As we wind down to the end of our Look Back/Look Ahead Series for 2019-20, many of the remaining breweries are on the far outskirts of the metro area. I set out for the wilds of Rio Rancho last week to catch up with Brew Lab 101 Beer & Cider Co. owner/brewer Scott Salvas, who I last spoke to back when his brewery opened in June.
“Overall, it’s been good,” Scott said. “It’s been quite a whirlwind. We got open June 17 and it got crazy pretty quick. The welcoming in the neighborhood was great. We opened with I think three of our own beers and two of our own ciders. Now as it stands I think we have up to five of our own beers on tap right now. By Friday we’ll have a sixth on tap. We’re just trying to keep up with demand. Sometimes we have up to five ciders on tap. We do a craft root beer.”
The brewery is nestled in a shopping center along Southern Boulevard, just west of the post office and Turtle Mountain Brewing. When I visited on a Tuesday night, it was fairly packed, which can be a rarity on a weekday even at some of the bigger, more established metro area breweries.
“Like most (other breweries), as it got colder we slowed down a bit,” Scott said. “We’re still learning the seasonality of it. I tell people that every day is a brand-new day for us. We’ve never experienced that day before. It’s certainly a learning process to see the variations that occur, just between a Monday and a Friday, it’s huge, right? It’s just trying to keep up with those patterns, those seasonal patterns. Folks in this industry have told me how it works out, but you’ve got to experience it within your own space.”
That experience so far has been mostly positive.
“Overall, it’s been fun and we’ve tried to stick to the business model,” Scott said. “If anything, we’ve probably grown a little bit faster, even in the number of taps. I was going to have 20 taps (eventually). I started with plumbing for 16 and within a month I’d plumbed the other ones. We’ve had a lot great guest taps, but we keep converting more and more them to our own products.”
Scott said more than once that he is following the demands of his customers, rather than simply brewing what he wants and expecting people to embrace that. Of course, even customer tastes can change from time to time.
“In the very beginning the Sassy Brunette Amber was the number one seller, which kind of surprised me,” Scott said. “IPAs are normally number one everywhere. Then we brought our hazy on, the Wicked Pissa, and that sort of changed the game. Then the Bull IPA took off, and we’d had that on tap since day one. Right now IPA is on top. I just brought the X-IPA on, small batch, one-barrel batches, and that’s selling like gangbusters, too.”
Next up on the docket could be some beers that take a little longer to ferment.
“We haven’t done a lager or a kolsch of my own yet,” Scott said. “A lot of people are asking for that. We have guest ones. I’m probably going to explore that a little bit coming up. I haven’t done a sour, honestly, I’m not a huge sour guy myself. We’ve tried to sell a few (guest) sours, but they didn’t really resonate. I think because we have so much cider.”
Cider has been quite a pleasant surprise for Scott and his staff in terms of customer demand.
“The one thing that did surprise me is how much cider we’ve sold,” he said. “We’ve sold twice as much as my business model projected. Keeping up with cider production has been a little tougher. I just wanted to do 1-barrel cider production, now we’re having to do 2- or 3-barrel. That’s been exciting, though. People are real complimentary, they’re really digging our ciders. We do our cider cocktails, which has exploded. It’s creating a fun vibe that’s a little different than many of the breweries out there.”
A brewery cannot survive on good beer and cider alone these days. Brew Lab 101 has tried to take advantage of certain aspects, like the size of the taproom itself, and had to overcome some other challenges, like its lack of a kitchen.
“One thing that’s really cool for us is because we’re not really a restaurant, we can accommodate really large groups,” Scott said. “People can even bring their own food in. We have that great public house sort of feel. It’s not uncommon for a group to come in with 50 to 60 people, take the spot over.”
Food, though, can still be an issue.
“We’ve had a lot of great food trucks,” he said. “We’ve kind of gone through a lot of them. Some are great and some aren’t. A lot of them have great food, but maybe their business sense isn’t that good. They’re not as reliable. You have to go through that motion to figure out who’s reliable. Now we have a good contingent of food trucks and our customers can depend on it. We’re not a brewpub. We really depend on great food choices.
“We have a great relationship with Davido’s Pizza down the street, the pho bar down the plaza, (and) the food trucks. But we are really looking for a great restaurant to move into the plaza. We had one here earlier on, and unfortunately they didn’t stick around. They were in here serving our customers directly and that was really awesome. I’m hoping to get a great restaurant into this space and continue that relationship.”
Brew Lab 101 does have live music from time to time, and there is now a weekly trivia night on Wednesdays that the staff runs independently from groups like Geeks Who Drink.
“I’m really happy that I think we’ve sort of achieved the vibe I was really after,” Scott said. “That’s really awesome and inspiring to see. To spend years thinking of a place, envisioning it, constructing it, and then sit back and say this is exactly what I’ve been trying to do. That’s been the probably the most awesome part of it.”
Scott also made sure to credit the people working out front.
“At the end of the day the staff is the glue that holds everything together,” he said. “You can have great beer, you can have a great location, but you need the staff because they’re the ones who interact with the public. We’ve been really, really fortunate. A lot of things have fallen into our favor. The city has been great with us.
“This plaza is really picking up. We just had an indoor volleyball court set up next door. We’ve got a rage room that’s opening up in about two weeks. We’re really starting to bring this plaza back to life, which is huge. Southern is finally done, as you probably saw, it’s not under construction. Hallelujah!”
As the brewery speeds toward its first anniversary this summer, Scott talked about some of the plans he has for the rest of 2020 and beyond.
“In the business model year one, like we’re talking about before, was all about establishing this taproom as a great spot,” he said. “A great neighborhood, family-friendly spot, make this the anchor, don’t focus on distribution. Really get that brand out there by coming here. As we move forward into this year, we want to get into some light distribution. We want to make sure we always keep our taps number one.”
Scott would like to get out of the house, so to speak, for at least one thing this year.
“We’re probably going to do some more collaborations,” he said. “We really want to do some collabs, get together with Steel Bender and Bosque and do a collab. We’re going to get to together with Josh (James) at Black Snout and do a seltzer collab. A lot of people are asking for seltzer. It’s probably one of those ones where I didn’t know if I ever wanted to do a seltzer, but it seems like it’s not just a fad, it seems like it’s sticking around. We’re going to get together and do that this weekend and dive into that market a little bit.”
Besides that, Scott is taking a long-term view and considering what will happen further down the line.
“We’ve been approached a couple times to grow into some other taprooms, that may be in the future,” he said. “That’s really something more a couple years out in the business plan. We always wanted to grow organically based upon demand, not necessarily aggressively push ourselves out there. We’ve talked about canning a little bit, having some in-house packaged sales. We’re trying to figure out what people want. It’s fun, and kind of scary, to respond to that. It’s a fun problem to have.”
A big thanks to Scott for the interview and the pint of stout. We wish them all the luck here in 2020.