Boxing Bear rolls with the punches in 2020 and prepares for a bigger and brighter future

The sun is still shining on Boxing Bear even after all that 2020 threw at the brewery. (All photos courtesy of Boxing Bear, unless noted)

Since we got the bad puns out of the way in the headline, we can now focus on the heart of the story, which is of course Boxing Bear Brewing. After debuting more than six years ago, these now-veterans of the New Mexico craft beer scene have already created a strong history and place in the craft beer community. Past years have brought great beers, GABF medals and other awards, and plenty of accolades. Their team was all posed to continue with that trend in 2020.

However, as we all know … 2020 happened. Cue the violins.

With numerous constant changes in operation due to the ongoing pandemic and related restrictions, as breweries statewide have been left to battle to simply maintain basic operations, it all could have added up to equal an uncertain future for a place like Boxing Bear.

However, when the world took a swing at them, they swung back harder (I promise that’s the last bad boxing pun, I swear). Instead of simply trying to keep afloat, Boxing Bear managed to open a third taproom location at Tramway and Candelaria, a bold move in a time of uncertainty for small businesses in general, but one that is already paying off.

Co-owner/head brewer Justin Hamilton was gracious enough to sit down with me for a safe interview for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series, where we talked about the bad, the good (VERY good, keep reading), and the bright future that will be coming for Boxing Bear!

Head brewer Justin Hamilton has managed to stay sane over the past year. Well, as sane as he was before all of this.

Brandon Daniel: It’s been a crazy, surreal year for everyone in the brewing industry, but Boxing Bear has (no pun intended) managed to roll with the punches. What have been some of the biggest hurdles to overcome for Boxing Bear and what’s been the biggest key to overcome (going forward)?

Justin Hamilton: Like you were talking about earlier, staff has been really hard, retaining staff with a skeleton crew has been hard, and maintaining our production schedule has been hard. (That is) because the income is definitely way lower than it’s ever been, so our canning line literally saved our ass, which was a big thing for us. So maintaining our brewing schedule to can nonstop instead of pushing beer through draft has been that change and that challenge to overcome. But, other than just maintaining our staff and production … we actually increased production by like 40 barrels. It wasn’t a whole lot, but we increased production with almost less people.

And, of course, our packaging production was nonstop. Every week we were packaging, as opposed to previously we were packaging every other week, or sometimes every three weeks. So that has been crazy to overcome, especially with sourcing product like cans, and making sure we are secure in that has been a nonstop issue, and that fluctuates and hits our bottom line when we’re just trying to keep our employees covered … we’ll get through this someday, but we also have a lot of other plans in order, so we do have our hands full.

BD: You mentioned the can shortage … at that point it was starting to put a squeeze on everyone. Did you guys have any other material or ingredient issues?

JH: All of the brewery materials as far as ingredients have been all right, we haven’t really run into too many issues. There have been small things that have come up here and there, like DME for some reason disappeared for a while this year, who knows why, I’m sure someone knows (laughs). But, little things have come up, but luckily we haven’t had too much … there was one point when some of our English malts had been delayed right when coronavirus hit, and small stuff like that. But, we were lucky enough to where our ingredient broker did a really good job in keeping us going. I also think that people just weren’t brewing as much like nationally, so for the most part we were able to keep up with what needed to, beer-wise. Cans were a whole other issue and are still going to be an issue. Hopefully something gets rectified with that … but it’s still a mess. It’s hard out there.

The draft list at the West Downtown Taproom on February 1, about six weeks before the pandemic hit, was extensive.

BD: So what was the shift like (in terms of production) as far as specialty releases and stuff like that? For other breweries (they) were sort of put on the back burner for a lot of breweries, so what was that like? You guys have seemed to still hit a stride with releasing those one-offs or limited batch offerings.

JH: So we had an interesting thing … when coronavirus first hit, we slowed our production a lot because we didn’t want to be sitting on beer. So we had our fermenters full, so we were just brewing like once or twice a week. Then mid-spring or summer, things opened up a little bit indoors, and we got crushed because we weren’t prepared for it. We didn’t have enough beer to keep enough stuff on tap, so for a long time we didn’t have our taps full … most of the summer we didn’t get our taps full. It was literally the week we got shut down again in November we had just filled all our taps, in every location we had just got back to having our house beers and our specials full and getting things running right.

So we got shut down again, so we decided let’s not back off on brewing even though we’re getting into a slower season. We had a lot of beers in fermenters, too, and that’s the great thing about our ability to move product; instead of putting it into a keg, we can put it into a can. We have the ability to shift that pretty easily with our production ability. It doesn’t necessarily make things easier sometimes, but we have that ability. So half of the specials that came out in probably the last three months were actually supposed to be mainly draft specials. A couple of those were planned to go into cans, but we’re talking maybe about four or five out of the last 10 to 16 we’ve actually put out were supposed to be draft specials. We had the (Catch and Release) West Coast pale, (Bear Shark) West Coast IPA, Chin Hook, none of those were going to go into cans. Most of them were just going to be draft specials because we were trying to catch up.

We knew we needed that beer, then all of the sudden we got shut down again … so now we’re shifting that beer to cans to allow us to keep brewing because if we moved beer, there’s no other place to move it. We have our outlets and we’re still selling some draft beer, but not enough to continue brewing that much. And, the specialties are the hard ones because they sell less and less …we have three or four hazy beers on tap, they’re all going to sell very little because they’re all individually good, but are pulling from each other’s sales. So we have definitely been can forward for a while with a little bit on draft, and I feel like it’s probably shifting again with the weather, and hopefully with vaccinations and lower numbers in coronavirus … people are ready to enjoy themselves and have a beer. We’re just going to keep flip flopping from cans to draft, draft to cans. It’s really hard on me because I’m trying to schedule it all, make sure we have everything we need. We don’t just have a label for these products, we have to get them designed, we have to get them to our art department to make sure they’re approved from our label guy, then I get it back and can order them, having the right amount of labels … it’s crazy.

Back in 2019, we took some photos of the canning line with Justin. Imagine assembling and disassembling that repeatedly. (Crew archive photo)

DSBC: That’s a lot of extra stuff to add on to your plate right there!

JH: Yeah, and packaging itself is something that is a big deal for most breweries. You have that department that is focused on that, but since we’re on that skeleton crew, all of us are doing everything. Me and my brewers are the ones canning the beer; we don’t have that separation in departments. We’ll get there, but right now we’re all doing all of the stuff. It can be hard … like, we didn’t can for the last two weeks because we were stocked, but before that it was every week. So that means everyone has to be on hand, and it leaves very little leeway for other things, but we’re getting it done which I can be impressed with.

BD: Boxing Bear hadn’t been extremely package-centric before really…

JH: Nope, and really we have gone back and forth … we’re such a small brewery, we have a 10-barrel system, so for us to put out a lot of cans is hard. We’re known for great beer and we want people to come here and enjoy it, (but) we also want them to take some beer with them when they leave. So having the options in having package available was something that was there for us, but we never had to push it this far. We had done bombers in the past and started canning a few years ago. It was really another way for us to sell beer in another avenue, but again it saved our ass in our ability to pivot and put everything into a can because it would have been a dead stop. Moving beer into our cold room or storage vessels right now is pretty rare.

BD: So we got the downside (of the year) out of the way … you guys have still had some positive things, like opening the Tramway taproom (and) you guys also did the collab beer with Rashan Jones with High Desert Flameworks a few months ago …

JH: Yeah, it’s been one of those things where a lot of stuff we thought about doing, and with the direction we had to go with packaging, we kind of tried to push the envelope as far as what we had available and what we could do. But, again, trying to keep things fresh without the ability to have like an event or a true release for the beer, that was something we weren’t really used to. We were used to being able to drop a beer and people will show up. Like, we’ll have a whole day event of it and have a band, but not having that was such a different thing. At the same time, we were greatly surprised (by) our ability to be able to do that, and of course it’s just because people are willing to come out and get those beers and to support local. That’s what it comes down to, the craft beer community is keeping our breweries alive, and it’s really cool to see that because everyone is banding together.

Rashan Jones of High Desert Flameworks, left, and Boxing Bear’s Justin Hamilton show off their collaboration, Just Jonesin’ Peach Cobbler Ale. (Crew archive photo)

We’ve just tried to do different angles. The Rashan thing was fun, because it wasn’t another brewery. We love doing collabs with other breweries, but we hardly find time to do them. But, Rashan has been such a great guy to us for a long time, and I’ve always had this idea to go outside the box, and we’re still going to try and do some more of these with different artists. Obviously, everything has put a damper in our ability to do collabs, but it was something where we knew where we could blend that line of artistry. It was just cool to do something outside the box. He was so excited to just come into the brewery, it was just a fun energy. He was just a kid, just so happy, (and) that brought a new energy into the brewery that I wasn’t expecting, so it’s cool to have those crossovers. And, the product came out great and it worked out well!

And, like you said with Tramway and opening new spots, it was all in the works, and we just had to do it. It opened and people were up there and it’s done all right. We have spread out locations, and that was a big part of it, because we don’t have a big distribution network, we were doing everything ourselves, which we’ve now cut back to just taprooms only. But, previously we were doing all the deliveries to like Total Wine and everything. So even with the presence, and being in liquor stores, people still didn’t really know who we were. So having that East Side taproom, people were like, “Boxing Bear, I know where that is!” and we know people don’t like to cross the river! (laughs) So having that separation for us was important. People just want to go to the pub and have a beer. There are so many good breweries everywhere now. When we first opened, people would come to us from all over the city because we were one of a few breweries actually in existence, but now they’re all over the place. So having those spread-out locations has been a good thing for us, for the ability to show people our product, get it out there. That variety is important, too, and we try to fill that gap without stepping on people’s toes.

We had plans for an East Side taproom for a long time, and getting it to fruition was really harder than we thought for multiple reasons, but when it actually happened we were like … regardless of what’s happening, we HAVE to do this. It’s been good for us, (so) I’m glad we’ve done it.

BD: You guys had hinted on social media about a new taproom location. Is that something you can talk about?

JH: Yeah, we have really big plans in the works. So currently that will be a small taproom location, at 8420 Firestone, and that is also going to be our future brewing location. So we are actually going to be moving our equipment from the Corrales location, but the good news is the Corrales location isn’t going anywhere, we’re just out of space! When I talk about our separation of departments, that’s what we are trying to get into; right now when we package product, there is no space in there. We literally have to take the stairs and grate off the brewhouse just so we can fit everything in there just to can. So when we’re canning we can’t brew, we can’t transfer, we can’t do anything except can.

Now that’s a nifty teaser photo for your new taproom/brewery location, Boxing Bear!

BD: That’s a big limitation!

JH: It’s huge! But, being that we need our ability to can, and we actually need more fermenter space. There’s no space for fermenters in there right now, it’s completely full. So we don’t have any more growth in this current location, as far as the brewery goes. So our plan is to move the brewery to the Firestone location hopefully early next year, and our plan now is to get at least that taproom open to selling beer in the near future, this spring sometime. It’s in the works for having the construction done hopefully in the next few months as far as front of house, and back of house is a whole other story. But, it’s going to be really good for us. It’s just a big leap and we’re excited and ready to do it, but it’s a whole lot of work that will have to be done in the meantime. It’s necessary for us to do (this).

We’re going to keep our current brewhouse, we’re going to keep all of our equipment, and just expand. We just want more room for fermentation, the ability to set up our canning line without having to break it down and move it; not only is it hard to do, but it’s stressful on the equipment. David Schmidt (formerly of Mother Road) came by once, and was like, “You’re mobile canning!” and I never thought about it like that, but it’s true. We are literally setting up the entire canning line every time, so it’s a feat to behold, I suppose! (laughs)

BD: I can only imagine! Especially having to schedule a day where you aren’t brewing, this goes on hold, etc.

JH: Yeah, and the beer has to be ready, we have to have packaging, all the stuff we need to get it done. So doing that every week literally limits our entire brewery. We have people working on weekends, we have guys doing different stuff just because we can’t do it when we are canning.

BD: So the whole brewhouse is moving, not just new equipment, just transporting?

JH: Yeah, everything is going to be moved. There will be a period of time where we won’t be brewing, so it’s gonna be a rush to get our system back up. We’ll be backlogging beers for a long time and making sure we’re stocked for as long as possible to make that transition happen. We have some ideas and ways to make it work. We’ll have some new tanks in place so when we move the brewhouse we can literally start brewing.

So yeah, it’s going to be crazy. We’re at that point where we had to make that decision where it was either start limiting ourselves, and we don’t like the fact that we’ve had to pull back from our distributor, not only because of coronavirus, but (also) our ability to just not make as much beer as we want. So that should change, (and then) we’re hoping to get back into getting some distribution and actually get cans in stores. As to when that happens, I’m not sure, but it’s been something we’ve had to deal with as far as our growth. And, it sucks right now, because we could use some of those sales, but we don’t want to approach these guys and say, “I can give you cans for like a month or two months” and then that’s going to change if we get busier. So we don’t want to screw those guys over, too, and also our customers, because if you’re going in to get that beer at Total Wine or Jubilation and all of a sudden it’s not there, it looks bad on everyone. It’s like, “Did Jubilation drop you guys?” or “Did Boxing Bear pull out?” and the answer is no, we just don’t have enough beer, and once we did we didn’t want to put everyone in that same position.

Getting all of their many, many cans back into full distribution will be a major plus with the new location.

BD: It’s kind of an egg-on-your-face situation when you aren’t able to provide to the distributors.

JH: Yeah, and like it wouldn’t happen again, but when the liquor stores first shut down we had a bunch of buybacks, and we were able to sell that product, which is great, but it’s just a situation that’s been rough for us. So we’re ready to get back into production and some actual distribution, but the product has to be there and the amount of product has to be there after we are able to support all our taprooms.

BD: That promises to be a big boost with the new location, then. That leads me into the last part, plans for the future. Obviously no one really knows what is going to happen in the next year. What other plans have you guys been able to make, if any, for the year?

JH: Yeah, it’s been hard. Planning-wise, aside from what we’ve talked about, it’s been minimal as far as trying to do anything extra. We have lots of ideas … like last year, we were going to bring back Bearfest, that was going to be a big thing for us, and we were talking about it, but planning stuff like that (now), it’s just out the window. What we are planning is doing stuff like last year. I want to continue our artist series of brewing outside the box, I’d love to do more collaborations with other brewers, and also just continue to bring overall beer culture (to people). Beer cultures change, they always change, and sometimes keeping up with that can be hard with smaller groups of people. So we are definitely in this interesting area where we have lots of breweries and good beer, and it’s about experience.

We have quality product, we’ve already proven that, our consistency in our product is there. But, what we want to bring to the table more is that full scope of the old beer scene; we have (beer culture), but we want to excel with it. I think that something that’s been the hardest for us is that we’ve been a very small company since the get-go, and we’ve always had that cap where we only have so many people doing so many things. So with this new location we’ll be able to branch out and actually get some more employees; and over time we’ve also got good people who are getting into the right positions, and it’s just taken the time to do that. And now, we have a better direction as far as what we want to do for the community, beer-wise, and just culture. It’s all about getting back about being able to bring in more people. As soon as we can get people in the door, and have people here safely, it’s going to be awesome. I feel like people are just so excited to get out of their houses and live a little, and then back to stuff like festivals.

BD: Like Bearfest; Bearfest was always fun.

JH: Yeah! It wasn’t the biggest festival and it’s not over the top, but for us it’s just cool, it’s fun. Like, we have good breweries, a great community, and an awesome place to show off. It was just overall … working my ass off to make that happen, everyone else here working their asses off to make it happen, (but) it was worth it! There were years where we didn’t make that much money off that festival, but it was so fun. So yeah, we can’t wait to just get back to bringing people together. That’s what beer is about. Doing what we’ve had to do over the past year … all I can say is we’ve pivoted, we kept on our toes, and we had to do what we had to do. And, I’m excited to get back to focusing on … the good things, like getting these different beers out, and having people here, and having live bands, and just having that community and getting back to that.

We just threw in this photo of the Tramway Taproom because it’s really damn cool, isn’t it?

* * * * *

Well, there you have it folks — a big expansion is in progress for Boxing Bear, and a larger brewery is only going to mean good things for them, and by extension all of us who enjoy their beers! I think I can speak for all of us in saying we are glad that they weathered the storm of the past year successfully and are positioned to come out of it even stronger. Many thanks, again, to Justin for his time for this article.

Until next time …

Prost!

— Brandon Daniel

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