Back in March 2019, Leah Black accepted the role of executive director of the New Mexico Brewers Guild. She told us then it might take a full year to get fully acclimated to the job.
A full year later, the job changed in ways she could not have imagined due to events completely out of her control, as it did for everyone else in the craft brewing industry in New Mexico and beyond. Nevertheless, Black and the Guild’s board of directors have persevered throughout 2020, though at no point did any of it get any easier.
Black and I met up over Zoom last week for the Guild’s entry in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
“The (phrase) I would think of would be dumpster fire,” she replied when asked how to describe 2020. “I just came into this role in March of 2019, and boy, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Just when I was starting to get to my one-year anniversary (the pandemic hit). There’s so many different parts, so many different roles, I was just starting to get my feet wet, get the hang of this job.”
The role of the Guild has not changed, and yet everything has changed, forcing Black and the seven-member board of directors to constantly adapt.
“It’s just been really very challenging,” she said. “We are an association. We’re here to promote to promote and protect our breweries. We’re a 501c non-profit. The way we do raise money is by our membership and events.
“Our membership was strong. We had WinterBrew, thank goodness, because we’re not going to be able to have it this year. We had Stout Invitational, it was a blast, shout out to Bathtub Row. (Back then) none of us knew what was coming.”
After WinterBrew in January and the Stout Invitational in February, the Guild saw its events calendar blasted to smithereens by the pandemic. Gone were Toad Fest at Little Toad Creek in Silver City in April, Blazin’ Brewfest in Las Cruces in May, the annual golf tournament at the end of ABQ Beer Week in June, and of course the in-person version of the New Mexico IPA Challenge in July. At least that last one was able to live on in a new take-home format.
“I’m really proud of us to keep IPA Challenge, we didn’t let it die in the year of COVID,” Black said. “Otherwise, we had no events to raise funds. The concern for me is to be able to consult, advise, and help all of these breweries go through all of these unique problems and situations. We’ve all aged a lot this year. I laugh through the pain, but it’s been a real struggle. The biggest thing is trying to keep these breweries open. Anything we can do as a Guild, that I can do, working on these grants and loans, we will do. Luckily, the fortitude of this industry is insane. I’ve had many teary eyed conversations with people, but they’re still (hanging on).
“I know we’re not unique in the brewing industry, but really, hats off to everyone for not giving up and trudging through the mud and the muck.”
The spirit of camaraderie, which I personally saw in the Guild Social events held at various breweries in 2019 and early 2020, was still present throughout the pandemic months, even if people could rarely see each other in person.
“We have a very collaborative spirit running through our brewing community,” Black said. “That’s the whole reason I wanted to be in this role. I have seen more, more people helping when they are barely (alive). They have no staff. They’re making less money than they ever have. They’re trying to stay alive. They are offering up ingredients, and offering them to somebody bigger, they are giving it and passing it off. That got me super choked up. It’s great to hear. It is hard when you’re already so bummed out and depressed. Sometimes that’s the thing that makes you feel the best.
“It’s so different every time somebody comes to me for advice or interpretation of public health orders. We have to get through this together. The advice is always every changing. I’m learning in all this, too.”
Much of Black’s role this year has been translating the public health orders, often written in classic government legalese, into something more understandable for the various breweries. One example was making sure everyone still understood that it continues to be illegal for breweries to over curbside pickup of beer (food is allowed), even though one of the slides used during a press conference seemed to indicate otherwise.
“Curbside (alcohol pickup) is not legal in this state,” Black said. “We’d love to have it be legal. In that verbiage, we were seeing it presented wrong and we had to make sure everyone understood.”
Changing format on the IPA Challenge, as mentioned before, was perhaps the biggest challenge of the year. It required the Guild to enlist the help of Marble Brewery to help can all the entries, and to get volunteer help from the Central New Mexico Community College students and instructors to get everything done and ready for distribution. After that, it was just a matter of hoping and waiting for members of the public to purchase the three different 12-packs of IPAs, take them home, and vote.
“It’s an amazing (thing), too, because John Gozigian, my predecessor, told me you’re going to get negative stuff about IPA Challenge,” Black said. “There’s few of them (critics), and they’re very vocal. (Instead) the reaction was so positive. If I heard anything negative, it was pretty minor; the reaction was great.
“I think people were surprised we did it, but 2022 is our 20th anniversary of the IPA Challenge. We can actually say it’s been going for 20 (consecutive) years. It’s a distraction they could enjoy. They were excited to be able to do something on a smaller scale.”
Black added that she was happy to see a new brewery take the trophy, with Rio Bravo claiming its first title.
“We are so grateful people competed,” she said. “I was so happy we had 36 breweries enter, even if for some of them it was just giving us whatever IPA they had on hand.”
As the year winds down, the Guild’s board of directors will see some changes for 2021. The terms of board president Anne O’Neill (Sidetrack), Jayson Wylie (Taos Mesa), and Mick Hahn (formerly with Tractor) have ended. New members, with exact roles to be determined, will be Dan Herr (Sidetrack), Tanya Ulrick (Taos Mesa), and Allison York (Quarter Celtic). They will join returning members Jamie Schwebach (Canteen), Alana Harris (Santa Fe), Ali Cattin (Red Door), and Rob Palmer.
“I will say our board members are angels,” Black said. “Literally, they are volunteers. They are in life preservers, trying to stay afloat at their own businesses. They are essentially consultants, advisors, they have to take time of out of their days. I know they’re so stressed out. They are just incredible.”
The Guild will hold a “Pass the Torch” happy hour on Facebook Live this Wednesday from 6 to 7 p.m. Everyone is invited to join in, with a pint in hand, of course.
This time of year is also when the Guild is holding a membership drive for both full members and associate members, which can be any business that supports breweries or has an association with them.
“I want to let local businesses know, if they want to support the craft brewers of New Mexico, they can look into being an allied trade associate member,” Black said. “We’ve got lawyers, insurance agencies, accountants. But also, we’ve got graphic artists and other creatives. The thing I do want to point out right now, membership is discounted until the end of the year. Until January 1, you can join or renew at a discount.”
The Guild has weathered the challenges of 2020, and will face more in 2021, starting with the two-month state legislative session that begins in January. We will have more on what to expect from the session as we get closer to its start.
A big thanks to Leah for the interview and the constant flow of information throughout the year. We look forward to working with her and the new and returning members of the board in 2021.
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