Canteen Brewhouse cans its way to success even amid global pandemic

All those tasty beers to-go have been a huge hit for the brewpub throughout the past year. (All photos courtesy of Canteen)

It was one year to the day of the first pandemic shutdown when I joined Canteen Brewhouse head brewer Zach Guilmette and general manager Jamie Schwebach on the patio to recap all that was and what’s coming up for their entry in our Look Back/Look Ahead Series.

The beautiful weather and full patio (well, as full as 75-percent occupancy permits) was a stark contrast to the doom and gloom of 2020.

“I’d say first and foremost, we survived with the good will of all the craft beer drinkers and our regulars here in town, which was amazing to see how they came in every week to bring home package,” Guilmette said. “Part two to that is the fact that we bought a canning line right before the pandemic started. That was serendipitous, to be able to start canning everything, even our house beers, which we hadn’t done before, gave everyone the chance to bring home their favorites that they were used to sitting around and drinking on the patio, which was no longer available.”

Canteen has indeed been canning, and canning, and canning some more throughout the pandemic. Prior to last March, there were a few six-packs of Dougie Style Amber, Exodus IPA, and Laid Back Lager. Multiple regular offerings, like Flashback IPA and Dark & Lusty Stout, have since made their way to cans, along with a number of seasonals, ranging from Helles Awaits to Social Capital.

It wasn’t quite the array of new beers one might expect from Canteen, but rather the big hits among seasonals of years past.

“As a brewpub brewer with the foot traffic we used to have, that allowed me to produce a saison or a Belgian, or some beers that are niche, that may not be mainstream for craft beer drinkers, but in a brewpub atmosphere you can sell them,” Guilmette said. “What happened was we had to narrow our offerings down to what we knew people loved, and that was our lagers, our IPAs, and our malty, darker beers. We really narrowed that portfolio. We’ve got some new projects coming up that — collabs, actually — are bringing us back to that fun, experimental pub base.

“It definitely helped us focused more on our variety of lagers, and dialing in the brewhouse more, experimenting with new water profiles. We recently put in a nitrogen blender. We were basically working on the bones of the brewery.”

Head brewer Zach Guilmette has been a busy man with all of those cans.

“I’m always being reminded that breweries always have a need for more bones,” Schwebach added. “There’s always a possibility that something is going to come along that can make things better.”

It was still a tough run for Canteen, especially at the beginning of the pandemic last March.

“It was hard at first because we had to say good-bye to all of our staff,” Guilmette said. “Even the guys in the brewery were laid off. Even to that point, they’ve spent the whole year just being great in the brewery, my guys, just working as much as they could without being able to work as much as they used to, knowing that someday this would end and we’d get back to normal. I’m really thankful to have Doug (Cochran) and Ben (Lenetsky) and Mike (Kaliber) because they were here for the whole ride. As things begin to open up, it’s starting to feel like it used to as you’re starting to see our sales pick up. … It’s been a year of smoking meat almost every Friday to keep morale high in the brewery, when we can.”

Whether it was working with a skeleton crew in the front or the back, or up to now, when most of the old team is back, Schwebach said she has felt nothing but pride in how the Canteen team has held things together.

“I think the brewery staff did such a great job this last year, too, because everybody has been flexible and worked with all the craziness, whether it’s new hours, different roles, different jobs,” she said. “I know that’s true for the back of the house as well as the front of house. Front of house has learned how to cook, they’ve learned how to clean, they’ve learned how to help can, do whatever we need to do. It’s been really good to have such a diverse team.”

The ultimate credit, though, goes to the loyal customer base that has supported Canteen since its early days as Il Vicino Brewing.

“But, I agree with what Zach said, we’re so fortunate to be in Albuquerque with such strong craft beer drinkers,” Schwebach said. “They’ve allowed all of us to still be here. It’s pretty amazing. Which is awesome, and it really shows the strength of our craft beer community here. I can’t really say enough about that. All the breweries, we’ve supported each other, and helped each other throughout this. Whether it’s making sure we’re all following the mandates, or working together in whatever is needed, or making sure we all have enough crowlers to sell package, it’s been beautiful for such a crazy year. A lot of strength has come out of it.”

The Tramway taproom has also been able to more than hold its own throughout the last year. Schwebach made sure to credit the team of taproom manager Rosie Jinno, Martin Nieves, and Spencer Corolus.

Taproom manager Rosie Jinno and her team have kept things nice and chill up on Tramway.

“It’s been great having our (Tramway) taproom location, as well,” Schwebach said. “They have done great. Their package sales are good. It’s a totally different clientele than here.

“There was days when they would beat us (in to-go sales). Especially like crowlers, we filled a lot more six-packs, but there were days during the shutdown when the taproom would sell a lot more crowlers than us, by a lot.”

Schwebach also noted that Helles Awaits, before it was in cans, was being poured directly out of the tank in the back last year when the Pink Boots Society held its annual collaboration brew day at Canteen. Everyone, myself included, got to enjoy it before the public. Then it became one of the first canned seasonals, and a major hit for the brewery.

“It was so nice to be able to get it into cans, because that day and time was such a good memory,” Schwebach said of the Pink Boots brew day. “We got it in cans and got it out (twice now). I think this batch is even better than last. I think even the name is great.”

Other big hits included Panama Joe Coffee Stout, now made with Trifecta Coffee, and the canned Social Capital that benefited the Pink Warrior House. All of us, Crew and Canteen staff, were also huge fans of their Imperial Stout collaboration with Taylor Garrett Whiskey.

Canteen also expanded its offerings this year with the first batches of Canteen Cider.

“Cider was in development for a while,” Guilmette said. “We definitely wanted to meet that crowd that has issues with gluten. It was also, for me, a new, fun challenge to ferment something that’s not grain, not beer. We’re going to be canning that as well. The intent is to keep two, have a flavored, a fruited, and our original. I’ve had a fun time experimenting with different dry yeast strains, and trying to create a fruitiness and ester profile. The yeast was drying out the apple so much, we had to find something else. I was trying to avoid the cloying sweetness of apple juice, I was looking for something cleaner, like dextrose. I was trying to get the apple and pear notes from the yeast itself.”

We were among the many big fans of this collaboration.

There are plenty of additional beers coming soon in cans, one of which Guilmette was finishing up in the back during our interview.

“Some of the beers I look forward to canning coming up will be what I brewed today, Trail Angel Pale Ale,” Guilmette said. “Trail Angel was developed because, like so many other breweries we fell so far behind on our hop contracts, we had to renegotiate our hop contracts. We had to buy our back stock in bulk, now I’m flush with hops. I’ve been itching to create some new beers because I haven’t been able to create a lot of new beers in the past year. Trail Angel is something we want to create to connect with the outdoors. Jamie has done such a good job with REI and other outdoor outfits. I’m hoping this pale ale is something people want to bring hiking.”

Trail Angel will include a charity aspect.

“We’re actually going to be donating a percentage of the six-pack sales to New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors,” Schwebach said. “They’re a local group that we’ve worked with before. We’re super excited. The labels are going to have a nice topographic map of kind of up by our taproom. The beer is going to be great. Zach is really excited for it, so it’s great to see that. It’s nice to be able to see that light and spark in (the brewers’) eyes.”

Other beers on deck for canning are Tuttle IPA, Cabana Lager for Cinco de Mayo, a key lime pie version of Social Capital, and Citranova should return at some point in June.

“That’s another good thing, we just hired someone to do our sales,” Schwebach said. “Troy Volk is doing our sales here now. We’re learning how to do that in all things as we distribute. It’s been fun to learn.”

There have been so many lovely lagers rolling out from Canteen, including this gem.

Guilmette has always been a huge proponent of the greatness of lagers, and right now he has three on draft — High Plains Pils, Laid Back, Helles Awaits — plus the Sundance Kolsch on draft, and all of them have appeared in cans recently as well.

“It’s been great having three lagers and a kolsch on right now,” Schwebach said. “We really want to see lines for lagers, that’s the goal. Lines for lagers someday! Come on! Everyone has lines for (hazy) IPA, let’s get lines for lagers.”

That produced a big smile and a nod from Guilmette. He then went on to discuss some of the collaboration beers that are on deck.

“Some of the newer beers that are coming up, the collabs, the first one is with Marble,” Guilmette said. “It’s a maibock that Andrew Krosche and I have been talking about for a few years now. It’s not coming to fruition. It’s a maibock that we’re going to brew with beets, local beets. Then we’re going to follow that up with Mick (Hahn), who’s now distilling at Hollow Spirits. We’re going to be doing a gin saison, where I’m going to brew a saison with his gin botanicals, and he’s going to take about half the batch and distill it down. We’re going to have about six or seven barrels of that sometime in June. Some of these really fun, niche, creative, crafty beers are what drive the craft industry and brewpubs.”

There will be events returning eventually, Schwebach said, though she will not begin to set anything in stone until Bernalillo County is at least in green in the state’s color-coded system. Guilmette added that the Canteen staff has received nothing but strong support from ownership, a group that he and Schwebach have recently joined.

“The co-owners, Greg (Atkin), Rick (Post), and Tom (White), throughout this entire thing they’ve been so patient and level-headed and understanding,” Guilmette said. “We’ve worked with them through this. I can’t say enough how great it has been working with those guys. They were able to stay calm through this whole thing.”

To finish the day, Guilmette did share a little bit of additional info that had all of us in the Crew doing happy dances.

“We want to put Panama Joe in some barrels this year, and later in the fall we’ll release that,” Guilmette said. “I’m not sure which barrels, maybe half rum and half whiskey, I’ll have to decide. We do know that we want to put Panama Joe in barrels this year.”

Well, gosh, Zach, if you insist, then we will have no choice but to drink that up a few months from now. It’s nice to have things to look forward to again, right?

A huge thanks to Zach and Jamie for taking the time to sit down and chat. We all look forward to many more patio days and delicious lagers to come for the rest of 2021.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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