Thirsty Eye uses the challenges of 2020 as a tutorial for how to move forward

Brewer John Kofonow, left, and co-owner Kim Arthun have been able to keep Thirsty Eye Brewing aimed in the right direction.

It might sound a bit odd at first, but 2020 might have actually been good for Thirsty Eye Brewing.

No, really.

I learned about that, and more, when I sat down with co-owner Kim Arthun and brewer John Kofonow for one of the final entries in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.

“I think March of last year, we were at break even, and that was ahead of schedule,” Arthun said. “I think it was kind of a surprise to us. Then we hit the pause button, and it seemed completely devastating.

“But, in actuality for us, hitting the pause button allowed us to — and I’ve owned or run four businesses, and you never get to hit the pause button and take stock, see what’s working, what isn’t working, recalibrate, and get back to it, and that’s exactly what we were able to do.”

First and foremost, it gave the Thirsty Eye owners the chance to take greater control.

“Just things like during that year of the shutdown and everything, one of our biggest problems was having a landlord and renting,” Arthun said. “Part of the problem with renting for a business is, especially when you’re starting out, you want the lowest lease as possible in case you crash and burn, and (then) you’re not paying off a lease for 10 years or something. And, if you do good in those first two years, then your landlord raises the rent on you.

“I would imagine most of the successful businesses that have made it through this have owned their own building. We were able to buy the building at a historic, low rate, and recalibrate our finances and our business structure, to put us in a place a year later where I could never imagine us being. We’re more stable financially. I think the owners understand that this is better. None of us had experience when we started off, and relied solely on our managers and then John, which all did a great job. But, we were pretty much flying blind on this thing.”

A key person over the last 13 months was someone who was not initially involved in the day-to-day operation of Thirsty Eye.

“This year has really kind of been a tutorial for us, and I think we’ve come out of the other side in a much better place than going into it,” Arthun said. “I have to give a lot of credit to that to my wife (Jo Sloan), who was a high school principal for 34 years. She retired about eight months before the pandemic hit. Her biggest worry was what she was going to do with the rest of her life, so we figured that out for her.”

Formerly at schools like Del Norte and Valley, Sloan got to work at not only keeping Thirsty Eye afloat, but in pushing things forward on the right track.

“She put together the deal to restructure our finances, to buy the building, to save everything,” Arthun said. “To be honest, there were a number of times, which I won’t go into, but (after) receiving an eviction notice where I was ready to throw the towel in. I kept telling my wife I think it’s the universe telling us it’s time to go live happily every after. And, she wouldn’t have it. She was just tenacious about the whole thing.

“I mean, running a high school with the employees, the budget, the parents, this is pretty simple (in comparison). I’ve been with her for 44 years and I’ve always told her, she could have done a lot better, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun. I think she has proven to me just how important it is to have somebody like that, who believes in your craziness, but has the ability to make it happen.”

The artwork at Thirsty Eye, and at the gallery next door, is still eye-popping.

Things were equally tough next door at Exhibit 208, which Arthun and his partners also own.

“We also have the component of the art gallery, too,” he said. “That was the first time in 22 years that we haven’t had a monthly show. We were shut down for pretty much a year, with one installation in the middle of it. That was more about the artist wanting to photograph his installation in our space. We had a space. There’s nothing more depressing than to walk into an art gallery every day with nothing on the walls. It’s just like, what the hell?”

Now, though, the gallery is open again, and both that space and Thirsty Eye are thriving.

“Since we’ve opened up inside, we’ve been growing monthly about 27 percent, 28 percent, and again that’s with 33-percent (occupancy),” Arthun said. “I think we feel like probably most people do — once everybody’s vaccinated, once we get the green light, I think we’re going to be in great shape.”

A big part of that optimism stems from the changes they had to make since last March, and realizing what did not work, and how to fix it.

“And, I think we made a lot of mistakes in the beginning opening this thing up,” Arthun said. “We were overly optimistic about having a coffee shop and all of that. That failed spectacularly. That cost us most of our contingency money. So we limped along until we got shut down. That’s all straightened out now, so we should be good. We came out on the other end with hardly any debt, other than a mortgage payment. We’re in a much better place financially, mainly because we only have two employees right now, and we have my wife, myself, our nephew, and his girlfriend working for tips, pretty much, to keep the place going. It’s been crucial.”

Oh, and do not forget the crowler machine, which Arthun and Kofonow called the best thing they did, buying it right at the time of the first shutdown. It was just one of many additions, some obvious, some subtle, that they did on the beer side of the business.

“I was just getting used to, just being shy of a year in when we shut down the first time, finally having a rhythm,” Kofonow said. “And, this changed all that. I’ve got a new rhythm for production. I’m still putting a ton of effort into the seasonals. I consider us a seasonally assertive brewery. If I had it my way, honestly, I would have only seasonal beers on tap, be ever changing. I’m not sure that Albuquerque is ready for that. I’d be OK with it myself. I think there’s a few people here and there.”

Thirsty Eye has consistently kept a set lineup of year-round beers, while the seasonals have settled into a good rotation.

“We’ve done really well keeping up with the now five core beers we have on (tap),” Kofonow said. “During the pandemic, we made one of our recurring seasonal beers, the Odin’s Eye, we made that a year-round beer because of demand. I’m happy, when it’s that good and people keeping asking for it, and getting upset when it’s gone, yeah, I’ll keep it on all the time. What’s nice is that it’s so unique. It’s not a straight, classic style. That’s what I love about most of our beers, it’s they’re not straight, classic styles, they’re a step outside of what you get around town.”

Another popular beer, Bruiser the American Pitbull Stout, will also be on semi-regularly, Kofonow said. It will only come off for the occasional seasonal stout, like Father O’Malley’s Holy Water, the current Irish dry stout that is both on CO2 and the new nitro tap.

“We’ve been at a pretty solid 10 beers most of the pandemic now, which is nice,” Kofonow said. “That’s typically our peak, which is 10. I actually have an 11th that I could release this week, but I think we’re going to hold it for one more. Though we did add nitro just a month ago. That was something I’d been hoping to do for a while. It just kind of fell in our lap and we made it work. It’s kind of a roundabout 11th beer. That will be a rotating tap. We’ve got the Irish stout on now. We’ll definitely do the (Rented Tux) vanilla porter for a little bit next round, and then some other seasonal stuff after that.”

Thirsty Eye is up to 10 of its own beers on tap, with a bonus nitro tap now installed as well.

Biscochito Liquido was another popular seasonal that just completed another successful run on tap. Kofonow said he has been getting a lot of requests for La Llagerona, his Mexican lager, and that will be back this summer.

The beers at Thirsty Eye are sometimes about a little more than just the recipes themselves.

“That’s the thing, I love the personal stories I can attach to some of our beers,” he said. “So for example, the Citrus Buzz, our orange blossom honey wheat, that was a beer I first brewed for my wedding. It had a different name at the time. That beer and the very first beer we released, Hello EDo, was also a beer I brewed for my wedding.

“The new one, the fruited (Up and Coming) Blonde, was fruited with kumquats from my grandparents’ back yard. It’s those kind of personal integrations that I like to try to get in there.”

Arthun noted that the small scale on which Thirsty Eye operates, in terms of brewing, has actually helped during the pandemic and its varied restrictions.

“We had one or two batches sit longer than we wanted, so we dumped a little beer, but we did not dump as much due to age as some of the larger breweries did,” Kofonow said. “I think everyone has been doing the best with what they were given in this. We definitely did. Kim, Jo, Wes (Torres), Shawn (Turung), they all came through for me as the brewer to let me keep going. They made sure I had what I needed, through equipment upgrades here, getting the nitro (tap) and the crowlers, was something I really wanted us to have. Being small was really good for the versatility we needed, it really was.”

Moving forward, as things hopefully continue to open up more and more, there will be some changes to how Thirsty Eye operates as compared to the pre-pandemic times.

“We’re not going to do what we did before, we’re going to do it on a limited version,” Arthun said. “Look back on it, we had events pretty much every day. It got people in and all of that, but there was also some downside to it. Part of me always wanted a taproom, because I like the community (feel) of it, I like people talking, we have so little of that today. That’s what drew me to wanting to have a brewery. That’s what I like about going to breweries.

“I’d like the events to be more Friday/Saturday, maybe a special event during the week. I’d like to do more artist talks. I’ve got a couple of local filmmakers who’d like to do movies and stuff. You want to get a state-of-the-art projector, do that next door in the gallery, stuff like that.”

The new hotel under construction on the southwest corner of Broadway and Central, just a block away, could also provide a post-pandemic boost to Thirsty Eye and the rest of the neighborhood.

“We’re also looking forward to seeing what the hotel does for us,” Arthun said. “I hope it’s huge. We’ll see. But, I think it’s a tremendous addition. I think it will do a lot to revitalize south of Central. I think north and east of Central have had a lot of revitalization. I think it’s our turn.”

There will be fewer events inside going forward, even once things are opened up closer to full capacity.

On the brewing side of things, Kofonow said he hopes to get back to reaching out to the rest of the craft scene in the Albuquerque area.

“I am looking forward to reconnecting with a lot of brewers,” he said. “I know there’s a couple breweries out there that have done some collaborations. We’ve been playing it really safe. I’d love to start reconnecting with the brewers, get a couple collaborations going, look at the competitions that will be coming up this summer and fall, start putting our beer on the line.”

Kofonow said he looks forward to having events back at the brewery, but he is fine with limiting those to the weekend.

“We’ve also built up a good, recurring clientele through this, even if they’re just takeout orders, they’re people we recognize,” he said. “We want to make sure they still have a place where they can come talk. It’s always been a very social place. When an event takes over and you and your friends decide to leave, because it’s not your kind of band.”

“We saw that, and I never liked that,” Arthun added.

“We also had some bands that would pack the house,” Kofonow said. “Those are the things we want to keep.”

Kofonow also wanted to pass along some thanks to other breweries around town.

“That’s something I want to say, even during this shutdown, we’ve had a lot of generous support from the other breweries,” he said. “Steel Bender has helped us since we opened by letting me come and use their keg cleaner semi-regularly. I just this past month got my in-house manual keg cleaning set up.

“Dan (Herr) was the one who helped us design it, based on a design that they were using previously at Sidetrack. Steel Bender was incredibly generous with the use of their equipment for like two years, solid. Then other brewers giving us advice and feedback, trading beer for guest taps, like Differential. And, I’m constantly getting help from (Rob) Palmer. He’s a strong part of our Brewers Guild board (of directors) now. He does a lot of good work for us, and he’s helped me a lot since we got started. I’m looking forward to repaying that as much as I can to other people.”

The ongoing camaraderie of the craft breweries in New Mexico is something all of us in the Crew love to see, and we also love seeing something positive come out of the chaos of the past year-plus.

A big thanks to John and Kim for carving out some time for this interview, as things are definitely getting busier again for both of them.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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