All of 2020, or at least since mid-March, has been a battle to find the bright spots in a dark year. Over at Marble Brewery, the staff has been focused on staying as positive as they can, all while keeping the machinery moving along through one challenge after another.
Over the course of a few days last week, I spoke to president and chief operating officer Barbie Gonzalez on Zoom, marketing and events coordinator Geraldine Lucero over email, and brewmaster Josh Trujillo in likely the last in-person interview of the year, all for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
“I think we’re living in a shadow right now, and I can’t wait to get back into the light and create, and see what other people are creating,” Trujillo said.
Like every other brewery, Marble was gearing up for the start of the spring surge with St. Patrick’s Day and the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference/World Beer Cup when COVID-19 suddenly brought the world to a screeching halt.
“We sent our beers off for World Beer Cup with high hopes, and we feel like we entered some really nice beers,” Trujillo said. “That kind of went a little bit south. I hope the volunteers got to drink some nice offerings from around the world.”
Everyone at Marble was affected by the sudden changes, with the taproom experience suddenly changing into a to-go-only model.
“We were gearing up to open and start our season, and celebrate our anniversary, and all that stuff,” Gonzalez said. “The other thing that has been challenging for the staff, with the exception of the brewery staff, they’re not focusing on that same things they were able to focus on years prior. That has created an opportunity for education and for people to dive into other areas, which has been really really great.”
While some of the staff had to pivot in their roles, the year has been toughest on the front-of-house team at the three taprooms. And yet, they are perhaps the group that has made Gonzalez and the management team the proudest.
“They’ve been phenomenal,” she said. “It has not been easy for them. I think the front-of-house staff has been the most impacted by all the changes, obviously. What was welcoming, ‘let us host you,’ has changed into rules and regulations, monitoring (customers’) behavior, not just intoxication levels. There’s this extra component between all the questions we have to ask to pointing (out) our strict mask policy, for them at has been a struggle. We put out statements asking for people to be kind and patient, because we understand that everyone is handling this in a different way.”
If anything, the stress of the pandemic brought the entire Marble team closer together.
“Navigating our new normal has been difficult, but I’m so grateful for Barbie,” Lucero wrote. “She is such a rockstar and one of the fiercest females I’ve ever met. We have always been like a family here. A lot of us can’t see our family or haven’t seen them in months, (so) it’s reassuring knowing we’re all in this together and we have each others’ backs.”
Gonzalez had already taken on more responsibilities before the pandemic, and the workload never let up.
“Well, I was officially put into the title at the beginning of 2020,” she said. “There was already a lot on the plate, with the exception that I wasn’t quite as involved in day-to-day brewery operations. So when I was first put into this role, my focus and my attention was going to go into the brewery, educate myself there, see what I could do, as far as enhancing. Then COVID hit, so that steered me back to what I can do really well, which is get the taprooms together and figure out how to move forward. Now that we’ve stabilized, the title is president and COO, I’m dabbling in all areas, all operations, seeing how teams work together, seeing how we get to the new normal.”
Lucero noted that her role shifted as well, writing, “My focus changed from planning/hosting events and fundraisers to mostly social media.”
As an event-driven brewery, it was a significant pivot for Marble, particularly in terms of its charitable contributions and support for nonprofits.
“We committed to brewing the Starlight Wheat Ale for our El Paso market to benefit the Stars Scholarship fund, which went as well as it could considering COVID restrictions,” Lucero wrote. “We allocated kegs for draft placements around EPTX, but shutdowns and limited capacity at bars and restaurants meant less beer flowing from the tap.
“We accepted donations for Watermelon Mountain Ranch at all three of our locations during the month of October and the community showed up! I was surprised with the amount of donations we received! We will host a coat drive to benefit St. Felix Pantry with La Cumbre at our Westside taproom during the month of December, while Heights and Downtown will be accepting donations for CLN Kids.”
The latest shutdown, which happened right after our interviews, has forced the brewery to pivot again. The only good news is that the past experience helped things go more smoothly this time, Gonzalez wrote us in a follow-up email.
“When we were asked to shut down in March, we operated with a very strong to-go model, so it was easy to transition back to that model from an operations perspective,” she wrote. “However, it’s extremely difficult to face the decision to furlough members of our Marble family. We will continue to take all possible steps and precautions necessary to the health and safety of our guests and staff so that we can bring our team back together when it is safe to do so.”
Getting her staff back to work was a major priority for Gonzalez throughout the year, so this latest shutdown has certainly had an impact, as she explained beforehand.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” she said. “This is when I get a little emotional. Probably about the second week after we were shut down, second or third, by then we had let a significant amount of our front-of-house staff go. We were operating minimal staff for front-of-house. The brewery team was intact, office staff was intact. We were minimizing how many days when we came in. That was a really difficult time, because as I mentioned, there was a lot of fear. I’ve been with Marble for eight years, (and) to not be able to comfort people, to not be able to let them know what was going on, was extremely taxing for me.
“One day I was in this office, one of the people in management walked past and said, ‘I’m so grateful we’re still here, that I still have a job.’ We sat in my office and cried. I agreed, we’re able to stay together. When this person left, I realized we had 60 displaced people that didn’t have that comfort. It hit me like a ton of bricks. All of the fear, all of the worry went out of my mind. My number one job was to bring everyone back. If everything else is falling apart, we still have each other. It fueled me then, and it fuels me to this day.”
The most unexpected, and unwelcome news that Marble received in 2020 was when founder Ted Rice was arrested and charged with assaulting a household member in October. No further details were made available, only that the incident did not occur at Marble or involve any other brewery employee. Marble released a statement shortly thereafter saying that Rice was placed on administrative leave. As this matter is now in the hands of the legal system, which could take months to resolve, we did not ask for nor receive any additional statement(s) from the brewery staff.
With or without Rice, Marble will keep moving forward, though it has not been easy for the staff with everything else going on this year. The entire Marble team is made up of people with the same hopes, fears, stresses, and feelings of accomplishment as the rest of us. If anything, it has been the beer itself where the team has been able to see its greatest successes under the difficult circumstances of 2020.
“You always say everything happens for a reason, I hate to sound cliché, but I really believe that,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve done a few things this year, perhaps if we hadn’t been under these circumstances, but one is the small-batch beer releases from the MavLab. They’re created such a good buzz.
“This situation is forcing us to be more creative, to think more outside the box of what is Marble. We all went through moments when we’re saying this was supposed to be our anniversary, no Marblefest, no Muertos Fest, every month. We got over that quickly to focus on the positive. How can we enhance certain areas that we haven’t had an opportunity to enhance because were were focusing on other projects? There has been a ray of light. The small-batch has been one part of that. We’re thinking ahead, thinking forward.”
That largely falls on the shoulders of Trujillo and his brewery team, split between the production facility downtown at 111 Marble Avenue, and the MavLab in the Heights Taproom.
“I’ve got Greg Dupy up here, which, I can’t speak highly enough of Greg Dupy,” Trujillo said. “He’s definitely come into his own in the Heights, which has allowed me to offer more time to 111 because I don’t have to manage the Heights as micro as I’ve been in the past. That’s been really good.”
With less beer being sold on draft throughout the year, that has also changed up the mission of the MavLab.
“On the beer front, the pace slowed up in the Heights for a little bit,” Trujillo said. “There was some uncertainty on what was being tapped. We did send a few beers to become hand sanitizer. I think that’s just the nature of the beast for everybody across the world, not just us.”
That in turn led Trujillo, Dupy, and the rest of the brewing team to work with Gonzalez in setting up the new small-batch series.
“We’ve got this small-batch release (series) going on, so I’ve really been enjoying designing some beers for can,” Trujillo said. “I took and modified a 10-barrel bright tank up here and we put it on a skid with the help of Chris Conlan (of Conlan Steel Work), and we’re able to now put a 10-barrel tank on our delivery truck, move beer into it, and transport it downtown for small-run packaging. It’s kind of an external hard drive, if you would. The external hard drive of beer! His name is Short Dog, the tank. Short Dog’s been moving some beer for us.”
The small-batch series has been a big hit with customers.
“We’ve done three releases now,” Trujillo said. “The first one was Mountain Fog, which is our hazy double IPA, kind of a no-brainer, in my opinion, given the state of that beer and the movement and the traction that that style has just in general. The second one being Marblefest, we didn’t get to have our street festival this year. We were able to at least offer a festbier for people to take home and do some online Marblefesting, which is cool. The third, which was the Mallow Monster, was definitely the fastest moving of the three. It was not a pastry stout, it was a dessert-inspired stout, an imperial stout first. You know me, I like to make beer, I like to make beer I want to drink. If I don’t want to drink it, who else will?”
Next up will be a “champagne-inspired cider hybrid, called G’s Juice” that Trujillo said was named for Lucero. It will be an apple-juiced brut pale lager, with the release date close to New Year’s Eve.
Trujillo said he spent much of this year fine-tuning operations at both brewing sites, doing much of the non-glamorous work that needed to get done.
“We’ve got some new equipment into the production facility,” he said. “My hands have been very much involved back in the day-to-day operations of 111. That feels good because my roots are there. I have a trusty help up here. I’ve been doing less brewing and beer designing during these times, because the demand isn’t there, and we’re definitely more intentionally rather than just pushing the envelope of creativity as far as my brain goes. That’s been good to have some structure with the team and really think these beers out. What do we want to achieve? What should it taste like? What’s the market we’re going for? And, really dialing in our specialty offerings based on what’s needed for our taprooms rather than making something (just) because.”
Trujillo has even taken some time to hop back on the 30-barrel brewhouse downtown.
“I’ve definitely had my hand back in (production) brewing and it feels good,” he said. “I’m a craftsman, not a politician. I’m happy to brew some beers again and run the brewhouse, just brush up on my skills overall. We’ve had some odd changes, just in general. So it’s nice to see that people are still supporting us. The packaging line really saved our ass in terms of getting beer out to the patrons, being able to pay our bills, and pay our employees. I’m grateful have a job in such a great industry, still.”
The package sales have been the driving force for Marble, and most breweries, throughout the year.
“Within the taprooms packaged sales have increased from previous years,” Gonzalez said. “When we do small-batch we see an uptick. As far as distribution is concerned, it’s stayed pretty steady. We had some spikes and some dips. You’re right, draft sales have taken a hit, not just at our taprooms, but also at other local retailers. They certainly don’t need as much beer. We’ve been impacted in many ways.”
Marble did introduce several larger-batch seasonal beers in cans, from Heller Bock in the summer to Winter Warmer more recently. Gonzalez, though, said some of those beers will change out again in 2021 as Marble keeps its lineup fresh and innovative. Trujillo then confirmed that is the plan.
“Coming into 2021, we definitely have more beers that have been developed out of the MavLab, that are moving to a limited production scale, more seasonal offerings,” he said. “One being Safe Word IPA, which is a West Coast IPA. I’ve got a preliminary batch here. Pink Lemonade Lager is another one we’re dabbling in for a summer production run. It’s seasonally specific. That beer, it drank well. I feel like that beer satisfied everyone. Even at the end of the day, I would go and see Greg Smith drinking a beer, and I’m like what are you drinking, and he’s like, Pink Lemonade Lager, man. I’m like wow, if Bengie, JB, and Greg Smith will drink this beer and enjoy it, that’s a crossover beer. I’m looking forward to that.”
Trujillo noted that in the last five years, he feels as though the palates of customers have changed, with a greater demand for lighter lagers like Cerveza, which is now a top seller at Marble, and of course hazy IPAs like Desert Fog.
“In the trend of hazies, I think ours stands out,” he said. “It’s a year-round offering, it suits the demographic. It’s not (an) overly sweet, overly alcohol-fueled, hazy, juicy, fruited thing. What I wanted to retain with that beer was the acronym attached to it, and that’s IPA, India Pale Ale. But, you’re right, a lot of the hazies have lost what the acronym stands for, and they’re simply associating that because it has hops in it. I’m happy with the Desert Fog.”
Trujillo also said he has some fun beers on deck for the coming weeks and months.
“Thinking about winter, we’ve got some cool stouts,” he said. “We’re going to be revisiting Spruce Moose, which is our spruce tip and pine-infused robust stout, designed by Greg Dupy. We’ve got an American barleywine on deck that Ted and I worked on the recipe. He wanted something (Sierra Nevada) Bigfoot-esque, but Marbelous.”
Everyone at Marble is doing their best to put 2020 behind them, while still taking the important lessons learned forward into 2021, with hopes for a return to something resembling the normalcy of years past.
“I’m most looking forward to live music!,” Lucero wrote. “Of course I want to see parties and events happen again. Something new we’re bringing to 2021 is our small-batch canned beers that will benefit local non-profits we have worked with in the past. More details to follow soon!”
“I’m looking forward to helping Marble make it to the next level,” Trujillo said. “I think we’ve got some not only like (escaping) the world’s shadow, we’ve got some weirdness going on in our industry. I feel like 2021, even if we’re still under the shadow, there’s going to be some rainbows coming out of the dark clouds. That’s when rainbows shine the best, is when there’s dark clouds and sun on the other side. I’m really happy for that.”
May all of us escape the shadows and reenter the light in 2021. A huge thanks to Barbie, Geraldine, and Josh for taking the time to chat even when we knew the hammer was coming down last week. I wish them all the luck going forward, and ask everyone to keep showing your support for Marble and the rest of our breweries during this tough time.
The Look Back/Look Ahead Series will return after Thanksgiving. Look for our annual Merch Guide next week, and of course stay safe out there, one and all.