Four years ago, when Starr Brothers Brewing first opened its doors, owners Heather and John Starr talked about their love of soccer, and how they hoped to share that love with other fans of the beautiful game from around Albuquerque.
Even they could not have seen 2019 coming. New Mexico United blew up in a way no one expected, and when Starr Brothers became an official watch party site for away games, the brewery was soon packed with customers, new and old, who made it the place to be on game nights.
“I think when we opened that’s what we always wanted,” Heather said. “When we opened, our logos were driven around soccer, everything has a little bit of a soccer taste, because soccer is our own personal life with our kids. It started with the (Albuquerque) Sol from the grassroots part, which kind of parlayed into United.
“The EPL (English Premier League) games are such a huge part of who we are, too. Our Liverpool people are such a fun part of our business. Their games, it’s just like being at someone’s house, it’s so cool, it’s just such a fun thing. We’re really proud of that, being where soccer fans gather. That was our goal.”
The 505 Reds have certainly made themselves at home at Starr Brothers, just in time for their favorite club’s renaissance across the pond. The American Outlaws, the main fan group for the United States men’s and women’s national teams, also claimed Starr Brothers as its primary gathering space. When the brewery first opened in 2016, both the Gold Cup and the European Championships would get underway that summer, drawing in even more people to the new joint at 5700 San Antonio Dr. NE.
“I think the first year we opened … we had people that came in here that had never experienced soccer,” Heather said. “They saw people just go crazy. We made Starr Brothers fans and soccer fans.”
The nice thing about soccer fans is they come for the entirety of games, giving Starr Brothers customers for more than just one pint and maybe a quick meal or appetizer. Luckily for the brewery staff, especially on those packed-to-the-rafters nights and days for big games, everyone has remained polite and patient with the kitchen and bar staff.
“I think especially for the United watch parties and the USA games, they’re not here for an hour, trying to get in and out for lunch, they’re here for the duration,” Heather said. “They understand if we’ve got everybody (working) and doing everything we can, OK, our food is coming. The nice thing about us, we don’t have a hostess stand where someone is waiting for a table. You come in and get a beer right away. Even if you have to wait a little bit for the food because 300 people are in here, you’re still getting a beer, you’re getting some service.”
This weekend figures to be crowded as well, since it happens to be Starr Brothers’ fourth anniversary. Things kick off Friday at 5 p.m. with DJ Too Hot to Stop and then the rock band Rise of Seekalae at 8. Then on Sunday, the brewery will be open early for the big Liverpool vs. Manchester United match at 9:30 a.m., followed by the NFL playoffs all afternoon. There also be a special painting class, with participants decorating (no surprise here) soccer balls starting at 4 p.m.
Celebrating four years of business means, of course, celebrating four years of beer. Head brewer Rob Whitlock joined us in between dashing back and forth to check on the beer he was brewing in the back.
“It went good, they went good,” Rob said of the beers. “We finally started getting the goses and stuff dialed in, the hazies, in order to keep up with everything. We kept those going pretty good. The beer has been going great. I’m happy with everything back there. We’re selling beer, and that’s the name of the game.”
The seasonal beers are often a hit, but Starr Brothers leans heavily on its main lineup of year-round brews. Rob said that the top four sellers are, in order, Starrstruck IPA, L.A. Woman Blonde Ale, Starrphire Pilsner, and Red Zepplin.
Rob does have some upcoming seasonals of note, including a fruited gose for Valentine’s Day that has been named Stupid Cupid. He also teased another special beer that is due out soon, but does not yet have an official name.
“We’ve got a big collab coming up,” Rob said. “It’s probably going to be announced this weekend. Nobody has an idea what it is (named yet).”
As Heather noted, Rob has a knack for clever, funny names for beers. He even suggested that for the popular poutine dish on the menu, now offered in two sizes, that the brewery call it “pou-ton and pou-tiny.”
All jokes aside, the food menu at Starr Brothers has also proven to be a huge draw for many customers.
“We never expected the food to take off like it did,” Heather said. “We had it as a complement to the beer, but really now, we’re kind of known for both. To help the kitchen, and to have stuff we’re not going to run out of. That’s the worst thing (for a restaurant), you come in and you’re craving something and they don’t have it.”
Getting back to the beer, Rob said he has some idea of what the future will hold.
“We gotta get back on the hazy bandwagon,” he said. “We’re just trying different takes on that. … We’ll bring back a lot of the seasonal favorites. We’ll have the Mexican lager. I’ve been getting a lot of notes to do Don’t Fear the RIPA, so I have to do that again soon.”
There was also a change in the back, as longtime assistant brewer Matt Pullen departed for a job in Colorado.
“We’ve got the (new) brewery staff coming in,” Rob said. “Matt left last year. He’d been with me for a few years. He was my first helper here when we started. He and I were pretty good together, we were a good team. He moved on to bigger and better things in Denver. I’ve got my new assistant, Destiny (Jones), she’s doing good. She went through the CNM (program).”
Even with that change, Heather said 2019 was a strong year for Starr Brothers, and she expects it to continue in 2020.
“I think it’s a year where we really hit our stride, where we really know what we’re doing,” she said. “Anybody that says they know what they’re doing their first year, there’s no way. You have to make mistakes to learn from them. You hire the wrong people, you put the wrong thing on the menu. We’ve just hit a good stride where I think everything is just consistent. We’re seeing growth month over month, year over year. We’re in a good place.”
No major changes are planned in 2020, save for making the patio a more comfortable space in the summer.
“Not really looking to do anything crazy,” Heather said. “We’re not ready for another location. We’re not looking to take that (leap) yet. I think we’ll know when that time is. It has to be perfect for us. It’s just me and John, we’re a family business, and Rob. We don’t have this giant pool of investors. It has to be just right.”
Instead, it will be business as usual, which is key, as New Mexico United games will start up again in March, promising more wild nights to come.
“We’re just happy to still be going, our little family business,” Heather said. “We enjoy it. We have great regulars. It’s cool to meet new people (too).”
A big thanks to Heather and Rob for the interview, and for the pint of Foggy Monocle Oatmeal Stout (which should be on tap for everyone else to enjoy, soon).