Local breweries name their MVPs for this most difficult of years

The front-of-house staff at Sidetrack collectively earned MVP honors from the brewery owners. (Photo courtesy of Sidetrack Brewing)

During a conversation with a front-of-house employee from a local brewery, he noted that it felt rather nice to see words of praise from one of the owners in a recent Brew Crew story. That got me thinking about how much it might mean to other brewery employees to see some public recognition for their hard work during this pandemic.

We went ahead and asked the breweries, via email, for the MVPs for this year of pandemic, chaos, and closures. It was not an easy task for many to come up with a response, even when we noted that they could name one MVP, or just say it was their entire staff.

“I’d love to be able to identify one or even 10,” La Cumbre owner/master brewer Jeff Erway wrote. “Alan (Skinner) has been a huge driving force behind all of our specialty releases that have been so popular. Then I think to myself, the distro staff. … They have killed it making sure shelves stay stocked. … Then I think the whole brewery staff have been canning 80-plus hours/week; they deserve the kudos. … But, then there’s Cory (Campbell) who has made all of the labels for all of these beers and has led all of the marketing. … But, then the FOH (front-of-house) staff have dealt with blow after blow and keep on coming back for more. … Well, I just would rather not play the game of this person(s) is/are more valuable. They all are killing it for us. I really can’t imagine a group dealing with this shitshow of a year better than they have.”

Still, a few breweries did pick out one or more individuals who more than rose to the occasion in 2020.

Canteen Brewhouse

Canteen Taproom general manager Rosie Jinno has been a “rock star” throughout 2020. (Photo courtesy of Canteen Brewhouse)

General manager Jamie Schwebach had quite a few people to recognize between the two taprooms.

“The crews have been so amazing throughout this process all over the state,” she wrote. “For Canteen Brewhouse and Taproom, I would like to recognize the front-of-house folks who have worked throughout the entire pandemic.

“Rosie Jinno, the GM of the Taproom, has worked her tail off making sure her staff and customers are safe, and all continued to operate throughout the shutdown and openings and shutdown and openings again. She is a rock star and we are fortunate to have her as a leader at the Canteen.

“Spenser Corolus and Martin Neives have been working at the Taproom throughout as well.  They have brought joy and smiles to all the customers up in the heights.

The Taproom duo of Martin and Spenser have stepped up this year. (Photo courtesy of Canteen Brewhouse)

“At the Brewhouse, Mike Thrall has been stepping up and helping anyway he can. He has an incredible attitude and spirit, and willing to pivot and hustle to help keep customers safe and happy.

“We have had a few additional crew members come back as well at the Brewhouse — Jeremy Travis, Justin Lee, Troy Volk, and Justeen LeMaster — who are all helping make customers feel a sense of normalcy and offering a place to gather.

“All of our front-of-house folks have taken on additional roles outside of serving beer and we cannot thank them enough. They show up and work hard and are the best folks I have had the pleasure of working with. We are so thankful. Sadly we have not been able to bring back the rest of the crew under the current restrictions, and hope to bring them back once we are able to open more.

The brewery staff, led by head brewer Zach Guilmette, left. (Photo courtesy of Canteen Brewhouse)

“Our back-of-the-house, led by head brewer Zach Guilmette, have been outstanding. They have been handling temporary layoffs and reduction of hours with grace. They have been here to pivot to the to-go model and continue to make great beer. They have been amazing to work worth and so thankful to have them as part of our family. Douglas Cochran, Ben Lenetsky, and Mike Kaliber have continued to show up to make things happen. They are focused and work hard and their attention to detail is priceless. These guys are the best and we could not ask for a better brew team.”

Casa Vieja Brewery

Over in Corrales, co-owner Maria Socha had one person in mind for her brewery’s MVP, with a story about his positive impact that might make the room a little dusty when you read it.

“I am pleased to nominate Gary West for MVP recognition,” she wrote. “He is a ray of sunshine; always positive, smiling and ready to take on anything life throws at him. On days when owning a small business can be a heavy burden (and, gosh knows 2020 has been heavier than usual), he goes above and beyond to help our customers, our family, and to help carry the torch; taking ownership, pride, and helping us to do better with his excellent ideas and suggestions. He puts his heart into everything he does and has never met a stranger he did not like. Gary is truly a renaissance man … from delivering babies, to brewing craft beer, to owning a thriving BBQ restaurant … big and small, he knows it all. We are so grateful that he is on our team and he continues to choose to work with us.

Gary West has made it his mission to make sure everyone has a great time. (Photo courtesy of Casa Vieja)

“The weekend before Christmas we had a group come into the brewery for beers on the patio. They stayed for a while, enjoyed their drinks and before they left one of the owners, Maria, chatted a bit with them. Through the course of the conversation they reluctantly told her that they are traveling nurses currently working in a COVID ICU unit in ABQ. They expressed how tired they were and how tough things have been. Then with big tears in her eyes one of the nurses said, ‘Gary is the best. He treated us like humans. We absolutely love him.’ She went on to explain how hateful people can be when they find out they work in the COVID unit (like not wanting to come near them and acting like they are contaminated), and how poorly they are treated overall. She said that Gary’s kindness, excellent customer service, and warmth towards them made their week. Gary had no idea who they were or what they did (nor would it have mattered), he was just being himself! This is simply one of the countless examples that encompass the awesome Gary. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts Gary, we could not have asked for anyone better to take on the craziness of 2020 (and beyond) with!”

Ponderosa Brewing

Head brewer Antonio Fernandez selected his co-worker who simply does it all.

“At Ponderosa, I would like to nominate Donna Akers, our GM, as our MVP,” he wrote. “Donna has been the one keeping Ponderosa open and operating since the beginning of the pandemic.  During the initial lockdown she was basically running the FOH operations by herself to keep to-go food and beer orders going, working six-to-seven days a week. Due to her hard work and experience we have been able to weather the reduced revenue since March.”

Red Door Brewing

Assistant brewer Josh Kaskalla has stepped in a big way, but don’t interrupt his quality control work, lest you get the side eye. (Photo courtesy of Red Door)

For head brewer Matt Meier, the pivot to canning most of Red Door’s beers came with extra challenges, and for that, he picked one of his brew team.

“My vote for our Brewery MVP is my assistant brewer Josh Kaskalla,” Meier wrote. “During this pandemic and times of uncertainty, he has been a constant. He’s been busting his ass brewing, cellaring, running our canning line, developing recipes, and keeping everyone’s spirits up and creative juices flowing during this tough time. He’s an absolute asset and I’m proud to have him on our team.”

Sidetrack Brewing

Many have praised their front-of-house staffs for bearing the brunt of the challenges that the pandemic has created this year. Rather than pick just one member of that team, co-owner Anne O’Neill chose all of them.

“We would nominate all of our front of house staff: Amanda Turri, Reann Omick, Ross Knight, and Maria Cussen,” she wrote. “We are proud to have this group as a part of our work family. They are all dedicated employees who have remained positive throughout this last year.  They have each stepped up and took on tasks beyond their job description during these challenging circumstances. We are humbled to work alongside this committed group of people who have helped us keep Sidetrack afloat.”

Steel Bender Brewyard

So many to-go orders, but staff members like Henri Serrano and Jenny Garcia have handled the crush. (Photo courtesy of Steel Bender Brewyard)

We had a feeling that if she had time to think about it, co-owner Shelby Chant might end up naming everyone on staff as her MVPs. Well, we were right. She even broke it down by departments.

For taproom operations: “While faced with change after change, sometimes daily, our taproom staff just kept at it,” Chant wrote. “I’ve never seen such tenacity to make something work. Traditionally, our managers are accustomed to thinking through all scenarios to create a great experience for our guests. That’s been difficult to do, because big operational changes sometimes had to happen within a day. But, these guys became masters of agility and hit the changes and challenges head-on with efficiency and creative solutions, all while keeping each other’s and our FOH staff’s spirits up.

“Our entire FOH staff has worked tirelessly to provide that sense of normalcy for guests that’s so important right now, and it’s been wonderful hearing guests thank us for this … verbally, with a generous tip, the supportive review. There is, of course, a bit of the flip side, those guests who don’t agree with or don’t understand the PHO, and it’s not easy having to enforce policies. I can’t commend our staff enough for handling some of the inevitable tense moments with class.

We had to include this photo of general manager April Varela with Sebastian Bach taken before the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Steel Bender Brewyard)

“To execute a nearly entirely scratch menu, it takes a large and talented kitchen crew. Unfortunately, we had to furlough many of our kitchen staff members. Our kitchen was resilient and realized that this was a time to provide comfort food to our guests. So we began family meals (Weekend and Taqueria Tuesday), and our kitchen knocked it out of the park. Our skeleton crew quickly came up with processes to implement family meals alongside our abbreviated menu while keeping it scratch.

“Our entire taproom staff has been so understanding during this time when hours had to be cut and multiple hats had to be worn.”

The staff: April Varela (GM), Melissa “Mo” Olivas (Asst Mgr), Clarissa Kaselonis (Asst Mgr), Jesus Rodriguez (Former Asst Mgr), Jenny Garcia (Events & Marketing Coord), Jason Baczkiewicz (Chef/Kitchen Manager), Brianna Benton (Sous Chef), Raul Parra Devora (Kitchen Lead), and the kitchen crew of Eric Valles, Brianna Spinarski, Henri Serrano, Daniel Quezada, Brandon Driggs

One of these guys used to write for us and the other used to take photos. We would agree that Adam Auden, left, and Mario Caldwell have gone on to bigger and better things. (Photo courtesy of Steel Bender Brewyard)

For the sales and distribution team: “With restaurant/taproom and package retail accounts also impacted by shutdowns and capacity changes, forecasting turned into a whole new ball game,” Chant wrote. “Conversations turned into commiseration, asking how they were doing, lending an ear and a shoulder as fellow colleagues in a hard-hit industry.”

The team: Adam Auden (Sales & Distribution Manager), Bill Heimann (Sales), Mario Caldwell (Sales)

Head brewer Bob Haggerty’s birthday celebration back on March 13 was supposed to be a big event, but the pandemic’s arrival scuttled that idea. Instead, it was a fun little party in the back for the staff before everything went sideways. (Photo courtesy of Steel Bender Brewyard)

For the brewery team: “With so much uncertainty about restaurant closures (including our own taproom), package retail distribution has been crucial,” Chant wrote. “Our brewers haven’t stopped. It’s been great to watch them streamline and adapt so quickly to maintain high-volume production needs, while also brewing some fantastic new releases.”

The team: Robert Haggerty (Head Brewer), Cordell Rincon (Lead Brewer), Marita Weil, Desmond Dorn, Eric Natzke

Thirsty Eye Brewing

Brewer John Kofonow has kept the beer flowing throughout this wild year. (Photo courtesy of Thirsty Eye Brewing)

Co-owner Shawn Turung praised her entire staff.

“We are so beyond grateful for our staff for trodding through the uncertainty with us, and keeping a great attitude of optimism,” she wrote.

Turung also added a special bit of praise for the man behind the beers.

“Maybe I can pad a few words spotlighting John (Kofonow), our brewer — an incredibly talented and well-meaning person who deeply values people, his craft, and truly the whole community of fine art, creatives, and craft beer. Kim Arthun, gallery owner, has dubbed John an honorary gallery artist for always keeping the beer and art connected and constantly improving his work. John has gone out of his way to promote the brewery through radio interviews and connections with other brewers and the brewing community. He is an inspiration, as are his creations.”

The entire New Mexico craft beer industry

For this, Steel Bender’s Shelby Chant nominated the New Mexico Brewers Guild as the MVP for the entire industry. We could not agree more, so we will raise our glasses to executive director Leah Black and the board of directors on this final day of 2020.

In many ways, every employee at every brewery has been an MVP this year. They have all stepped up under the most difficult and unexpected conditions in the history of craft beer in New Mexico (or at least since Prohibition nuked all forms of brewing back in 1918, which was also the time of the last global pandemic).

To every front-of-house employee who has gone home smelling like bleach, who has taken unwarranted grief from angry customers, and still persevered throughout this year, we raise our glasses to you.

To the kitchen staffs, the sales-and-distribution teams, the marketers and social media gurus, we raise our glasses to you.

To the brewers, cellar persons, canning line technicians, and everyone else involved in getting those delicious beers in our hands, we raise our glasses to you.

To all the owners, who have made the hardest decisions of their lives with their staffs, who have often gone into the kitchens to wash dishes, stayed late to answer phones, and spent way too much time reading legal documents, applying for loans, and just hoping and praying to keep their breweries alive, we raise our glasses to you.

And to the breweries that did not make it through this, our condolences.

This has been the toughest year, brutal and unrelenting. But, we take with us the positives, whether in pint glasses, crowlers, four-packs, or to-go meals, and most of all your smiling faces behind those masks. As long as you all keep brewing, we will keep writing.

Keep supporting local in 2021!

— Stoutmeister

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