Steel Bender Brewyard pivots and pivots and pivots again to stay the course

Adapting to the to-go model for much of 2020 was just one of the many challenges that Steel Bender faced. (All photos courtesy of Mario Caldwell/Steel Bender Brewyard, unless noted)

Pivot is not a word that came up too often in breweries before 2020. Now it is perhaps the defining word of the year that was, and in some ways, the current year as well.

It was pivot that defined so much of the last year for Steel Bender Brewyard, but at the end of this long road, it has been a word that shifted from negative to positive, ever so slowly.

To learn a little more about all those pivots, I caught up with co-owners Ethan and Shelby Chant, sales manager Adam Auden, and head brewer Bob Haggerty over Zoom earlier this week for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series. We started at the beginning, when things looked quite promising for 2020, just as they did at so many other New Mexico breweries.

“I think when (2020) started we were already planning three months in advance for events, and our anniversary was in mid-March,” Ethan said. “We were booking bands, everything was going super well. Distribution was taking off. Shelby and I were going to start paying ourselves. Everything, just like for everyone else, looked great.

“At the beginning of March as things were getting closer, it was looking bleak. The taproom functions, the employees and all that kind of stuff, we had to deal with right away. Bob and Adam were planning quickly, all the kegs we were going to have to buy back from restaurants, and all the beer we had in tanks.”

By mid-March, breweries were having to reduce capacity, before the final hammer fell and everyone was down to takeout only.

“It went from driving on the freeway (at) 95 mph to the transmission falling out,” Ethan said. “The employee part, honestly, was by far the most heartbreaking. It was the human aspect. Beer is great, that’s why we’re in this business, but it’s (just) stuff, it was really the employees, not knowing what their future was going to be, and not being able to give them good answers. That was the hardest part for me.”

Shelby, who is also Steel Bender’s marketing director, watched all the grand plans crumble.

“Going back to the beginning of 2020, we had gotten into our groove, in the taproom as well as in distribution,” she said. “We had people in the right roles, things were running smoothly so we could definitely start looking ahead to what the future was going to hold. I think all of us, when we saw this coming, but how long is going to last? I was looking through old stuff the other day, it said all the taproom events were going to be postponed for the next two weeks. I had to laugh. We were just going to pause for a little bit. It’s unfathomable to think we were in that mindset at the time.”

The once lively taproom interior is now unnaturally quiet. (Crew photo)

With such a large taproom, Steel Bender had one of the bigger front-of-house staffs in the Albuquerque metro area.

“What we had to do very quickly was make the most difficult, heartbreaking decisions,” Shelby said. “Ninety percent of our staff had to be laid off. I was amazed how they took it.

“Then we had to get beers in cans, about five or six (styles). It was just having to do a lot, and people wanting to help, but not knowing where to help. We’ve come a long way. We’re very agile right now. It’s not fun.”

The sales and brewing teams were not hit by layoffs on that scale, but they also had to make some significant adjustments, starting with turning many draft-only seasonal beers into canned offerings.

“It was a different planning challenge, for sure,” Adam said. “The industry is fast moving at the best of times. Then to throw this into the works, it’s an extra level of uncertainty.

“When things kicked off, we had a lot of beer in tanks. Because we had a labeler for our cans and we have a good partner in Lightning Labels, we were able to put that into cans. The other thing we had in our favor was we were being picked up by one of the large grocery stores in the spring as well. That was another thing that kept things moving.

“The big challenge is it takes time to make beer and beer has a finite shelf life. Suddenly your needs are changing on a nightly basis. We’ve rode that out pretty well.”

Sales manager Adam Auden and his team kept a positive outlook all year.

Bob and the brewing team had to become far more nimble than in the past.

“We’re just rolling with the punches,” he said. “Running a brewery is like driving a tank. With things shifting as they had been, you just pick a course and hope for the best, really. They’ve all been flexible in hanging in there. Throwing all the beers into cans was a challenge, for sure.

“We’ve lost very little beer. We’ve found a home for most everything. As far as that goes, we’ve been pretty successful. We had to cut back on specials.”

While the business continued, the toll it took on the current and former employees still loomed first and foremost for the Chants.

“I think all the change, on top of the anxiety about job loss and their physical health, I think mental health is going to be an issue for a long time after this,” Shelby said. “We’re looking at a taproom staff, a management staff, that’s a skeleton crew. Guys, we’re so sorry, but we’ve got to do this. They went with it, but it’s exhausting. It’s deflating. In a way it’s invigorating, but we can get a kick out of how (quickly) we can pivot right now. It’s asking a lot of businesses to change that quickly. With the new red-yellow-green setup, it made it a little easier to handle things.”

Having a set of regulations, as opposed to everyone having to hold their breath at every news conference from Santa Fe for change after change, has been a relief for all the breweries.

“It puts the accountability not only on the businesses, but on the public,” Shelby said. “If you want those businesses to reopen, you have a responsibility to get the numbers where we need to be. I’m glad it went that route. It took the onus off of us to change things every single week, and for us to feel like we were enforcing all the rules. Once we went to that framework, it made it a lot easier.”

Finding rays of light amid the gloom

So many different staff members stepped up at Steel Bender, we cannot possibly include photos of everyone, but the kitchen team led by chef Jason Baczkiewicz, left, and Eric Valles were among the many MVPs named in an earlier article.

Throughout the Look Back/Look Ahead Series, we have asked breweries for any and all positives they can take from life in a pandemic. One that Ethan found should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the growth of the tight-knit craft beer scene in New Mexico.

“I think, from really observing things, especially with the community, the brewing community that Shelby is a part of, Shelby and a big group of the beer community have really been supporting each other,” he said. “That support, it’s an old adage, when there’s a really difficult time, you see people’s true character. Seeing people who have good quality emerge from this and help each other has been outstanding. We were the first ones that had to shut down because fo a positive case in July. After that Shelby gets a call once a week from someone asking how we move forward. Everyone wants to help each other move forward. There’s competition in this industry, but no one is rooting for anyone to fail. Just seeing how people, by far, have helped each other throughout this. That really emerged, and that was something that was pretty incredible to see.”

Many staff members have also stood out, spread across all departments.

“In terms of our employees, it was nice to see some really step up because they care about Steel Bender,” Ethan said. “Not because it’s their job and they have to, they really waned to see us get through this. We had people wanting to come in even though they weren’t being paid. They were calling us all the time. It’s dangerous to become friends with employees, but we have. That’s been really something that stood out so much when things feel so bleak, to know that people are actually interested in the place they succeed. I really like that.”

It may be a little hard to tell from this photo, but the brewery is reportedly as clean as it has even been with so much time available to keep it that way. (Crew archive photo)

Though it is not an area the public can visit right now, Bob is also very proud of one development inside the brewing hall.

“It’s forced a lot of tightening up in the systems we’re running,” he said. “I’ve seen the same in the brewery, really, where a lot of employees have stepped up, taken on a little extra care. The brewery has been a lot cleaner lately. If that carries forward, I’m happy.”

The sales team has also managed to keep pushing forward, even with far fewer draft accounts than in the past as restaurants and bars have remained closed or at least limited in occupancy.

“We’ve been able to plan forward better, more quickly,” Adam said. “Not only as the brewery grows, but we need to be planning further ahead. We’re doing a good job of laying things out there, and still pivoting whenever things happen. I think the support that Ethan talked about from the staff, we’ve seen that from customers and folks on social media, and out in the field as well. Bill (Heimann) and Mario (Caldwell) have been going out checking on folks. There’s some accounts that are doing only food to-go. We’re still maintaining relationships.”

Shelby heaped some extra praise on the duo of Bill and Mario, the latter of whom also handles most of the stunning photographs you see on all of Steel Bender’s social media accounts.

“What Bill and Mario have done is really special and really important,” she said. “We really enjoy taking care of our accounts, and promoting them. When this all started, the restaurant industry just (got) hit so hard. Bill and Mario started going out there doing, it’s not like they could really sell or grab a handle here or there, because businesses were shut down or limited, they were just checking on them. Not being intrusive, but allowing people to talk. They would check in with us throughout the day. Their concern for accounts is palpable.”

The cans have kept rolling out the door throughout the constantly shifting pandemic restrictions.

Steel Bender has always been a brewery that has cared about community, whether that meant supporting the other local businesses in Los Ranchos, to extending charity efforts to the entire metro area. Like so much else in 2020, Shelby was forced to pivot on that, too, just like people at many other breweries around town.

“It’s really unfortunate, because it’s an industry that’s known for being very charitable,” she said. “We would get emails daily, sometimes multiple in a day. Sponsorship, partnership requests, all of this. We knew about a month after this happened, they trickled off, but then we started getting more. I put it on the website that we’re not accepting donation requests at this time. There are some big organizations that we’ve already been supporting, or the new one like Black is Beautiful, so financially we figured out can we do this and how did we do it.”

At the end of the day, only four major charity efforts went through for 2020.

“Thinking back on One for 5, we had a new partner this year in Second Street, it was the only collaboration brew we did in this year,” Shelby said. “I think what we did with One for 5, Storehouse was incredible, Albertsons was incredible. We figured it out. Rich (Weber, of Sierra Blanca) has a hard time getting down here because the man is so busy, but that’s fine, we’re going to have Second Street out here. Let’s promote the heck out of it. We had incredible support from 94 Rock. They offered more this year. Everybody was ready to do it.”

The first effort was brewing the All Together IPA at the start of the pandemic, with proceeds going to the New Mexico Restaurant Association’s Serve NM Fund. The final charity effort was for the Pink Warrior House, with the trio of Steel Bender, Canteen, and High and Dry all offering proceeds from specific beers for an entire month to help in the battle against breast cancer.

“Between One for 5, we wanted to do it again, we wanted to do Pink Warrior House on a smaller scale, and then when Black is Beautiful popped up, we wanted to do it,” Shelby said. “We knew that was it for the year. We had to hold our ground.”

The Steel Bender and Second Street brewing teams collaborated on the One for 5 IPA this year. This could also work as an album cover if they ever want to collaborate musically.

In the brewery, Bob has been able to use this time to really zero in on the core lineup of beers, which he hopes will fully come to fruition in the weeks and months ahead.

“For me having the beer to obsess about, it’s been good for me, it’s been kind of guiding,” he said. “Doing things repeatedly, putting beer in package, rather than trying to remember the recipe from the last time you brewed it. I’m really loving the (Skull Bucket) IPA right now. We’ve made little tweaks here and there.”

Adam said that any drop-off in seasonal offerings has not had a major effect.

“Everyone has really streamlined what they’re doing with the beer lineup right now,” he said. “It’s mostly house beers, but yeah, when we get (seasonal) placements, they perform well. All pretty positive. From my standpoint, the IPA is really, really good right now. The Hop Fink series is a really tasty beer.”

Seeking silver linings in 2021

Yeah, we missed mornings like these, too. (Crew archive photo)

So much is still unknown about the current year, but as things hopefully begin to open again, Steel Bender will be ready to jump back into action.

“I hope we can have some people on our patio looking at balloons in the morning this year,” Adam said. “I very much look forward to being somewhere crowded, drinking a festbier, eating a bratwurst, and enjoying everything else, too.”

Chiming in on what he was looking forward to later this year, Bob pointed out that the Craft Brewers Conference, normally an annual spring event, will be held in Denver in September. The current plan is for the Great American Beer Festival to be an online awards ceremony only again in 2021, with the actual festival part held back for 2022.

Shelby added that in many ways, the people who own and operate breweries are hoping for are the same things as their customers.

“I think we are all looking forward to the same thing that people going to breweries are,” she said. “We’ve been very, very cautious. We have our friends at Ex Novo down the road, but we miss it. It’s hard for me, personally, to be in the taproom. A piece of the soul is gone. When it’s your baby it’s hard to see it that way. I’m looking forward to seeing our taproom be whatever it’s going to look like in the new normal, which is not this. A place where people can come together and talk, and it’s OK if you say hello to someone at the next table.

“It was hard not doing Balloons and Brews this year. It would be great to be at a festival or two. It would be great to see people. We’re in planning stages on things. We do have a couple things coming up that we’re excited about. I think there’s a flicker of light right now.”

Head brewer Bob Haggerty checked out his pilot system when it arrived in January 2020, with big plans for its future in 2021.

One specific thing in the brewery that Bob is looking forward to is making full use of his 7-barrel pilot system, which had arrived back in January, but was not fully up and running before the pandemic hit.

“I am looking forward to a lot of small batches of beer,” he said. “Our pilot system is getting tuned up and tuned in right now.”

Ethan is also looking forward to those small batches, since the main 15-barrel brewhouse was a bit too big to really do some outside-the-box beers.

“What Bob said about that, once again, this a brewery,” Ethan said. “Without a pilot system, we had to really commit to doing weird beers, because it’s a lot of beer. With the pilot system, not only does it look really cool, it’s giving us the freedom to try some stuff, or some crazy stuff. If there’s a new yeast, Bob can say let’s look at this. We don’t have to commit 15 barrels to it. I’m excited about that.”

At the end of the day, at the end of a long, long year that still has not seemingly ended, finding anything to get excited about is what carries the Steel Bender staff forward.

“I think it’s important, personally, for me to always be hopeful,” Ethan said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, what shoe is going to be dropped next. Without being naive, I think we’re all very hopeful for the future, and I haven’t said that for a while.”

We know it’s been tough, but please keep smiling, Ethan and Shelby.

A big, big thanks to Ethan, Shelby, Adam, and Bob for meeting up virtually. Our interview was twice postponed, though none of us could have foreseen what happened in Washington D.C. last week being a reason for a delay. It was good to chat at the end of a normal Tuesday, and hopefully next time we can all do it in person over some pints on the patio, maybe even with a balloon or two flying overhead.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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