After more than 20 entries in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series, there seem to be three things that have kept breweries going during the pandemic.
First, it really helps to can your beer. Second, a kitchen can be awfully beneficial. Third, the bigger the patio, the better.
Rio Bravo Brewing checked off all three of those boxes, but that still does not mean the past year has been easy for the staff or its customers.
“The start of 2020 I think we were really humming,” said director of brewing operations Austin Giorgetta. “We were so excited to see the summer and then everything came to a screeching halt. If I recall, we had the Tuesday night (before the shutdown) the Brewers Guild meetup, the social, and that was a great display for us. We got to have a lot of friends over. We were doing pretty well in the taproom.”
Then came the mid-March closure, and just like every other brewery, Rio Bravo was reduced to takeout only.
“The main thing we struggled with was to-go only, where people don’t get to sit outside, that was really just harsh for quite a while there,” head brewer Ty Levis said. “With our kitchen being able to open in the first round of reopening, that made a huge difference for us. We were able to get some people outside. We were really trying to keep things going really quickly.”
Throughout the year, Rio Bravo kept churning out plenty of its beers in cans, including some new specialties, like Quarantine King and Chocoholic.
“Even during COVID we tried to pivot a little bit and come out with some canned releases with also brought some more attraction to Rio Bravo,” Giorgetta said. “Just trying to survive a little bit.
“I would say our can sales, we’re up 30 to 40 percent just on cans. But that’s also not including to-go cans, that’s where we are in the market. Lucky for us, in the middle of COVID we were accepted to Costco.”
Once the outdoor areas reopened back during the summer, things went fairly smoothly. The beer garden in the back of the brewery proved to be perfectly sized for proper social distancing. The customers that returned were willing to wear their masks and adhere to the new rules.
“I think they were pretty responsive,” Levis said. “I think we had a few times we had to (put people) on a waiting list. With how big we are, we could go with 150 people outdoors only. That was a big saver for us. The summer, people were really happy coming here. With how big we are, social distancing was the norm here.”
“People were really respectful,” he said. “Everyone was receptive of the gentle reminder. The outdoor spaces that we have are amazingly utilized in the last eight months. It’s allowed us to have a different paradigm as far as what we do business wise.”
Like at other breweries, the Rio Bravo staff also got the chance to do some maintenance and fix things up in the brewery and points beyond.
One fix was with the tap setup near the beer garden entrance. In the past it was only a handful of taps compared to those at the main bar area. When the patio was buzzing, it was discovered that some of the servers were walking up to seven miles per day just going back and forth. Thus, Levis and Giorgetta got to install a much bigger tap setup in the back to make sure every beer available was there as well as at the main bar.
Rio Bravo has also reduced its regular number of beers available.
“For a while we had 23 house beers on tap,” Levis said. “We pared that down to about 15. That seems to be a way more workable amount. That’s way less stress on our inventory. It gives us more focus on fewer options.”
One beer that stood out in 2020 was Dice Roll Hazy IPA, which just happened to win the take-home version of the annual New Mexico IPA Challenge. It was the first NMIPAC title for Rio Bravo. It brought some positive attention even as things started to slow down as summer faded away.
“Absolutely,” Levis said. “We were able to get people in, and they’re interested in the beer. We did a can release of that beer, of the same recipe, in Total Wine and other places. Whether it boosted our business or not, we felt good. We got first in the IPA Challenge and second in the Stout Invitational. We’re doing everything we can to make sure the beer is relevant and business is going to keep going.”
Other beers that stood out included Summer Honey, which Levis said they will likely can in the coming months, and the Hopowski IPA, which currently holds the highest rating of any Rio Bravo beer on Untappd.
Coming soon will be a double rum barrel version of the Grab ’em by the Putin Russian Imperial Stout, with a cognac barrel version now aging away in the barrel room upstairs.
“We’re just trying to have some really dynamic, great beers come out,” Giorgetta said. “The double rum and the cognac are going to be (this) year. We’re really excited for that. We have that rotating IPA series. We’re going to try some double dry-hop IPAs, keep things really fun in our inventory.”
Ultimately, it will continue to take everyone on staff, from the brewers to the front-of-house staff and more, to keep the positive momentum going at Rio Bravo during the lean winter months and beyond.
“Right now I feel like between our staff in the back of the house, and our kitchen staff, and our front-of-house servers and general managers, everyone is hyper focused on doing the best job we can,” Levis said. “We’re really gelling. It’s going well. That teamwork, it’s making us feel good. We’re still doing enough business to keep everything going. As soon as restrictions are starting to lift, we feel we’ll be in a great spot, get things back to where they were before this all started.”
All of us in New Mexico are hoping to get things back to where they were before the pandemic, so we can all raise a glass to that sentiment. Particularly a glass of that double rum barrel-aged Putin, which all of us in the Crew will make sure to let everyone else know about the minute it goes on tap.
A big thanks to Austin and Ty for the phone interview.
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