It may seem like every offsite taproom is a rousing success in Albuquerque these days, but there have been missteps for many breweries along the way. Nexus Brewery was the latest to make the tough decision to close one of its locations, shuttering the Silver Taproom on the Westside at the start of the year.
That is not, however, any sort of warning sign that the main brewpub or its other location, the Blue Smokehouse, are in trouble. In a way, the closure will help owner Ken Carson and head brewer Randy King refocus their efforts on keeping things fresh and fun at the more successful spots, as we discussed for our latest Look Back/Look Ahead Series entry.
Ken is taking what happened with Silver, which opened in the summer of 2016, as a learning experience.
“I think what we plan to do going forward, and I think one of the things that I want to put down on my list of things is never to do, is I think when we go somewhere, we’re going to go with our food,” he said. “We’re going to go full-blown at it. We’re still very focused on doing great beer at the same time.”
Silver did not have its own food, which was one of several challenges that had to be overcome. It was the second Westside taproom to open, after Marble, but soon saw numerous nearby places open, such as the La Cumbre taproom and Lava Rock Brewing. The location was set back from Coors and barely visible to drivers as well.
“It worked pretty good at the beginning, the first two years, but as more breweries moved to the Westside, we were left with just the (people from the) neighborhood that surrounded us,” Ken said. “I felt like even though we had regulars that came from the neighborhood, what you would see is in a lot of cases, a lot of retired people that had the income and the time to sit around at a brewery.
“Meanwhile, at the restaurants next door to us, you would see young families with lots of kids that probably did not have the expendable income to go to a brewery. I think that’s what happened. That combined with finding the right type of staff to man the location, with unemployment being so low, I just couldn’t find the entrepreneurial types that really wanted to go down there and build a business, as opposed to just being a worker. Those two things combined resulted in us pulling the plug on the taproom.”
Ken said he regretted leaving behind the loyal customers on the Westside, but most of them had said they anticipated the closure do the drop in business.
While things did not go well to the west, the new Blue Smokehouse that opened in the spring of last year did get off to a flying start.
“I would say that with the addition of the Blue Smokehouse, things went really well at the beginning, sales were really good at the very beginning,” Ken said. “Like the first four or five months, it went longer than I expected with people coming in to check it out. As time went on, though, because I think we are in the South Broadway area, a lot of the people that were curious that live in the northeast part of town probably stopped coming in. The other thing that was challenging with Blue was we only have 36 seats. We lost our patio, so we lost (more) seating.”
The drop-off was not too bad, however, as things have evened out now.
“Overall, I’m really pleased with the progress we’ve made,” Ken said. “It sells beer somewhat in the same category as the restaurant. We don’t even have brewery in the name down there. That was kind of done intentionally. I’ve felt like one of the things here is that we’ve found customers to be a lot that are not into the brewery scene. They feel like if they come in here to eat, they’ll be forced to drink beer. They say well, I’ve never been to your place because you’re a brewery and I don’t drink beer. The good thing about us is you can get sodas, wine, and cider, and still be able to enjoy a good meal.”
The seating issue is one that Ken said he hopes to resolve this year, as there is still more space in which to expand within the building.
“We still have another 3,000 square feet to expand into,” he said. “For now, I need to get over the expenses of closing the old store. We’ll be looking this spring to see what we can do, how quickly we can expand into that additional space down on Broadway.”
The more space, the merrier, since the food itself has been wowing customers since day one at the Blue Smokehouse.
“On the barbecue, we’re getting really strong reviews, really positive reviews,” Ken said. “The comments, I like to see them, basically the most common really good compliment is it’s the best barbecue in the state. We’ve been able to maintain really strong ratings on Google and Yelp. The product is good, it’s very good, and I think we’re doing really well in that.”
Another popular addition to the menu has been offering up combo plates, where customers can combine some of their favorites, like fried chicken and ribs, plus a side. The combinations are almost endless, Ken said, and have proven to be a huge hit.
As for the mothership on the Interstate 25 frontage road, everything is steady as it goes.
“As far as Nexus OG, or Nexus Brewery and Restaurant, solid, sales are just as strong as they’ve always been,” Ken said. “We’re looking at kind of redoing our menu to keep us in alignment with what’s going on in the community. No major changes, just trying to improve on what we’re doing, and just make it better than what it is today. Just continuous improvement, that’s basically it.”
That renewed focus will be the theme of 2020.
“Going forward, we’ll still have the other two taprooms, and I would say that we focus on really fine-tuning our food operation, fine-tuning our beer,” Ken said. “We (also) just recently started distributing. Right now those beers are going to local restaurants and even restaurants probably, they’re looking at a territory that goes north, probably Santa Fe. You’ll be finding several of our most popular beers — Imperial Cream, Honey Chamomile Wheat, Cream Ale, and Scotch Ale.”
Speaking of the beer, Randy has been busy working with his assistant brewers, Jerrad Manning and Misha Lockamy, on coming up with new brews and refining old favorites. There were a few top sellers in 2019 that figure to return for 2020.
“You know, 8 of 9 (Blood Orange American Wheat) really took off for our anniversary,” Randy said. “People really loved that beer. It won (silver) at the North American Beer Awards, as well, so that one probably stood out the most. Trampled by Tangerines, it’s kind of a sibling of 8 of 9, and it was well received. Our Bird of Prey series, people really seemed to like Bird of Prey, so we’ve also had some siblings of it like the G-Bird, the grapefruit IPA, and it’s done well. It’s currently on right now. Those are the ones that really stand out.”
The Oktoberfest was another big hit when it was released in the fall. There was one sixtel left in the cooler at Silver when it closed, and Randy said fans should look for a special release of that one on tap soon at the main brewery.
“We have a few things that came back from Silver,” he said. “So we’ve got these beers that have been out of the main group for months or longer, so we have these little treasures for these little one-off releases.”
As noted in the most recent edition of the Week Ahead in Beer, Randy has also created a new Russian imperial stout, Lush & Aphotic, that will be released in standard format and then with some special variants.
“This one is a little dangerous,” he said. “It’s a Russian imperial, so it’s big, but it’s not a huge one, it’s 9.1-percent (ABV). … This one gets released tomorrow (note: it has been released since this interview), and then Jerrad, Misha, and I are playing around with some oak aging on this one as well. We’re doing a white oak bourbon-aged version. We’re doing a rum oak-aged version as well. And then, we’ve got three sets of cacao nibs that we’re going to work with — one’s Haitian, one’s Ecuador, and one’s Dominican, and we’re going to play with those with this beer as well. Those will just be really sixtels, probably, very small releases.”
Oh, gee, darn, multiple trips to Nexus are in my future. As for other beers on deck, Randy is jumping on the same train as many other brewers in the city.
“More lagers, I want do some more lagers,” he said. “We have a Czech amber lager that’s on its way. I’m not quite sure of what style of pilsner, but I’ve got a pilsner that will be on its way. That one is more in my head right now. The Czech amber is in the tank. It’s in line. We’ll have this Mexican lager come out first, then the Czech amber. We’re sending that Czech amber off to the World Beer Cup as well.”
More stouts and lagers? Sign us up.
In summary, Nexus may have closed one taproom, but its other locations are doing just fine. That is something worth celebrating, maybe with one of those ridiculous combo plates at the Smokehouse.
A big thanks to Ken and Randy for the conversation and the sneak previews of the stout and the Mexican lager (which is also quite good, for those who need a break from heavier beers for a while).