Most of the time, all of us in the Brew Crew have to initiate contact with the individual breweries for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series. That was not the case with Rio Bravo Brewing, however, as director of brewing operations Austin Giorgetta invited me over to chat about all things RBB last week.
The big brewery on Second Street has endured its fair share of ups and downs over the years, but Austin said he thinks everything is finally moving in the right direction.
“2019 was a pretty good year,” he said. “We were up 20 percent (in sales), it seems like. Production is up. The quality of beers is up. Just the other day I had somebody come in here, somehow picked me out as being the brewer, (he told me) this beer is great. That puts a smile on my face. I’m happy that I’m producing something that people are liking, and I hope we can continue that trend and that upward momentum and see that in 2020.”
If 2018 was about integrating Austin into the RBB staff and getting the nuts and bolts of the brewery on track, then 2019 was all about figuring out how to proceed on the beer front.
“In 2019, we had a lot of test batches, to say the least,” he said. “We kind of know where we want to go. We see the trends, we see what people like, and now that we’ve tested that, it’s time to run with it.”
That meant paying a lot of attention to customer feedback and sales figures in the market.
“I think I saw some things confused me,” Austin said. “We came out with a Belgian-style wit. I’m not a wit fan at all, but I tried it and wow, this actually tastes really good. I wouldn’t be disappointed if I ordered this anywhere. The feedback on it was this is a great beer, but in the market for us, it was kind of just a smooth, steady seller. Nothing jumped out at us. But, on the contrary, we came out with this apricot hefeweizen, (with) similar characteristics, a little fruity, that just flew off the shelf. That surprised me.”
It was not just the lighter, fruitier beers that failed to sell as expected.
“Then, I thought the IPA drinkers would love a red rye IPA,” Austin said. “We come out with that, it’s a smooth, steady seller, nothing that flew off the shelf. Right now our biggest momentum, that I was praying at night before going to bed that it would do fantastic, we wanted to release this hop series, hop-forward series, whether that’s an IPA or a SMASH. The one we just released is called Dice Roll IPA. The first five days of release it’s out-competing our top two sellers combined. It’s just one of those series of beers that I want to have here that are always changing, that we can get into the market where people are going, oh, Rio Bravo, what are they doing next. The lord heard my prayers.”
In addition to changing the liquid inside the cans, Rio Bravo has also refocused its packaged products in terms of the art design of each beer, going with more eye-popping looks than what came before.
“Everyone with our canned product has always talked about how they stand out and they really like the art design,” Austin said. “Our design, we kind of tailored it to be about the beer product and not so much about Rio Bravo. We wanted them to be self entity on the shelf. It’s kind of its own thing. As an example, if you see the Lobo Louie Session IPA and you look at the can, it’s all about Lobo Louie. If you drink Freak Juice, it’s all about the freak. None of our cans or our designs are revolved us, it’s the beer itself.”
Overall, the crowded packaged beer market is still a challenge for Rio Bravo and many other breweries.
“We’re OK, we weren’t necessarily bad, but we’re upward trending,” Austin said. “Sometimes it’s become a little harder to know which products (will take off). It’s great, it’s not a bad problem to have. I think you can just get a little better at execution and planning. We’ll be there. We have the capacity to grow and we’re going to kick up capacity and grow for 2020.”
Rio Bravo has continued its partnership with the University of New Mexico Athletic Department, adding Lobo Louie Session IPA to the existing El Lobo Rojo. The brewery also created the first official beer, Splash and Dash Pale Ale, for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
“They’re good, they’re upward trending,” Austin said of the partnership beers. “I don’t think any of the products that we produced in the market are bad. They’ve done well, but being a perfectionist, well in my eyes is different from well in somebody else’s. Being a perfectionist I want to have more. Sometimes I bite off more than I can handle.
“Those beers, I always try to track the public’s opinion on them. The reviews on Lobo Rojo unfortunately weren’t the best, but (now) they’re upward trending. Now you ask people about it, I haven’t heard a bad review. Lobo Louie, I haven’t heard a bad review. Being a brewer, that perfectionist side of me comes out. I want to make the best, most mind-blowing experience possible in a can for a person. Not hearing the critiques, it’s not necessarily bad to have a two-base hit, but let’s make it better. There’s always room for improvement.”
Austin has even continued to tinker with some of the better selling beers.
“I hate to say it, but Freak Juice was fine tuned in the last batch,” he said. “You see the reviews get a little bit higher, a little bit better. It’s awesome to kind of track that and watch things going in the right direction.”
While there are still a lot of beers on tap, Rio Bravo has reduced the number of core beers, while also settling into what Austin wants in his rotating taps.
“Right now, we’re going with the six mainstays,” he said, referring to Send It Pilsner, El Lobo Rojo, Beer Against Humanity IPA, New Mexico Piñon Coffee Porter, Freak Juice, and Squirrel Nuts. “I think I said eight last year. We found our niche where we’re going to have the new series of IPAs, the hop-forward beers. We’re going to have a rotating sour. This year, so far, it’s been our Berliner Weisse which has gotten great feedback. We’re now implementing our barrel-aged products. We have three beers that may come out this year, all barrel-aged in different ways. Maybe they come out this year, maybe they come out next year. It’s a (long-term) barrel-aging project.”
I got to try the rum-barrel-aged version of Grab ’em by the Putin Russian Imperial Stout, which should be available soon, likely on the nitro tap. It is quite different from the more standard bourbon/whiskey versions of imperial stouts that are normally on tap, offering up a drier taste, with more of the alcohol heat from the rum than I expected (which could change quite a bit on nitro, if that is the tap where Austin decides it will go).
As for the other rotating taps, Austin noted what sells best to the in-house customers.
“We’ve noticed that lagers and blondes have always done pretty well here, so we’re trying to keep those rotating fresh, and doing different style lagers,” he said. “That’s about 12 beers for us, if you double them down on our taps. And then, phasing in every now and then, some seasonal or experimental beer. That’s kind of our focus now this year is let’s get to that point where this is the blueprint and let’s stay within the blueprint. Last year was a little bit all over the place, but we were testing new things that Rio Bravo has never done before.”
One experimental beer that proved to be exceedingly popular last year will also jump into the canned lineup in 2020.
“We have a beer called Squirrel Nuts, it’s a peanut butter hazelnut brown,” Austin said. “It went away some time I think in June or July, and even the day before we re-released it on tap, people were asking when was this coming back, are you doing this again, why did you get rid of that, what’s wrong with you. We’re going to release the beer in a can this upcoming squirrel mating season. It was not on purpose (last time), but after the coincidence last year, we might as well.”
As for any major physical changes to the brewery, Austin said things are just fine in terms of equipment and capacity. The only notable visible change has been the move of the outdoor stage from the northeast corner of the beer garden to the southwest, which spares musicians performing in the afternoon from being blinded by the setting sun. Austin said the staff is always tinkering with other ways to make the patio more accessible year round, from adding a heated tent on the east side to a fire pit. He said Rio Bravo hopes to increase its number of on-site events in 2020.
Rio Bravo has always been working as a contract brewery for some time now, often helping smaller breweries make bigger batches of their most popular beers, or in the case of Ponderosa Brewing helping with brewing and canning. I asked Austin if he and any visiting brewers ever discuss collaborating, but so far nothing has come together due to everyone have such busy schedules. He added that he hopes to start more collaboration brews this year.
There is one collaboration on the way with a local distillery, Hollow Spirits.
“Right now, we’re kind of in this space where we produced a wort for them to distill, which he (Martin Ulloa) has done,” Austin said. “Today we actually ended up exchanging barrels. We’re taking one of his used barrels for one of our used barrels. We’re kind of doing a ‘caskmates’ edition, only instead of across the pond it’s across the street. He’s got a fresh cask and our used cask. He’s going to be using that for his spirit. We’re going to take our fresh one and his used one and blend the Putin in there. We’ll probably have a little special release.”
Austin said he plans to keep expanding the barrel-aging program in the loft upstairs above the brewery and taproom, and that area has already undergone a remodel for more private events and the like.
“We have a lot of different varieties of styles of beer aging right now,” he said. “We’ll see how they age this year and the next year. It’s going to be pretty interesting.”
“We have a rum barrel (Putin) going on,” Austin said. “We have a double bourbon barrel aging. That’s one that scares me a little bit. That’s something I can’t wait for. And then, a regular barrel aged, and then the caskmates edition.”
The Crew has always been made up of fans of barrel aging, as well as collaborations, so we are excited to see how some of those turn out.
A big thanks to Austin for the invite, the conversation, and the beer samples.