Second Street Brewery survives 2020 and thrives so far in 2021

I waited in my car until I was given the signal from Tom Ludzia to follow him inside, through the service door, into the brewhouse at 2920 Rufina Street. There, in a fortress of stainless steel, less than a handful of other masked do-gooders stood around looking as if their day was about to get a lot busier. We passed the dark cavernous kitchen into the unlit Rufina taproom. Bright sun shone through the large garage bay doors. Our voices and footsteps echoed through the big empty space, as we chatted about the serious business of seasonal allergies.

Normally it would be hard to hold an interview in the middle of a restaurant at noon, let alone find a table, but this is how it’s been for about a year and some change. And so, once more (and hopefully for the last time), I sat a good 10 feet of social distance apart from owner and brewmaster Rod Tweet and head brewer Tom Ludzia. We talked about 2020, the toughest year anyone had ever been through professionally. We talked about where Second Street is, heading further into 2021, and when they plan to open all of their doors to the public, as well as when they plan to serve food again.

“How was 2020 for Second Street?” I asked, thinking I had a pretty good idea of the answer by now.

“It was great!” Tweet joked. We laughed for a few minutes at the absurdity of what we’d all just been through. What else could we do?

“It was super stressful,” Ludzia said thoughtfully. “But, to start off on a bright note, we’re drinking our Brown Ale right now. In the middle of all the insanity, there was GABF.”

Ludzia reminded us of the fact that Second Street was one of the four New Mexico breweries to win a medal at the 2020 (Virtual) Great American Beer estival. The good memory hasn’t seemed to fade.

“We had the debate,” Ludzia said. “Do we send stuff? Do we not send stuff? Not being up there for it sucked. But, to have more members of the team be able to experience (the win), the morale of it, it was great.”

“It was one, if not the highlight of the year,” Tweet added. “We like winning as much as anyone does, but it just couldn’t have come at a better time.”

When I spoke with members of the craft industry about how they made it through 2020, it’s been the small victories, the little wins that folks have wanted to talk about. The bright spots. A gold medal for their Brown Ale was certainly a win for the brewery side of a three-restaurant company. And, for the company that had to close three kitchens, shutter the doors at three locations, and send more than 100 employees home for the majority of the year, they gladly accepted the small, but mighty morsel of morale boost in the form of a GABF win. It was certainly a win worth celebrating.

In 2020, Second Street did their best to keep all of their services available to the public for as long as they possibly could, whether it be food, beer, or a place for the public to safely gather, even if it was outdoor-seating-only and at a limited capacity. Whatever made the most sense while keeping the public safe, they tried it. But, just as many other restaurants and breweries had found, staying open was sometimes harder than staying closed.

A couple times this year, Second Street announced publicly via social media that they were closing due to a positive COVID case. Both times, they were up front about what was going on, and the public responded very well to the transparency.

Second Street operates three spaces in a fairly small market, and they depend on regular customers. Tweet told us that being transparent was the plan from the get-go.

“I think I can speak for all of us here, but we took it pretty seriously from the beginning,” he said.

“And, not to get political, but there weren’t strong directives that were handed down,” Ludzia added. “So a lot of it came down to individual business owners to make the call, and we took it seriously.”

“There was no guidance. We were just making it up like everybody else,” Tweet said.

No choice that anyone made regarding rules and regulations was easy in 2020. And, along with the rest of the craft beer industry, the state, and the world, Second Street was over 2020 long before the year was over.

“For a lot of people running restaurants, the constant re-pivoting just kind of ran all of us into the ground,” Tweet said.

The pandemic even affected beer production. At least, with folks continuing to consume their suds at home, consistent package sales kept changes in the brewing schedule to a minimum.

“It definitely reduced the variety of what we could do,” Tweet said.

Second Street is known for their broad variety of seasonals, some unique to each taproom. But, with the taprooms closed, there wasn’t any need to keep the rotation going, and even the brewhouse at the Oldery had a few days off for the first time in a long time.

When Covid hit, Second Street had tanks full of beer, ready for the busy season to start. Luckily, they sold through all of the beer they had, which included more of the interesting variety, destined for World Beer Cup and St. Paddy’s Day, including several bigger, darker beers. Just days after the holiday, doors closed all around the state, and eventually those taps would slow to a drip.

But, the beer and the vibes never stopped flowing altogether, and the scaled-down Second Street brew crew never stopped moving.

That’s because two of the aspects that made the Rufina location such a challenge to open and operate at first, became their biggest saving grace, mid-pandemic, as restrictions relented, for one — the packaging facility in the back of house, and the second being the sheer size of the Rufina space.

“We kept real busy with packaging, and we kept sales pretty strong on the wholesale side,” Tweet said.

It’s not surprising that packaging became their biggest asset during the pandemic. Sure, it helped to pay a few of the bills, at least, but their cans also helped maintain their brand presence around town when the taprooms couldn’t.

The large capacity of their indoor/outdoor spaces became quite a boon when capacity limits would fluctuate due to public health orders. Although, Tweet reminds us that Santa Fe weather certainly didn’t make it easy on folks during the pandemic during the winter months.

However, thanks to the many people who showed up to support Second Street during the tough times, and a little help from a few painstakingly-applied-for federal aid packages, Second Street is actually in a decent position heading into 2021. They’re ready as any to get back in the race, back to the good old days of music and laughter in their taprooms, and Tweet said he is certainly looking forward to the day when Second Street is doing the kind of business that they’ve come to know.

Though it was the worst year they’d had to weather as a business thus far, Second Street managed to make the best of a bad situation.

From all the hoops they had to jump through this past year, Second Street learned a few new tricks to improving their service.

“Not only that, but we were forced to take a good hard look at the business to see what was really important to focus on, and what was not as much,” Tweet said.

Ludzia said: “It seems every choice that was made over the course of the last calendar year, was something that wasn’t only to get us through the pandemic, but was a good move for Second Street regardless.”

They, like many of the breweries we checked in with this year, were forced to grow as they made changes for the better. For example: How many online ordering platforms have we seen appear this past year? And, how great has our local craft beer been in cans, crowlers, and growlers this year?

When the ‘plague’ is finally over, I suspect we’ll see a bit of a renaissance from our industry in the form of beer styles and events. And, I’m 100 percent here for it.

Good news and good brews

One positive byproduct of the pandemic was the little bit of extra time many of us found ourselves with. That bit of extra time was enough for the brewery team to work on a laundry list of projects they’ve had looming for quite some time.

“On the brewery side, we’ve been very productive,” Tweet said. “We got some long lingering projects done or underway.”

Ludzia was able to do a complete rebuild of the taps and faucets at the original taproom, which was in desperate need of an upgrade.

They got a chance to institute a highly organized sensory program for their package beers, which Tweet said he is pretty happy with. Thanks to brewer Will Harrell’s scientific approach to their quality control, with notes and documentation, Ludzia said it hass come a long way from the days of hanging out in a garage tasting the beer.

During the pandemic, they were also able to expand their tank space a bit, adding two more 40-barrel fermenters, which Tweet had just made the last payment on the week before COVID hit. When last we spoke in May, the tanks were still marooned in Rhode Island.

And, one more thing to add to the list of things they were able to cross off thanks to 2020 was moving from printed adhesive labels to full-on printed cans for their 2920 IPA, which, after a long painstaking, anxiety-inducing process, creative director and can designer Mariah Scee said she is very happy with how they turned out.

“In the middle of all the insanity, we were able to have someone new come on, which I thought was amazing,” Ludzia said.

Brewers Ben Murdock and Will Harrell were kept plenty busy throughout the pandemic, even when they weren’t brewing as much beer. There was always something to do, whether it was another project, or a packaging night. There was so much to do, in fact, that Second Street was even able to make a new hire.

Even Tweet’s pet project at home, a ‘73 Safari Airstream, is a little closer to completion thanks in part to the year that never got off the ground.

Looking forward

As far as expansion plans for 2021, Tweet said he still believes that it will be a very ‘disrupted year,’ and he plans to keep playing it safe.

“We probably won’t be making any quick moves, because I’m waiting to see how things pan out,” he said. “2021 is going to be a mess, but we know that’s going to end.”

Right now, Second Street is focusing on getting themselves into a good financial situation for the future, and so the plan is still (just as it was pre-COVID) to increase their wholesale operation, taking all the necessary steps to get there, like adding brite tanks and upgrading the canning line as necessary.

And, though the can shortage loomed over 2020 for a while, Tweet said he believes they’re largely through the woods on that crisis, with the situation predicted to normalize by the end of the year.

The future of the taprooms

Speaking of normalizing by the end of the year, the future of the pandemic may still be uncertain, but Tweet and company are more than optimistic about normal business returning to the taprooms sooner than later.

Now the question that people ask me every time I send out the sick invite, is, “Do they have food yet?”

In case you missed it, yesterday Second Street announced via social media that they would have food at Rufina by April 16.

Tweet told us that the Rail Yard location will be open by May 1 (no food at first). And, the original Second Street location will be open by May 1 as well (again, no food to start off).

Tweet assured us, however, that if the other two locations don’t have food by May 1, it will be shortly thereafter.

“We’d like to be mostly open by May,” he said. “This situation over the last year, it’s been a situation where there’s no reward in being out front or being early, so we’ve been intentionally hanging back to make sure that hopefully there isn’t going to be any back-sliding with restrictions, and if there is, it’s minor.”

Beer bonzana is inbound

Coming soon to the taprooms, besides food and people again, will be a larger beer variety that Santa Feans have come to enjoy from Second Street. Look out for old faves and familiar seasonals returning soon, with some new refreshing lagers and more slips to siptown from the Sloppy Sloth series.

Today, Second Street is releasing their imperial stout twin-pack, The Lion and The Cobra, yet another excellent tribute to an Irish rock band. The Lion is an imperial stout brewed with Iconik coffee and Madagascan vanilla beans, and The Cobra is an imperial stout brewed with cacao nibs and Montmorency cherry, both above 10-percent ABV.

But, rumor has it that they have something even bigger than their not-so-gentle giant Mylodon (imperial hazy IPA) coming soon. I would be on the lookout for news of an Imperial Strata IPA reaching the taps very soon.

Ludzia tells us they will once again be brewing a beer for the Curse supporters group for the New Mexico United soccer team. We don’t know what it is yet, but he promises it will be equally as delicious and as cleverly named as 2019’s Brew Wallace.

And, good news for all those out there that love the Windsor Trail Pale Ale — it will soon receive the honor of being packaged in 16-ounce four packs. 

During the pandemic Second Street spent a good amount of time honing their craft, Ludzia told us.

“Once our restaurants open back up again, people can expect to have that fun variety coming out at our taprooms, which is wonderful with Rufina. This great production facility will be able to pump out fun 10-barrel batches all summer long,” he said.

As for events, Second Street isn’t booking all of the festivals just yet, but they’re hoping they can bring back Crab and Pilsner by late summer. They already have an arrangement with Marble for a collaboration pilsner. 

*****

In 2020, a lot of our favorite parts of the beer industry disappeared — special events, festivals like GABF and Blues & Brews, live local music, group gatherings, and so on, as so much of 2020 was cancelled. But, so much carried on, too.

I remember the first day Second Street offered beer for pick-up during the pandemic. People were lining up in masks, taking away cases and growlers from the makeshift counter at Rufina’s patio. That excited spirit never went away throughout the pandemic. Not for Second Street’s team, and not for us beer folk.

And so, when I asked what got Second Street through the worst of the pandemic, it was many things. It was getting creative, working on hobbies, pouring their hearts into work. It was a little extra time spent with family (and the QuaranTeam) and more cooking. It was more dog walks, it was roller skates, and it was great beer.

One of the things we talked about last year after the restaurants had been shut down for the first time was Second Street not being able to sell one of their most important products, the social aspect of their spaces, the gathering over a pint, the camaraderie, the raising of the glass, the feeling of togetherness. That ‘product’ was off the market for much of last year, but thanks to our hard-working New Mexico breweries, it will be back in stock again very soon.

Much thanks as always to Rod Tweet and Tom Ludzia for meeting with me every year. Thank you to Mariah Scee for all of the pictures. To their health, to the health of the business, and to your health, friends and readers, cheers!

— Luke

For more craftbeer info, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro. And for more shameless beer pictures, follow me on Untappd as SantaFeLuke.

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