Every now and again, while writing stories in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series, we get surprised.
This year, with all the doom and gloom of the pandemic, we kinda feared those surprises.
And then, along came Brew Lab 101 Beer & Cider Co. brewmaster/co-owner Scott Salvas.
“2020 was a good year for us,” he said, quite seriously, in a recent Zoom interview. “Some of our summer numbers were better than last year. Even with the COVID stuff going on, the brand was still growing.”
Wait, what? 2020 was a good year? Well, there ya go, a surprise.
Salvas was not joking around, not over exaggerating, not anything of that sort. His Rio Rancho brewery has grown by leaps and bounds in its second year of existence.
“2020 started really solid for us,” he said. “Coming out of the normal winter slowdown, we were getting pretty busy in February and early March, expecting a really good season once patio season opened up. (But) COVID happened, and we had to change gears to being adaptable to the new world. Lots of growler fills. we started canning one-offs. That was a big deal for us.”
Those cans were not in the original plans for 2020, but circumstances forced their introduction.
“The most positive thing is it pushed our business model to go faster,” Salvas said. “We always planned to do cans, planned to open and expand the back patio. We saw it as a couple years away. For us it worked out great. People really loved the back patio. When we couldn’t serve indoors, we had over 3,000 squares feet of patio space. We kept solid numbers for the summer, which was fantastic.”
Salvas was quick to add that he is not downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, or its impact on the craft brewing scene as a whole.
“COVID has not been a tremendous negative thing, but overall business has been relatively good,” he said. “We’re getting into shutdown 2.0, so we’re seeing a slowdown. We were able to keep everyone employed. We’ve positioned ourselves for 2021, it’s got us thinking about distribution, things like that, especially on the cider front. We want to keep that momentum going. We’ve been fortunate and blessed that we got the PPP grant. I think the city of Rio Rancho might give us a grant. That’s really helped us keep on track.”
While the cans and expanded back patio are obvious signs of how the brewery adapted to the changing world around it, another big change came behind the scenes. After spending time as Salvas’ assistant brewer, Tevin Gray was recently promoted to head brewer.
“It’s been great. Tevin was stepping up for a while now,” Salvas said. “I had my day job to focus on (too). Obviously, through COVID, it was a lot of knowing what’s the (new) rules and how do we stay operating. It takes you away from brewing beer. Tevin was solid in there, getting the brewing done. It’s really helped me out.”
Gray was going through the brewing program at Central New Mexico Community College when he got the chance to essentially apprentice himself at Brew Lab 101. Over time, his role evolved, and the responsibilities mounted.
“It’s been awesome,” Gray said. “I was only recently starting out as a home brewer, too, and then started going to school at CNM. Scott picked me up. It was awesome just to be an assistant early on in my professional brewing career. Then, when stuff started moving really quickly, I was able to take over brewing on my own. Eventually I earned the title of head brewer. It’s been an honor. I look forward to making this place as good as I can.”
With Gray on the brewhouse, it helped Salvas focus on keeping up with all the challenges of operating under constantly changing conditions.
“Key number one was staying stocked up, not running out of growlers, not running out of cans,” Salvas said. “Have I made sure we’re good? Opening up the back patio was huge for us. We were able to keep everyone spaced out. Keep everyone busy, keep the revenue stream going. We’re kind of a small (brewery). We’re still a small guy on the block.”
Looking towards the great unknown of 2021, Salvas and Gray are both hopeful to help the brewery keep moving forward. Salvas said his first project will be to look at distribution of the Brew Lab 101 beers and ciders to outside accounts.
“It’s maybe something we want to push on, expand on the brand name more,” he said.
Due to the large number of breweries distributing locally, cider might be the first out the door, Salvas added. He also said he will consider the possibility of an offsite taproom, something that was not in the original plans until much further down the line.
“We try to be really organic and based on demand, what people want,” Salvas said. “We’re following that. We’ve had folks ask us about a second location, that’s something we’re looking at.”
On the brewing side in the near future, Gray said more stouts are in the works, and Salvas added that the popular bourbon-barrel-aged cider will return soon. More barrel-aging projects are also in the works.
“I was giving Scott crap about what we want to try,” Gray said. “There’s plans. He’s not a sour guy, but I like sours. I might make him do it. There’s a couple things we definitely want to play with. We’re still getting our system down, getting it honed into a nice consistency.”
Salvas said he might rather play around with ciders, first, before delving into sour beers.
“Ciders are over a third of our sales,” he said. “We’re doing really well with our ciders. We may get a little more playful.”
Whatever comes next, everyone at Brew Lab 101 is happy, by 2020 standards, to have seen some actual growth and positive sales numbers this year.
“Overall, we’re staying positive at Brew Lab,” Salvas said. “It’s going to be a challenging winter. We’re going to march through it. We’re taking some time to work on some projects.”
A big thanks to Scott and Tevin for hopping on Zoom for the interview. We look forward to enjoying a pint or two with them in person when the pandemic is over.
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