Our continuing journey to get to know our brewery owners and staff members on a more personal level has led us to Steel Bender Brewyard in Los Ranchos. We had a lovely tête-à-tête with Ethan Chant (co-owner with his brothers Chris and Greg), Shelby Chant (co-owner and marketing director), April Varela (general manager), and Bob Haggerty (head brewer) to find out more about what bending steel means to them.
What was the last job you had before Steel Bender?
Ethan: Land developer.
Shelby: Marketing communications manager and copywriter at Rio Grande Jewelry Supply.
April: Assistant manager at Kellys Brewpub.
Bob: Head brewer at Ponderosa Brewing.
What first inspired your love of craft beer?
Ethan: Chama River Brewing was right by my office. Their house and rotating beers just grabbed me. I realized beer could be more than what commercials said it was.
Shelby: Pretty sure the first craft beer I ever had was at Steamworks in Durango, Colorado, but where it took hold was at Chama. I never really enjoyed beer before that … Being able to taste the hard work, creativity, and care that went into every beer made me want to learn more, try more styles, and appreciate the uniqueness of different beers brewed by different brewers.
April: I started working at Chama River Brewing Company in 2005, right when it opened and right before I turned 21. I started learning about the different styles of beer before I could even taste them. At one point, one of the brewers brewed a series of single-hopped pale ales and it was really cool getting to learn about each hop varietal on its own.
Bob: I came of drinking age in Maine, and was exposed to lots of regional beers from great breweries like Geary’s, Gritty’s, and most importantly for me, Allagash Brewing. I also need to give a nod to Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale as the first beer that I looked forward to every year, and probably did more for my love of hops, early on, than any other. Being on the East Coast, I was also able to get beer from Europe in a much fresher state than is possible in NM. That got me exploring the beers of Belgium and thus expanding my understanding of what beer can be. I especially appreciated the lack of adherence to style guidelines.
What inspired you to open Steel Bender Brewyard?
Ethan: We wanted to build a neighborhood pub that would be inviting to everyone. Friends, co-workers, families, etc. We wanted it to enhance a sense of community.
Shelby: We wanted to provide a comfortable public house that would become a “second home” for folks. The hope was that guests would really engage in what we built, more than just eating and drinking. Visiting for live music and events, working with us to support charities, becoming friends with our crew, celebrating life events, making future plans, appreciating and learning about craft beer…ultimately it’s our guests who have created the atmosphere we wanted.
What is the toughest thing about opening a brewery?
Ethan: The massive weight gain. Just kidding. Forecasting. Surprises are inevitable, and often welcome. But, trying to predetermine what beers will sell well and in what region can be tricky. The taproom sales aren’t always good indicators of what beers perform in the wild. Also, trying to ensure our employees have a good balance between work life and personal/ home life.
Shelby: I think it’s like owning any business, it’s your “baby.” So you think about it, worry about it, dream about it pretty much 24/7. How do we keep our guests interested and coming back? How do we stand out in the New Mexico craft beer community that has set the bar miles high? How do we try to please everyone knowing that we can’t please everyone? How do we keep our staff happy? Toughest thing, I guess, is that our brains just don’t get much rest. Let’s skip the part about the toughest thing about owning a brewery (any business) during a global pandemic … that one’s best answered over a beer.
In addition to your amazing draft and canned beers, you also offer a pretty unique variety of barrel-aged and bottle-conditioned beers. What inspires your team to produce these specialty brews?
Bob: My focus in brewing has always been to create beers that speak for themselves. By expanding the vocabulary through barrel aging, use of mixed cultures and novel ingredients, I feel as though I can create something that is unique and reflects the place and time in which the beer came to be. These beers represent a very small slice of the pie when it comes to sales, but I feel as though it is important to have some offerings that are truly idiosyncratic. I also very much enjoy using more traditional, slower methods of production as they often bring out qualities in the beer that are simply impossible to achieve by other means. I feel as though it is important to take it slow sometimes and enjoy the results.
Shelby: Side note, one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted was a stout Bob brewed on his system at home (the prototype for Blue Bullet Stout) that he conditioned in the bottle with brett. He brought some cheese along, pretty sure it was Camembert, and I thought I had died and gone to France.
Your slogan during the pandemic has been “Stronger. Because we’re bending steel together.” Can you tell us a little bit about what that means to you and your team?
Ethan: When you bend steel, you usually need help. This help can be machines, levers, pressure, etc. But, to get through this, we need to help each other. And, when we work together, we are inevitably stronger.
Shelby: We had just lost about 95-percent of our taproom staff due to the shutdown. The taproom was quiet, its usual liveliness gone since we were only doing takeout. We missed our guests and our staff. But, during that time, the support was unreal. Guests who had their own challenges to deal with would come in for food and package to go, sometimes leaving a 30-percent tip or more for our skeleton crew (someone even left a $100 tip for a six-pack of beer!). They told us how much they missed us and thanked us for hanging in there so that they could have a sense of normalcy. Our staff put on even more hats than they normally wear to keep things running day-to-day. And, our fellow breweries, well, I say it all the time: New Mexico has the best Brewers Guild around. Our executive director, Leah Black, and the entire board have worked tirelessly through this to keep us informed, supported, and motivated. Our breweries have been “bending steel” with quite agility like never before.
April: During the pandemic we have had to adjust to frequent changes across the board. Not only has the staff had to adjust to those changes, so have our guests. We had lots of support from our guests and have been grateful that for the most part, they are willing to adjust with us so that we can keep our doors open and our staff working.
What plans do you have for the future of Steel Bender?
Ethan: Immediately, we plan to be as malleable as possible while still moving forward. Preparing ourselves, the best we can, for the unknown.
Shelby: The near future is about staying agile. It’s difficult to plan, whether for the taproom or for distribution, when things can and do change as quickly and frequently as they have been. This is where a great deal of our attention is right now in an effort to keep the taproom that bit of normalcy for guests and to keep our distribution accounts stocked and happy.
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Even in the middle of a pandemic, Steel Bender has succeeded in helping their guests find a sense of normalcy and camaraderie, all while keeping us safe and satiated. Be sure to visit their awesome patio (complete with heaters!) to enjoy a classic pint of Blue Bullet Stout, or indulge in one of their bottle-conditioned beauties.
As always, may the beer be with you.