Beer Creek Brewing Company has been tested before. The men (and ladies) of Beer Creek have had to prove their toughness and steadfastness many times before out in the middle of what one might consider nowhere, and especially in a location whose history had seen nothing but failure in the past. But, nothing had tested the staying power and the mettle of the Beer Creek gang quite like the pandemic of 2020.
This last week, I sat down with Matt Oler, Jami Nordby, and Rich Headley (and caught up with Ryan McArdle via email) for a look back at how Beer Creek got through 2020. We talked about how they pulled together, relied on each other, made the best of their situation, and came out above water as they head into 2021.
When I checked in with Beer Creek back in late May, they had plenty to tell us about how they were making it through their roughest patch since they’d been open. The biggest news was of a little batch of New Mexico history that even COVID couldn’t keep them from brewing up.
Beer Creek had just brewed their first commercial batch of beer made with 100-percent all-New-Mexico-grown ingredients, which, it turned out was only just the beginning, and also a major advancement for the local farm-to-tap movement.
During that sit-down, they also told us all about how, because of the Pandemic, they, like many breweries in 2020, made the decision to shift their focus (and energy) to packaging beer. They also talked about how they completely changed up their whole front-of-house operation to keep the business running smoothly despite the challenges brought on by COVID. On top of all that, they told us how they busied themselves in the back-of-house to keep production up, to keep spirits up, and just to keep the team moving forward.
Business wasn’t as bad as it could have been was the gist of several conversations I had with the Beer Creek crew throughout the year. Times were indeed tough, but Beer Creek wasn’t suffering as bad as some of their brothers in brew in various parts of the state.
They were dealt a good hand, but they knew how to play the game, as well, and nothing was going to beat the ace up their sleeve in the form of a giant patio. Where others had failed before them, they knew when to go all-in rather than fold.
You see, Beer Creek had discovered they already had a winning recipe before the pandemic struck. No one could have known, however, that their particular magic combination would be a key to survival in a time like this.
Great pizza and beer to go, a group of dedicated people, and yeah, that big beautiful patio turned out to be the major recipe for success for Beer Creek in 2020.
Changes to the menu
Though they had a winning recipe, Beer Creek had to make some pretty big changes in order to go toe-to-toe with the shifting situation, but not once did they close their doors on account of COVID. Well, they closed three times since last March, but on account of snow.
“One thing we never did, throughout the pandemic, even though we were allowed to, was open the interior,” Headley said. “We revamped our service. We went straight to counter (service). We produced these printed menus that you can read from outside.”
And, right now, their COVID model continues to work for them. You walk around the front into the courtyard, place your order at the outdoor bar, and seat yourself. This has not only been a solid solution for social safety, but it’s proven to be a very efficient (and cost-effective) service model as well.
Pitmaster Ryan McArdle said they even had to change their famous BBQ offerings a little to work with the current climate.
“We had to do some rethinking about our offerings to make them more ‘take-out-able,’” he said.
So, instead of the brisket platters, they offered barbecued goods that fit better in boxes, like their BBQ sandwich based on a Kansas City legend.
None of their changes have disrupted the party, not one bit, as people have packed the patio pretty much ever since BCBC flung open their gate.
The business model may have shifted, as they’ve had to eliminate indoor dining and live music, but nothing changed the mission of bringing great food and beer to the greater southern Santa Fe area. And, in turn, their customers from the area have shown up in droves to support them.
It’s not just their loyal customer base, either.
“It’s awesome how many people are coming from far, too,” Headley said. “How many new customers we still get from out of town. That fresh feeling of a new customer is still going here.
“Originally, we thought that being out here in the middle of nowhere could be a negative, but it didn’t turn out to be that.”
Historically, businesses haven’t done as well in that location. I couldn’t tell you why Raven’s Rock failed. But, I can tell you that Beer Creek is succeeding now, because they have the grit, the determination, and the trust of their customer base, and of course that winning combination doesn’t hurt.
I asked why they thought people kept coming out to show support.
“It’s the sense of normalcy,” head brewer Jami Nordby said. “We were consistent through that year. People felt like they could go somewhere, pick up pizza, pick up beer.”
And, doing something, anything normal like enjoying a patio beer this past year was the little step that went a long way towards escaping the madness even for a minute. I can speak from personal experience.
In the back-of-house, the BCBC crew has been too busy to go stir crazy through all the shutdowns. They’ve had plenty of projects to work on, like setting up new equipment, and building out existing structures to house even more beer for their thirsty customers, like the new warehouse space they were arranging and rearranging last time we chatted — nesting, for the (hopefully) soon arrival of their new canning line from Wild Goose.
And, oh yeah, they’ve been brewing a ton, too, working on their recipes, dialing in their brewing processes to produce the best truly New Mexican products they possibly can.
Farm to Tap
As a member of the New Mexico Hop Grower’s association, Beer Creek has championed the very green local industry from its early sapling stages, growing their own hops at Crossed Sabers Hop Farm, and buying up grain and hops from other local farms.
For hop growers and grain farmers, 2020 was a year of slow and steady growth, no pun intended.
In 2020, hop growers of New Mexico grew by about four acres, yielding 40 percent more hops at harvest this time around.
Oler told us it’s because the fields are just now coming closer to maturity. It takes about five years for hop plants to mature in New Mexico, due to the stressful environment, and Oler and Headley are expecting 2021 to be the year that they really start to see what the hop plants can do.
For a quick timeline, Oler and Headley’s farm, Crossed Sabers, planted their test batch of hops in 2013. They planted their first field of rhizomes in 2017. By 2018, they were planting their second 2-acre plot. Right now, they’re producing everything from Cascade, to the Noble Hops, to Chinook.
Beer Creek urged the farms to sell as much as they can to breweries for the popular wet-hop beers, of which we beer geeks get to reap the benefits of in the fall. And, whatever the farms don’t sell, Beer Creek buys up to put into their own batches.
New Mexico grain farming (for brewing purposes) saw some important grown in 2020 as well.
Moriarity-based Schwebach Farms took what they learned about growing and malting from their 2019 yields, and for their 2020 batch of grain, they produced a great product that’s just about there, almost ready for New Mexico breweries to start using regularly in their beers.
Beer Creek bought a ton of it, Oler told us.
“It took a little bit more in the brewery to get everything right, but because of that, (Schwebach) produced another crop,” he said. “He quadrupled his acreage. And, that’s what we’re trying to do, support the people that are learning to do this right now, because it’s never been taught here.”
“As every industry starts, there are hiccups in quality, production, and all of those things,” Oler said. “And, we have dedicated ourselves to overcoming those obstacles, like the under-modified malt, the short amount of hops, etc. We want to be able to show the people that are growing these things that there’s an interest and keep them going.”
And, with Nordby’s knowledge of brewing, Beer Creek reached back to the processes of pre-modern malting, to produce a quality product that they can be proud of, and New Mexico can be proud of.
Right now, every beer at Beer Creek is at least about 70-percent all-New Mexican, between hops and barley, water and yeast. They have two beers that are 100-percent New Mexican.
“Farm to tap, farm to table, is a wave that’s just taking over the country, the world. And so, to be able to bring that to New Mexico, where it’s still growing, it’s something that’s really special to us,” Oler said.
Somebody give these guys a grant already!
It’s Beer Creek’s hope that the hops and grain farming industry continues to bloom, and that breweries continue to support the local farms.
* * * * *
In 2020, Beer Creek shelved their plans for expansion into the wholesale market.
“We were heading towards expansion in this property. We still have some improvements here that we’re trying to make,” Headley said. “Our mindset was also a little bit towards a (offsite) taproom. But, when COVID hit, we completely shifted gears into package.”
It’s clear that packaging beer emerged as one of the true capeless heroes of the COVID era. Not only did canning beer keep their customers supplied with beer, as with many other breweries, it gave Beer Creek’s employees something to work on when their typical job responsibilities dried up.
The Beer Creek staff told me that they’ve been able to keep everyone who wanted to stay employed on payroll. Though, they’re quick to admit, there were a couple cases in which it was hard to compete with that almighty unemployment check.
“I begged them to lay me off,” Nordby joked.
Since they started, Beer Creek has canned 8,500 pints of beer, which is way more impressive when you understand that they did it by hand, one by one, with a single seamer. There’s no canning line yet at Beer Creek, but it’s on the way in about three weeks, and as with all things right now, it’ll arrive COVID permitting.
“We’ve also sold a shit-ton of growlers,” Headley added, tipping his hat to the great local logo giants at Monsoon.
The sales of their off-site accounts went down with the closures of bars and the limitations of restaurants, but they just dug in and doubled down on what was working from home base.
Though the cans and growlers didn’t make them a whole lot of money, they said it kept their customers happy, it pushed the brand, it kept the brewery flowing, and the beer fresh.
Because they were basically breaking even, they weren’t eligible for all of the stimulus aid going around, but they did receive a bit, and what they did receive, they cranked right back into their employees.
“Our people are what make us who we are, and so we had to keep them here,” Oler said. “We had to keep their families fed, we had to keep them interested, even if we weren’t going to make much money in the end.”
Still, for a rapidly growing brewery of two years whose original trajectory was aimed at the moon and beyond, 2020 was a frustrating year for Beer Creek.
“After 2020, flat is a win, right? But, pardon me for wanting to be a successful person, but it’s frustrating that it’s just flat,” Headley said.
More painful for Headley and company was missing roar of the crowds there to see the live musicians.
It was a frustrating year, not just for the crew business-wise, but personally. Maybe not a whole lot changed for the Beer Creek folks as they kept their noses to the grindstone, but during that time, everyone around them experienced the effects of the pandemic on different levels.
“Our personal lives here didn’t change. But, our families, we watched them all go in into quarantine and lock down for the year,” Nordby said. “That was hard.”
Though it was far from the year they had planned, Beer Creek is on a steady trajectory up and out of the 2020 madness. Headley attributed any amount of success to the great group of people around him.
“All of us sat back and looked at the situation and what was going down, and none of us threw our hands in the air,” he said. “All of us were willing to go and say what we have in resources, as a property, as a product, as a staff, as a wherewithal in the ownership, and we said OK, this is what we can do. And, we asked everybody, ‘How do you feel about this? You’re putting yourself at risk. Do you want to go for that?’”
The Beer Creek family held fast.
“We gave everybody in the building the opportunity to go home, but they all hung in there. They’re great,” Headley said very appreciatively. “Our primary concern was keeping everybody safe.”
Beer and Beyond
At this point in the interview, Headley eyed me as I took a long sip off of the brown ale, one of the many tasters in front of me. He must have noticed my grin.
“Oh yeah. That beer!” he chuckled like a proud papa. “I have a keg of that at home. That beer right there; I’m in love with the Pecos Brown.”
One thing Beer Creek did during the Pandemic was make time to develop their beer.
“We worked on our big six (flagship beers), got them into cans, developed labels for them, but we also took time, during the slower parts of the winter to develop a line of Imperial beers,” Headley said.
For this, Beer Creek built a temperature-controlled cellar in the back. Once a playhouse painted pink, it now holds exactly four barrels, and effectively serves as their barrel-aging program.
All of us in the Crew couldn’t be more excited for news like this.
I’m not allowed to release the pictures of the bomber bottles just yet, but take my word for it, the designs look great. They’re very clever, very much a furtherance of Beer Creek’s tribute to all that surrounds them, and very fitting for the saloon atmosphere of Beer Creek. They will soon have imperial barrel-aged versions of a stout, a porter, a red, and of course the Lizard Queen.
And, from the small bit I’ve tasted so far, these beers are something you really should be excited about.
If heavy hitting beers aren’t your thing, they do have a couple new lagers coming out in the spring, just in time for patio weather.
Speaking of looking forward to things, Beer Creek is looking forward to the very near post-COVID future. They can’t wait to bring people back inside, bring musicians back. They can’t wait for beer festivals again.
They already have plans for the next bash like Hoptoberfest in 2019, when they brought the hop and grain farmers together with the beer makers, and beer drinkers.
For now, the patio has plenty of seats for you, the pizza is still piping hot, and McArdle promised to keep the BBQ lit, with ribs, brisket and pulled pork sandwiches. And, they’ve got plenty of beer to keep you from ever leaving thirsty.
Beer Creek’s 2020 was a story much better than it could have been if they were any other group in that same spot.
They truly feel for their comrades in the industry who have suffered in their own situations. They recognize that even though much of their success is by design, hard work, and dedication, a fair enough amount of it can be attributed to being in the right place, even at the wrong time, with all the right people.
“There are so many people in the industry struggling, and we feel for them, and we love them, and we’ve done anything we could to help them,” Oler said. “We’ve just had a magic combination. We’ve got a patio that even at 25 percent still holds 60-plus people. We’ve had not only an amazing quality menu, one that takes out perfectly. And, we have beer. We’re a one-stop shop.”
“We figured it out that neither side could have survived without the other,” Nordby added. “If we just had a brewery, we would have had to shut down. If we just had a restaurant, we would have had to shut down.”
“With partners like Matt, Jami, Rich, and Kelly, I believe we’re not capable of falling off of the right track,” McArdle said. “We’re going to keep rolling with the punches that the world or the government doles out, and keep doing what we do — making good beer, good food, and providing a neighborhood anchor-point for the growing community around the San Marcos/Lone Butte area.”
“I think what’s special about Beer Creek is, even when there’s snow on the ground, and it’s 7 degrees, we have 30-to-40 people out there,” Headley said.
They haven’t put up tents or bought heaters, because they don’t want to have to change the price of their beer to afford them. Their customers know this, and their customers are still there. In the end, it’s the dedication that Beer Creek’s customers have to them, and the dedication they have to each other and to their customers that will keep them around long after any pandemic rolls through.
Much thanks for the interview, the beer, and as always, the great hospitality. To their continued success, and to their health and yours, cheers!
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