Since the breweries have begun to reopen to customers in the last month, we have tackled the big ones, the ones with food, and those known for hosting events. Then there are the smallest breweries, the places that did not have canning lines, or kitchens, or a decade or more of history to fall back upon.
Not wanting to leave them out, I headed out to Kilt Check Brewing, Sidetrack Brewing, and Thirsty Eye Brewing last week to see how each has survived the pandemic restrictions so far. They often echoed each other in both struggles and success stories, as one might expect, though each did have some unique ups and downs.
“After doing this for four years, we thought we had a handle on the pace finally,” Sidetrack co-owner Dan Herr said. “We’re feeling pretty comfortable about how much beer we produce, how much we sell, what styles and what varieties. Then everything got wrenched and we had to learn all over again. I think those sorts of things are unique to a pub in general. They’re probably not the same sort of things that the bigger guys were dealing with. The bigger guys are pretty much doing their core flagship line. Maybe the volume changes a little bit, but it’s not the same sort of thing that we have to wrestle with here.”
When Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham shut down most of the state in mid-March, Sidetrack may have been the best positioned of the three breweries thanks to one piece of equipment.
“In the very beginning, after the to-go-only sales came on, we sold so many crowlers,” Dan said. “You couldn’t have been prepared for it. I don’t know what the exact factor was, but it was like a factor of 10 (times normal). We had a certain inventory of cans, and then you kinda see it coming and you’re ‘OK, we’ve got to get some cans.’ You start working on it and you’re already like two weeks too late.”
“Yeah, they were the hottest thing in the industry all of a sudden,” head brewer David Kimball added.
“That was a weird thing to go through, to get caught in this supply chain thing,” Dan said. “We survived through that. All the canning distribution people caught up eventually. We’ve got a pallet of cans we’re going through at our normal pace again.
“We really did have good support from people coming up and buying to-go beer initially. We kept a certain volume of sales up, but the volume really tapered off as time went on.”
Kilt Check and Thirsty Eye could only sell growlers, and that caused the latter to initially shut it down completely.
“Well, right before it went down, we were constantly improving every part (of the business),” Thirsty Eye co-owner Kim Arthun said. “We had an April that looked like it was going to be great. Our March wasn’t bad. And then, the shutdown. Like you were just saying, we were very event-driven. We had something almost every night. That goes along with the gallery, all that kind of stuff.
“I think in my mind, I was thinking the taproom sales (to-go only) wouldn’t cut it. What could we do?”
Ultimately, the first thing that Kim did was copy his friends at Sidetrack.
“The minute they shut things down I bought a crowler machine,” he said. “It’s probably the best thing we ever did.”
While Kim and the rest of the Thirsty Eye staff got together to brainstorm some additional ideas while they awaited the arrival of said machine, Kilt Check owner/brewer Mike Campbell tried to forge ahead.
“The full shutdown was (highlighted by) our regulars kept coming in,” he said. “They were generous, they came often. One woman, I don’t know her name, she’s been in a lot. The first week of lockdown she told me, ‘I’ll be back soon, but I’ve got five other breweries to keep in business.’ She’s come nearly every week. I’m not making any judgments about how much you’re drinking.”
At one point, Mike joked that he would fill a bucket if he was legally allowed to do so, but eventually things started getting lean for his brewery.
“When she opened restaurants, that was our worst week in sales ever,” Mike said of that decision in late May. “Now everyone could go to a restaurant and get a craft beer. Then when she opened breweries with patios, that was our second worst week ever. Now we are having (some) new people come in. I still see a lot of people that are (only) going to places they usually go to. The out-of-state traffic is nonexistent.”
Those tough stretches hit the others as well.
“The weirder time was when the restaurants opened but the breweries weren’t allowed to open,” Dan said. “Some of the breweries, they pushed it, because there’s not a brewery out there that does 50 percent food (sales).”
“Well, Nexus maybe,” David added.
Dan said the Sidetrack staff even got some angry phone calls from customers who did not understand the reasons why they could not reopen but the brewpubs could.
“We had parity with the restaurants throughout this whole thing and now there was a line that got drawn,” he added. “That was a weird aspect of this whole thing.”
Over at Thirsty Eye, the brainstorming soon bore fruit, as the brewery eventually reopened for to-go sales.
“We weren’t going to sit there and take it,” head brewer John Kofonow said. “There was so much brainstorming. We came up with lots of ideas. We didn’t go through with everything. Working out the front-door takeout service made a big deal. We did apply for and get two months of the PPP loan, which really, that probably also helped a lot. At first, takeout orders were slow and we were still paying people to (work) here.”
John also made the use of his other profession to help the brewery.
“I’m actually a web designer in my other life, so I built out our online store page so that people could prepay for their growlers and crowler fills and then we could do front-door pickup here,” he said. “Honestly, I think that really did help us keep afloat. We still took phone orders, but it saved our bacon.”
Thinking back to the initial shutdown had been hard on John and Thirsty Eye. He had just brewed the 50th beer in their history and things had seemed to settle into a solid routine for the brewery, which had only opened in June 2019.
“It was right where we wanted to be,” Kim added.
During the interviews, everyone knew the governor was going to have a press conference that day detailing her frustration with COVID-19 positive tests trending upward again. It was clear that everyone was more than a bit nervous.
“Part of the problem is just not knowing (what’s next),” Kim said. “If she closed it down for Fourth of July weekend, we would probably be OK. I don’t think we could handle being shut down again. The bills don’t stop. We kept up with everything (so far).”
The others agreed.
“We got approval for the (temporary) patio and I bought some stuff to make it work,” Mike said. “But, I’m thinking tomorrow she may close us down again or keep us at this level. Keep me at this level, but don’t close me down again. I can’t make it through that. I can’t go to only growler (sales) again.”
That mention of a patio was one of the positive little signs that during all this downtime, Kilt Check and the other breweries did get to work on some projects, big and small.
“We’re designing our patio and we’re going to put in for the permanent, and probably bigger,” Mike said. “We’ve got 15 by 40 feet and 20 people outside over here. But, when we do permanent, I want to go to 80 feet, almost the length of the building. It’s on the other side of this door is a roll-up garage door, so just open those doors.”
The changes at Thirsty Eye were largely behind the scenes.
“In the brewery, I’ve been fine-tuning some processes and got to revise some things, reorganize some things to make my work-flow better,” John said. “It gave me a little more time to spend time on recipes. Even a year in, there’s still a little amount of fine-tuning on recipes, even the core recipes we repeat all the time. Like for example, our latest batch of house IPA, El Drac, just came out like gangbusters. It gave me a little extra time to review all my processes.”
Sidetrack busted out the tool belts.
“We redid the majority of our draft system,” David said. “That was badly needed to be done. We get a lot more efficient pours, for the most part. New tables, Dan worked on refinishing all these tables. A small thing, but really nice.”
“With nobody in the taproom, there’s no excuse to not do anything about that,” Dan added.
There was also a small piece of equipment purchased that could lead to some fun things in the future.
“We just got that new 1-barrel fermenter in to do some yeast propagation,” Dan said.
“A little experimental stuff,” David explained. “We’ll have some one-offs, yeast propagation mainly, but some one-offs. It should be pretty fun.”
Throw in fresh coats of paint, vinyl flooring behind the bar, and more, and Sidetrack is certainly looking good and moving along.
“We’ve got some more stuff we’re working on,” David said.
“We’re still trying to figure out the patio,” Dan said. “(But) we probably need to make some money before we do anything too big.”
Making that money is still not what it once was in the era before the pandemic.
“When we were allowed to have on-premises sales again, we had a pretty decent weekend,” Dan said. “Things came back, I won’t say to normal, but something that felt like somewhat normal, with a familiar routine. That’s kind of tapered off for us again. We do OK because we have low overhead and not a lot of stuff we have to worry about. But, the volume of sales is definitely down. People aren’t coming out too much.”
It is the same story at the other breweries.
“At this point, we’re pretty even with bills and everything like that,” Mike said. “(But) I can’t go another full month without being able to have bands or the karaoke. At this point, I haven’t had 36 people in here at one time yet.”
In other words, the smallest breweries are still really in need of our help. If you can head out to support them this week, please do so. The tables may be further apart and the bands may not be playing, but the beer is still delicious, and the employees are still working hard and smiling under their masks. Grab your masks and head over to grab a pint and maybe a crowler or growler to go.
A big thanks to Mike, Kim, John, Dan, and David for all meeting up even with the governor’s press conference going down that day. Thankfully, it was still business-as-now-usual, but that could still change in the coming weeks depending on how that coronavirus curve looks.
Keep supporting local!