Though Santa Fe Brewing Co. is the oldest and largest of New Mexico’s craft breweries, with a great deal of veteran experience inside and outside of our local industry, nothing could have prepared them for this year. At all levels, from production to taproom, SFBC has faced many of the same challenges as the rest of the industry, and even though they were able to pivot to mitigate some of the loss, it’s still been a real struggle. For SFBC, 2020 has been a year of dark days and bright spots, a year filled with constant change and uncertainty, but they’re heading into 2021 with a sense of purpose and hope.
“Obviously our retail/taproom side of the business is way off,” owner Brian Lock said in a phone interview last week for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
With taprooms temporarily closing, and less and less patrons allowed within the establishments, the need for a fully staffed bar became unfortunately unrealistic. SFBC had to, just like many others, get creative with their staffing and scheduling, doing whatever they could to keep their people as employed as possible.
“We’ve been lucky and fortunate that we’ve been able to switch the responsibilities of some of our taproom bartenders, allowing them to come in and help us package beer,” Lock said.
Many job descriptions changed over the course of the year, but Lock said considers SFBC lucky in that they were able to make sure his staff members always had something to do. And, for much of the summer while they were open, 100 percent of their in-house profits went right back to their front-of-house staff to help ease some of the struggle brought on by COVID.
With the public health orders seemingly changing every couple weeks, SFBC handled the in-house and outdoor dining capacity percentage yoyo as best as they could — 25%, 50%, 25%, 0%, 25% — staying open as often as they could and selling package goods to go the whole time.
“The Bridge (their concert venue in Santa Fe) hasn’t been open at all this year,” Lock lamented.
“I think the other taprooms were fairly easy to pivot and change directions based on the governor’s health orders,” he continued. “The majority of our locations, we had kind of set everything up on a 25-percent safe and distanced capacity out of the gates, so that we wouldn’t have to keep changing stuff. To be honest, I mean, I just don’t think people are as eager to go out. Would we have got a lot more out it, if we had gone to a 50-percent model? I don’t think so. We were still having trouble filling tables at 25 percent, just because of the atmosphere and environment we’re in.”
Though each restriction must have felt like blow after blow, they just rolled with the punches, shifting stances as needed, expanding their outdoor seating at Green Jeans in the summer, opening their new kitchen at Headquarters, and installing more heaters at all taprooms for the cold weather ahead. Bobbing and weaving, they fought this pandemic in their own arena as they continued to deliver hits, pushing seasonal favorites like Pepe Loco, Oktoberfest, Adobe Igloo, and a few shiny new products, which I’ll dig into shortly.
With more people enjoying their beverages at home this year (sometimes only venturing out to grocery stores), that has worked in SFBC’s favor, having plenty of offerings on the shelves of many of the stores.
“The wholesale and package side of the business has been our strength this year. The wholesale package side is up. The kegs, way, way down,” Lock said, chuckling. “Fortunately for us, we did still have a pretty strong presence in all the outlets in New Mexico. Pretty lucky that we already had those points set up. We’re in pretty strong position when it comes to that.”
According to Lock, about four years ago SFBC made a conscious decision to really focus their efforts on package and points of distribution at retail chain outlets, building as strong a base as they could back home.
“That proved to be a real good strategy,” Lock said. “We thought that was a better approach than pursuing the draft and on-premise bar and tap handles as a strategy. Other breweries have kind of focused on that more on that, over the past year, so I feel very fortunate that we chose to focus on what we did.”
Filling the distribution orders they had would have been a lot tougher on their previous brewhouse. If you recall, Santa Fe Brewing had just set up their shiny new German Steinecker-Krones brewhouse in 2019.
“That’s been a huge benefit for us,” Lock said. “We installed it last October. We’re about over a year now on it, and it’s been incredible, such advantages over some of the smaller systems when it comes to extraction of grain, efficiencies on the boil. I’ve been very, very, very happy with the brewhouse, and it’s been a huge benefit for the staff here as well. It’s less labor intensive, and it’s really easy to brew a consistent product, because it’s all through a software program. The brewhouse was really well-timed, because we were pushing our old brewhouse to the max.”
But, no matter how much beer they produced, the question of whether there would be enough cans to fill loomed in everyone’s mind.
This year, even SFBC wasn’t large enough to escape the worries and effects of the nationwide aluminum can shortage.
“It’s been a little bit dicey trying to navigate how we’re going to get cans,” Lock said. “That’s the only side of our business that’s actually healthy and growing, and we’re limited by how many cans we can get, so it’s a very frustrating position to be in because there’s no real obvious business decision based on what’s going to make us money and what will enable us to survive this when the supply (of aluminum cans) isn’t there.”
Lock said he considers it one of his bigger challenges faced this year. He added that SFBC is just trying to get through the next three to four months.
Santa Fe Brewing faced another big challenge in 2020, as they were also one of the brave companies to open up a new business in the middle of the pandemic. Their second Albuquerque location, at Tin Can Alley, was the result of tons of planning, and a huge investment of time and energy. At first they couldn’t open, and then, when they finally did in late May, they were severely limited by how ‘open’ they could actually be, as well as how many customers they could safely show their new big beautiful space to at once.
“Opening a place like that during a Pandemic, we never saw the numbers that we forecasted or anticipated,” Lock said. “It was frustrating. It’s tough for everyone. It’s especially tough for anyone that’s going to try to open in the middle of this thing. There were two other smaller (breweries) that opened, too, and I really feel for them. It’s just so tough right now.”
Santa Fe Brewing also opened their shipping container kitchen at HQ this year back in October. During the Pandemic, they’ve been serving their cantina-style menu onsite and to-go, and now with options to call in orders or order online. Their dishes include tacos, handpies (which I’m told are bomb), flatbreads, mini chimichangas, and other small bites perfect for snacking between beers.
The pandemic also couldn’t stop SFBC from releasing two new lines of seltzers and ciders. But, as you can imagine, releasing new products in the middle of a pandemic isn’t the most ideal scenario, either.
“When we bring out a new product, we typically back it up with in-store tastings with our brew crew so we could sample people on it at the point of sale,” Lock said. “That’s been a pretty successful endeavor for us in the past. (COVID’s restrictions) really put a damper on our launch program, so we felt the pain of COVID of not being able to sample people on the products we were launching.”
Another way they felt the pain of launching the new products was with the delay in the resets at the retail stores this year. Resets are when a retailer schedules a bunch of changes around the store, rearranging goods, moving old product out, new product in, changing displays, etc., and they typically happen in the spring and then again in the fall. If the resets don’t happen, the stores aren’t asking for a bunch of new product, like new cans on the shelves.
“In terms of points of distribution (PODs) that we were expecting to get from those brands, we didn’t get near the number we were hoping for,” Lock said.
As the stores seem to have re-scheduled their resets for March next year, fingers crossed, SFBC is hoping to get a lot of those points of distribution back. As for the product they do have in the stores, as Lock mentioned before, they’ve been moving like U-Hauls.
Though everything comes with an asterisk this year, there’s still hope on the horizon. Looking ahead, Lock said that Santa Fe doesn’t have any major growth or expansion plans, but they are still planning to keep moving forward, keep thinking big, and keep making the beer New Mexico is so fond of.
Speaking of which, breaking news!
For 2021, Santa Fe Brewing plans to release two new beers to the public. First, they plan to capture their share in the craze with a hazy IPA called Santa Fezy in March (just in time to get on the shelves for the store resets). And second, SFBC will let the sun set on their seasonal Sunsetter, replacing it with a shandy-style beer with tangerine juice added. Sitting at a crushable 4-to-4.2-percent ABV, the beer called Squeezer sounds like your next concert bestie, named no doubt for the tool used to juice lemons. The more you know.
A little warmer weather and some relaxed restrictions (and some lower COVID numbers, of course) will help bring people back to the patios, so that side of the business can get back to business.
SFBC has already talked about what it would be like to re-open their concert venue, The Bridge, to the public. Having done some safe distance modeling, based on different percentages of seating, they’ve considered everything from how lines would form to spaced apart seating pods. They/we are all hopeful that there may be a 2021 concert season after all, but SFBC isn’t in any hurry.
“Time is your best healer,” Lock said. “So, the longer we can go without any issues in regard to the Pandemic and all that, I hope that we’re able to, by May/June, offer music again at some capacity.”
“With vaccines on the way, and hopefully some warmer weather in the spring, hopefully we can get back to some form of normalcy,” Lock added, cheerfully.
“Everyone’s in the same boat here. With the relationships that I think most of the brewers have with one another, I hope we can continue to support and help each other get through this thing. And, for the industry as a whole, my hope is that we don’t see any more closures, people are able to survive this, and we can look to 2022, put a lot of this behind us, and hopefully by then, we’re in a different place.”
As an added way of keeping hope alive, SFBC is hosting a charity drive for the Food Depot of Santa Fe right now. Beginning last Friday, they held a tree decorating contest for the employees with four corporate sponsors backing them. The brewery matched 50 percent of the sponsorship totals, and from December 12-31, 10 percent of all proceeds at the taproom are going the Food Depot, making spirits just a little brighter this year.
“It’s been a challenging year for everyone, and we wanted to create a little holiday spirit by decorating our newly finished outdoor beer garden and giving something back to the community that supports us so much every day,” Lock said in the press release.
To SFBC’s continued success, to hope for the future, and to your health, cheers!
For more #CraftBeer news, @nmdarksidebc info, and unfiltered Untappd check ins, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro