We’re now more than a month into the *zombie apocalypse, and while some of us are getting restless and anxious for an end to the madness, some are settling into what may be the new normal (for a while) in the best way they know how. But, at least with the rules of engagement no longer in major flux, or becoming more and more restrictive each day, our New Mexico brewing industry is learning to adapt and working hard on the products they can still sell to the public.
With a little better understanding of everything that’s going on, and very importantly, having a little more time on my hands than usual, I was able to resume my quest to finish up Santa Fe’s portion of the Look Back/Look Ahead Series. And so, in the ghost-town-empty Rufina taproom, a proper 6-to-9 feet apart, I sat down with president and brewmaster Rod Tweet and head brewer Tom Ludzia. Over a pint, we talked about how Second Street Brewery’s 2019 went, what they had planned for 2020, and having scrapped most of that, and what they’re working on now, in a very special Look Back/Look Ahead COVID-19 edition.
“We had a really good year,” Tweet said.
2018 had been more of a building year for Second Street’s youngest property. They had just opened up the Rufina location in the fall of 2017; 2018 was Rufina’s first full year. And, in 2019 they were starting to hit their stride with the new restaurant/taproom/event space operating profitably for the first time. All three restaurants saw really strong numbers in 2019, according to Tweet.
Also new to Second Street was their wholesale operation, which saw a good amount of progress in 2019, getting their products into a little over a hundred accounts.
Second Street’s brewing volume also made another incremental leap from 2018-19, Tweet said, though exact barrelage numbers weren’t as easy to remember with the immediate future looming more present in mind. More volume, however meant more hands were needed to stir the pot, so to speak.
“It was nice to bump Ben up from Cellarman,” Ludzia said.
Ben Murdock began his training on the brewdeck at the original location at the end of 2019, and is now a full-time brewer, or as close to full-time as it gets these days.
With beer, they had hit a certain stride as well, as they began doing a lot more of the core brewing at the Rufina location.
“With Rufina (brewhouse) getting fired up, it opened up the Original to brew some varieties that we hadn’t been able to experiment with before,” Ludzia said.
Like their new properly lagered Dopplebock. They had brewed it on December 20, and had originally planned to release it right after St. Paddy’s Day.
“Some of it’s still sitting in the tank,” Ludzia informed us. Some of it has gone to good homes in growlers.
After a long, satisfied sip of his beer, Ludzia said, “It’s nice to have extra tank space to devote to projects like that.”
Rufina has come into its own as Second Street’s production facility (just as planned) with around 80 percent of the beer brewing schedule focused on packaged core beers, and working in various seasonals when possible. The 10-barrel brewhouse at the “Oldery” is still humming away, with Ludzia at the crank, making for an ideal brewing situation to service three busy taprooms.
Second Street got several projects off the ground in 2019. They began a new hazy IPA program beginning with Sloppy Sloth IPA, which you may have seen the incredible can art and concept from the indefatigable Mariah Scee. They answered the Brut IPA call, with a couple of their own. As well as brewed up a special one-off IPA for the Santa Fe Institute’s Interplanetary Festival, which ran concurrent with Second Street’s annual Crab & Pilsner Festival. To say the summer of ’19 was a busy one for Second Street would certainly draw a scoff or two from those in the know section.
Second Street was certainly on their way to another successful year in the books.
“We had a pretty heavy 2020 mapped out,” Tweet said.
Before everything happened, Second Street started off the year with a good first quarter, rebounding quickly at each taproom after the usual slow season. Even the wholesale team’s numbers were something to raise a glass to.
“It was pretty encouraging because we were pretty excited about killin’ it going into the season,” Tweet said.
On March 26, shortly after the Coronavirus hit New Mexico in a hard way, and restrictions were placed on how restaurants and breweries could do business, Second Street announced that they were going to cease their to-go-only food service and close their doors at all three locations.
While a good portion of Santa Feans scrambled to pick their jaws up off the floor, Tweet and company headed to the ‘board room.’
“We had a bunch of meetings. We’re still having meetings,” Tweet said, half-chuckling. Then soberly, he added, “We normally run at about 120 employees. We laid off something over 100, which was a sad, sad deal. But, we had no choice, because it was the restaurant side. All the brewery production people, Steve the wholesale manager, Steve the driver, and Mariah (Scee), basically we’re the only people on the payroll at this point.”
That happened really fast.
“It’s traumatic for people,” Tweet continued. “For restaurants and brewpub operators, when you’re restaurant oriented, November, December, January, February, are the tough months of the year. Almost no one is putting away cash.
“So, if you want to pick the most evil timing in the world for this all to happen, from a restaurant point-of-view, you couldn’t have picked it any better, because St. Paddy’s Day is the marker. That’s when the numbers go back up for everyone. It’s especially brutal on all restaurant operators, brewpubs or not, because your cash reserves are usually at their low-point at that time of year, so that’s why, almost universally every restaurant operator had to lay off.”
Tweet immediately applied for every available federal assistance he could find. He even filed an insurance claim, which he said was denied in a record six days.
They were just funded for the Payment Protection Program at 9 a.m. the morning I interviewed them.
“We will very carefully be putting that to strategic use,” said Tweet, cautiously auspicious.
Second Street, with the current staff, have continued on as best they can, working each day to keep the business going, watching the news, and hoping that everything gets better and soon returns to whatever normal will look like when we come out of this.
At the moment, there is no certainty to the immediate future.
Unfortunately, for a lot of what Second Street had planned for the year, just as with many other venues everywhere, events are on hold or just flat out cancelled.
Venue managar Eliza Lutz had a packed concert schedule for 2020. But, as things are playing out now, events have just become markings on a calendar, swallowed up by the virus one week at a time.
Ludzia had been working very closely with New Mexico United in what was to be an unforgettable season for team supporters in the area. For those not yet in the know, NM United is our very own professional soccer team based out of Albuquerque. He had Second Street Rufina all set up to host watch parties for away games on their new projector screen. Second Street had over 150 people over at their Rufina location for the first away game watch party, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Ludzia even brewed a sessionable beer for them called Brew Wallace IPA, named after the 11th governor of the New Mexico Territory, Lew Wallace, whose ‘Curse’ New Mexico United fans have embraced and now call themselves.
But in #NewMexicoTrue form, unfortunately we’re just going to have to be ALL Somos Unidos manana, as due to the epidemic, this season isn’t happening, either.
“As far as what we had planned for 2020, between Eliza’s concerts and watch parties it would have been non-stop, full house,” Ludzia said.
Other Second Street partnership events that are out of luck, on hold (but should be followed up on) are Santa Fe Institute’s Interplanetary Festival, Folk Art Market, 2nd Annual Bitter Day Festival of ESBs, and the Crab & Pilsner Festival, to name a few.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but most of these events may just be a skip for 2020 by virtue of the timing,” Tweet said.
Second Street had also planned to put in another cooler in the brewhouse space at Rufina, and they had just bought another package vehicle for the wholesale team, which is now just sitting on the lot. Tweet had just purchased two 40-barrel fermenters from Rhode Island which are also sitting in a small state of uncertainty.
The plan was adding around 120 barrels of new capacity. That’s a lot of beer that would have been available to the masses. That’s still going to happen, but at a much slower pace. I suppose that goes for the masses, too.
Speaking of which, this is still happening, but at a much slower pace:
Heading into 2020, Second Street was ready to brew up the next in the Sloppy Sloth Hazy IPA series (of three) with some pretty cool hops (the Zappa hop of the neo-mexicanus variety and Strata hop straight outta Oregon), according to Tweet. The great news is that they’re continuing with this project and putting it all into cans for your chance to really embrace the sloth days of summer and for all your stay-at-home happy hours. And, though this one will surely cross the finish line at some point, the project itself is moving at the slow and steady speed of our new friend the Sloppy Sloth.
Down to a very small crew, the guys at Second Street are focusing their time on making the product they can sell. They just rolled out Dragon’s Blood Sour, which they’ll continue to make for another month or so. You can get growlers of their 2020 World Beer Cup entry, Imperial IPA, which is mostly Strata hop focused, until it’s gone.
Beer to go
Between both brewhouses, Second Street has a great lineup of beer available to purchase online and pick up by the six-pack, case, or growler on Tuesdays and Fridays at Rufina from 3-to-6 p.m. They’re not charging for growlers these days, but instead using a take a growler, leave a growler model to mitigate some of the costs and inevitable mountain of glassware some of us may have already amassed.
So far, Tweet said he has been very happy with the public turnout and support. Ordering online and making beer available for safe pick-up twice a week at the Rufina Taproom has been a true game changer, and for us as well, especially for those of us jonesing for 2920 IPA.
So where do we go from here? I asked what it would take to open the taprooms again.
“That’s what we’re doing right now, is trying to figure out opening, which is pretty hard to do with these open-ended dates,” Tweet said. “If the governor says, ‘OK, restaurants and bars, you can all open, but you have to maintain a 50-percent capacity,’ for most restaurants and bars, it’s not really sustainable. You can’t make the numbers and cover the overhead and the labor and come out ahead.”
“This is pretty serious stuff for a restaurant operator,” Tweet continued. “Because if restaurants can’t make the normal numbers that they’re used to for six months, eight months out, I don’t think there’s any federal relief that’s going to make that right.”
Postulating on how to save the business is now a full-time job for many. A lot of ideas get tossed around, some thrown out the window, and some revisited, but with local government caveats.
Ludzia mentioned beer delivery.
“That’s a good thing to bring up, if the Guild wants something to work on,” Tweet said into the mic. “If it was legal, it would be another mode for us to operate in. It could help replace some of what we’ve lost.”
At that point, Ludzia volunteered to drive a pint right to your door, just like the boyos are doing in Ireland.
Even for the breweries that can manage to keep the lights on, with closed doors, it’s going to be difficult.
Camaraderie, togetherness, being at the brewery with your buds, or with family, or with friendly strangers, those are as much a product that Second Street sells as their beer and food.
“People crave it, and right now, we’re prevented from delivering that,” Tweet said.
“So many people that have mentioned what they miss most is being around people, even if it’s friends or strangers, and having a pint at the bar. We don’t even want to brag about this right now, because, even though we’re social distancing, we’re having a pint, and a conversation, and this, this is sacred,” Ludzia said, holding his pint up in better lighting.
We can’t pack the patios right now, fill the floor tables, sit shoulder to shoulder along the rail, but it’ll happen again sometime. Ludzia is very hopeful of that. So are we all.
Different from other Look Back/Look Ahead Series articles, where a brewer might excitedly talk about expanding tank space, or opening a new taproom in a new town, Second Street is excited to share that they hope to be opening up the kitchen again, revisiting food to-go again as soon as they make a few tweaks to their POS.
The rest of 2020, 18 months, 2 years? We don’t know what’s going to happen. For now, I asked the two what they’re doing to keep their sanity.
Whether they’re exploring federal aid, enjoying more family time, making masks for first responders, or transforming their bodies via prison-style workout regimen, “A lot of dog walks,” seemed to be the common denominator.
To good beer, and hopes for better times ahead, cheers!
[/caption]To good beer, and hopes for better times ahead, cheers!
For more #SupportLocal posts and @NMDarkSide new follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro.
*not zombie apocalypse