in every way — flavor wise, aroma wise, and yield wise, to make it a viable flagship beer. I’m probably most proud of that overall.”
Of course, being a brewer, Dave does love one set of styles, and he is quite happy that all the rest of us seem to be on board.
“But then also, just the opportunity to do all of these lagers,” he said. “I love lagers. Over the course of the last several years, I haven’t had a whole lot of opportunity to do a variety of them. We had a regular beer that we did at Melvin, a Mexican-style lager, it was great to make and I drank that a lot. To be able to do all these other styles that I haven’t thought about doing for years because I was so much more limited range of style, production-oriented. It’s great for me.
“Everyone on the whole crew loves these beers. I hear them talking more about those and see them drink those, seeing the guys on the brewing, selling, and packaging team drinking Vienna lager, when they can have a really kick-ass IPA or hazy or any number of other beers, that’s pretty awesome. They’re a lot younger than I am, so hopefully they’re part of the demographic that’s driving towards more traditional styles, and that we get to do that, have that be a viable thing.”
The brewing team that Dave has assembled has hit its stride over the course of the year.
“I think they’re doing a damn good job,” he said. “We’ve got some guys with two to four years experience in the industry period, and maybe not even in exactly the job that they’re doing in the job they’re in right now, plus a longer time veteran in Dan Cavan, who’s our lead brewer. We’re getting the job done. I think everyone is learning on a daily basis.
“We’ve got folks who definitely are passionate about the beer that they’re making, let alone just beer in general. They want to make it the best they can. I think they’re doing a really good job. People always compliment me on the beers here, and I always tell them, this is a team effort, it’s not (just) me, it’s not any one person here. That’s not just a platitude, it’s for real.”
As Ex Novo barrels toward its first anniversary in May, Joel said he does not have anything dramatic planned for the first few months of the coming year. As the weather warms, the staff is interested in seeing the growth of a fifth core beer that was canned late this year.
“We’re not looking to change dramatically since we’re new in this brewery and this state, really,” he said. “I think it’s wise to not try to do anything too wild. We added a new core brand in Aperture late this year, a hazy pale ale, which I think has the legs to do some really fun stuff in the market. We’re getting (that) tuned and dialed in and becoming one of the top two or three (of our beers).”
Ex Novo has not spread out to the extent of older, more established production breweries like Marble, La Cumbre, or Santa Fe, but its number of sales accounts continues to grow.
“In terms of growth, I expect some solid, organic growth in this state as we continue to get some chain authorizations and things like that,” Joel said. “Then our self-distribution team is feet on the streets everyday, getting new accounts. I think we’re at 50 (accounts) right now that we’ve managed to get into. I just want to continue to see what the market will support.”
More accounts means more beer, so some improvements have already been made inside the brewery building.
“We did land a new, larger (120-barrel) tank that will help with some of our better-selling beers,” Joel said. “I expect capacity to increase. We’ll be filling more tanks next year. I guess the goal, if I’m going to put it down in a number, is 6,000 barrels out of this location and 10,000 barrels company wide.
“We’ve got some years under our belts with a lot of our distributors. This is new, but we’re also trying to use everything that we’ve learned over the years to do it right and to grow in a place where it’s so competitive on every front, really. I don’t cringe about it, it’s just the way it is. I’ve been really encouraged by grocery stories that are putting four of our brands on the shelf from day one. That’s crazy to me. That doesn’t happen most places in the country. You have to work really, really hard for one. That’s a good thing.”
Dave said the taproom crowd can expect more unique one-offs appearing on the beer menu.
“We’ve probably got a backlog of some smaller batch beers that folks have been wanting to do,” Dave said. “I’m hoping at some point to get to do my doppelbock, but that will maybe be next winter, and that’s fine with me, because I’ll be able to do some fun stuff in between (then and now).”
Overall, Dave said his main objective for 2020 is more about improving how the brewery goes about its daily business, and less about any particular beer.
“The big thing for me is I just want to refine the overall process,” he said. “See what we can do to increase our yields. See what we can do to give everyone the opportunity to play a bigger part in what we’re doing currently, and to really set the foundation for what this place is going to be as we take on more people when the time is right.
“And, just have everyone be happy where they are, and feel like they’re contributing, and that there’s room for growth on that level. I really want to spend more time to getting the overall team really developed and kind of like a mind-meld situation, and just get everything a lot more predictable. When it comes to when you do something, it happens when it’s supposed to as close to 100 percent of the time as possible. These are the challenges that any brewery has. And, to just increase the overall value of everything.”
The goal is, after all, to live long and prosper, just like the original Ex Novo in Oregon.
“I’ve never been one to say, oh yeah, I think we ought to have this as a new production beer, or that I’ve got some kind of pet project or something like that that I want to do,” Dave said. “I’m still learning how Ex Novo has operated for the last five-and-a-half years in Portland. I want to make sure I’m upholding the reputation of the whole place. I’m still learning things. I’m doing things I haven’t done in years, like barrel-aging as a regular thing, doing a whole bunch more different styles of beer, and just kind of refine how we’re doing those and make sure that everyone on the team is 100 percent.”
There may be no big construction projects in the works, but that does not mean that Joel is going to leave all that empty dirt in the area in front of the brewery building and across the driveway from the taproom.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. “Most people around here see me just standing out there in front of the brewery, picking up rocks, measuring things. We had to put funding in different places starting up. I would have loved to have just turnkey that whole space. It’s almost an acre in front of the brewery that I think one day will be stunningly beautiful. The whole cornerstone that makes this destination what it is. Those things take time. We planted what, 25 trees last year, and we’re just getting started. Trees take time to grow.
“That’s the thing I think we’ll focus on next year starting in the spring, putting as much resource as we can manage to finishing that front area. It’s not going to be licensed for anything day-to-day yet. But, we will have the ability to do fun, special events. We’re talking about moving our Lager Festival here in the fall. We had it in Portland last year, maybe flip-flopping every year. If we’re set up for that, it would be fantastic, because that was an incredible event. That lineup was killer. I think we can get similar caliber beers. Continuing to fill that space, nothing huge or major, just some small structures here or there.”
Yeah, a lager festival would be a beautiful addition to things in these parts. We have zero objection to any of that.
A big thank you to Joel and Dave for taking some time out of their busy schedules, and for that advance pour of Kill the Sun.
Start this weekend off with some darkness.