Tractor Brewing ready to settle down and find balance after year of big changes

There was more change afoot at Tractor in 2019 than anyone on staff could have anticipated, but it all worked out well in the end.

The last time we did a Look Back/Look Ahead Series interview with the staff at Tractor Brewing, the staff said not to expect any major changes in 2019. Well, that did not quite hold up, as another taproom and a new head brewer were just two of the big developments in another busy year.

“It was a good year,” said brewmaster/co-owner David Hargis. “Every year is like a new challenge, and it certainly seems that like (even though) we’ve been doing it for a very long time, we have to get out there, figure it all out, and make the plan, and try to stick to it. It’s ever evolving, without a doubt. Those were the big ones — we got us a Mick, and a new taproom.”

This time around, David, head brewer Mick Hahn, and marketing and events coordinator Jeremy Kinter all said nothing major is on the horizon, but you never know what the year ahead could have in store.

“It’s back to we’re going to strap in and see where it takes us,” David said. “Last year when we talked (for the story) we didn’t talk about a taproom at all, then we built the biggest one. It’s the most complex one yet. I think it was a good move (for the) growth of the company.”

The decision to go back to Los Lunas came together quickly, and the final result was a big, new taproom with a bit of a different angle than the three previous offsite locations for Tractor.

“Things are going really well,” David said. “It’s a learning curve there when you put a full kitchen in. People come to have a full dining experience first, and then they have a drink with their food. We approached it backwards of that. Hey, we’re going to have some (more substantial) food to go with your drink, rather than just in case you’re hungry (for appetizers and small bites). So we’re learning, or reallocating our resources to being a restaurant first. Then, having said that, later in the evening it definitely turns into what we’re more accustomed to, which is a bar.”

The new Los Lunas taproom is now the largest Tractor location besides the main brewery/taproom in Wells Park.

With the restaurant aspect drawing people in, Jeremy said he has not filled the calendar with as many events as the other taprooms. Part of that has been also been due to learning about the different customer base in Los Lunas, and what they want besides beer, cider, spirits, and the food from chef Kayla Vallejos.

“It’s the same as Four Hills was when we first moved there, knowing what those people want and expect is a lot different than copying and pasting Wells Park or Nob Hill,” Jeremy said.

Los Lunas has a full stage and sound system hooked up, so it can accommodate larger bands. At first, those bands were mostly country, but that will be changing somewhat.

“That’s been a new challenge, not just splitting time (between there and Albuquerque), but booking wise, it’s been hard, because we’ve specifically been programming it like a honkytonk,” Jeremy said. “I’m beginning to move away from that because I’m seeing that people do what something else. They’re responding well to DJs, Keith Sanchez, Gershom Brothers, they don’t just want country all the time. It’s been good.”

Customers in Valencia County have been happy to have Tractor back in the neighborhood, just on the other side of the river from where the brewery started back in 1999.

“The homecoming factor is big,” Mick said.

David said he has even run into some former Nob Hill patrons, who were regulars when they were attending the University of New Mexico, who have since moved to Los Lunas and settled down. Now they are thrilled to have Tractor back in their lives without having to drive all the way back to Albuquerque.

A full stage and a full kitchen have presented new challenges in Los Lunas.

As for the Albuquerque locations, business has been steady, and at one location it has even improved.

“Four Hills has been interesting, it’s actually gone up since the previous year,” Jeremy said. “Going back to the copy-and-paste comment, when I put solo or acoustic acts there, it actually scared people away. But, what I’ve realized is if you have more ambient, environmental music like jazz, it goes really well, and then vinyl DJs. If they want to tune out, it works there. If you want to pay attention to it, you can, if you don’t, that’s OK, too.”

The OG of the taprooms is now Nob Hill, which held steady the past year.

“We’re bringing stuff back to Nob Hill on a more consistent basis, like weekly with the (Tractor Trivia League), and of course our regular bands up there,” Jeremy said.

The Westside taproom will be getting a long-awaited addition this year, one that was announced last year.

“On the Westside in order to evolve there we’re launching spirits there on Tuesday, February 11,” Jeremy said. “I think that’s going to be really successful.”

Considering the lack of distilleries, or even just traditional bars, on that side of the Rio Grande, and it should be quite welcome for anyone thirsty for cocktails.

Wells Park has remained a hub for Tractor’s biggest events.

Back at Wells Park, Jeremy said the major annual events like the Bees and Seeds Festival and the Stranger Things Arcade Carnival had their highest attendance to date in 2019. That does not mean either will avoid a few cosmetic changes in 2020, however.

“It’s been a good year for events, it’s been awesome,” he said. “I’m going to be looking at changing that Stranger Things format next (fall), though.”

Part of that comes from the cost of putting that big tent outside in the parking lot for performances, so look for a new setup for that part of the festival.

“I was trying to find a big headliner band that wasn’t Albuquerque based and was touring,” Jeremy said. “I had a couple on the hook that would have been amazing, but ended up not coming through. I thought we had a good local lineup, and of course I love local bands, but I just wanted to take Stranger Things into the next tier, and I just don’t think it’s quite there yet.”

Tractor has also continued its charitable efforts through its Beer for a Better Burque (BBB) program.

“It seems like you guys, not that it hasn’t been great in the past, (put) a lot of polish in Beer for a Better Burque,” David said to Jeremy.

“That’s my favorite thing to work on, and it has been in years past, but we’ve really nailed down the application process,” Jeremy replied. “What kinds of nonprofits that I’m looking for, but also focusing on each one in a quarterly system. We do a special beer release for them, we do a Drag Queen Bingo, and then we do a special event coordinated with them and myself. Then of course we do the third Tuesday BBB coin nights where a dollar from each beer goes to whichever nonprofit you want it to go towards.”

The Beer for a Better Burque program has four new nonprofit partners in 2020.

The 2020 quartet of nonprofits is now in place, whittled down from a record 17 applicants.

“Our nonprofits are great this year,” Jeremys aid. “We have Carrie Tingley Hospital Foundation in the first quarter, second quarter Transgender Resource Center, third quarter we have Partnership for Community Action, and fourth quarter is Blackout Theater, and this works out perfect, it’s during Stranger Things. They were a huge help in organizing it last year, especially Barney (Lopez). We already have some ideas of what we want to do with Stranger Things and Blackout Theater.”

One monthly event has also stood out at Wells Park over the past year.

“I would say one of our most successful and well developed events has been Gin & Jazz, that we have here once a month with Eddie Brewer & the Manic Episodes,” Jeremy said. “That’s consistently a banger. That’s been some good turnout.”

“That’s been fun to walk out here after my shift and see people really jamming,” Mick added.

“It’s like 60- to 70-percent cocktails (in sales),” Jeremy continued. “It’s cool because I’m developing this event around the Troubled Minds Distilling brand, and that’s been another thing, getting that lined up to launch this year in full force. We finally have all the bottles and we’re ready to fully launch that as a brand, rather than it trickling out. We’re looking forward to doing that this year.”

With all those events out front needing more beer/cider/spirits, Mick has been hard at work in the back, learning the ropes after taking over from longtime head brewer Josh Campbell, who took a job outside the brewing industry in Southeast New Mexico.

“It’s super exciting, especially now that Los Lunas is done and David is back here most of the time, well, some of the time, when he’s not out putting out fires, it’s much more steady going,” Mick said. “We’re finally at a point where we’re not out of any of our house regulars. We’ve got all our beers on tap for now, at least.”

“You definitely got thrown right in the deep end,” David added.

“But, I think I’m swimming pretty well, not just treading well, definitely not sinking, but I am doing some doggy paddles,” Mick replied. “I’ve been learning a lot about the ciders. I’m very excited to push a few different flavor combinations. I didn’t see a way of really making them possible as beers, but as ciders they can hit pretty hard. So we’re looking at like a cherry limeade type coming out pretty soon, hopefully within the next month. I’m trying to pluck different creative sources and see what resonates and what we can make work well.

“Then there’s the spirits on top of that. That’s almost a whole new world for me. I definitely drink my fair share of them, but as far as producing them, it’s brand new. We’ve got a new batch of agave going back there, and then a new batch of whiskey that we’ll distill in about a week, week-and-a-half. We did some vodka over the past weekend. We’re learning how to get those set up and run through.”

The canning line has been humming along with 13 different packaged products.

Smoothing out the process and improving things like scheduling have become paramount within the joint brewery/distillery.

“What’s been interesting, too, is we use the hot liquor tank as our pot,” David said. “We have to coordinate the beers and ciders in a way, so this vodka run went from Thursday to Monday. We were shut down, basically. But, it worked. We’re starting to figure that all out. It’s less interruptive to the schedule. Now we’re making bigger batches, too. If it stays as often, that would be great, too. Perhaps we won’t have to run the still as often as we did last year.”

Mick was given the green light to change things up on the beer side, but so far he has not felt the need to completely redo the core lineup.

“Not particularly, most of my experimentation has been done with the seasonals, that’s where I can really see what we’re working with,” Mick said. “All of the house staples, a little bit there, a little bit here, no major changes as of yet. There’s some differences with how much hot liquor we’re putting into the mash. We’re sorting those out a little bit, instead of all the brews having the same kind of water bill to them. You put a little more water into a pilsner than you do an IPA. It’s just finding the right balance.

“We’re working into how we’re going to balance the hops that we have and have contracted, so that we blow through them as efficiently as possible, not be running out of some and being up to our necks in others. It’s just finding that balance.”

David Hargis really loves his new cross flow filter, in case you could not tell.

A new piece of equipment has also helped the process.

“Another big 2019 (change) was something that had to happen was the cross flow filter, which was a game changer for the brewery,” David said.

“I don’t even want to imagine filtering without that thing,” Mick added.

The machine can be hooked up and controlled remotely.

“What that did and why it’s a big deal for us was it took a three- or four-day filtration process to six-to-eight hours,” David said. “It’s all automated. That’s really allowed us to continue to push the cider growth, or just keep up with what cider has done in the last two years.”

David said he is happy with how things are running in the brewery.

“For me, from the brewery and production perspective, (the goal) is to continue to polish and achieve consistency, and structure,” he said. “What I mean by structure is how Mick is going to run the brewery back there. Our staff is fairly new, because we have grown so much. … There are some new faces back there to get trained and up to speed.”

David and T.J., one of the new members of the brewing staff at Tractor.

Once that is done, the fun can begin.

“That’s the other thing that will be different from my perspective now that Mick is getting his arms wrapped around three different (forms of alcohol) — spirits, cider, beer — really see more of his signature on those seasonals,” David said. “Maybe I’ll just tell him what the budget needs to be.”

Tractor may whittle down its large portfolio of canned beers and ciders in 2020 as well.

“Also for 2020, we have 13 brands that are now packaged in cans,” David said. “It’s kind of surprising to me when we say that out loud. So really maybe putting some more focus on what the most successful of those brands are, refining those, and really pushing those with more focus. It’s tough to be that spread thin at our size.”

Fear not, though, there will still be plenty of variety on draft at the taprooms.

“We’re still going to barrage (with seasonals),” David said. “That’s the fun part for us back there.”

There will be two main dedicated seasonals per quarter, with one for the BBB recipient for that period, and the other a more traditional seasonal for that time of the year. What that style is will be up to Mick.

“I think Mick has waded out of the deep end now, though, find his fun stride,” David said.

“I’m ready for the high dive,” Mick replied. “What that is, I’m not sure.”

“When you hit that high dive, I want to be there to record it,” Jeremy added.

We all look forward to that, whatever it may be. A big thanks to the trio of David, Mick, and Jeremy for the interview and the goblet of Luna de los Muertos Russian Imperial Stout.

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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