Our latest entry for the Look Back/Look Ahead Series takes us back to Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op (BRB), tucked away near the Jemez Mountains in Los Alamos. 2020 was a difficult year for the little brewery, as it was for nearly everyone else in the industry. The business survived intact, thanks to government funding at various levels and a very supportive community, and is hoping for a brighter 2021.
Unlike previous interviews, I conducted this one with the assistant manager Rob Hipwood and head brewer Brandon Venaglia via e-mail. Doing everything virtually is the story of Covid, but it lacks the in-person feel and random conversation turns that a proper interview provides (never mind the beer). The next installment will hopefully be in-person and pandemic-free!
DSBC: I have to assume sales were way down in 2020. How much beer did BRB produce compared to past years?
Brandon: Production was substantially down, around 35 percent. The only caveat is that 2019 was a record year, so we had a little extra room to fall. Either way, it’s been tough to keep (to) our calendar, for sure.
DSBC: How did BRB do financially? Did the employees manage OK?
Rob: Since March we’ve been operating at 50 percent of last year’s revenue, so like everyone else it’s been rough. We’re very fortunate to have received a PPP loan that was used over the summer and fall months for payroll, rent, and utilities. In addition, we’ve received CARES Act money from the local and state level. We put a lot of effort into applying for available funds and it’s been a game-changer for us. We’re heading into our two slowest months feeling good about getting to the other side of the pandemic.
DSBC: In the warmer months, patio-only was somewhat manageable; is it still viable now? Are you investing in tents and heaters like some places have done?
Rob: Patio-only is certainly better than just takeaway sales, but it would be difficult to maintain long term, particularly during the colder months. During the summer/fall we were having to turn people away outside, so although that’s always unfortunate, it also meant we were getting good crowds. Not pre-Covid summer sales numbers, but we were incredibly pleased with the support. Now, with the colder and shorter days upon us, it takes a hearty soul to hang out on our patio, but we have several people every day willing to deal with the elements and we greatly appreciate their support and toughness! We put up a 20’x40’ tent, with two sides open. It collapsed in a recent snow storm, so now we have a 12’x24’ tent re-configured from salvaged parts of the bigger tent! We do have propane heaters to help take the chill off, but that’s another challenge, just keeping the tanks filled up.
DSBC: Were there any bright spots that you’d like to mention? I know that you produced some special bottled beers, for example.
Rob: Brandon’s special releases, from his annual Ladron Peak Elixir, to the Holiday Bock, to the Christmas Ale, were all immensely popular. Due to the limited on-site capacity, we tried to focus on these releases for to-go sales. Our other beers in crowlers have also sold well. Brandon’s lagers (lagering has worked well through Covid!) have all been excellent. Beginning with our Anniversary Lager back in April, he’s done a series of S.M.A.S.H. lagers and each one has been outstanding. This week we’re releasing Neo Red S.M.A.S.H. brewed with Proximity Red malt and Neo 1 hops.
Another bright spot has simply been the outpouring of support from our customers. Whether sitting outside drinking pints or buying to-go beer, we can’t begin to thank our customer base.
Brandon: Definitely loved the special bottle releases. It was so rewarding to finally get a label for Ladron’s, something I’ve been working on for so long and has become a bit of a cult beer. Also enjoyed making such a diverse set of lagers, something we wouldn’t normally had time to do!
DSBC: For 2021, we hope that the Covid vaccines might lead to better times. We’re in uncharted waters here, though, so it’s hard to predict.
How are you preparing for an uncertain 2021? Are you looking to move even more into bottling and to-go sales? I’m sure you sold a few more crowlers than expected.
Rob: Pre-Covid, to-go sales were minimal, probably ranging from 3 to 7 percent of our total revenue during a given month, but it has become a vital part of our survival. It ranged from 22 to 25 percent in the warm months to 57 percent in December. Even as we move past Covid over the next year, we expect to-go sales will always be higher than it was before the pandemic.
DSBC: Do you have any plans for growth? I know you were hoping to open up a tap room at the ski hill, but I’m guessing that’s been set aside for now. Yes, this might be a silly question.
Rob: A taproom at the ski hill is on hold for now, but it’s something we still hope will happen in the future. Pajarito Mountain and Bathtub Row Brewing is a great partnership in the making. Knowing we’re going to get through this, we’re having frequent discussions on “what’s next” for the Tub … increasing outdoor capacity, more food options, new brewhouse, distribution.
DSBC: Do you plan any changes to your beer lineup? Or any special one-off brews?
Brandon: It’s so hard right now to plan anything, but I will certainly continue the Historic Series, and possibly another indigenous brew utilizing something available in the spring or early summer, like spruce tips. Other than that, its going to be just trying to keep our core beers from disappearing for extended periods!
DSBC: You guys have been big proponents of “buying local” for your supplies, like hops. Will that continue?
Brandon: Absolutely! As long as there are local farmers and manufacturers, we will always incorporate their amazing ingredients.
DSBC: Are there any changes planned for the facilities? New brewing equipment, expanded patio, etc.?
Rob: Definitely. We’re looking into permanently permitting our “back 40” area. We’re planning to replace the snow fencing with a permanent fence soon. Antonio has done a great job of sprucing up that space and it’s become as popular as our patio. We’re looking into some possibilities of having food more frequently at the Tub. And, of course, we’d love to upgrade the brewhouse sooner than later …
Brandon: Yeah, a new brewhouse is long overdue! We’ve also talked about upping our packaging capacity, as we will be receiving our distribution license this year. That may not be right away, but it will eventually happen!
DSBC: Anything else that you’d like to mention?
Rob: We are so grateful for the outpouring of support from our community over the past year. Our customer base is incredibly loyal. As the pandemic arrived, we were prepping for our fifth anniversary celebration in April. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but we’re very much looking forward to the next five years!
As of January 29, thanks to Los Alamos County leaving the dreaded red Covid status and turning yellow, BRB is once again open for 25-percent capacity indoor seating.
Also of note is that Revolt Coffee is serving their coffee products out of BRB, every day from 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Stop by for a coffee and a growler for when the coffee runs out!
Travel and tourism are still dirty words, but if you’re in the state and haven’t been to Los Alamos, maybe now is the perfect time to visit Bathtub Row. Once the warmer weather arrives, their beautiful patio is a great place to kick back and try a brew. (And, after that, be sure to cross the parking lot to visit Boese Bros. Los Alamos taproom. Delicious beers and sandwiches!) If you’re near Los Alamos, keep filling those growlers/crowlers and buying bottles; every purchase helps keep them afloat.
To virtually visit or plan your trip: Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op