The challenge of maintaining even a single brewery taproom has been tremendous during 2020. The challenge of maintaining five locations, including a production-and-packaging facility, has been downright monumental.
In the face of everything 2020 has thrown at it, Tractor Brewing is still standing. Not all of its locations have lasted through the year, but on the whole, the brewery has survived, as I learned via a Zoom interview with co-owner/brewmaster David Hargis and events and marketing director Jeremy Kinter for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
We kicked things off by going back to the before times, also known as January through mid-March.
“I’ll be honest, I can’t even remember January or February,” Hargis said. “We were busy, though. We had sort of gotten to a situation where I didn’t have to be in the brewery for a shift everyday. By the end of January, I was back in there. I do recall it was picking up. We were doing pretty well, picking up momentum in Los Lunas. We were hitting on all cylinders.
“We were getting close to doing what this brewery was designed to for the first time. It must have been pretty good. We’ll say that trend was good.”
Then, just as it was for every other brewery in the country, things came to a screeching halt right around St. Patrick’s Day.
“Then (came) the devastation of the shutdown, and dealing with that,” Hargis said. “Everyone dealt with it a little different. We were one of the few that went to completely contactless service, for better or worse. Hindsight was we didn’t have any infections. We wanted to make sure the staff was protected.”
That plan both worked, and did not work. Adjustments were seemingly ongoing throughout April and May.
“At the time we started out with my big idea was Venmo only,” Kinter said. “That was not very fun. We finally got the website up with Woo Commerce via WordPress. Skye (Devore) and Jason built that by hand. It’s our own thing, which is different. A lot of breweries don’t have online ordering. We only had Wells Park open.”
As the cases numbers dropped over the summer, the State of New Mexico allowed breweries to slowly reopen. Once again, Tractor had to adjust, and its command staff had to figure out how to handle the offsite taprooms.
“Then we brought everybody back,” Hargis said. “It’s a weird concept (to recall). At some moments this felt like it flew by. At other moments, it was an eternity.”
Some of the production at Wells Park had shifted to a new product, one that initially sold quite well.
“As a distillery, we partnered with Broken Trail/Mother Trail for hand sanitizer,” Hargis said. “That was a blessing. It was a challenge, though. At the time, everyone wanted to make hand sanitizer. Sourcing the ingredients to the standards of the World Health Organization was one thing, finding a bottle to put it in was a whole another challenge. We managed to pull it off. That was a great source of revenue for us. Between the two companies, with what they were making over there, probably close to 30,000 gallons of hand sanitizer went out the door. That was great.”
Hargis added that Dion’s was the biggest customer in town, and he passed along his thanks for their decision to shop local for sanitizer.
Eventually, sales of hand sanitizer tapered off, and Hargis said about 10,000 gallons ended up being donated to the Navajo Nation. The rest of Tractor’s beer, cider, and spirits production — through its sister company Trouble Minds Distilling — remained relatively constant, save for one stretch where things were out of the staff’s hands.
“Production, thankfully, has maintained for all of our brands,” Hargis said. “That’s been a win. That’s kept us busy in the brewery. Not as busy, but busy.
“With that came the challenge of also cans. There was a seven-week window where we didn’t have a single can to put anything in. That was a total bummer. We’ve gotten ahead of that curve. We’re hearing and seeing shortages out there, which is concerning. That is how most of us will survive this that are our size or bigger.”
Ultimately, the pandemic has shown that the strength of any brewery is in its staff, both back-of-house and front-of-house. Not every staff member has returned after the many furloughs this year, however. Head brewer Mick Hahn parted ways with Tractor over the summer, though the parting appears to have been amicable. For those that have remained, been let go, and return again, Hargis and Kinter have been grateful.
“A big shoutout to all of our crew that was able to stay with us,” Hargis said. “The guys in the brewery were flexible. These last two weeks over Thanksgiving, that was brutal to be shut down like that. The brewery now consists of myself and Shawn (Devore). I did two brews today already, and I was training Shawn how to clean fermenters.”
The front-of-house staff also earned praise.
“We’ve had a great staff that’s been super flexible, whenever we had work to bring them back, but at the same time being understanding that is when we have the cash flow,” Hargis said. “Just a great staff, and being able to understand when we let them go. We look forward to being able to bring them back.
“I think that’s one of the biggest wins for us, how this team has been able to move. To continue to make quality beer, to get the package out, to get the good customer service to people out on the patio.”
Tractor has received a good amount of support from its most loyal customers. Kinter said he only received one complaint about service.
“They can wrap their arms around that,” Hargis replied.
As for the taprooms, the situation has been different at each one. Sales in Nob Hill and on the Westside have been fairly consistent. Four Hills, despite decent sales numbers, just did not have the patio space to justify its continued operation, and when its lease was up in August, Tractor decided to cut its losses. Well, at least for now.
“It made sense to let that lease go, and that’s what we did,” Hargis said. “When I was decommissioning everything, I realized it’s a finished space, so maybe if this (doesn’t go) on for a year, we’ll move back in.
“If it’s just breaking even or losing money, it was easier to close it down. Some of the folks working there were able to move to other taprooms.”
The trickiest taproom to deal with has been Los Lunas. The reasons were myriad, to say the least.
“Los Lunas, we can’t seem to find the rhythm, I’ll be honest with you,” Hargis said. “We have trouble getting advance orders. That never really got off the ground. They say, and I can attest to it now, if you’re a taproom and you add a kitchen, then you’re a restaurant. It’s very difficult for us to keep a kitchen staff and a front-of-house staff. It’s looked at as a restaurant. It’s very hard to keep a restaurant open right now.”
Just when the Tractor staff had figured out a new plan and implemented it, it did not turn out like they had hoped.
“This most recent attempt, we did a little kickoff party, we had a band, we brought in a food truck,” Hargis said. “While we did OK, we didn’t even cover labor. That’s just sort of been how we approach every taproom right now on a daily basis. Do Mondays make enough money to pay an employee? Los Lunas just hasn’t been able to support a staff. If you’re losing money, how much do you want to lose? Thankfully, we’re fairly diverse, so we’re able to support the business.”
The timing of that kickoff party was also unfortunate, as the last two-week shutdown came right afterwards.
“It was the Friday before the order,” Kinter said. “It was that Monday that the order went into effect. Our grand reopening was that Friday. To-go orders are not happening there.”
Back before the pandemic, Los Lunas had really embraced the taproom.
“It was really moving as an event space, not just as a country space and honky tonk, but DJs and more,” Kinter said. “It was definitely on its way to being a big performing location.”
While those numbers were rising in late 2019/early 2020, things went the other way during the pandemic.
“Is it a viable business today, tomorrow, or next week, or does it make sense to shut it down?” Hargis said. “We had high hopes for this last rollout, but the governor took care of it for us. This has been the tricky part now, we get all the beer down there, get it cleaned up, and then we open, and then nothing really happens, then I have to go down, get all the beer back. We’ve done that four times.
“That’s also a challenge, when you put everything in place, employees, beverages, food a couple times, and it doesn’t get momentum. Then you have to mothball it again. It’s one we can’t seem to put our finger on. Although, we knew pre-pandemic, it’s a huge space, it was doing really great. We were just really starting to get a rhythm making sure the food was right, the right number of servers, we look forward to those days again.”
New projects are underway at the taprooms in Albuquerque. Hargis has been hard at work making the patios at Nob Hill, Wells Park, and Westside more comfortable, with improved shade structures and more heaters.
Tractor also has quite the array of gifts available online and at the taprooms.
“We’re also offering a wide range of holiday gifts,” Kinter said. “A couple cocktail kits, spirits gift boxes, we’ve expanded our online store, or just our inventory in general. Pivoting there has been interested, doing pairings, like with Rude Boy Cookies, even Bookworks. We were able to team up with a national author of Tequila and Tacos, which was awesome. We’ve been doing a lot there in terms of offering some cool to-go options.”
And, on the beer front, Hargis did point out that Luna de los Muertos Imperial Stout will be available in the next week or two.
“There’s some other fun things that have been happening for us,” Hargis added. “We now have spirits in Nob Hill. That just happened in the week before the big shutdown. Last week, lots of spirits and bottles moving through the Nob Hill location when they lifted the order. Again, the blur, trying to keep up with the up and down. People have been excited about that, sales have been pretty good. That’s another great source for us to weather this storm.”
The new Agave Reposado, in particular, has been a hugely popular addition to the lineup of spirits. More new styles are on the way.
“In that vein of spirits, we serve a bourbon that’s not one we made,” Hargis said. “What we’ve been serving, we sourced elsewhere. Our first made-from-scratch bourbon, American-style whiskey, comes out in the next two-to-six weeks. Our first two-year single malt will be coming out in the same time period. I think we have four barrels of each. That inventory continues to grow. Those two, we’re excited about that. We’re excited to get back to some sort of normalcy. Give back to all those folks who make Tractor what it is. Hopefully it’s sooner than later.”
We all hope that a sense of normalcy returns sooner than later. To that, we can all raise our glasses this winter.
A big thanks to David and Jeremy for taking time out of their busy days to chat, and thanks to everyone else at Tractor for all their hard work throughout 2020.
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