2020 might not have seemed like the best year for a small business … nay, ANY business, to get its foot in the door in virtually any industry. But, when you have the acumen and experience of the folks behind Albuquerque west side newcomers Sobremesa Brewing, it doesn’t seem like such a small task. With the team of owners Nicholas Giron and Ryan Strilich, and also head brewer David Facey, there’s more than enough restaurant and brewing experience to provide them with a steady foundation to get things rolling, even in the midst of the COVID pandemic.
Even with experience, smooth sailing is not always guaranteed in this industry. Originally slated for a May 2020 opening, some big hurdles remained to be cleared before the doors could even open. Hell, before the first beers were even brewed, there were some rough moments, but the team pulled together and created a space that the I-25/Coors corridor of Albuquerque’s west side has already come to embrace like their own siblings. I recently got to sit down with Ryan, David, and co-head brewer Ian Graham to talk about their short existence and bright future as part of our Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
Brandon Daniel: You guys opened in the middle of a pandemic … a lot of people I’ve talked to thought that’s a pretty bold move, or these guys are nuts.
Ryan: A little bit of both!
BD: So what were the some of the biggest challenges you guys had right off the bat in getting this place opened?
Ryan: Well, safety was certainly one of the number one things we had to think of every day. How we were going to keep our customers safe, how we were going to keep our employees safe, all the staff we hired, setting up floor plans. There were so many different variables. That was one of our biggest obstacles, for sure.
David: A lot of people that were affected by the pandemic when it (first) happened. Everyone was on the same playing field and no one knew what to do. Over time, all these people learned their systems and … we didn’t have any of that experience, so we had to make it safe. We hired a big staff, so that was the number one priority for us.
Ryan: Because we have a standard. If people started getting sick, we would get shut down … and, A, that doesn’t look good, and B, more importantly, we don’t want to make people sick. Obviously adjusting to patio-only service was a huge general adjustment. We had to maximize our capacity for what we have, (and) thankfully we do have a reasonable sized patio.
BD: Yeah, it’s great out there!
Ryan: Yeah, just making sure people are comfortable out there … and it’s winter, so that also presented a huge challenge.
BD: So being one of the newer, or newest, breweries in town, where did you guys see yourselves fitting in within our local beer community, in terms of styles or just what you guys are trying to offer to people?
David: So when we opened, the initial portfolio was just a balanced house beer portfolio, just something for everyone kind of like you see everywhere, and that was the main focus. The number one sort of deadline that we had in when we opened was we were not going to open without our beer, period … if that meant we pushed it out months, the that’s what we were going to do, so that was something we all agreed on from day one. So learning the market, we figured we’d give people a balanced portfolio and hopefully everyone will find something they like, because we didn’t have that market research, so to speak, on what this clientele likes or what beers are popular on the west side. So we kind of just made very approachable beers that were fairly stylistically correct … except for the stout! (laughs)
Editor’s note: In case anyone forgot how that turned out at our annual Stout Challenge, well, there’s the link. — S
BD: We’ll definitely give that one another shot! It just came off like a lighter stout or a bigger brown ale. (laughs)
David: That’s exactly what Ian and I said, we were looking at it like we don’t like the way it looks … I’d like more body. But, I like the way it tastes.
BD: Awesome. So you guys opened in September, not a long period of time, but what have been some of the bright spots so far in this journey?
David: Being adopted by the neighborhood … and not just like in a mile radius neighborhood, but the west side neighborhood … it’s been unbelievably humbling. People were not only excited that it was something new in the midst of the pandemic, but being a locally owned, locally operated placed on this end of Coors is few and far between … and especially a brewery this far south on Coors was something that excited people. When we opened, everyday we heard, “I’ve watched this being built,” and it’s just people that drove by the lot when we were under construction every day, and they literally watched it. So I think they took it as they adopted it, because they watched it grow up, so to speak. Now they come in and we give them the points of service that we’ve all known for 16 years, and the rest kind of falls into place after that, hopefully.
BD: There definitely aren’t a lot of (local) options in this immediate area. It seemed to be a great location choice, and public opinions I’ve heard have been pretty positive about what they’re drinking here.
David: Yeah, and I think outside of the west side community, more and more as things start to open up, we’re starting to see more familiar faces in regards to regulars, other brewers and things like that. The nice thing about that is the feedback, not only on the beer side, but … we are a restaurant/brewery, so it’s also the food side. Our executive chef Nico, he’s done a really good job putting together a menu, putting together a great staff … when we’ve asked him to jump, he’s literally said how high, so that’s been a pivotal piece from September to where we are now and the success we see, part of that is him.
BD: With all the restrictions that have been in place for dining and breweries, do you think having the restaurant end of things was something that really helped right off the bat, with extra revenue or just in general?
Ryan: I do, and in addition to revenue, it was something new in a foodie town. People are always looking for the newest restaurant or the next best restaurant out there, and like David said, we feel very strongly that we have a great team in the back of house, and they really get along with the front of house, too … in a restaurant environment, a lot of times you get that head bashing where they don’t get along with each other, but everyone has been so fantastic to work with thus far and they enjoy working with each other, and that’s certainly one of our successes.
BD: That’s great to hear everyone pull together, especially at a time like this. So we’re now into March … what types of things are you guys looking forward to, from either a business or a beer standpoint, what sort of plans do you guys have?
Ryan: As far as business, we’re excited to get these guys into some competitions and have events here, be part of those events, just host events when we’re able to do so … whether that be music, or beer competitions, the IPA Challenge … that would be fantastic to be part of. I never have (participated), but David has as well as Ian, so hopefully we’ll be able to do that stuff.
David: On the beer front … being a little slower in general just based on capacity, allowed Ian and I to spend some good brain power in regards to the brewery, because we weren’t brewing at full capacity to what the brewhouse is built to produce. So we would literally brew on demand … and that was a little odd for Ian and I coming from either higher volume pubs, or even production facilities, but the benefit of that was that we’re able to brew a house lager that lagers for eight weeks. We started a barrel age program five months in, where at any other brewery that I’ve worked at you just get so bogged down with brew schedules and cellar schedules that the barrel-aged program gets left to the wayside until you’re ready, and you’re never really ready for it, so we were able to start that. The varieties of beers we are able to produce are, in my opinion, very approachable to the clientele we have.
Ian: Just having this time (on the system) … it all just comes with its own quirks, and things you need to work out … they all have their own personalities and having time to figure out what each one does … as David was saying, this is a Cadillac, this is a dream to work on … we can get a whole lot done with just two people!
BD: The amount of detail you put into everything back there in terms of customizing it to the space and what you want is pretty impressive.
David: It was the most fun, most nerve-racking time in my life … it’s a very big purchase, and once that goes to manufacturing, there’s really no turning back … so there were a few sleepless nights in regards to that, like, “Did I put this valve in the right place?” or “Is this port going the right direction?” but working with ABE was really nice and we built a pretty nice system, if I can be so bold as to say.
BD: Dave and Ian, you guys have a lot of experience that you bring to the table, but was it nerve racking heading up the brewing program all on your own? You mentioned you had time to play with those beers, but was there any concerns?
David: Absolutely. Going back to what I said, we weren’t going to open without our beer … and like Ian mentioned, there are quirks and different personalities every brewhouse has, and there is a high potential of bad batches in your first run … it happens. So the nerve-wracking part was producing beer, because we were (at) the end deadline and if we had a couple of bad batches, it just pushed back opening even more. So for me, that was a nerve-wracking thing, was to knock it out of the park right off the bat. The first batch we brewed was our German-style helles, with a fresh pitch of yeast, on the first turn … a lot of people said we were crazy to do that, but that beer was going to take the longest. But, luckily it turned out OK, and I think that’s just a testament to experience and … it’s really nice working with someone with pretty much exactly equal experience. You bounce ideas off each other, because Ian has seen things that I’ve never seen, and I’ve done things that Ian has never done, so it’s a really nice collaborative effort. But, in regards to the nerve-wracking thing … it’s hopefully this beer sells … for the most part, we’ve been pleasantly surprised. There is a very good craft beer following on the west side … a lot of craft beer heads out here, as well.
BD: So is that something you get nervous about in terms about branching out into different styles right now? There are a lot of people who want things like pastry stouts or milkshake IPAs, for example. Do you worry about branching into that experimental territory?
Ian: Not really. At the last place I was at (Dialogue Brewing), we had mostly experimental beers … it’s kind of a different crowd. It seems like the west side people are more into the traditional (styles). I don’t want to typecast, but it’s just based on sales … I’m sure if we put a pastry stout on people would (show up). But, right now, it’s just a matter of pars, and the truisms of the industry that we’ve known for our combined 16-to-17 years of experience have gone out the window … it’s completely different and I think everyone is kind of figuring that out, so it’s kind of harder to put in an experimental right now with how many house beers we have.
David: And, being six months in … talking about sales trends and who likes what, we’re just starting to get our market research and we’re starting to see what sells. It’s weird, certain days certain things sell better … I’ll have to look at the weather and I can collate this beer to colder weather or warmer weather, and I think that’s always been true to styles in general. But, I think we both enjoy … brewing in the pub atmosphere. Yeah, we’ll have a high volume and have to keep up on house beers, but the nice thing about being a pub is we do get to create. Like today, we were just doing our jobs and we were talking about making a Cracker Jack beer! (laughs) Don’t know if we’re ever going to do it but we were just talking about baseball, and were just shooting the shit, and that’s how these come about. So we just try to find the balance of giving the clientele that we have what they know what they like, and do it on a consistent basis, but also every now and again try and get some of those niche clienteles in as well.
BD: So you guys experienced delays with materials and such. What were the delays?
David: Every day during the construction process was a new adventure … I say that because I could say a lot of other foul words! But, one of the biggest examples … the brewhouse was being manufactured in Nebraska. The pandemic happens, and I was corresponding with ABE and saying this is what it is … we get a phone call from ABE one time that says something about not being able to be able to ship anything that is non-essential … so the brewery wasn’t ready yet. I didn’t have floors. I was told, “I could send you your brewhouse today, or I don’t know when I’m going to get you your brewhouse.” So I said send it … two days later, we get three big semi-trucks, we get connexes … there’s a vacant suite next door, (so) I had my fermenters laying down in this vacant space. I had brewery equipment everywhere because the brewery just wasn’t ready. We moved the brewhouse the equivalent of three times, so that was what I would say was the biggest delay … receiving the brewing equipment when we weren’t ready … but, we had to do what we had to do. That was a big one.
BD: Any hopes or ambitions for Sobremesa moving forward this next year? I know we don’t really know what this next year holds for anyone …
Ryan: Obviously, growth is one of those key words that we want … we’re expanding a little bit of our prep kitchen area, so we still have construction ahead, but it’s positive … that was necessary because we were so well received and are doing so well … we are looking forward to having events, supporting our community as much as they have supported us, giving back a little more, and hopefully making a few more places for jobs over here, as well … creating more jobs for people on the west side, at a business that they both enjoy going to and working at.
David: The interesting thing … in my opinion, there’s been a COVID mindset, and what that is, is always pivot. Always change. We had to do it out of necessity … we’re open, we’re closed, we’re open under this amount … but, we don’t let the hurdles of what’s happening today halt what we possibly could do in a year or two years, hell, six months, who knows? So that was the thing, being in that mindset, if a problem is given to you, you solve it or change it, or change something and that’s just how it’s been. So I think for the future in regards to the brewery, there’s nothing set in stone … we could possibly be packaging in a little while. We could be expanding the brewhouse in a little while. We could possibly have an expanded barrel-aged program. And, I think that’s the interesting thing about about having to pivot and change all the time, is we might as well plan for everything. We might as well try to accomplish everything … because we know it’s not going to happen. If we can accomplish two, three, four things that we want to see, then that’s great. I think the thing I’m most looking forward to is actually seeing the full capacity of the pub, just seeing how many people come in here, what big events we can have, and just trying to come in contact with as many craft beer people and foodies … just people in general that want a place to hang out.
Ian: There’s basically what we do have an effect on and what we don’t … like it would be cool to be able to enter some competitions and all. Obviously, that’s not up to us, they have to happen again. And, the other part is just the things we have going on … since I’m entirely back-of-house in the brewery, it’s just tweaking the beers to make them as best as possible. Me and Dave are really happy with where everything is, but it can always get better. We’re always working to make it better.
David: That’s the best thing about having people with a lot of experience … for Ian and I, if I have an idea to grow the brewery, I don’t have to explain it. And, if he has an idea, he doesn’t have to explain it. We both see where we both want the brewery to go, and we’re going to do our damnedest to get it there.
Ryan: I have one specific thing that I definitely want to see and hope I can see soon … I’d love to see someone belly up to our bar! That’s something I miss, coming from a bartending background … that creates community and friendships, and things that we’ve been lacking right now. It’s tough to see that beautiful bartop and not have anyone sitting there!
Based on their increasing crowds (and based on the tasty pulled pork sandwich & Belgian wit that I enjoyed), there is little doubt that Sobremesa will continue to impress with both beer and food in the future going forward. Make sure to grab a seat on the wrap-around patio, or go belly up at the bar when you are able to, and make Ryan happy!
Until next time …
— Brandon Daniel