Ponderosa head brewer Antonio Fernandez is not the kind of person who looks at a pint glass as half empty. Even in a year where things felt like they were far emptier than just halfway, he and the team at the Sawmill District brewpub managed to remain upbeat and cautiously optimistic for 2022.
After having interviewed staff members at larger production breweries so far, it was interesting to get the perspective of someone at a smaller brewpub.
“Well, obviously we’ve been having a lot of the same challenges that everyone else did,” Fernandez said. “Being a brewpub without really distribution and packaging for the most part, the beginning of the year still started out with no indoor dining, only to-go at that time. We weren’t doing a whole lot of business, just to-go food and growlers, which was an issue. Our growlers haven’t been in steady supply for two years now. Which has been an issue, of course. We had to use the plastic growlers here and there, then plain ones, and then the logo ones, they told us they’d canceled half our orders. We’re talking six-to-eight-week delays.
“That was a tough time, for sure, but we made it work. Mostly it was just Donna (Akers), our GM, and the kitchen manager here for a lot that time, day in and day out. They’ve really gone above and beyond these last two years. They’ve worked seven days a week, just two people in the building to keep things going.”
When things opened up again in May, a new challenge emerged.
“That’s been another issue, too, staffing,” Fernandez said. “We’ve been having the same problem as everyone else getting kitchen staff, in particular. The good news is now we’re a fully staffed up kitchen. So I think we’re about ready to expand our kitchen hours back to normal. We’ve pretty much expanded our food menu to what it was before the pandemic. There are a couple things that are still off because we’re having trouble sourcing a couple of ingredients on the regular. That has had to go on the back burner as well.
“Front-of-house staff, we’re still lean, but we have plenty of people to cover what we need. In-house numbers are variable, still. During the week it seems like we’ll have really good lunches some days and have very little business in the evenings sometimes, or vice versa. Weekends have been pretty full, pretty much at capacity Friday through Sunday. It’s not 100 percent of the day, but it’s decent business. With reduced staff and everything else, it’s actually working pretty well, profits wise. We can’t complain on that front too much.”
While things have gone up and down out front, Fernandez has been handling everything on the brewing side of the operation.
“For me, of course, it’s been challenging because I’ve been the only one here at all now,” he said. “There were a couple of people that I used to have help me off and on in the brewery, doing things like deliveries to our taproom and washing kegs. They’ve since moved on to other industries and things like that. I don’t know if it’s mostly me being better at multitasking and time management, actually getting things done all by myself, it hasn’t been too bad. We’re not having to brew as much beer as we did two years ago. All though, the summer was pretty crazy, we were brewing more beer than our 2019 numbers. We had really good trends. I’m looking forward to that, good business coming back at some point when we’re past this. There’s a lot of hope going forward.”
Even the issues with the global supply chain failed to put a dent in Fernandez’s optimism.
“Luckily, we didn’t have to deal with too many of the supply chain issues for the brewery,” he said. “A lot of the malts were either American or I was in order-in-advance mode more than before with the German ones. I didn’t have to push back any releases more than a week due to a lack of supplies, so that was nice. Everything is just slower now. I just know I need to order my next malt order three days in advance from when I need it, but now it’s more like two weeks. More logistics, just making sure you’re prepared and can’t put things off until the last minute anymore. You have to have more adaptability with specials and seasonals now.”
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the year was when Ponderosa won its first medal, a gold, no less, at the 2021 Great American Beer Festival for its Italian Pilsner.
“Definitely a couple highlights this past year, winning the GABF medal was a great accomplishment,” Fernandez said. “I was really, really proud of that beer. It’s a beer I’ve brewed every year, so I was really happy that it was the one that won. We got a lot of good feedback from everyone that came by to drink it. I was bouncing off the walls for a while with that. We had a nice little party on the patio to celebrate that, so it was a lot of fun. That same beer just won for best pilsner in Albuquerque the Magazine.”
One plan that Fernandez told us about last year is just now finally getting going.
“The other big project for this past year has been getting our distillery operation up and running,” he said. “That was the one variable where the supply chain really got us. We got our distilling license back in February, so we ordered all of our equipment immediately, and lo and behold it finally showed up in October. After a long, long, long, long, long delay, and bad communication, and all that, it’s all here. The funny thing, too, was the one last snafu with it, we got it all done with the paperwork, but someone checked the wrong box and it got shipped to the billing address, which was my boss’ house in Portland, instead of here. It took a cross country trip to Portland before making it down to Albuquerque. It’s a well-traveled still, for sure.”
After figuring out how to realign the brewery area to fit the still, Fernandez has worked through a few test batches.
“I’m hoping it won’t be too long, but it’s depending on label approval and all of that stuff,” he said. “We hope to have a product reveal before we start selling in our taprooms. Hopefully when we have enough supply for our places we might look into doing limited retail or wholesale.”
The end of the year brought bad news for the industry in terms of the barley and hop harvests, but for a place the size of Ponderosa, Fernandez said he was not too worried yet about it will play out in 2022.
“The main thing is we’ve been notified of the price increases already,” he said. “We’re not contracted on malt, it’s by the pallet. It’s going up this many cents per pound, so that cuts into any profit margins immediately. As a brewer I haven’t gotten any of the new lots yet. I am extremely concerned with what the quality is going to be like. The maltsters are really good about working with what they have. It’s not the first time they’ve gone through this.
“That was one of the things I know that killed a lot of craft breweries in the 90s. That was the first time they dealt with the malt quality problem. Those breweries had been making good beer and all of a sudden crappy malt came out and they started making bad beer. There’s a lot of things you can do on a brew-by-brew basis. It’s going to take some intricate work to make sure things stay a bit level. That won’t happen until I get that malt in, until I can taste it and see how it actually performs.”
Different breweries have told us that they are either not worried about the hop crop, or that they are quite worried.
“Hops, I don’t know, I’ve heard conflicting things about if there’s going to be a smoke tint, but a lot of them are claiming it’s not going to be an issue at all with it,” Fernandez said. “I know it affected harvest times. Some hops, especially Citra and Mosaic, the aroma profile changes pretty dramatically if it’s early, middle or late season for the harvest, and that threw off their whole timing schedule with the excessive heat. We might need a brew or so to get things adjusted and get back to where it was.”
The most important thing is making sure the year-round beers are all brewed to the same specifications every time.
“Dealing with the six house beers, I want those to taste the same pretty much whenever someone comes in month to month,” Fernandez said. “The seasonals, you can play around with. The customers, there’s always one that says it doesn’t taste like last year’s batch anyway, so it doesn’t matter what you do, they’re never going to be happy. You don’t worry about those ones too much. I don’t do too many seasonals year after year, just a few like the Oktoberfest. I’d rather keep moving forward, trying new things.”
Fernandez said there are a couple plans set for Ponderosa in 2022, though one has been delayed a bit, and the other is likely to happen later in the year.
“There was a big wrench thrown into things a few weeks ago,” he said. “After the GABF win, we were working on getting the Italian Pilsner into cans and out into distribution. The Blood Orange Double Wit has done really well the last couple years for us. It was contract brewed, but for us it’s a lot, we did 300 cases a month, so our distributor wants us to add a second year-round brand. My idea was to go with that beer, because it’s delicious and craft lagers are the up and up kind of style this year. I thought that would be a nice one to get in there.
“Then we had to deal with the cans, the supply, the cost, (and) we had a lot of trouble with our labels. We had to switch our label companies because of the cost and the delays. I’m not actually sure where we are on that now. It’s going be a while longer until we can get that out into the market. But, we’re definitely looking to get a second brand out in cans and then do rotating seasonals.”
A gold medal winner in cans? Yeah, we look forward to that.
“That’s one of the big plans,” Fernandez added. “That one is always I’m hot and cold about it, because I don’t get to follow that process through 100 percent, (so) I don’t feel quite as connected to it. But in here, I know I’m going to keep making beer. Our numbers are getting better. We did see a bump in business after the GABF win. That brought attention to us. That was definitely a benefit. It did help us.”
The other project is more of an actual brick-and-mortar variety.
“We do have plans for another taproom opening up in 2022,” Fernandez said. “Our owner is revamping another Route 66 motel, the Imperial, up on Central just west of I-25, across from Holy Cow. It’s going to be part hotel, part condos, and they’re doing another mixed-use in there. We’re going to put in another taproom to anchor it. We’re hoping to rebuild and revitalize the neighborhood around there like we did with El Vado.”
Construction is underway, but Fernandez said he did not know how far along things are at the moment. There is no pending offsite small brewer license yet, so it will be a while.
In the end, it sounds like Ponderosa has been through the toughest stretch of the pandemic (knock on wood) and has come out of it winning awards and looking to expand its footprint. We will take any and all good news these days. A big thanks to Antonio for taking the time to chat just before Christmas, and for sharing a pint of the upcoming helles lager that was downright delicious.
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