Ex Novo Brewing in Corrales has quickly become a big player in the local craft beer scene, an impressive feat for a place that only opened in May 2019. Just like its fellow New Mexico breweries, however, 2020 has been a brutally tough year on Ex Novo, but there have been just enough bright spots to keep up the spirits of the staff as they look to ride out the remainder of the pandemic and get back on course in 2021.
I caught up with founder Joel Gregory over Zoom this week for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series. We started at the beginning of the year, the before times, when things were looking up and up at numerous breweries around town with increased sales numbers.
“We were right in that same boat,” Gregory said. “The three revenue areas of taproom, wholesale draft, and package beer. February was our best wholesale month ever. That had been building. The winter here wasn’t all that great, but it was still pretty solid. We were looking at March, the weather is getting better, the sales team was killing it, getting new draft accounts. We were building those relationships. Our package had been steadily creeping up since we started. We were full of optimism. We had a pretty solid plan.”
And then, just like everyone else, Ex Novo saw the world screech to halt right around St. Patrick’s Day.
“How it went for us in March, we got that (public health) order,” Gregory said. “We were not in a super strong position financially to take many risks or chances at that time. I had a feeling that this was going to be a while. Not this long, but not a short two-week shutdown. We furloughed all of our taproom staff immediately except Stevo (Jeter, taproom manager). We decided we would split some shifts.”
With Gregory and Jeter behind the bar at the taproom for to-go only, things got awfully quiet in Corrales, until suddenly, it was not quiet at all.
“It reminded me of our expectations when we first opened,” Gregory said. “Maybe we’ll make a couple hundred bucks a day. Maybe just enough to help Stevo stay on. The upside there and the surprise there was people showing up, and I don’t know if everyone was drinking all that beer, but it was a lot. You’d see the same people buying a case every week.
“It wasn’t busy busy in terms of a line out the door, but it was certainly people coming and buying more than just a four-pack helped a lot. We were able to gradually bring (front-of-house) people back on as that stabilized.”
The sudden increase in to-go sales got Gregory and head brewer Dave Chichura thinking about what to do with their stockpile of beer.
“One of the bright spots for sure, and this was never the plan, but we’ve got this 5-barrel system, what if we started canning those batches?” Gregory said. “That was supposed to be for draft for the taproom. It was in the tank. We ended up getting 35, 40 cases. People were buying more package beer. It ended up going pretty well. That ended up the new normal.
“We kept our larger tanks for the core brands. We had a lot of fun with the new releases. That’s something we’re still doing. We stopped for a little bit when things opened up. We’re always ready to give Jeremy (Backer), our creative director, time to create a new label. We’re all over that stuff.”
The flurry of new beers put the brewery staff, featuring plenty of new personnel this year, back to work on a consistent basis. New lead brewer/research-and-development brewer Wes Burbank, who came over from Rowley Farmhouse Ales, was just one of the new staff members working with Chichura.
“We’ve got a few new faces, honestly,” Gregory said. “We had some turnover in February, March, April. Dave was a champion that kept that ship floating. He took on a ton of brewing activities by himself. We made it work. We needed to bring on some more brewing help. We’d had previous conversations with (Burbank). There was previous interest there. It’s been a really good fit since we talked the first time. He’s enjoyed being part of a larger team. The whole team has stepped up. The brewing and packaging and cellar team has been so solid the whole time. We’re brewing a lot, we don’t have a lot of empty tanks, we don’t have a lot of days where we’re not packaging. They’re kicking ass. Kudos to them.”
Overall, Ex Novo is making more beer in 2020 than it did in 2019.
“Our barrelage is up this year, which is a bit of a surprise,” Gregory said. “That speaks to folks shopping more at grocery stores. That’s Premier (Distributing) getting us a lot of new places.”
Gregory noted that there is always a worry with package beers, besides the fact they are the lowest profit margin compared to draft accounts or pints sold over the bar, and that is making sure everything is always as fresh as possible.
“The way we’re producing and Premier is selling, the beer is getting out really fresh,” he said. “We’ve been able to do a pretty good job. We had a lot of out of stocks in April and May. it took us a while to get used to that normal. We’ve been able to keep people in stock.”
When the initial restrictions were lifted and customers were allowed back on the spacious patio, Ex Novo experienced both the uptick from those sales, but also a new and unwelcome challenge.
“Overall, the summer here was pretty decent,” Gregory said. “The restrictions were shitty and it was not fun to be the bouncer and enforcer of all the rules, but we do have a fairly large patio, and we were able to put everyone in every corner of the property and did the best we could. July through October were actually pretty decent in terms of the volume.”
More than once, Gregory and Jeter had to deal with customers who did not want to wear masks, or otherwise seemed intent on challenging the public health order just for the sake of being obstinate. I was even at Ex Novo one night when an unruly customer vandalized the car of one of the servers. Gregory noted there was some good that came out of that, when the community rallied around the young lady and made sure her car was repaired at no cost to her.
Overall, the major of New Mexico craft beer drinkers have been a blessing for Ex Novo. The habits of folks here are not the same as those in Portland, Oregon, where Gregory started the company before moving back to his hometown of Corrales.
“It really is different (than Oregon),” he said. “I’m very optimistic with the support we’ve gotten, especially this year. It’s been really fun to see we can get a West Coast IPA to sell really well, and then the next day we’re doing a wacky kettle sour, and a couple weeks later we’re canning a dark lager and people are excited about it. You don’t have to only brew hype beers to get people excited about what we’re doing. You don’t have to choose if you want to sell that beer or the beer we like to drink.
“It’s fun brewing all different styles. We’re not brewing 80-barrel batches of ESB, there’s a limit to that. There’s been really cool support. I like the interaction with the beer community. I think it’s grown a lot since I’ve gotten here. I’ve been really blown away by the support, by beer geek people and neighborhood support.”
When asked about which of those many, many different beers truly stood out, Gregory had a hard time even narrowing it down to just a few.
“I can’t even count the number of beers we’ve canned this year,” he said. “We had a couple, let’s see, there’s some we knew would (sell well). We were pretty blown away by the All Together (IPA) release. That was definitely a high spot. It was a hazy IPA; we’ve done plenty of those. But, just the thought behind it, we put the lens on how much it costs to make a beer, but all the profits are going to go to hospitality folks affected by it, starting with our own staff. People walked out of here with cases.”
A few others stood out at different points during the year.
“Dress Code, a cherry sour, not that crazy of a beer, and it sold out in a few hours,” Gregory said. “I don’t know what were the buzz words to get people to come out for that one. People want to try something new. They like the ideas. Then they’re on to the next thing. It’s been really fun.
“One of the more recent ones, we brewed 40 barrels of (Ruminator) Doppelbock. That’s a lot of beer for that style. It’s definitely one of Dave’s babies I’ve asked him to make for a long time. The response to that beer has been amazing. It’s not flying out of here, but it’s been steady and solid. People really do like the more malt-forward, high ABV stuff than in the Northwest. That was a really fun beer to make.”
In the end, though, it was a year-round beer, Perle Haggard German Pilsner, that brought home a gold medal from the Great American Beer Festival. It was the first GABF medal for Ex Novo.
“I don’t think anybody in their right mind expects to win a medal,” Gregory said. “Definitely one of the high points in 2020. I’m really happy with how it’s selling in New Mexico. It’s in a solid number two. Mass Ascension is head and shoulders above everyone else.”
While the year finished with some high notes, the work is never done. Even without a clear picture of how 2020 is going to go, Ex Novo is forging ahead with some plans, big and small.
“Here’s what I know we’re going to do,” Gregory said. “We just ordered some more tanks. We’re pretty much at the max capacity for this building for phase one. We’ve got a couple new big tanks coming in, get us to that sweet spot. Make some upgrades to the canning line. I like building those plans, make sure we have the infrastructure to pull this off.”
The more visible changes will come outside the brewery production building, in between it and Corrales Road to the east. The pandemic, and the strict restrictions that have come with it in terms of patio occupancy, have really highlighted the need to maximize all the available space on the property.
“We’re looking at those really nice (spring and summer) days and not wanting to be in that position of telling people they can’t come in,” Gregory said. “We’re hoping to get some stuff going over there. That would pretty much eliminate the capacity concern. There’s an acre of land over there. Everyone could have 20 feet (of space) over there. It’s a plan, we still have a lot of work to do in terms of licensing and permitting. That’s something I’m working on that’s a high priority, have it be a real large beer garden. I don’t see us going back to normal by March or April. That’s a big deal for us.”
Ex Novo has earned fans around the Albuquerque metro area, but for some, driving out to Corrales on a consistent basis has been difficult. That does have Gregory looking ahead to the possibility of an offsite taproom.
“We’re not actively looking for new locations, opportunities out there in the world,” he said. “That was always the original plan, get Corrales going, get the name, the brand going, and then look since it is a trek for everyone to get down there. We’re not actively looking, but there are a handful of things that have come to us. There are some opportunities that could pan out. We’re not looking for anything that doesn’t have a big patio. Number one priority is that.”
On the beer front, the year-round lineup should remain static, but except new seasonals and specialty brews to keep rolling out every few weeks or so.
“We’re not releasing any new core things,” Gregory said. “We’re hoping we can get cans printed (again). That’s the big deal right now. Keep doing what we’re doing, make a bunch of different beers, can most of them, and hope for nice patio days in the future.”
We will all raise a glass to new brews, sunnier days, and a return to normalcy, whatever that might entail in 2021. A big thanks to Joel for hopping on Zoom before the holidays, and to everyone at Ex Novo, we wish them a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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