Welcome to the start of our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series, where we go in-depth with all the local breweries to review that year that was and preview the year to come. To kick things off for the 2021-22 edition, I sat down with founder Joel Gregory, head brewer Dave Chichura, sales manager James Gregory, and taproom general manager Stevo Jeter last week.
Joel said the first four to five months of 2021 were basically just a continuation of 2020 and all of its COVID-related restrictions.
“We talked about it last year, (how we) utilized our canning line to a great degree, that’s how we made it through 2020,” he said. “That continued through the first half of 2021. When draft started picking back up in May, when things opened up, we kept a lot of the one-offs flowing. We just focused more on the core stuff, plus two to three a month in a small-batch format.”
Then the vaccine began to roll out, restrictions were lifted, and everyone got to breathe a sigh of relief (at least somewhat).
“Another big change, staff-wise, that was the time when vaccinations were becoming more widely available, so that definitely changed our protocol for exposure and everything else,” Joel said. “It’s like we don’t have to full close somebody (on staff) knew someone that got it. Now we have a nice, designed framework, and it’s not all that intense. Right now it seems like it’s going around again so much.”
The biggest development of 2021 was right where we were conducting the interview, the massive new beer garden dubbed The Corral.
“Yeah, it has been, for me, the biggest change,” Stevo said. “Joel and I were just talking about it this morning. A year ago at this time there were maybe five of us actually actively working regularly. (We have) 18 employees now, just front of house, which is quite different. We were expecting as soon as it got colder for it to slow down, but I think because of the last year or two that we’ve had, people are acclimated to it. I’m still waiting for people to want to stop drinking outside in the cold. The beer garden is gorgeous, so I think between fire pits and heaters everywhere, and what we have, people are so used to it that they just want to enjoy good beer, that we’re really grateful people are here.”
“This is such an inviting space,” James added.
The warm weather lasting past Thanksgiving has certainly helped with keeping both The Corral and the original taproom’s patio packed.
“We’ll still see, we haven’t seen the bitter, bitter cold yet,” Joel said. “It will thin the herd a little bit, and change the hours. I haven’t even done the math yet, but by seats, we have to be 90 percent outdoors now.”
Joel had mentioned the potential of The Corral last year, which he said he decided to press ahead with, COVID or not, while driving up to Durango around Christmas.
“My wife and I were like we have to do something with that space,” he said. “I don’t know how long COVID is going to do this, I don’t know when vaccines are going to happen, but we have to use the term I really don’t like — activate. There’s an acre of space over here.
“We got it done in less than a year. I thought it would be done by June. That was overly optimistic to think that people would show up to work and stuff like that.”
Construction delays were prevalent throughout the craft brewing industry in 2021, though that did not exactly alleviate the frustration of everyone at Ex Novo as the calendar kept advancing without the space being ready.
“That was one of the more difficult aspects, because it was like, oh, for sure by this time,” Stevo said. “Then it was like, well, maybe by this time. Then we’re thinking by August, for sure. Labor Day? Oh, totes. Balloon Fiesta? But, for sure Balloon Fiesta. But, it happened when it happened. I think we were kind of freaking out because we lost all the warm months, assuming nobody would show, but again, because of COVID, it’s been incredible.”
To say the public enthusiastically took to the beer garden might be an understatement.
“We’ve already changed the hours once,” Stevo said. “We sent out an email and literally the next day we changed the hours to open earlier, because people wanted to be out drinking beer in the sunshine.”
As for those beers, the constant flow of classic and new styles never stopped flowing.
“It’s been crazy, as usual, but it’s always exciting,” Dave said. “We’ve always got a bunch of stuff coming down the pipe. I can’t even remember all the beers. It’s a trajectory of brewing that I should be used to it by now, especially after 2020, when we just brewed (so many). I remember counting the first year we brewed, we did like 64 different beers in 2019. I didn’t even count last year, and I have no idea how many different ones we’ve done this year. But, that’s part of the deal. That’s all driven by Joel, making sure we have an awesome variety of stuff in our taproom, and in the garden now, and also we kick some down to James once in a while for his favorite accounts.”
One change on the seasonal/specialty front was the decision to bring back many of the popular 2019 beers, rather than just constantly try to come up with something new.
“I will say we were able to go back to the well, so to speak, a little bit more in 2021 and revisit favorites, as opposed to everything being a first-time brew,” Dave said. “That’s comforting. Not everything is a dice roll. We still do a good amount of that. Remember that one beer? Let’s do that again.”
“We did so many beers in 2020, that we have a dozen that were fantastic that we could run those back,” James added.
“It was great, every now and again I would ask if anyone was requesting something in the taproom,” Dave said. “So there would be some repeat requests for some things. People really liked our Scotch ale. People liked some of the lagers that we’ve done.
“Then, in the midst of all that, and also having some lineup changes here and there, we still managed to have the year we’ve had so far. We’re not slowing down. We’ve got a full brew schedule (this) week, and it’s mapped out through the end of the year.”
The most rewarding moment of the year for the entire staff was when Ex Novo Corrales won its first medal at the Great American Beer Festival, a gold for Threat Level: Turquoise, while Ex Novo Portland picked up a silver for Intergalactic Pale Ale, its second medal in as many years.
“Definitely, to have a gold medal for New Mexico and a silver for Portland was especially gratifying at GABF,” Dave said. “We all whooped it up a bit that night. Maybe the whole weekend, in my case.”
As there was no festival portion of GABF — the Craft Brewers Conference, a trade show, was held in its place, followed by the regular awards ceremony — almost the entire Ex Novo staff just ended up watching the internet broadcast at the taproom.
“That was arguably my favorite day of this entire year,” Stevo said. “COVID, it was a lot in every area, whether it was staffing here, or on the taproom side. The rules were always changing. It was a lot of crap. So when that gold medal came in, to have just about all of our staff, front of house, back of house, everyone celebrating together, that’s why we do it. From grain to glass, that’s what we’re saying, that’s why we do it all with such excellence, and we have such an amazing team.”
“I’ll say that in future years that makes me question being in Denver for that ceremony,” Joel said. “It was more fun to do it here with a bunch of regulars around, cheering you, and having most of the staff around. It was cool to not be in a room full of mostly strangers.”
“And, coat our bodies with Threat Level: Turquoise,” James added with a laugh.
Dave was quick to share credit with his team in the brewery.
“I’d also like to say, what got us there and what’s got us where we are now, is growing our team from within,” Dave said. “We’ve got people we moved into roles who hadn’t even previously brewed or brewed that much who are now the core of our brewing staff. We had a new hire who’s helping us out a lot in our packaging and cellar operations. Not the least of which is Cary (Hubbard), our packaging manager. He’s been with us for six months or so now. He’s been a great addition to our efforts in that area. He’s definitely the most mechanically minded person we’ve had in that position.”
Just about any business can attest to going through some upheaval in staffing so far in 2021, but Ex Novo was able to roll with the constant changes.
“The beer side, it’s crazy how much we’ve seen them do this year being short staffed, one way or the other,” Joel said. “We brought a brewer down here from Portland for a month, just because we felt we had to keep the wheels turning. … The team works really hard. We are trying to get some new folks in here to help us carry into next year.”
James also noted that the sales and distribution team doubled in size this year due to the sudden increase in demand once everything opened up again.
“Early last year, distribution was terrible with everything being closed, then it opened up and we just broke records,” James said. “I think April was our best month. Then May we broke that mark. The amount of beer that has gone through that one beer is just insane. I’m just glad the wheels haven’t fallen off. We put it through the wringer.”
2022: A bumpy road lies ahead
While 2021 is ending on a high note with The Corral opening and those GABF medals, there are still issues in the background that figure to weigh heavily on Ex Novo and the rest of the industry in 2022.
When asked what is their biggest wish for the coming year, James answered for everyone: “For supply chain issues to get corrected, it’s just brutal.”
“That’s the big issue, and from what we’ve heard 2022 isn’t going to get much better,” Joel said.
Stevo provided an example that some customers might have noticed, or maybe not.
“We’ve gone through three different types of pilsner glasses in the last few months,” he said. “Hats, basic merch, things that you don’t think about.”
The bigger issues, however, are on the brewing side, and some of those are outside the control of anyone at Ex Novo, or any other individual brewery, for that matter.
“Our malt prices are going up substantially across the board, all suppliers,” Dave said. “It was such a crappy malt year. That’s not good. The whole can supply issue is huge and crippling.”
Ex Novo is one of the breweries that did respond to our questions about how the new shipment restrictions from Ball Canning are going to have a major impact, none of it good, on craft breweries in New Mexico and beyond.
The result of all these issues will be felt in 2022.
“New Mexicans, be prepared to pay a little more for your beer in the years to come, and don’t think it’s anybody’s greed, we’re not even close to passing along the costs,” Joel said. “Not even close; we’re absorbing most of it, we’re just doing a little bit of the change to avoid bleeding out. People need to understand that breweries have a slim margin as it is, and we can’t keep absorbing 30-percent cost increases.”
To reduce a little stress on Dave and Joel, there are plans afoot to transition the former into more of a management role by bringing in a new head brewer to handle more of that load.
“Yeah, if we find the right person to step into the boots, for sure,” Dave said. “In time, I’m not expecting to happen overnight. We’ve had a few applicants so far. I’m just waiting to see who’s the right choice. I’m not going to bring someone in just to bring someone in. I think that’s a good move, and I appreciate the idea from Joel about doing that, so he can let some things go and attend to other things, or not attend to other things. He’s got three other businesses and a growing family. It’s a lot to do.”
“We just need to spread the load a little bit in general,” Joel added. “Get it to where everything that goes wrong we don’t need Dave to come in.
“I think we’re at that stage where we’re cracking 10,000 barrels next year, that gets to the point where you’re adding more layers to your brewing team. There’s a lot of things that we haven’t been able to pay attention to, so I’m hoping for the right hire there, the right mix.”
James said they are considering an expansion, of sorts, by adding more brewing tanks to the mix to help with getting to that 10,000 mark. Otherwise, there are not any active plans to break out the construction hats in 2022.
“We’re shopping for tanks, but that’s not much of a physical project, it’s just finding room for everything that’s in there,” Joel said.
Last year, Joel did say that they were potentially in the market for an offsite taproom, but it was not a high priority amidst the COVID restrictions at the time.
“We’re still kicking the tires on an offsite taproom,” Joel said. “Farther away from here, but that’s been a really slow burn for a long time. That’s fine, it’s not something that we’re going to rush into. It could fall apart tomorrow and I’m not going to lose any sleep over that. If it’s perfect, we’re going to do it. But, I don’t even know if that’s a 2022 thing.”
Joel said that Ex Novo and Premier Distributing are working together better than ever, and that could see more packaged offerings reaching shelves beyond the taproom. There is also the possibility of limited distribution in other states, but that will not be a major focus in 2022.
“It’s going to be all about Corrales and this property that we still haven’t scratched the surface with what this place can be, and how many people still haven’t been here,” Joel said. “It’s special. There’s nothing like it beer-wise in the Albuquerque metro.
“We’ve not even really promoted much about this at all, but we’ve got a lot of events getting booked out here. We want to do the Lagerhosen Festival here next year. That’s an invitational kind of thing for nationwide lager powerhouses to come. We tabled that last year. Should we do it? Dang it, another canceled festival. Now that this is open, I think we can do it.”
The Corral could also be the host venue for something that has been put off since the pandemic arrived.
“I’m excited to start working on our first anniversary party that we still haven’t had,” Stevo said. “We were going to have bands, we were going big, and then COVID hit. We’re going to do our first anniversary party for year three in 2022.”
On the beer side, Dave said they will keep things as fresh and interesting as possible, while continuing to roll out the best sellers of days past.
“I don’t know of anything changing on the core level, but we’re going to be putting out as many different things throughout the year as needed,” he said. “We’re keeping the IPAs, hazy IPAs, and lagers. It’s good to see everyone liking that lager beers here, especially that (Ruminator) doppelbock, we’ve got another batch of that coming out in a little bit.”
Another 2021 project that went well, and should continue, is Stay Goalden, the collaboration beer with New Mexico United. There may be some tweaks coming, however.
“I get on and off with that brand when I’m looking at numbers,” James said. “I don’t know how it’s going to do through the winter. We’ve discussed maybe doing a facelift for next season. I think it was good for us to change gears and do a neat little collab.”
The charitable element of the beer has also been important, raising funds for the Somos Unidos Foundation.
“We’re at $7,000 so far,” Joel said. “It’s been a steady pace so far, or it seems like it. You guys covered that when it came out, it was a really organic partnership. It was a fun one to be part of, really fun to be at matches and see that as the local craft option in cans.”
Overall, Ex Novo made it through 2021, and while there are going to be many challenges ahead, there is at least a sense of optimism that there is a light at the end of this long pandemic tunnel.
A huge thanks to Joel, Dave, James, and Stevo for this interview.
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