Steel Bender navigates through one hard year with more challenges ahead

Steel Bender’s leadership team, from left, of Bob Haggerty, Shelby Chant, Adam Auden, and Ethan Chant. They’re smiling under their masks, we promise.

The usually cheerful disposition of the Steel Bender Brewyard command staff was tested again and again in 2021. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has read our recent entries in the annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series, but it can be tough to see the effects of this year borne out on the faces of some of the more positive upbeat members of our local beer scene.

Despite all that, there were still moments of silliness, random pop culture references, and an underlying sense of cautious optimism as I met with co-owner Ethan Chant, co-owner/marketing director Shelby Chant, director of brewing operations Bob Haggerty, and sales manager Adam Auden in the recently-opened brewers lounge inside the brewery building.

We started back at the beginning of 2021, which everyone agreed was basically just 2020, part deux.

“Where were we in January 2021? Cold as hell, hard to get people to sit on the patio,” Shelby said. “We were not open inside yet, correct? We were still reeling.”

“We were trying to navigate — everyone had this problem, I think — hiring was still difficult, because we were uncertain if we’d be shut down or more was going to happen,” Ethan said. “We were hopeful because the vaccine was being approved and being distributed. But, it was still just being unsure. We tried to cover our bases and assess our resources. I guess everyone went through this same thing. It was nothing new.”

Then, almost as abruptly as it all hit a year earlier, the majority of restrictions were lifted in late May/early June, and Steel Bender joined the rest of the breweries in pivoting yet again. At least the brewery had the experience of the previous year-plus to fall back upon.

“I think the advantage we had at that stage was we had a previous year’s worth of being nimble,” Adam said. “We were always trying to be on a footing of being able to pivot. It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t easy. We’ve come to expect the unexpected instead of business as usual. That initial transition from business as usual into the unknown was a very difficult one. But, when you plan the whole business around not knowing what’s coming next, that leaves you cautious.”

“I think we’re all still in that mindset,” Bob said. “When you ask how was it to open up in May and how did that go, I think the more appropriate question is how is that going, because that’s still the same since May. It’s not as if we’ve come to an even footing where we can say we can start planning on things. We have had that sort of mindset since it went from zero to 60. Now we’re going 60, hold on everybody. We may stop again or we may go 90, but nobody is real comfortable in the position we’re in right now, so we’re planning accordingly.”

The taproom went from mostly empty early in the year, as seen here, to abruptly being fully open a third of the way through 2021.

Steel Bender is somewhat unique among the larger production breweries in New Mexico in that it is also a brewpub with a full kitchen. That leaves it with a whole different set of challenges than, say, La Cumbre or Marble.

“I think the two different aspects of the business, the taproom here, we’re still shy of 16 hours of being open every week,” Shelby said. “Our goal was to try to not close one day (a week). That was really important. We were going to have to make decisions, what was the best-case scenario, what was the worst-case scenario, which decisions would be made that would make the least impact on the customer. We didn’t want someone to walk up at 1 o’clock any day of the week and for the door to be locked. This many months later and we’re still closing two hours early five nights a week and three hours early the other two nights. It’s still hard, but we’re at least open, and that’s really important to us.”

In addition to fully reopening to indoor dining, there was also the issue of starting to get the beer out in kegs to other restaurants and the bars that had long sat dormant.

“It seems from the distribution side what Mario (Caldwell) and Bill (Heimann) were able to do during so much of the shutdown and the partial openings, whether it was restaurants that were still doing takeout, whatever they were doing, Mario and Bill were able to go and just sort of gauge what these places thought they were going to be able to do when they opened up,” Shelby said. “That was a little bit helpful.”

“It gave us kind of a temperature of how things were looking,” Adam said. “I will say there are still a lot of our old friends/customers where they’re not using all the beer lines that they have. They’re keeping a more static lineup, they’re not doing a lot of specials. They’re caching against uncertainty. They’re not really sure what’s coming. They’re being cautious and conservative because they’ve been bitten before. We still have all of that. People are playing things close to the vest.”

Even as things were playing out in a seemingly positive way out in public, the global supply chain began to buckle and break behind the scenes. Bob and his staff were able to move quickly to try and preempt the chaos that was about to rain down on the entire brewing industry.

“It’s been challenging, definitely from the brewery side of things, trying to stay ahead of what was available and trying to forecast what would be and what wouldn’t be available was tricky,” Bob said. “But, we were able to do it without too much pain. Continental malts, European malts, were pretty hard to get, but I caught wind of it before it was going to happen, so I was able to load up on the things that we used on a regular basis so we kind of rode that out, especially German malts. Equipment has been the one (pain), any sort of equipment that we’ve needed from small parts and pieces to anything larger, that’s really what I’ve seen taking forever to show up.”

Supply chain disruptions have not hit the brewery too hard this year.

For the most part, Steel Bender uses malted barley grown closer to home, from Proximity Malt in Colorado and from the New Mexico Malting Project, which alleviated some of the delays and shortages seen nationally and globally.

As if the industry really needed another proverbial kick in the teeth, along came the news late in the year that the barley harvest was down in yield and quality, which will play out in the months ahead.

“I’m (not) looking forward to next year being a much more challenging year when it comes to malt, and hops, for that matter,” Bob said. “Dealing with the poor barley yields and poor quality of the barley, and then dealing with the smoke taint that we’re going to have to keep an eye out for on the hops. I think that the ingredient supply chain is going to be more challenging in the coming year than the previous.”

Bosque Brewing had noted that the price of fruit had increased by 200 percent, which can certainly impact a brewery with a fruited beer as one of its best sellers. That holds true for Steel Bender, which counts Raspberry Dynamite among its most popular brews.

“Well, we ran into some raspberry issues last year that we were able to navigate around,” Bob said. “We have a great relationship with Oregon Fruit. We’ve been buying raspberry from them, and all of our fruits, essentially, from the beginning. When I started to hear in different market reports that there was going to be a raspberry shortage, I was able to contract ahead. Yeah, we had to pay some slightly higher prices, but because of the amount we purchase, Oregon was willing to work with us.”

The supply chain hit the brewpub side of the business equally hard, if not harder.

“Restaurant side, supply issues, price increases across the board,” Shelby said. “Meat off the charts, chicken, so we did have to do, actually when we were shut down everything was to go and we did paper goods, so when paper goods went up in pricing we had to do a small price increase across the board on menu items.”

At least the issue of a low supply of available glassware turned out in the brewery’s favor.

“Glassware has been an issue,” Shelby said. “However, I think we’re happier with the glassware we have now.”

“I like the new style more than the old,” Bob added. “I think that was a happy accident.”

“There are only so many suppliers of bar ware and they gave us a warning that it was going to be rough,” Shelby said. “Between their domestic suppliers shutting down during the pandemic and even permanently shutting down overseas, they warned us that it was going to be rough to get what we needed in terms of glassware. We ended up going with something we like even better.”

“We’re going to move to serving everything in Solo cups next year,” Bob joked. “Sorry, it’s just something we have to have done. If you use our Solo cups, we insist you bring your own ping-pong balls.”

He was kidding, we promise.

Little behind-the-scenes additions like the brewer’s lounge helped with staff morale in 2021.

Even before the supply chain issues rose to prominence, Steel Bender was like every other brewery, dealing with staff issues. It found stability in one group, a lack thereof in another that came as no surprise, and then a surprising bit of turnover in another area.

“First of all, with the staffing in terms of the restaurant part, the front of house has actually been very consistent, and remains consistent,” Ethan said. “In fact, we have a stack of resumes.”

“For servers,” Shelby added. “Servers are still making good money. People are still tipping well, which is great.”

“The (kitchen) has been more challenging,” Ethan said. “But, we’ve been extraordinarily fortunate that the crew we have right now has stepped up. Their jobs are in demand, and they’ve stepped up and helped out. If someone calls in sick or something like that, people have come in on their day off, no questions asked. It’s been remarkable.”

While morale is at its highest since before the pandemic, Shelby said, there is still a need for more kitchen staff, as Ethan noted that they cannot ask their existing staff members to go above and beyond forever.

“There’s no one on deck, that’s the problem,” Shelby said. “It’s really, really hard to ask someone to come in when they’re technically not supposed to be working and we’ve got no one (else).”

The brewing team did seem some significant turnover, but ultimately the new staff has managed to quickly learn and adapt.

“Yeah, the brewery is in good shape,” Bob said. “We got Tom (Sajda) from Santa Fe Brewing to come down to head up production on the floor. That frees me up to concentrate more on high-level stuff — quality, improvement, ingredient sourcing, all that good stuff. We’re working into that role, so I’m very hopeful that in the coming year the brewery is going to be running pretty smoothly.”

With Sajda taking on the head brewer role, that has left Bob able to focus on a broader range of tasks, including training all of the other newcomers.

“Yeah, we had a bit of a turnover,” Bob said. “Sort of all at once, so we lost a lot of experience in the brewery all at once. It will come as no surprise, there’s not a lot of experienced brewers out there on the market, so we hired and we did a lot of training. We’ve been training everybody up. That has its challenges, but the bright side there is you get to mold them into exactly how you want it done, rather than how they did it at their last place. That’s been both a challenge and an opportunity for us.”

Little pieces of equipment, like this modified old grundy, helped with the many seasonal beers.

The core beer lineup did go through some changes throughout the year. Esmerelda Italian Pilsner was so popular that it became a year-round beer, while Sparkfitter Amber and Blue Bullet Stout will now be recurring specialty/seasonal offerings.

“For a while we’d release a beer and it would become so popular that folks would say oh this has to become a house beer,” Bob said. “By the time everything was said and done we were running 10 house beers, which is far too many house beers. If you run out too many house beers you don’t stay relevant and have specials out there to get people to come out and try new stuff. We had to make some hard decisions on what was selling and what wasn’t, and what made the most sense.

“For the amber and the Bullet, those aren’t gone, we’re just going to brew them less frequently. In those spots, we’re always going to have something akin to those beers. We’re always going to have a brownish, amberish malty beer than isn’t hop forward. We’re always going to have a nice smooth, moderate gravity stout or dark beer to fill that spot. Multiple times a year we’re going to brew the amber and we’re going to brew the Bullet. Those brews aren’t gone or forgotten, we’re just going to start rotating them in with some other stuff to keep it fresh.”

As someone whose parents are frequent diners at Steel Bender, and for whom the Bullet and Sparkfitter were their favorite house beers, it is at least some consolation that both will return from time to time, and the interim there will be new beers to try.

“It was a tough calculus as well, because we’re having to look at what’s working in the taproom, (and) also what’s working in distribution,” Adam said. “The results that we had, we had to concentrate on what was working best for both. It may well be that they can come back year-round at some point when things change, but right now it makes the most sense for us.”

Esmerelda was perhaps the biggest surprise of the year.

“And then, Esmerelda happened,” Shelby said. “Akin to a little darling that is Raspberry Dynamite that was supposed to be a seasonal.”

“It wasn’t even supposed to be a seasonal, it was a weird one-off that we didn’t know if it was going to work,” Adam added.

“The Esmerelda was a way to use up over-contracted hops, and now I’m scrambling to find Grüngeist and Crystal on the market, because during the pandemic everyone wanted to brew lagers again,” Bob said. “Now Crystal and Grüngeist are in high demand suddenly. Two hops that nobody wanted and now I can’t get them. We’re doing as best we can right now to try to anticipate (the demand) for Esmerelda, and we are finding that we have to plan a little bit heavier.”

Searching for silver linings while planning out 2022

The brewhouse will keep churning in 2022.

So what exactly is on deck for the coming year, even with so much uncertainty still lingering around just about every aspect of the business?

“That’s a great question,” Bob said. “I think as far as I’m concerned, we plan on doing everything the best way we can possibly do it. We focus on quality, we focus on everything we know how to do, and we do it as well as we can possibly do it. I think looking any further than that might be trying to bite off a little more than it’s really wise.

“We’re going to be dealing with, like I said, ingredient issues are going to be way more challenging in this coming year. You’ve got hops tainted by wildfire smoke. Even though we’re using Proximity and their barley wasn’t quite affected as much as some of the other major barley growers, we’re seeing a major price increase in our base malt. All malts across the board, I haven’t seen an increase in less than 15 percent in the last month, some are 15- to 30-percent increase in costs on all of our barley across the board.

“We’re going to work with what we have and we’re going to do the very best we can with that. We’re going to continue to innovate, and we’re going to continue to come out with new and exciting products, but I don’t think we’re going to rewrite the book on brewing this year.”

At the very least, Steel Bender will not have to deal with the new restrictions with Ball Canning this coming year. Just like Bosque, Steel Bender is with Admiral Beverage Distribution, which uses Crown Canning for its supply of aluminum cans.

“We are fortunate that that relationship has insulated us from the issues that people have been going through and changes at Ball,” Adam said. “I don’t know what the future looks like. We’ve been asking questions, and they’re only willing to say so much as far as what things might look like down the road. But, right now, we’re in a good position.”

As for Shelby and her team, they are already planning to liven up a taproom that has been quiet on the event front.

“Fingers crossed, we’re bringing a little bit of soul back to the taproom that’s been solely missed,” she said. “We’re hoping the first or second week of January we’ll be able to bring back Music Tuesdays. I think our poor managers are tired of hearing me beg. If we can be smart and just not burn out the kitchen staff, we hope to bring that back.

“We are doing a collaboration with Alta Mira in the spring, probably in Q1, so that will be another collaboration that will be on another pretty high scale. We’re excited to get back into festivals. I threw our hat into the ring to go to WinterBrew up in Santa Fe. I begged Leah (Black) to get us in, because we haven’t been the last couple years.”

While there is no new news on WinterBrew that we can share at the moment, Steel Bender does have a big event of its own coming up in the spring, namely the brewery’s fifth anniversary.

“Bob is brewing some nice surprises for that,” Ethan said. “Should we let it out of the bag?”

“We brewed a big barleywine the other day,” Bob said. “It just hit terminal gravity, so it’s got three months to sit and mature, but all signs point to that being a beauty. We’re doing some other similar beers, big beers over the course of this winter. I’m going to do another couple of big stouts.

“We’re going to continue to tweak and improve on our house beers. The pilot system is pretty well dialed in at this point, so we’ve been having fun making some smaller batches of beer. Kind of focusing on things that might not have a broad market appeal, but things we can play around with and stretch a bit more.”

Other current and upcoming seasonals range from the just-tapped Jazz Flute IPA, made with pineapple and guava, to a ruby mild that has Adam rather excited, as it would for any proper Englishman.

The west end of the building under construction across the parking lot will become a commissary and possibly a package to-go pickup site for customers in 2022.

Then, on top of everything else, Ethan offered up this bit of rather major news.

“There’s a plan, I don’t know if you want to put this in there, but I think it’s kind of interesting,” Ethan said. “Right now we’re planning on opening up another location, but we’re still in negotiations with the land (owner), so we can’t tell you where that it is. But, it’s really exciting for us.”

“That planning started before the shutdown,” Shelby added.

“Yeah, the initial planning,” Ethan replied. “It’s still here and it’s still moving forward, at this point a lot more aggressively. But, until they start building (mum is the word).”

Yes, I eventually got to learn the location, but was sworn to secrecy. Let me just say that if it does happen, and something else being talked about gets built nearby also happens, it will be a wonderful confluence. (Was that the cruelest/most vague teaser we have ever posted? Probably.)

To make a second location work, there will also have to be something new within the existing complex in Los Ranchos.

“And then, across the (parking lot) in this development, because we’re doing a second location, we have to build a commissary,” Ethan said. “We have to carve out a chunk of the building across the way. We’re toying around with the idea of just putting in that’s where our package to-go would be, and putting in a small, five-person bar for people to have a beer and buy a six-pack. Something easy that’s nothing complicated. Steel Bender Express.”

As a final note, Shelby added that the Pink Boots Society’s New Mexico chapter collaboration beer will be brewed and canned at Steel Bender in March. Remembering that, in turn, led Shelby to wonder why I had not asked everyone what their favorite beer of the year was, as I had done in the 2020-21 edition of this series (it was an effort to bring some positivity to what was, at the time, a very gloomy series of articles).

“Well, I have three,” Shelby said. “I’m totally cheating, I don’t care! There has to be a silver lining of the last 19 months. Without a doubt, the barrel-aged Black is Beautiful is actually one of my all-time favorite beers that we’ve done, ever. Amelia, the Belgian quad, for sure, and Esmerelda, because it’s just dangerously drinkable.”

After lightly chiding his wife for picking three, Ethan named his favorite, which did not come as a surprise to anyone.

“For this year, Big E, I’m partial,” he said of his namesake double IPA. “See what I did there? One beer!”

While Adam scoured his phone to remember everything that was released in 2021, Bob was quick to add his top two.

“I think the Amelia, for me, and the Norwegian Would, those were my two favorites,” Bob said. “I loved that Norwegian Would. I thought that beer was fantastic. I just love the simplicity of that beer, the simplicity of the ingredients and the complexity of the finished product.”

“I have a tie, I think this year’s Oktoberfiesta was really fantastic, I drank copious amounts to be sure,” Adam said. “And the Bulldog Bitter was just a delightful taste of home for me. It was really, really good.”

Once again, it was a blast to be back with the leadership team at Steel Bender, so I pass along a huge thanks to Shelby, Ethan, Bob, and Adam for taking the time to sit down over a pint of Jazz Flute and discuss all things Steel Bender. Oh, and for the, ahem, holiday gifts that I got to take home for the Crew to enjoy at our annual Festivus party.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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