Co-founder and brewmaster Jason Kirkman takes a break from bottling to answer a quick phone call from a beer writer. He sits for a minute in the empty brewing facility, once filled with the sounds of laughter, the odd clang of a hoseclamp here and there, and new beers bubbling happily away into buckets. He’s already waived off the offers of aid from his brewers. “I got this,” he told them, knowing that they’ll all be back together again soon. And, they will. This has been how much of 2020 has gone for Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery. And, even though the doors have been closed to the public (mostly), the work hasn’t stopped behind the scenes, and no one has lost hope for better times ahead.
This past week, via phone interview, I caught up with Kirkman to find out how they made it through 2020, and how they’re approaching another potentially difficult year.
In March 2020, with the threat of a looming pandemic, Kirkman and the Tumbleroot team made the very difficult decision to close their popular taprooms.
Everyone but a couple core members were laid off, including the brewers. Most of the staff had voiced their concerns about contact with the public and how they were going to stay safe with the numbers of positive cases on the rise, and so it made more sense to this work family for everyone remain home for the majority of the year.
As a business, Tumbleroot wasn’t sure what they were going to do as far as making money. Their key concern was keeping everybody, customers and staff, safe.
For a moment, the distilling business stood still.
The Hand Sanitizer Business
But, not for long. Soon after, one of Tumbleroot’s beer and liquor accounts, Whole Foods, approached Kirkman and had asked if they were making any hand sanitizer for sale. At the time, Kirkman had only heard rumors that other breweries and distilleries were making it, but the prospect sounded promising. Kirkman did some digging into the legalities and processes, and soon Tumbleroot literally got the go ahead they needed to proceed with a whole new product line.
“Pretty quickly the FDA and TTB approached us and said, ‘Here. Here’s how to make sanitizer, go ahead, you’ve got permission to do it,’ ” Kirkman said.
They looked at their books and started the planning process.
At the time, most of Tumbleroot’s cash was tied up in inventory for the big push that would take them into what was supposed to be their busy season, and so their first challenge became raising extra capital for a whole new type of inventory and the associated costs of supplies. On top of that, everything from alcohol to the containers were in very short supply, which was why sanitizer was so hard to get your hands on, or, well, in.
But, Tumbleroot was determined, and so they hunted down supplies, bought what they could whenever it became available.
“Fortunately, we were able to respond a little faster and get stuff out there,” Kirkman said.
And so, they pumped the sanitizer (around 6,000 gallons of it) out into the world at an affordable price, not wanting to push their margins beyond what their own spirit sales might normally be, but just to survive like everyone else was trying to do. For several months they sold hand sanitizer to local companies large and small, and delivered to some communities that needed it the most, like the Navajo and Hopi nations.
“We were able to make some money off of it,” Kirkman said, “but, we were able to keep our guys employed.”
And, that meant more to him.
Layoffs and closures
As previously mentioned, the brewers, Andy Lane and Michael Chavez, were laid off at first, but Kirkman and co. had found away to bring them back in and put them on payroll again. Sanitizer to the rescue. I caught up with head brewer Lane right after that happened during a quick check-in.
For the next few months, the brew crew kept making beer and spirits, and packaging their products all the way until December, when Tumbleroot had to lay them off again. With a stock of product built up, no taprooms to run or supply, and eligibility for unemployment for the staff renewed, it was the decision that made the most sense for everyone. The plan leading into 2021 is to phase employees back in around the end of February. Here’s hoping!
Speaking of hopes for a speedy return, the concert venue/taproom at Agua Fria had shuttered its doors shortly after their small Bisbee Court location had done in March, but would later re-open in an outdoor-dining-only capacity.
“Agua Fria was closed until (August),” Kirkman said. “Our staff was concerned about service, so we retooled our outdoor space, and had a really nice outdoor (full service) bar (with tap lines they ran from their cooler), and we had our food truck.”
In addition to their serving staff, Tumbleroot’s food truck chef, Gabe Calhoun, had also voiced concerns about person-to-person contact and working indoors. With the food truck that Tumbleroot had just purchased the year before, called East Root, he was able to make the food and bring plates to the tables with very minimal contact, and without the need to share any indoor space.
“The retooling of the new space was lead by Tumbleroot’s employees. They didn’t want to come back unless they felt real safe,” Kirkman said.
With excellent food, beer, cocktails, a jammy chillhop DJ, touchless menus, a one-way flow of socially distanced drink-ordering traffic, and plenty of hand sanitizer, the outdoor space proved to be a winning recipe. From personal experience, it felt very much like the special Tumbleroot experience Santa Fe had been missing for months. And, most importantly, it felt safe.
Even though they were allowed to have a 25-percent indoor capacity at various junctures during the year, Tumbleroot opted out.
“We didn’t feel like that was a good idea, even though we’ve got pretty good ventilation in the big space,” Kirkman said. “It just seems like, hey, people shouldn’t be doing that right now, and I don’t want to expose our employees to it.”
So Tumbleroot kept to curbside pick-up only when the patio wasn’t open, and are continuing to do so, where you can still order anything they produce in cans and bottles, as well as all available merch online. Their Agua Fria pick-up site is open 4 to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday (at the moment). They certainly could use our continued support.
Distribution during the pandemic
For offsite sales, the pandemic severely put a kink in Tumbleroot’s distribution strategy for 2020.
Self-distributing at the time, Tumbleroot wasn’t in the larger stores that remained open throughout the pandemic, and just as other breweries were experiencing, sales had slowed significantly through the taplines, as the keg market was all but clogged with hotels and bars closed or limiting service. And, if you read last year’s Look Back for Tumbleroot, you’ll remember that the sale of kegs and craft liquor to hotels, bars, and restaurants was one of Tumbleroot’s best-performing markets, one they were looking to grow organically.
In 2020, as they were forced to place more focus on their packaged beer (in both cans and bottles), canned cocktails, and bottled spirits, they rapidly accelerated their plans to get their new canning line operational and efficient, desperate to get their canned cocktails out to a customer base who could no longer order cocktails at a bar. Because of that, they saw a nice uptick in sales to the smaller stores like Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and Susan’s Fine Wine and Liquor. But, Tumbleroot wasn’t built around the full-on distribution model.
“Since we were geared more towards craft beer and cocktails through our Agua Fria taproom as a primary source of revenue, it’s been hard,” Kirkman said.
Luckily for Tumbleroot, like many other breweries, they were able to apply and qualify for the PPP, a Small Business Administration loan, which certainly helped a bit through the tremendously tough time. They just recently qualified for the Small Business CARES grant, a federally funded stimulus grant. Kirkman said, though, that they haven’t received it just yet, but when it arrives it will be huge for Tumbleroot in helping them get through this.
Beer, spirits, and canned cocktails
This year when Tumbleroot was in the office, so to speak, as those who were around kept busy. When they weren’t making hand sanitizer, they continued to make all of their quality core and seasonal products.
They put far less drink in the tanks than they’re used to, sure, and though the taps had been shut off temporarily, they kept the ideas flowing and the canning line filling.
With the canning line fully operational, they made their Mojitos again, and then added Moscow Mules and their popular version of a Paloma to the canned cocktail lineup.
During the pandemic, they’ve also had to get creative with some of the product that wasn’t ever going to make it to a keg. Kirkman chuckled as he told me that he’s currently distilling some leftover beer, from stuff they’ve made for their closed taproom, and beer from a contract brew they did for another bar that closed its doors due to COVID. The leftover beer is becoming beer whiskey, or technically, malt whiskey.
“Malt whiskeys don’t have hops in them,” he said. “So it’s got this other layer of funky fruitiness to it, and it’s actually tasting pretty good. I’m psyched!”
COVID may have changed how the products reached the public in 2020, but the pandemic couldn’t shut down Tumbleroot’s artisanal approach to sourcing and producing a truly local product.
Tumbleroot made a coffee liqueur from a special tasting they did with Ohori’s Coffee Roasters, which they planned to debut at the 2020 Coffee and Chocolate festival. Unfortunately, as you may remember, that was one of the first festivals to be canceled last year.
Tumbleroot also re-made their farmhouse whiskey for 2020 from New Mexico blue corn, stone-ground by a centuries old water-powered mill at Las Golondrinas (which also never officially opened up for a 2020 season).
In 2020, Tumbleroot unveiled the Sunset and Sunrise series, two very different, yet complimenting styles of beer, a lager and a hazy IPA both with a Japanese twist. Sunrise is a very light lager weighing in at 4.7-percent ABV, formerly their TBR, a riff on the dive-bar classic, but now with 30-percent flaked rice. Their Sunset Hazy IPA is Tumbleroot’s take on the ubiquitous New England style, freshened up with a helping of yuzu fruit. Together they make a fun combination of reversed East meets West, where New Mexico sits on be the Prime Meridian instead of Greenwich, London, England.
“We’ve been working on the recipe for the Japanese Lager for a while,” Kirkman said. “We wanted a Pale (at first) that complimented it. So, since we had a canning line, we said, what the hell, let’s go for it, and put a couple beers that we feel good about out there.”
With the cost to make the beer rising like a sun with the yuzu fruit addition, they decided to bump up the ABV on the pale and make it an IPA. Both are available in handsome six-packs to go. Kanpai!
Tumbleroot will continue with their rotation of barrel-aged sours into 2021. Currently awaiting your glassware are their Blackberry Sour, Cherry Sour, and Sour Red, and for the first time out of the barrel, a Cranberry Blood-Orange Sour, which you really have to try for yourself.
And, if you’re looking for more barrel-aged goodness from Tumbleroot, don’t forget to add their Wheat Wines, SMaSH Barleywines, and Agave Spirit Mole Stout (in bottles) to your cart before checkout.
Their seasonal bottled beers are still available through their site, and wherever Tumbleroot can be found growing.
Tumbleroot is heading into 2021 by treating it much like a continuation of the year before, only they’re better prepared now, and have a two-fold strategy.
With more production capacity from the canning line, a solid handle on the process, and switching to a distributor, they plan to grow their distribution further within New Mexico, and expand into the Texas market with their spirits and canned cocktails.
“We’re doing what we can to maximize our production capacity, and keep our guys employed, and get our products out there,” Kirkman said.
The second part of their plan is to phase their Agua Fria taproom back into operation, starting with the outdoor patio space. Kirkman said he hopes that by March, they’ll be able to have people back again.
“We’ll try to be as creative as possible through the summer to kind of maximize the space,” he said. “It would be awesome to do some live music again.”
They’re currently brainstorming some construction projects like an outdoor stage and tweaking their indoor space. They have ideas, and one of them is taking their new retail knowledge and putting it into what may be an onsite bottle shop for their stock and other New Mexico products, more of an expansion of the fridge space they currently have near the entrance. Another idea is including a more intimate tasting room, more intimate even than the small bar space back over at Bisbee Court. They’re also talking about changing the setup of their current bar at Agua Fria to better serve people in 2021.
As a music venue, Tumbleroot is a veteran of the business by now, so they’re ready when large shows become a thing again. Kirkman, and the rest of the world, are hoping that will be by this fall.
“We love having the big shows,” Kirkman said. “Who knows what things are going to be like on the other side of this? We’re assuming that people, once they feel healthy and safe, are going to really want to go out and celebrate and catch live music. And, we want to make sure that we’ve taken all the lessons that we’ve learned, and provide people with a better experience, better service.”
Kirkman said it will take a few months to modify the space, but what better time for renovations than now? Right?
It may have been a tough year, but there were still a lot of bright spots for Kirkman.
“Rolling into canning was awesome,” he said. “Being able to see people for a brief moment there, when we were doing patio service, that was cool. Another revamping of our menu with another chef coming in and doing the food truck, I was really psyched about that. Being able to stick with Michael and Andy, being able to work with those guys, you know, I miss them. Being able to bond with the team, as we had to roll through all the changes. We had each other’s back pretty well. And, I feel honored to be surrounded by the guys that I’m surrounded by. We’re starting to see some benefits from having switched to a distributor, so things are going to start picking up.”
For 2021, Kirkman said he hopes to rest easy, sleep well, and not stress out as much.
“It’s been really stressful, dude,” he said. “We put a lot into this, and it’s just been so hard to predict how things are going to go, and I hope for some return to normalcy, and to be able to make some predictions, and know you’re making the right call. There’s a tension of what’s the right thing to do, what’s the safe thing to do, and what do we need to do to earn money, and they’re all at odds with each other, right? So, to not have to make those compromises, that would be great.”
* * * * *
Thank you as always to Jason Kirkman for the phone interview. Thanks to the whole Tumbleroot crew for doing their best to keep us in good beer and high spirits. To their health and success, and to the health of you, beer readers, cheers!
For more info on craftbeer and @nmdarksidebc, and filterless Untappd check-ins, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro.