Bathtub Row Brewing plans to expand up the mountain

Bathtub Row head brewer Brandon Venaglia during a recent visit to a malt supplier, Proximity Malt of Monte Vista, Colorado.

For our Look Back/Look Ahead Series, I sat down with Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op’s head brewer, Brandon Venaglia, and the new assistant manager, Rob Hipwood, to find out what happened in 2019 and what will be new for 2020.

In terms of facility improvements, Brandon mentioned that they finally purchased two new critically-needed serving vessels. Going back to opening day, they have been in a constant game of cleaning and filling kegs because of the imbalance.

“I lobbied really hard for those two serving vessels,” he said. “I said, this is a lot of extra work that we’re putting people through that’s unnecessary. The beer lives here and is consumed here, or we send it out in crowlers and growlers. This purchase should relieve a great deal of the workload on the staff.”

On a side note, the crowlers far outsell the growlers, in part due to the popularity of the cans at the Friday concerts during the summer. Usage of the crowler machine was so great that Brandon had to re-tool it at the end of the summer. The can is a convenient form that he says should easily last a week, and even longer if kept cold.

With the ongoing improvements to the facilities, they’ve been able to maintain their own beers on the taps all year, with the exception of a guest cider. In past years, they would occasionally have to trot out a keg from Bosque or other breweries to fill the void. Now, you can just about always expect to see Hoppenheimer IPA, Little Bird Blonde, a dark beer (stout or porter), their Mexi-lager, and a few other lagers. Hoppenheimer is so popular that they’ve dedicated a 15-barrel serving vessel to it. That will leave two or three taps for whatever seasonals that Brandon and his crew feel like concocting.

Both Brandon and Rob said they feel that they owe it to the community to offer relatively low-alcohol beers. As of this writing, Hoppenheimer is the highest at 7-percent ABV. Others range from 4.0 to the mid-6’s. Being a factory town of sorts, it’s common for groups of people to converge on Bathtub Row (or “the Tub”, as it’s affectionately known) after work for several hours and several beers. A 12-percent imperial stout, while tasty, doesn’t safely lend itself to that. Also, being a small town, there isn’t much in the way of public transit to get people home. Expect the small-beer trend to continue in 2020.

A standout beer in 2019 was the Native Elixir, which was made with blue corn, and 95 percent of the raw malt comes from a farm near Alamosa, Colorado. Brandon and a few others enjoyed a field trip there at the height of the crop.

“It was very interesting to see some of the experimental varietals that they’re growing. They partner with Colorado State University to do a lot of test runs,” explained Brandon.

The soil there is excellent, producing the highest yields in the country. Brandon said he hopes to work with them regularly.

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Brandon and Rob picking up hops from White Crow Hops in Ancones, NM

They’ve also tried to use local hops, including from White Crow Hops near Ojo Caliente and some grown right on the Tub’s patio. Those latter very-locally grown hops, Cascade and Neomexicanus, were enough for a single batch of beer. They also provided some nice shade during the summer. They hope to expand the program in the future. In addition, the Tub has purchased hops from White Crow, a grower near Ojo Caliente. The spirit to buy local is strong at the Tub.

With extra competition in the form of Boese Brothers’ new taproom nearby, it seems everyone is winning. People can visit the other if one is overly crowded, and now people can legitimately pub crawl in Los Alamos. (We’re still hoping that UnQuarked will re-open soon to further increase the opportunities.) To demonstrate the camaraderie involved, Boese held an Oktoberfest celebration several months ago, and they invited the Tub to participate.

The Tub has occasionally considered providing various food options, but there are plenty of fine options nearby, and there are even special food nights at the Tub, such as pierogies and tacos. The focus will remain on the beer, giving people the freedom to always bring in any food they’d like.

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Brandon and Justin on a brew day

In terms of personnel changes, assistant brewer Aaron left for greener pastures in Wyoming. He’s been replaced by Justin Sapp, who was promoted to the job. Justin had been working at the Tub through a University of New Mexico-Los Alamos internship program, and now he’s a regular employee. Brandon has had many assistants over the years, and he pointed out that hard work and a good work ethic are crucial.

“The biggest indicator for whether or not they’ll stick around is if they show up the first day,” he said.

Apparently, a lot of people love beer, but don’t want to pay the dues by mopping the floor or cleaning the drains, especially at 8 a.m.

The previous assistant manager, Ashley D’Anna, moved on to a new job, giving long-time bartender Rob Hipwood the opportunity to move into the role. He had been teaching health at the high school for many years and had been considering a change. Once this promotion presented itself, he decided it was the perfect time to jump to the Tub full-time.

In 2020, the Tub will again host the Stout Invitational on February 15. As in years past, there will be three two-hour sessions at noon, 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. The New Mexico Brewers Guild produces the event, while The Tub invests in food and beer for the various staff that show up. A good time is had by all in attendance, including Stoutmeister last year (and this year). Brandon said he has something unusual in mind for the Tub’s 2020 entry, but he wouldn’t disclose what it would be.

“There’ll be an ingredient that will be very distinguishing, as far as I know,” he said. “There are going to be some adjuncts in there. It’s going to be flavored.”

Intriguing, and we’ll look forward to finding out. (Note that tickets can be purchased online at HoldMyTicket or in person at the Tub. They will probably sell out, so don’t wait.)

An early goal developed at the Tub was to have every employee complete their Cicerone certification. This highly-regarded certification program is designed to educate professionals all about beer, from pouring it to making it. There are four different levels of study, and Rob and Brandon said they would like to see everyone complete level one, which is designed for beer servers. The staff even got together for their own classes to prepare. (I suggested that this would be a fun thing to open up to the public.) As a result, every employee should have been Cicerone-certified by the end of January. This was quite an achievement.

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Bartender Emily Mockler-Wood ready to use the new point-of-sale system

If you’ve ever stopped by the Tub after work on a Thursday and seen a line out the door, you’ll be happy to hear that they’ve started using a new point-of-sale system. With this new system, customers will get their credit card back immediately. When settling their tabs, any bartender can now use a tablet to do so, instead of waiting on a register. It promises to make things much more efficient and should mean less time standing in line. Rob and the staff personally saw those lines as a sort of little failure, but he tries to stay optimistic.

“In a seminar we went to, they explained that you have to try to turn whatever’s negative about your place into a positive,” Rob said. “The line is because people want to be there. We don’t dwell on it.”

And finally, the big news: The Board of Directors and employees of the Tub had long considered various ways to expand. Their primary consideration was always to first and foremost become financially stable and maintain a quality experience at the main location. In 2020, the plan is to finally grow. There have been talks with the folks at Pajarito Mountain to establish a full-time taproom at the ski lodge. Combined with the existing cafe there, it would provide full food and drink services year-round. From the Tub’s perspective, it’s a smart, safe move, since they’re just leasing from Pajarito Mountain and don’t need to invest a lot in facilities. Both parties have been working with the county to cover the various applications and zoning requirements to make it happen; hopes are that the new taproom will open this summer.

2020 will continue to see a focus on making things more efficient and keeping the quality of the beer high at the brewery. Stay tuned for news on the developments at the ski lodge, and we hope to see you at the Stout Invitational.

Cheers!

— Reid

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