The doom and gloom lies thick in the air these days of unending pandemic woe. For our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series, certainly the effects of COVID-19 on our craft brewing scene is the dominant theme. However, in this stretch of darkness, we asked the breweries to help us find the light, some hope for today and tomorrow, and to show everyone that even under the most difficult of circumstances that they continue to move forward.
Keeping with the times, I sat down over Zoom with La Cumbre owner/master brewer Jeff Erway to discuss how one of the biggest and most successful breweries in our state has weathered the relentless challenges of 2020, and what glimmer of hope he sees on the horizon for 2021.
“As a company we were very lucky for a lot of reasons,” Erway said. “Specifically as far as the pandemic goes, we were able to open up about 150 Wal-Marts in three states in February, which was convenient, obviously. We opened up Costco and a number of new Kroeger (stores) in Arizona. The first quarter of 2020 was our best quarter, right up to about March 14, (it) was the best quarter we’ve had in about six years. We were having a great quarter (in package sales). Our taprooms were having a great quarter, too.”
The bright beginning to 2020 was a bit unexpected after growth across the craft beer industry had been reduced to single-digits in terms of percentage of revenue.
“Craft beer had a couple years that weren’t great,” Erway said. “The quarter leading up to the pandemic was great for most people I’ve talked to. We’d done a great job putting up a brand calendar for our distributors. We were proud of the beers. Just like everybody else, that went to crap.”
As the pandemic rolled over America around St. Patrick’s Day, La Cumbre and every other brewery saw things grind to a halt. Taprooms were shut down, business went to takeout only, and the fear and uncertainty began to take hold.
The financial hit, while significant, did not cripple La Cumbre.
“Since then, I’m really pleased to announce that La Cumbre has not laid off a single staff member,” Erway said. “We’ve hired a few people over the last couple months. As far as my job goes, is the biggest accomplishment of the year for me. We had some people lose a few hours here and there. I was proud to hear from some of my co-workers that, ‘I’m happy to have you cut my hours than lay (other) people off.’”
Even without customers in the taproom, and later in reduced occupancy inside and outside, everyone at La Cumbre was able to stay busy and, most importantly, employed.
“The brewery side of things has stayed busy,” Erway said. “The distribution side has stayed incredibly busy. When we weren’t cleaning draft lines and kegs, we were out merchandising nonstop because the sales were so strong out of those chain stores. The successes we’ve had during the pandemic are a great credit to the team we have put together. Not just the management team, but the boots on the ground. I’m proud of what they’ve done.”
Several new beers and returning seasonal/specialty offerings hit it big for the brewery.
“On the beer side of things, we did a fairly good job of staying consistent to the brand calendar we presented,” Erway said. “We had stronger sales. We had a release of a kolsch called Zuzax that performed as well or better than anyone could have possibly hoped for. And then, Acclimated also was executed and performed really, really well. I think both beers came out fantastically. From the distribution side, those were successes. We sold twice as much Oktoberfest as we ever had. Last year our distributors and our sales people on the ground told us to make more Oktoberfest. We brewed twice as much as last year. It’s a great problem to have. We’ll brew even more next year.”
The current packaged seasonals, Gilded Age Porter and Luminosity Hazy IPA, have also sold quite well. Erway said a big part of the success of many of the beers this year has been due to a change in one key ingredient.
“I had the old Chama River yeast come back into my life about a year ago,” he said. “That has fueled a lot of one-off releases that we’ve done and the successes of those beers. Obviously Cory (Campbell, creative director) with his graphic design skills, and the whole team coming up with the marketing content, from the beer side standpoint I think our team has done an incredible job not only innovating through the pandemic, we’ve been averaging two new beers every month through the pandemic. The successes of those from a beer standpoint is due to that yeast that we’ve really grown to love. We’ve moved several of our core brands over to that yeast and they’re all better for it.”
Of course with every positive development in 2020 comes a new challenge. As we noted recently, there is a nationwide aluminum can shortage that is starting to hit everyone from craft breweries to even the giants like Anheuser Busch and Coca-Cola.
“Now, unfortunately, we’re having to really rein in some of that renovation because of the can shortage and the insecurity that poses for all of us,” Erway said. “It’s not that we are going to run out of cans, it’s that we have obligations to our retailers to our wholesalers to supply them with the beer they need to fill their shelves. That means at least for a little while that Elevated, Hefen, Malpais will take precedence. We have enough blanks to still do some of our seasonal.
“We’ve pulled back production on Project Dank. That’s unfortunate. Especially from a business standpoint running out of a beer at that price point is not desirable. (But) running out of Elevated IPA is not an option for us.”
The shortage has been driven by public demand outstripping the orders placed in advance of the pandemic era. Erway noted that normally, package sales out of the two taprooms normally only account for 20 percent of total sales, but for a while, it was 100 percent.
“If I’m just looking at this taproom’s sales, a four-week average (of can sales) you’re looking at least 70 percent,” he said. “Which is awesome, and we certainly appreciate it. I just hope that people consider whether you’re buying beer from me or Ex Novo or Bow & Arrow or Sidetrack, fill up those growlers. Fill up a keg.
“I can speak for the entire New Mexico Brewers Guild, we will be very happy if everyone gets a kegerator (for the holidays).”
Changing sales numbers are one thing, but another major effect of the pandemic is of course on the psyche of everyone, from the La Cumbre staff to customers.
“We’re all kind of shellshocked, aren’t we? I am,” Erway said. “I had never had so many people start talking to me about conversations that they had with their therapists. Good on you, good for taking care of yourselves. I can’t tell how many people, co-workers and patrons, are just very clearly at their breaking limit, stressed to high hell. Early on, all of us were afraid to lose our jobs. All of us were. I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. I get to run one of the more successful breweries in the country, (and yet) I was afraid for the future.”
Erway said that seeing the way the La Cumbre staff members stepped up for one another was heartening.
“I feel like our staff as a whole have done an exception job of looking out for each other, taking the two or three minutes out of their day to stop and, from a distance, (and ask) are you OK, how are you doing,” he said. “Everyone seems so much more patient than they ever have before. They’re patient with me, which they better be, because I need it. They’re patient with each other. They understand not everyone is firing on all cylinders. There’s an incredible amount of understanding and caring for each other.”
Erway gave all the credit to his staff for picking each other up, deflecting any for himself.
“It’s been really inspiring,” he said. “I often think back to the first few months of the brewery being open and I had nervous breakdowns, puddle of tears, shaking, panic attacks. My wife (Laura) was a rock for me. She really helped me up. Not that my wife hasn’t helped me up during this, but she’s at home helping our two little boys maintain their level of education. My staff here has been a rock, I hate how cliché it sounds, but they have made sure I get to work and get the job done. I do it in response to them.”
Back to the beers, Erway said he was quite proud of how a few turned out, and how the public responded, even to some he did not think passed muster. In some ways, the brewery was still flying by the seat of its pants, so to speak, with some of its special releases.
“Obviously there was no calendar for these double hazy IPAs that we did,” he said. “We were coming up with those in real time. Some that knocked it out of the park, others that why did we stand in line for those. Sometimes I agreed with the exuberance toward certain ones. Sometimes I didn’t understand. … (There were) certain ones that people critiqued that I didn’t get at all. It just goes to show that I’m old and not in touch with what they seem to dig. I was really proud of Zuzax, I thought Zuzax nailed it. I’m also a huge kolsch fan. That was a good one, I was very pleased with that one. The 11-degree (Czech) lager that’s on tap with right now, that’s mine, I love that one.”
Erway said he liked the subtle changes they made to Acclimated, even if the judges of at the Great American Beer Festival did not reward it with another medal this year (it won silver in 2019). Oktoberfest was also a favorite, and Erway said it received some praise from the brewers at Bierstadt Lagerhaus in Denver when he brought it over to them.
Normally this would also be the time of year when we would talk about the upcoming 10th anniversary bash for La Cumbre, which was scheduled for early December. The anniversary will still happen, though it will be toned down.
“We had a great concept, a really great concept,” Erway said. “We were going to do a 10-month barrel-aged Baltic porter, a 10-week Vienna lager, and a 10-day IPA. Now we’ll see what happens (Friday), but I don’t think anybody is going to be surprised.”
Erway was referring to the Friday press conference coming from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who will update the public health order, with many breweries expecting a return to takeout only, or perhaps even a complete shutdown due to the spiking coronavirus case numbers statewide.
With that huge unknown hanging over La Cumbre in the immediacy, and the even greater unknown of when a vaccine might become available in 2021, it is awfully hard to project the future at this point.
“We’re trying to look at what our can allocations are for the next month or so,” Erway said. “If we can, no pun intended, we will be canning the 10-month Baltic porter, but the 10-week Vienna will only be available on draft. If we get shut down, I will be drinking a lot of Vienna lager. We’ve got a Munich dunkel coming out after that. We’re not going to produce the 10-day IPA.”
The 10-day IPA was an inside joke referring to how, back in 2010 when the brewery opened, people told Erway that a 10-day fermentation was too short for a proper IPA like Elevated. In the end, La Cumbre had the last laugh as it won gold at GABF in 2011.
Getting back to the anniversary, there will be beers, but not much else.
“We’re not going to have any festivities, we feel it’s not responsible to do so,” he said. “Encouraging people to come out to our taprooms is an awkward, weird dance. We want them to come, but we want them to stay home. It’s awkward to see (out of state) license plates in our parking lot.”
The focus for La Cumbre, and Erway specifically, will not change going from 2020 to 2021.
“My overarching goal throughout this pandemic, and this will continue into 2021, is to make sure that my co-workers get through this feeling not only good about where they work, but that we as a management team did everything we could to make at the very least their employment as pain-free as possible,” he said. “That’s been a lot of work. It’s been an incredible amount of work. I know we haven’t done everything right. The front-of-house staff that they’ve had to deal with, the amount of grief that they’ve been given by some patrons — and I’ve heard about the horror stories at all the other (breweries’) taprooms, too — what these servers have put up with is unbelievable. I just hope we come out of this pandemic with our service industry intact. It has become a very, very stressful job for many of them.”
There may not be as many new beers rolling out to start the new year, but Erway still sees hope on the horizon.
“On the beer front, I’m hopeful that the vaccine is forthcoming and that will alleviate our can shortages and then we can go back to what I feel we’re best at — that’s innovating and getting people interested in our brand and the beer that we drink,” he said.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we will have a very good 2021, especially the second half. In the meantime, I have been good at hunkering down and conservatively running a top-notch craft brewery for the past couple of years and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
I pass along a huge thank you to Jeff for being so open and forthcoming in this interview. As all of you likely know, it can be so hard to find the silver linings these days, but to hear it from one of the most respected members of our brewing community fills me with a little more hope going forward.
This series will continue, come rain or shine, government shutdown or continued limited operations, with more tales from our breweries next week. Until then …
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