On a lovely Vantablack Friday in late November (bless not working retail during the holidays), we made our way down to Boxing Bear for a beloved treat in Vantablack Russian Imperial stout (and some live metal!). While we were enjoying these and some other delights from the archives, I (Franz Solo) had the chance to chat with head brewer/co-owner Justin Hamilton on how the past year went and what we can expect from 2020 for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
Solo: So looking back, looking ahead 2019 into 2020, the big news being you got your (West Downtown) taproom up and running, doing well with that. I know you have another taproom waiting in the wings, so to speak.
Justin: 2019 has been a pretty crazy year for us. Going into it, we knew we were going to open a taproom, at least one. We weren’t really expecting to turn around and try to open a second one. I think even last year, maybe towards the end of it, we had the idea this might happen, but we really went gung-ho for canning, so that was a big 2019 turnaround for us. Maybe around this time last year we had been talking about it, and pulled the trigger around that point because we started canning in April.
It took a while to get everything we needed for it. The end of last year was when we decided that we were going to can, how we were going to do it, and how we were going to try and approach it. It’s been a really cool thing for us to learn it, first off getting all of the equipment necessary to can was wild. Lots of research, lots of talking to other breweries and manufacturers and trying to decide the direction that we wanted to go, how many fill heads we wanted, and if we wanted to do de-palletizing and labeling and all of this stuff. It was a pretty big learning curve. People have been asking for cans for years, but I don’t really think most people understand what you need to actually do it.
(From my time working on the canning line at Steel Bender, I can certainly attest to the complexity and the nuance that goes into both getting the line running properly, and more importantly keeping it running well. I could probably go on for a while on this topic, but suffice to say, just appreciate how much work goes into not only the beer you are drinking, but also the process of packaging, which is no small thing on its own. — Franz Solo)
Honestly, we still don’t have quite the room we need to do it. David Schmidt from Mother Road came over here. He’s been helping us get some can supplies and he watched us can once and he was like, “You guys are mobile canning, that’s what you’re doing. You do what we do.” I mean, it really is. We keep all of our stuff in another room, it’s scattered throughout the brewery, (and) when we can we have to take the stairs off the actual brewhouse, so you can’t really brew that day. So every time we can, we are throwing stuff together and pulling apart if we need it. The need and the want were there, so we made it happen. That’s been the crazy thing about it. If you’d asked me in 2017 if we would be canning, I’d say no way, we couldn’t do it here, it’s not going to happen. So the fact that we’re canning a decent amount of beer right now has been a really cool thing for us. I’ve also learned a bit about what people are looking for.
Solo: What varieties and what seasonals.
Justin: Yeah, I mean we kind of knew most of that with what we sell. We know what our specials are going to be, and what is in demand for the most part, but canning is different. The beer is going out to more locations and the shelf life needs to be longer. So it just depends, but it’s been really fun to learn about all of that. We haven’t gotten to a full year of that (canning) and so far it’s been successful in my eyes. We just want to keep up with what the customer wants as far as what goes in the can. We are also looking for feedback for what people like, what they don’t like, and what they might be looking for in the future. It’s been pretty cool to learn that and see a whole different avenue of package.
Solo: Yeah it’s a whole different market when you get into four stacks.
Justin: It really is, and I mean we have bombers that we were doing for a long time here, and it’s just harder for us to get all of these different styles into glass and to get people to want them. I mean, you don’t always want a 22-ounce bomber of kolsch. That’s not something people are really going for, and then the cost to justify that goes up. So having a four-pack of kolsch in 16-ounce cans, that’s great, that’s what people want.
Solo: It makes a lot more sense these days. The changes in demand for growlers versus bottles versus cans has been interesting to witness over the years. I have a bit of a shelf full of growlers in the garage myself that collect a bit of dust these days, and the main use I find for bombers on my own is well, bottling my home brews to save time apart from a few barrel-aged stouts and sours that one likes to share with friends, by and large. The convenience of cans, along with the natural complete opacity of aluminum, certainly helps shelf stability, which is particularly necessary for hoppy hazy ales and delicate light lagers which proliferate the market at present.
I’d say we will likely stay in the realm of cans for the foreseeable future as the brewing industry continues to evolve and emulate — gasp — the macro giants of the world. In the end, if it means our beers will stay fresher longer, and allow us to have access to an ever dizzying array of different and unique brews, then I for one am all for it.
Justin: When I look at this from a consumer standpoint, yeah, that’s what I want, too.
Solo: It’s a changing market, for sure.
Justin: I don’t want to carry around a bunch of bombers, but you know, they still have their place in certain things, so there’s always that spot. For us, focusing toward tall boy cans and getting the product that we’ve been known for into that package and into people’s hands has been a real turnaround for us, and also for most people who enjoy our beers. They can come by and get a four-pack of our house IPA and take it home with them, as opposed to just a crowler or a growler, so something that will actually last. It’s been cool to see package grow throughout the country with people sending other people beer and stuff like that. It’s just fun. Any day of canning, whether it’s 8 hours or 1,2 it’s still in my opinion, way more fun than bottling. Canning is intense, everyone is just spinning around in circles helping. Some days are crazy, but for the most part it’s good.
Solo: Yeah, once you dial it in, it isn’t too bad.
Justin: That’s been probably the biggest thing for 2019, getting our package out there, learning what people want, and getting it into their hands. But, like you said, other than that, taprooms. Our West Downtown taproom has been really good for us, it’s like a nice, really fun location. I’m jealous of the location because we have a pool table, we have dart boards, we have shuffleboard, and foosball. We have all of these fun games there and we’ve only got a few fun games here. So we are going to be working on trying to integrate more of that fun stuff here (at the brewery and original taproom) and definitely into the new taproom.
Looking forward that new taproom, we are looking to open hopefully (by) the end of February to early March with the Tramway location. That one’s been a whole lot of work, but it’s really positive. We are looking forward to really spreading our wings out in different locations throughout the city, and having something that people can get to. Being that we opened here on the west side, we always knew that it was going to be trying to pull people over here. If people aren’t already living here, it’s hard to cross the river. We all know Albuquerque and people don’t like to drive. So having us spread out a little bit has been really nice. To be able to say if you want a four-pack of Vantablack on Vantablack Friday, you don’t have to drive all the way down to the west side, you can go right there and hit up other breweries that are doing similar stuff.
Solo: The whole community had been kind of doing that. We are just getting more little pockets of breweries. With Bosque opening a taproom over here and another (future) brewery down the street near Lava Rock and Flix, Toltec and Turtle Mountain and you guys, it’s awesome.
Justin: Everybody is kind of staking (out) their ground and stuff, but for the most part it’s been nice to see the spread throughout the city. I think that’s almost a necessity because of the way the city works.
Solo: Driven, I think, in part by a lack of good public transportation across the city.
Justin: With ART finally up and running, at least you can go up and down Central and hit up all of these great place, including ours, and it’s just a lot more convenient.
Opening the new place this next year is going to be great, having some really fun neighbors. We have some great neighbors in West Downtown, and we are looking forward to the neighbors we are going to be having in our new location. Every time we do one of these (taprooms), it’s a new community to get involved with and new friends, new people to work with, and new people to talk to. We really try to embed ourselves in what is Albuquerque and what people are looking for, what they want. I think 2020 is going to be hopefully a really good year for us.
Other than that, we are really going to be focusing on getting what people want into cans and working with other breweries. We’ve been so busy trying to catch up and do all of this stuff (that) we feel like we need to be involved and be more of a part of it. Try to get ourselves working with other people a lot more. We had that one (collaboration) we did with Marble.
Solo: Had that at Beer Premier, it was really great.
Justin: So yeah, we are trying to work with a lot more breweries and find the time to do it. That’s been the hard part, being a small company we all have so many jobs, and its been nice to get people working in their positions where they are doing well, and we are able to pull apart and start doing the stuff that we have been trying to do for literally five years now. So some of this stuff is big on our to-do list, and getting more ingrained in that community because we’ve been so focused on building this place and making it work, we come to work and we leave every day. We love the beer community, that’s what we’ve been a part of, and we’ve been part of the beginning of that, so we’ve got to stick with it. That’s a big part of our next year, too. Other than that, I think we are just trying to refocus and hone in on the things that we think we do well — hazy IPAs, stouts, locking down our lagers, making sure whatever we do is a quality product.
So 2020 in my eyes, I want to make sure that what we have is secure, that our product is good, our front of house service is good, that we have really fun locations for people to go to, and that we have successful package, that is not only the stuff that people are looking for out in the market, but working with the community to figure that out, doing those collaborations, that’s why we are here. We are here to make beer for New Mexico.
Solo: Any cool new beer releases on the horizon?
Justin: We have a really fun lager made with Huell Melon hops coming out.
Solo: Oh hell yeah.
Justin: We have some more hazy IPAs coming out. Super Cereal is going to be in cans and then we are going to have Standing 8 Stout, which is our old house stout in cans, as well. Next year we will be pushing out some of our staples that we do regularly like Irish Red (and) Oktobearfest in cans. We will try to do more events geared towards the release of those beers on those kind of days. We will probably have something going on for St Paddy’s Day.
Things like Vantablack Friday have been really fun. Having those people in positions they are comfortable in has allowed us to do this. We have Robin Valles out there, she booked all of the bands, pulling out all of the vintage beers, making sure the staff knows all of their stuff. We have all of our stuff that we have been trying to pack out, so everyone is really honing in on their positions to make this place flow and work properly.
On a final note, we want to bring back Bearfest (in) 2020 if we can. I’m pretty sure we can do it, but it’s something that we’ve (wanted) to do for a long time and it comes down to, well, how?
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It was quite a year behind for the Bear, with the West Downtown taproom opening and beginning canning in house, all while maintaining the quality of beer we have come to expect is no small accomplishment for all of the brewers and staff. For the rest of this year, we are certainly looking forward to the new Tramway taproom, increased event presence and house events, more can releases and collaborations, all of which add up to what appears to be a bright future in these roaring Bear 20’s. Until our next adventure, grab a pint or a four-pack of your favorite Boxing Bear ale, and I bid you …
— Franz Solo