Nexus Brewery, like many of its contemporaries, had to figure out to how to adapt to the many challenges and restrictions of a pandemic world in 2020. The popular brewpub was able to survive with a little bit of innovation and a lot of patience.
I caught up with owner Ken Carson over the phone and head brewer Randy King in person to recap it all for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
The story began like it did for so many other breweries, with 2020 getting off to a promising start before everything screeched to a sudden halt in mid-March.
“All I know is, somewhere around March, right around the end of February, things are looking really good,” Carson said. “All the growing pains we had from (2019) of closing Silver and opening Blue were finally getting kinda settled, and then the pandemic hit.”
Crafting a plan going forward became the key to staying open, even if the rules and restrictions kept shifting over and over again.
“On our current location, the biggest issue has been get used to doing takeout,” Carson said. “We even had a guy come out from Sandia Labs that was a friend of mine. His job on a day-to-day basis is to go to different departments and do lean processing. He did a study on our takeout and found a lot of things we’re doing wrong. The mistakes we were making at the beginning, we’ve kind of ironed out. We’ve done a much better job. Having that lean study was very beneficial.
“We’re doing a decent volume of takeout. This past Friday we had lines waiting to sit down on the patio. We could barely keep up on the food. We were 100 percent on Saturday of what we were last year. Most of it was takeout, but we also had the patio going.”
Ultimately, the original Nexus location along Interstate 25 was able to function as close to normal as possible.
“I think one of the things I’ve figured out was the resilience of this location was solid,” Carson said.
Otherwise it was a year of good and bad moments.
“The bad news (was) I had to lay off almost half of my staff,” Carson said. “The good news is that in that group were people that we didn’t necessarily want back. We had an opportunity to strengthen our overall service team. I’m very pleased with the group of people I have now are really good. The cooks, I haven’t had any turnover. After we got past the layoffs, we ended up with a solid crew and I’ve had no turnover since the middle of the year.”
On the beer front, the biggest change for Nexus was to get a small canning machine and begin rolling some of the most popular styles out for an easy to-go option.
“It’s a challenge, just learning how to use the canner to get started,” King said. “Sourcing all the supplies that we need. We’re still so small, that we don’t … our batches aren’t huge. We do 3 barrels a canning run. The Imperial Cream is about twice as popular as anything else in a can right now. That thing is flying out the door, that’s great. The cans (as a whole) are flying out the door.
“That beer was already really popular, but now that it’s in a can, it’s more than double any other style that we have as far as can sales.”
While food sales have remained fairly steady throughout, the beer sales have been on a roller coaster all year.
“Riding the waves of being open and closed, and open and closed, and hot and cold,” King said. “Today is 65, it’s pretty dang nice out here. Those nice weekends, people come out and drink a lot of beer. Then you have snow on the ground the next weekend and no one comes out.”
King said that with less beer being brewed, most of his available time has been for canning, but he has kept working on some other projects that he hopes will come into fruition in 2021.
“It’s tough, because I’ve been working on a recipe for Beam Me Up Scotty, doing a much bigger version and tweaking that recipe, as well as other new seasonals,” he said. “But, there’s nowhere to put the new seasonals. We may not have an anniversary party (in May) for Beam Me Up Scotty. That beer may never even happen.”
With most of the beer still heading out the door as opposed to being consumed in pint glasses on the patio, that does mean some new cans are coming in addition to Imperial Cream, Honey Chamomile Wheat, and Scotch Ale.
“Everything we don’t can has been moving quite slowly,” King said. “This is the Bird of Prey that I’m drinking right here. We actually are in the process of getting labels to can it. Some time in the next month, probably sooner, we’ll have that for sale in cans.”
Some of the limited-run beers that have been packaged so far have proven to be big hits.
“Black is Beautiful was super popular,” King said. “That one was surprisingly popular. It was a good beer, but I typically haven’t seen dark beers and stouts sell that well in the summertime. It got high reviews and sold out faster than any other seasonal we had at the time.
“The Lush & Aphotic (Russian Imperial Stout) has also been doing quite well.”
King also got the chance to do a special run of 2019 Lush & Aphotic bottles, with three variants aged on white oak, rum oak, and Ecuadorian cacao nibs.
“Yeah, that was really cool,” he said. “I’d been planning on doing that with that beer, sticking a bunch of it aside to age on something. We were trying to figure out what we wanted to do with it. Ultimately we decided on white oak, rum oak, and cacao (nibs). We did make way more cacao than anything else. The other two sold out much faster. They came out really well. It’s really fun from such a crazy 2020, and you can come into Nexus and pick up a 2019 bottle and relive some 2019, remember what it was like.”
Carson said he was impressed by the run of big stouts and how popular they were with customers.
“I think he’s done an excellent job, if I say so myself, in regards to the stouts he’s come out with recently,” Carson said. “That’s why we’re calling him the stout master. Then with the canning and everything else, that his really turned out (well). We started talking about canning at the end of (2019), and unfortunately we didn’t get it done until the pandemic. That’s helped a lot in increasing our beer sales.”
While the canner and improved takeout policies at the original location have been positives, coming up with a working plan for Nexus Blue Smokehouse on Broadway has been a challenge.
“One of the things that actually worked was at the barbecue location for Blue, is shutting it down, giving us time to rethink how we do things over there, and how to lower the break-even point below where we were previously,” Carson said. “The problem over there was we had a paradigm where we felt what we did, all we could do was to fix things. (Increased) sales will solve anything. I think the pandemic proved us wrong on that.”
Rather than keep some of the fried food dishes from the original on the menu, those were excised so that Blue could be solely focused on barbecue. Carson said that cut labor costs in half, which was necessary since overall sales are down 25 percent. Still, that is not too bad of a hit, considering that Blue is only open five days a week now, down from seven before the pandemic.
“It’s close to profitable, not quite there, but not as big a drag as previously,” Carson said. “We have to only (fill the) lobby now to be profitable. In some ways, we could have had a format that we … we were in that first year. We would have figured it out, but maybe it would have taken us longer. The urgency wasn’t there. Our main location was carrying it.”
To further help out his second location, Carson also decided to work with Mainvest in launching a new program to allow patrons to invest in the taproom.
“One other success was the fundraising we did with Mainvest,” Carson said. “We raised as much as we anticipated, which was about $150,000. It was relatively easy. I have about 110 customers, or investors, that are invested in that location and Nexus. That’s one of the main reasons I thought it was a viable way of raising money. I feel in addition to my regular customers, they actually have their hard-earned money invested in Nexus. Hopefully they’ll continue to buy food from us. They also give me feedback when we do something wrong. I welcome that. It’s like having 100 people out there looking out for our best interests.”
Carson said in addition to using that investment to expand into the unused west side of the building, he also has some ideas to make the food options at Blue even better.
“I’m threatening to go out and get a (full-sized) smokehouse, where can do all varieties of smoked meats,” he said. “Anything I do, I want to do it conservatively. I don’t want to put everything I had into the other restaurant and be caught off guard without reserves. I had reserves before I stared Blue. You think it will cost X, but it always costs X times two.”
Planning out the rest of 2021 remains difficult for Nexus, just like it is for any other brewery. After our interviews, the State of New Mexico announced that Bernalillo County is in the yellow, which means Nexus can have 75-percent occupancy on its two patios and 25-percent indoor occupancy. Getting customers back for on-site dining and drinking will be hugely important for a brewpub like Nexus, which as King noted, does not produce that much packaged beer to go.
King has some ideas on the beer front that he said he hopes will get to happen this year.
“I sure there’s a lot of my colleagues that will think I’m crazy or not a traditionalist or whatever, but a beer slushee sounds pretty cool to me,” he said. “It’s quite a popular trend right now. I think it would be fun to try it.
“I do plan on bringing our Trampled by Tangerines back. A high alcohol version of Beam Me Up Scotty, hopefully we’ll do that as well. And then, playing around with some different IPA styles. I want to do a strawberry hazy milkshake. And then, lagers, I want to brew more lagers. We’ve got to sell some seasonals for those to happen, right?”
Even before the county officially moved to yellow, Carson was feeling optimistic about the rest of 2021.
“I feel pretty good about the future, because I know that I can make it even if things don’t work out well like we think,” Carson said. “As long as I can keep 25 percent on the patio and the weather gets good, we’re fine.
“As far as our goals for this year and through the end of the year, what we want to do is upgrade our menu, add some things. It’s called Shrimp Diablo, it’s our take, with red chile and shrimp with rice, it’s kind of a Louisiana type dish, but we’ve modified it and made it New Mexican. We’re going to add things like fish to our menu. One of the first things is to add mussels, too, with some kind of beer sauce, with a Cajun or New Mexican twist to it. That’s one area where we can expand our menu and diversify. For someone that doesn’t want fried chicken, they can go to other options.”
Our apologies if this story is making anyone hungry. It is what happens when even reading about Nexus.
A big thanks to Randy and Ken for taking the time out to chat (and for the four-pack of Lush & Aphotic). We look forward to some future feasts on the patio or indoors at both locations.
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