Sometimes, the smallest things can make a big difference, even for breweries. Such was the case in 2021 for Thirsty Eye Brewing, where one small improvement in the brewing process helped them endure the many ups and downs of the pandemic.
I sat down with co-owner Kim Arthun, his wife and general manager Jo Sloan, and head brewer John Kofonow on a sunny morning on the back patio to discuss it all for the latest latest entry in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
“Well, I think the first half (of 2021) was just survival mode, pretty much, where we went from only being open out here to slowly opening up inside,” Arthun said. “I think the fall has been great. All in all, I think we came through it pretty good. I know we’ve talked before about how as small as we are, and we were able to with just the owners keep this thing rolling over the shutdowns and all of that kind of stuff. We’ve shepherded every penny we have. We’re in pretty good shape at the end of the year here.”
A big part of that came from the brewing side of the operation.
“On the brewing side, I spent a lot of the year, for me production was steady,” Kofonow said. “At one point I was able to have 11 beers on tap, which was a record for us. That was 11 plus a nitro tap of one of them, so 12, I guess. It was so consistent and steady (that) I was able to do some really process-oriented refinements.
“Not to get too nerdy for too long, but I finally through a combination of factors got a 10-percent increase in my mash efficiency. Which is great, because fewer ingredients needed for that grist, and more reliable results, as well. I spent a lot of time on processes like that, because things were steady for me, but I wasn’t having to scramble to catch up on brands on tap. I was able to put a lot of time into that and it really paid off for us with that mash efficiency this time. I’ve got some other stuff to look at in this upcoming year.”
While that isn’t normally something that people would notice, Kofonow said he felt that customers could taste the difference.
“A lot of that led to really good results that I don’t think I actually would have pulled off a couple of our really special beers late this year without getting that process refined,” he said. “The Huning Highlander Scotch Ale that we did debuted at Beer Premier, and we’re just finishing up (the batch) now. I needed to get a really good efficiency so I could get that beer’s starting gravity as high as I needed it and I could still get a good enough yield that it would be worthwhile. It worked out.”
Kofonow was also able to brew up some double IPAs and other styles that he did not in the past. Thirsty Eye was able to throw a little party for its 100th batch of beer, which may not sound too impressive at first, but for such a small brewery operating during a global pandemic, it was worth celebrating. The party also marked two anniversaries that otherwise were obscured by COVID.
“We got to celebrate our combined two-year anniversary/100th batch of beer party which was a lot of fun,” Kofonow said. “It was great to finally celebrate that. The pandemic took away both of our anniversary parties, really. It was finally at a low enough spot that we were like, OK, we can party with a pizza food truck on the back patio.”
Thirsty Eye has produced 37 unique recipes so far in its short time, and Kofonow said that with luck, they will hit 50 by the end of 2022. There will also be some returning seasonal favorites, like the Father O’Malley’s Holy Water Dry Irish Stout and another batch of Bruiser the American Pitbull Stout.
“If we hit 50 this year, I’ll be really excited,” Kofonow said. “We’ve been doing some crazy stuff. Last year, our surprise hit was the kumquat blonde ale. People have been asking for another fruited blonde, so we’ll definitely have that this year.”
Thirsty Eye also entered some beer competitions for the first time, including cracking the final field of the New Mexico IPA Challenge, as well as the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
“We entered five beers into that in 2021,” Kofonow said of GABF. “We got really good feedback. A really good result for me is to get really actionable feedback from those judges. Our honey wheat and our stout, Bruiser, both went on to the second rounds in the judging, and we’re going to be doing GABF again and World Beer Cup. We’re going to find another smaller regional competition or two to do as well. The feedback is too invaluable and I think our beer is good enough to put on the line against others.”
Making it into the last 16 of the NMIPAC was a big feat, as well.
“I was very impressed that in the first round with the brewers (judging) you came in fifth,” Arthun told Kofonow.
As for the tougher part of the year, the supply chain disruption has not hit Thirsty Eye too hard, though the increase in prices of ingredients was certainly felt. The poor barley crop/harvest in the Pacific Northwest has not had an effect yet, but Kofonow said he is prepared to deal with any issues that might arise.
“Prices have gone up across the board, especially for grain,” he said. “That’s hit us. We’re able to absorb it easily because of that mash efficiency bump. That’s keeping the cost of a recipe down from where it was originally. I’ve yet to see an effect based on the specs of the malt provided. It will be interesting to see how efficiency changes, and some of the character changes from our supplier versus some of the other suppliers country wide. There was a problem with the season of malted barley, but some regions of the country and Canada got it worse than others. Our supplier is telling us that their own product was not as severely hit as some of the others. I’m going to be doing some tests when we get our next couple deliveries of malts and just confirming that things are consistent.”
Thirsty Eye has not needed to replace/repair any of its equipment in the brewery or behind the bar, which has helped. Arthun said that they have not had an issue ordering crowlers or labels.
On an even more positive note, Thirsty Eye was able to see the return of events and the full reopening of Gallery 208 next door.
“Huge, I mean for us, the gallery … we built the brewery to support the gallery, but it’s amazing how much the gallery supports the brewery,” Arthun said. “We sold one painting Friday night, but it made for a $7000 night. That’s great, and we’ve brought back most of our music. We have some spoken word that’s coming back.”
Sloan said that they cut back on pop-up markets and the like, which keeps things more simplified for the front-of-house staff. They are also generally keeping events only on weekends.
“Fridays and Saturdays (only), weeknights we decided to leave more casual,” Kofnow said. “Because that’s one of the great things about the ambience at Thirsty Eye’s taproom, you can have a conversation and you don’t have TVs blaring down on you. We wanted to leave that effect.”
Thirsty Eye has remained closed to the public on Sundays, but they have held private events ranging from album release parties to birthdays and anniversary parties. Interested groups and individuals can contact the brewery to see about setting things up in the future.
For the most part, the outlook on 2022 is a positive one for everyone at Thirsty Eye.
“I’ve got 12 months of shows lined up, probably our strongest 12 months I’ve ever put together, so as long as the asteroid doesn’t hit or whatever,” Arthun said. “I think our biggest change is that we’ve got a retired high school principal managing this thing, keeping it on a steady line.”
Sloan deflected her husband’s praise, while Kofonow noted that the bar staff has been key for keeping customers coming back.
“I feel like one of the best things that’s happened during the pandemic, it started in the end of 2020 but really strengthened in 2021, was the front-of-house staff that came in,” Kofonow said. “We have an amazing front-of-house staff. They’ve made this place better.”
“They’re very consistent, responsible,” Sloan added.
Sloan said she has not had any issues dealing with suppliers that they need to keep the taproom humming.
“All my suppliers and everything, they’ve been really wonderful and cooperative and flexible because we’re not open as much,” she said. “They’re very flexible with deliveries. They’ve been a nice group to work with. There’s been a lot of change in them.”
The trio also praised their long-time Friday night food truck, Steam Q, for sticking with the brewery throughout the pandemic, and always making sure to find a replacement truck if they could not be there.
Speaking of working with others, Kofonow said he is excited to do more with other breweries around town in 2022.
“I have talked this past year to a couple of the brewers at smaller places around town for this upcoming year doing some collaborations,” Kofonow said. “We should finally see collabs take off. I just have to make sure to check obscure social media instant messages a little sooner. I missed the initial ones last year. That will be really exciting. Being in the New Mexico brewing community is very collaborative just by nature, and supportive. Getting to work with some of our friends’ places and do some collabs is going to be a big next step for us, brewing wise.”
All in all, Thirsty Eye has kept its proverbial head above the floodwaters, and should hopefully be in for some smoother sailing this year. A big thanks to Kim, Jo, and John for meeting up long before opening hours, and for brewery dog Oscar being patient with everyone while we talked.
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