The first time I met Leah Black was when she was slinging beers at the long-gone Hallenbrick Brewing, where she was gutting through the process of pouring brews despite a broken wrist suffered recently on the ski slopes of Northern New Mexico. Then, months later, there she was, sans air cast, doing the same at La Cumbre Brewing, back during the uncomfortable-barrels-as-tables days.
Over time, she came to be the point person to talk to about all things event-wise/promotion-wise at La Cumbre, and then it was down to take the same role for marketing and events at Marble. While we were professional colleagues, we were also friends, and there were plenty of times where Leah would be amused watching her boyfriend, Wayne, and I try to determine who was worse at shooting pool (for the record, Wayne is still leading in head-to-head matchups), or we would all just sit around and drink local beer and talk about music, despite our very different preferred genres, or just life, the universe, and everything.
When Leah took over as executive director of the New Mexico Brewers Guild in the spring of 2019, we somehow ended up seeing each other less and yet more often. There were more interviews and less just hanging out, so on one hand, the news that she is wrapping up her tenure in that job should be good for our friendship, but on the other, I will miss having someone who is easy to reach out to in that important role for our craft beer industry.
For one final time, we sat down over beers at Boxing Bear Firestone as reporter and executive director, going over her time in the big chair during the most tumultuous period not only in the history of the Guild, but arguably for the entire world.
“It’s so weird,” Leah said. “It’s not so definite yet, it doesn’t feel so definite. It’s kind of diluted, the Band-Aid pulling away from my wound, because I really want to usher in the next person, the next ED, in a really good way for the success of the Guild to continue. So I’m not going anywhere right away.”
Yes, there is a new executive director coming in, but that will be a story for later. This is the look back without the look ahead, so on we went.
“Honestly, I think I mentioned this long ago, I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into with this role anyway, because it’s a lot of (different) things,” Leah said. “I had to learn new skillsets which I’m so grateful for. It’s amazing the things I’ve learned. But, just as a I started to feel more confident about this role, and learn what it was about, then COVID hit, about a year in. What is this? And, how were we to know that it was going to last two years? Who knows how long COVID is going to last?
“Man, I’m definitely glad I didn’t know anything. All of us probably say that. It’s just such a learning experience. I believe we should always to try to figure out what we can learn from situations. And, I have a long list of things that I’m grateful for having to face and learn and pivot, grow my skillsets.”
Basically, executive director is a hard job in normal times. It is promoting, and organizing events, and balancing budgets, and working with lobbyists and other government officials, and communicating with a wide range of people scattered across the fifth largest state in land area in the country.
Oh, hey, and then along comes a global pandemic.
“Yeah, that’s really what it was,” Leah said. “Just learning the normal role of executive director for the Brewers Guild (was hard enough), but then learning what was going on with the CDC, the state, Alcohol Beverage Control, the whole world, and then trying to figure out what was right to disseminate information to our Guild members, and to guide them. When I was like, ‘Who’s guiding me?’ I can say it now that I’m on the way out. It was a scary time, it was a lot of uncertainties. I did the best I could.”
It sounds like a tough job, but it was also a rewarding job at times. As with most professional gigs, it is the people involved who can make it fun, and sometimes not.
“I’m definitely going to miss the relationships that I’ve formed,” Leah said. “I have so many great (ones), and hopefully those things will continue. We always say that, but things do change. You move on and everyone gets busy. I’m going to miss just the people, my friends that I’ve connected with, in other cities, too, not just here in Albuquerque. I can’t tell you how many times that certain brewers that we text to each other how are you doing, way down in Alamogordo, up in Los Alamos, way up in Raton. There are so many relationships that I’ve made that I really will miss regularly talking to. I might be bugging them still when I leave.
“I guess the thing that I won’t miss is, I don’t want to scare my person coming in, but just the pressure. I just really take it seriously. I’m trying to make this Guild the best it can be. And, when you care a lot about something, you never feel like you’re doing good enough. I guess that’s a feeling I’m not going to miss. I just never want to let any of the breweries down, and during the COVID times it was hard not to feel like that. That feeling of am I doing enough, I’m not going to miss that.”
Digging into the specific stuff, one of the hardest tasks was organizing an IPA Challenge in the midst of the shutdown days of 2020. Rather than cancel it outright, Leah and the board of directors agreed to create a take-home version. It was easier said than done.
“I think the cans topped it all,” she said. “It was such a brand-new thing from the mechanics of canning it in an anonymous way to working with CNM. They were amazing. Nick (Jones) and Victoria (Sanchez Martinez) at CNM were so important in that. Coming up with the supplies, the cans, the labels. Me, just driving all over the state delivering the beer. It was a lot, yeah, I think that was probably, as far as like, not emotionally, but it just the full-on (scale) of it. IPAC 2020 was really intense.”
Before COVID were some of the good times, such as when Leah and the board of directors would take trips to the outlying parts of the states to visit the breweries far removed from Albuquerque and Santa Fe. There were also the opportunities to meet their counterparts from around the country at the big national events.
“When we go to the Great American Beer Festival or CBC (Craft Brewers Conference) and meeting with what we called the ‘guildies’ from across the nation,” she said. “Getting to meet them, party and drink beers with them, but figure out that you’re not alone, and that they have these problems, too, in Wisconsin, in California, and Maine. And, it’s really cool to get together with our board of directors where we get to cut loose and not have an official meeting, and ‘guildies’ from across the nation and we get to cut loose and say, ‘Oh, you face this problem, too? How did you handle it?’ I love that camaraderie, that’s probably the (most fun) thing about this job.”
After organizing the return of an in-person NMIPAC this fall, the last task for Leah was to set up the return of WinterBrew in Santa Fe, which is now set for January 22 at a new locale.
“Due to the current climate of this worldwide pandemic, the board got together, (and) we agreed that as much as we love the farmer’s railyard market, it is much too crowded for what’s going on now,” she said. “We are going to have WinterBrew outside in a larger venue thanks to Santa Fe Brewing Company. It’s going to be really cool. It’s going to be cozy, and there’s going to be space heaters.
“We’re a nonprofit after all, so our events are the hugest part of our fundraising, for our ability to carry on, so we’ve got to have some sort of events. We just want to do it in the most responsible and thoughtful way moving forward. Because who knows how long this is going to last?”
Tickets are now available online, FYI. Bundle up and head north, people, because regardless of where it is at, WinterBrew is one of the best beer festivals of the year.
While the new executive director will be running the show by then, Leah has plenty lined up to keep herself busy.
“Since March of 2021, I picked up a contract with the City of Albuquerque Solid Waste Department,” she said. “I’ve been doing marketing and consulting with them, because trash is not sexy or fun to talk about, and they were told to up their social media game. So I came in and we created this fun campaign. There’s one called Talkin’ Trash Tuesdays, and there’s one called Keep Burque Clean Fairies. We are just having fun. They’re campy, silly videos, trying to educate the public how to recycle better, how to just be better consumers. And, how to better see what our solid waste employees do for us, because they’re amazing. If they didn’t work for one day, it would be insane.”
For the most part, Leah will be working on her own terms.
“Leah Black Consulting is (also) in full effect. I just picked up another contract with the mayor’s office. I’m going to be helping them market new initiatives that will be launched in the new year. I can’t talk about any of those yet, but it’s fun and I’m getting to be creative, which I love. I’m a natural promoter, so I believe in the product or service.
“I’m excited to just kind of focus on one thing rather than 20 things that go into the role of ED. Just give myself a mental break and kind of pursue my passion of getting creative and bringing out the best in people.
“My freelance career has launched. It’s scary, but it’s on.”
As for the old job, I asked Leah what advice she might share with her successor.
“I would say, don’t freak out, take every task one at a time, and remember it’s all about the beer, after all,” she said. “We can’t get too serious. If anybody is giving you a hard time, or is a thorn in your side, make sure you lean on the board and say, ‘How do we react to this person?’ Because it is about the beer and it is about the camaraderie and helping to lift each other up. We are a nonprofit that’s here for the breweries. If someone is being a shithead, I’ll just say it, they need to be dealt with or not dealt with.
“You can (print) all of that, I love it. I’m on my way out, guns a blazing. I didn’t say names!”
Hey, you earned the right to say what you want, Leah. It will be nice to see you in the future without your having to say “this is off the record” anymore.
A huge thanks from all of us in the Crew for your hard work and ever-present positivity even in the face of all the world threw at you these last two years. Now go enjoy a beer or two in peace.
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