Local breweries cautiously optimistic as counties move to green

Not all breweries will be increasing their indoor occupancy even with Bernalillo County moving to green. (Photo courtesy of Steel Bender Brewyard)

The Wednesday news that much of New Mexico was moving to the green/turquoise levels on the state’s colored reopening chart came as a relief to many breweries. After a long period of being stuck in yellow, Bernalillo and Sandoval counties are moving to green, enabling 40-plus breweries and their taprooms to expand their occupancy.

Well, they have the option, but not necessarily the ability. We sent a series of questions out to the breweries, with just a few responding in time for this story. Keep an eye on the social media pages of others, as changes are happening rapidly (for instance, Tractor just announced its Nob Hill taproom will now be open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, as the mandatory 10 p.m. closing time no longer applies in green).

The biggest changes in the green status include that lack of a mandatory closing time, and breweries have the option to expand indoor occupancy to 50 percent, while patios remain at 75 percent. Masks are still required when not seated, and parties are still limited to six per table, with no mingling between tables, and pets are still not allowed on patios (save for service animals).

Steel Bender co-owner and marketing director Shelby Chant responded to our email questions with an extensive explanation of why hours and capacity are not changing, yet, at the Los Ranchos brewpub.

“So, I have been taunted by the ever-annoying Guns & Roses ‘Patience’ ear worm for a solid year now (and now I’m the jerk who’s passed that little ‘gift’ to the group, sorry, guys),” she wrote. “I have to believe that a sliver of silver lining coming out of this pandemic is that more of us have learned how to empathize more, let the little things roll, and really embody ‘patience is a virtue’ with each other.

“As a business, we must ask for continued patience and understanding. No, really, it’s not that easy being green. Moving to green and beyond isn’t just flipping a switch … our challenge, like many others here, is staffing. Specifically in our kitchen. While we’re a mostly scratch kitchen, we’re operating with a much smaller crew because hiring has been incredibly difficult, this isn’t new news. Our crew is amazing and working so hard, we simply can’t burn them out by opening up to more capacity or longer hours.

“As such, at this moment, we will still close at 8 p.m. daily and we will not be increasing indoor capacity to 50 percent. But, we can’t wait to be able to do so, getting our full menu back (we’re still shy a few menu items), justifying bringing Tuesday night live music back, getting more of the soul back in the taproom, bit by bit. A little patience a little longer, that’s what we need right now.”

Staffing is definitely going to be an issue going forward. It’s an issue nationwide, as many in the service industry have switched professions, or are currently unwilling/unable to return. It brings up the whole issue of people in the industry earning/not earning a living wage, but that is a debate/issue for another time.

Breweries like Nexus will also not be moving to 50-percent occupancy due to staffing issues. (Photo courtesy of Nexus)

Here are the questions we asked and the responses we received. One brewer asked to remain anonymous in his responses, as he said he does not speak officially for ownership (who were unavailable for comment).

NMDSBC: Are you staffed up to the point where the increased occupancy is doable right away, or do you want your customers to know it will be a little longer?

Ken Carson, Nexus: Staffing is a big issue. We will not increase until we can build our staff.

Maria Socha, Casa Vieja: We are staffed and ready to roll! 

Anonymous brewer: We are not staffed up enough to increase capacity or hours all of the way yet, but it is looking up already.

NMDSBC: Are you going to change your closing hours at all, or just stick with what you’ve got?

Ken Carson, Nexus: Probably not for us. Whatever we do we will do it slowly and judiciously.

Maria Socha, Casa Vieja: We will probably extend hours to 9 p.m. soon, but that’s what we usually do in the summer, so that’s not a covid-restriction-related issue. 

NMDSBC: Do you feel as though New Mexico is making progress in the right direction, or would you rather play it safe and just wait and see what happens?

Ken Carson, Nexus: Definitely the right direction.

Maria Socha, Casa Vieja: I feel like we are making positive progress, yes. 

Anonymous brewer: Unfortunately, I think we will see a backslide. I just hope we don’t go back to yellow by moving too fast.

NMDSBC: Do you feel that the current relaxed outdoor restrictions will open the door for any beer festivals/large-scale gatherings this summer, or would you still expect those in the fall or even 2022?

Ken Carson, Nexus: I feel the reduced restrictions are headed in the right direction. We need more people vaccinated, there are a lot of people who really have isolated and are still afraid.

Maria Socha, Casa Vieja: We are still a ways off from “normal” life, and my guess is that a lot of people in our targeted demographic (older folks) will still be scared/reserved even if things are relaxed in terms of restrictions. 

Shelby Chant, Steel Bender: Festivals? Geez, who knows. And, so many new logistics around even holding one, but I know this group will knock it out of the park once we’re able to. We know how to do everything that’s been required of us in our taprooms. We know how to create a great atmosphere even in weird circumstances. Sure, (it) would be great to see everyone here in one place again, though. Rob (Palmer), I miss my pre-festival cocktail! 

Anonymous brewer: I am looking forward to some festivals, which should be safe if outdoors. I think the biggest hurdles will be staffing (can’t drag an employee or two away on a Saturday), and owners not wanting to give away free beer and labor after a year-plus of reduced income.

NMDSBC: How important is a near full-capacity taproom, during the usual busiest part of the year, to the future of your brewery?

Ken Carson, Nexus: We have shrunk our overhead significantly. We do not need full capacity. But, it would be nice.

Maria Socha, Casa Vieja: We are always grateful for business. We have been super busy this year even with the restrictions so I would anticipate that that would only continue as things relax in terms of restrictions.

Anonymous brewer: Full capacity would be nice, but we will get through it if not, (we are) here for the long haul.

NMDSBC: Overall, are you feeling more optimistic, cautiously optimistic, or reserving judgment on the general state of affairs?

Ken Carson, Nexus: Yeah, it seems surreal, and I still have this fear of things going wrong again. But, I have very little reason logically to think we will go all the way backwards.

Maria Socha, Casa Vieja: I am/we are cautiously optimistic and hopeful. 

Shelby Chant, Steel Bender: In general, we’re cautiously optimistic. Cautiously isn’t a strong enough word. The rollercoaster is draining for all of us. So, while we feel things are moving in a positive direction, and we are planning accordingly. We are still being as purposeful as we can with the information we have to make decisions, and predicting behavior as best we can during such a challenging time. We’re certainly appreciating the small steps in the right direction. But, we’re also doing our best to practice patience. 

Anonymous brewer: Feeling very optimistic!

If all of us in the Crew had to guess, these feelings are likely pretty universal among the brewery owners all around the Albuquerque metro area. It will most likely be a slow, cautious approach to expanding occupancy, depending on staff, and extending hours later into the night.

Keep an eye on those Facebook/Instagram/Twitter pages, as we mentioned before, for any further updates from our breweries.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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