One thing about this darn pandemic is that we have all learned another reason for keeping it local. Very local. We’re all staying closer to home these days, and residents in the Village of Corrales like to support their neighborhood businesses. That’s a good thing for Casa Vieja at 4541 Corrales Road. Owner Gary Socha said their sales are up 300 percent.
But, Gary said, it is too hard to predict what days the brewery will be slammed, and what days it will be nearly empty. That makes it hard to know how to staff. There are essentially three things at play, he said. They invested money in their internet presence, and that paid off. Then, there is certainly word of mouth. Finally, they built a reputation with their COVID-safe practices. Their clients are very cautious, and it’s a big deal.
Gary said his whole career has been in small business, and he has always been adept at being able to pivot, but he has never had to pivot on a daily basis before. It is both the most challenging and most interesting thing about this odd time we live in. Gary said his crystal ball is not only cloudy, it is broken and he is looking for the pieces.
So, speaking of not knowing how to staff, Gary did say it is hard to get and keep staff. But, their customers are so loyal, they will usually find him people or just start working there themselves. It literally takes a village. They are working on developing a manager for Casa Vieja, and have hired someone for that.
It has been extremely busy for events, although that may seem counterintuitive, but they had to do make-up events for all the people who postponed. With that many events, and constantly having to move furniture in, and back out, and around, it’s just a lot. So, as far as looking forward this year goes, Gary said he hopes to just concentrate more on serving drinks. They got all the weddings done they needed to do. But, they have developed unusual smaller groups that they can count on, like a tractor club of 15 to 20 people. They have tractor shows. And, he gave kudos to the brewing staff (which I would just like to note includes himself) for keeping them well stocked in beer throughout the craziness.
Events can be tricky, Gary said. They had a CD release party, for instance, for a local musician that turned out to be much more than they thought it would be. The musician had a large following. Their normal number of customers tripled that night. At that point, they thought they probably shouldn’t do that, because they are not set up for it. A single performer is about right. There can be no amplified music in the Village. One night, Gary’s daughter (and co-owner) Maria’s phone was lighting up telling them to turn down the music. Well, they had an acoustic guy with a violin. So, it was doubtful that was annoying anybody. It turns out another business down the street was having a big party and they had a DJ.
For the first time, Gary reported the State of New Mexico wanted proof that they were doing the minimum number of barrels when they were in their license renewal process. It was the first time Gary actually stopped to calculate it. Turns out it was a no-brainer; not any problem at all. When he looks back at their model that they started with, they could have been fine with a little 5-gallon fermenter, making a batch a week and it would have been enough. Not anymore; the volume has increased dramatically, well beyond the 50-barrels-per-year requirement.
Adding cocktails has produced a very surprising result, Gary said. Some people were drinking the beer and/or wine Casa Vieja carried because they had no other options. It was not necessarily because they wanted to, but now people are very happy with having the choice of a cocktail. Now it’s kind of like a three-legged stool. And, their staff are all capable of making their cocktails to the standards they have to meet. They are all over it and fight to make them up to par. They are also happy with the support they get from their distributor.
Speaking of being able to pivot, Gary said he found one interesting solution to a supply chain issue. They don’t have the equipment to deal with pallets of cans. By the time he pays staff to unpack, repack, store, etc., any savings from buying by the pallet is lost. He can go to secondary sources and buy already packaged cans. Gary also said he has run into some supply issues on specialty items, such as certain malts he might want to use for a style of beer. They tried a special malt for a beer they really ended up liking, but after that first shipment, they couldn’t get any more.
This holiday season’s Naughty & Nice barrel-aged stout in bottles, in my opinion, was the best beer Casa Vieja has ever made. Gary said he thinks they will probably do more barrel-aged releases because they are so popular, but he doesn’t like the idea of having to move more heavy stuff around.
The food trucks parked outside are super popular; however, they don’t always show up. I guess you could say that’s a kind of supply chain issue on its own. Customers also love the variety; it’s not like a restaurant with the same standard menu. Gary said his customers want to sit for a while, and have a leisurely meal with their drinks. Add some music, and it makes for a whole night out. So, it becomes Casa Vieja’s issue when food trucks don’t show up, even though it has nothing to do with them.
The Socha family are, quite simply, some of the nicest people I have ever met on my “beer journey” through life. Gary literally cut his golf game from 18 holes to nine, just so he could be there for this interview when I came over. You can’t beat the setting, either. The Village locals seem to agree.
Here’s to another year of continued success as we all pivot, shift, deal with ever-changing rules, surges, weird weather (Casa Vieja does have great patio heaters, and lovely blankets for sale!) and who knows what else. Thanks to Gary and Maria, as well as the super-friendly staff for the unequaled hospitality once again.
Cheers to keeping up our spirits!