Marble Brewery refocuses its efforts on planning ahead amid ongoing pandemic

It was relatively smooth sailing, pun intended, for the staff at Marble in 2021, and they have higher hopes for 2022.

The bigger the brewery, the harder it can be sometimes to pivot and adjust to the constantly shifting currents of the world at large these days. For the biggest brewery in Albuquerque, it has certainly been a challenge for Marble, but with a little extra advance planning, the staff has been able to keep things steered in the right direction.

I caught up with president Barbie Gonzalez, production manager John Heine, and marketing coordinator Geraldine Lucero at different times last week to cover all aspects of Marble for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.

“I think that in 2021 we really refocused our efforts into what we wanted to project for 2022,” Gonzalez said. “So obviously, we had adjusted to COVID, and what that did and didn’t mean for all of us, whether it was the front of house, whether it was people in production, or whether it was people in our executive offices.

“There’s a tremendous amount of energy where our team has become even more united, and even more committed to driving us kind of out of this pandemic mindset. What I mean by pandemic mindset is just this feeling of being defeated. We are not feeling that way anymore. We have just adapted to the world around us.”

Gonzalez credited not just the Marble staff spread over three taprooms, two breweries, and four states worth of distribution for that renewed sense of optimism.

“I think the resilience of our people, the resilience of our team, the resilience of the people of New Mexico, really speaks volumes for why Marble Brewery is still here, and why Marble Brewery is still being very, very successful and innovative,” she said. “And so, for that I really need to do a tremendous shout-out not just to the team here at Marble, but to all of the patrons that have been with us, not just throughout the years, but specifically throughout the pandemic.”

Marble expanded its distribution footprint in 2021, which is no small feat in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.

“We launched in a new market in 2021, well, I should say relaunched into the Colorado market in 2021, and saw a lot of success with that,” Gonzalez said. “We were able to continue to produce world-class beer, but we were also able to bring new, exciting styles and flavors to the table with the small-batch series. Most importantly, we were able to keep people as safe as we can.”

For Heine and the brewing team at the main brewery, it was a welcome addition to have Colorado back in the fold.

“2021 was great,” he said. “We launched the Colorado market, getting with our distributor up there, Eagle Rock, in April. That was good to see some positive beer movement.”

Many of the beers in these fermenters were later sent to Colorado in addition to New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas.

The massive disruptions in the global supply chain that began to take effect in the second half of the year did not hit Marble as hard as some might have feared.

“Luckily, many of the supply chain issues that most of the world is facing, we haven’t been immune to that, but we saw these problems coming and so we accurately prepared ourselves for the issues that would come,” Gonzalez said. “So we’ve been really lucky, again, in our people being amazing, being able to see what might be coming ahead, and being able to accurately prepare for it.”

The key to overcoming that has been both simple and difficult.

“Forecasting, we do a tremendous amount of forecasting,” Gonzalez said. “We’re at the beginning of 2022 and I’m already thinking about 2023. Being at Marble for nine years, I’ve learned that the more you can forecast ahead, watching your trends, paying attention to the numbers at your taprooms, paying attention to your numbers in distribution, is really, really critical in being able to accurately create a forecast.”

The brewing team was already starting to look further and further ahead, even before the pandemic hit, Heine said.

“There was some of the supply chain (effects) on that, but we also realized from certain sales standpoints, if you want to get in at this level of distribution into the chain grocery stores, Smith’s, Albertsons, that type of thing, they’re talking in February about what they’re putting on the shelves in November,” he said. “You gotta have your ducks in a row. You’ve got to have stuff planned. In reality, a lot of breweries that are putting out something fresh, something new regularly, those in reality have been in planning for months.

“And, not just from the distribution standpoint, but from the supply chain side, these days if you want to get cans printed for you, you have to have your artwork ready months in advance. It’s not like you can brew a batch and go wow, this turned out fantastic, can we land those labels tomorrow and announce for a Friday release. No, this has to be in planning.”

The Omicron variant has been a tougher challenge than the supply chain problems, in some ways.

“Truthfully, there were some delays in shipments, again, nothing that set us back too far because we were always looking ahead,” Gonzalez said. “But, Omicron has really been challenging. It’s putting people’s health at risk, but from a business perspective also, it makes running operations difficult when you have X amount of people out because of the threat of COVID. So you have to manage taking care of day-to-day operations while also maintaining the health and safety of your team. We have been really blessed in that we have not had to shut down in either production or taprooms because our team is so responsible in reporting when they’re feeling a little bit off. We’re able to pull people and have them test. We’ve been really lucky in that our people take health and safety seriously here.”

The year in beer was a good one

That tall guy you’ve probably seen coming out of the brewery at Marble is production manager John Heine. He is a fountain of fast-talking knowledge.

Marble was able to get back to rolling out lots of new beers in package format in 2021, not just on draft.

“We committed to some new flavors and styles, which I thought were really exciting, starting with the Safeword (IPA),” Heine said, while noting that particular beer will return in cans this Friday. “We had really great reception in the beginning of 2021 on that. We had to order more cans. I love hazy beers and I love our Desert Fog, I think it’s a great hallmark of the style, but it was great to see some appreciation for your good old-fashioned West Coast dank, heavy, bitter IPA. I was like yeah, these things still sell.”

Keeping a variety of styles available was something that the staff and customers both enjoyed.

“From there we did the Pink Lemonade Lager,” Heine said. “That flew off the shelves. That was a good one, it was a good refresher. It was as refreshing as a 15-minute break in the pub (walk-in) cooler. It gets hot back there. That beer was a great change of pace.”

Brewmaster Josh Trujillo and brewer Greg Dupy kept innovating up at the Heights Taproom brewery, often sending their best ales and lagers downtown for short canning runs.

“Josh had some fun stuff moving out of the Heights, like following up with the Salty Edge and things in that same vein,” Heine said. “We committed (to doing) some cool lagers. Launching the Day Ghost with Meow Wolf was awesome to continue that side of production on some lighter side beers. That was a lot of fun.”

Other beers that should return in cans in 2022 will include Dupy’s Dunkel, Guava Wheat, Mountain Fog IPA, Marblefest, and more.

“In this coming year, we’ve got some of those beers that were the small-batch releases, where we put a small brite tank on our beer truck and trucked it down here last year and did a 10-barrel (canning) run,” Heine said. “Sometimes that was really successful and we sold through it so fast, now let’s scale it up and do a 60-barrel batch. We have some things coming in slightly larger format, still 12-ounce cans, but we’ll be producing more volume of them. I’m glad we’re doing that planning and forethought.”

The Marble staff spent much of 2021 working on quality and efficiency inside the brewery.

The brewing team kept plenty busy in 2021, even beyond simply creating new beers or packaging previously draft-only offerings. There was the return of restaurants and bars, which meant it was time to dust off the kegging line. There was also the opportunity to focus on other aspects of the brewing process.

“We’re really able to take some time and put a lot of effort into quality,” Heine said. “Not just that we’re doing more laboratory work or anything, but on both sides we’re working on the beer production side, making sure we keep (oxygen levels) low, we were monitoring that, putting a lot of effort into sensory and tracking beers over their shelf life. It was really awesome to see the fruits of that labor come to harvest. That was awesome. I just thought it was great that we were able to shift focus a little bit with some of the upgrades we did in 2020, it helped us keep the beer flowing.”

Heine said the brewing staff is already working to figure out what issues with the 2021 barley crop, which was low in yield and reported quality, will affect Marble going forward.

“Everybody has already told us about it,” he said. “We did switch over and we’re starting to pull some grains from Proximity up in Buena Vista, Colorado. That’s been good. It’s another state, but it’s a lot closer to being local than potentially anywhere else. Not that there’s anything wrong with malt grown in North Dakota or Alberta, Canada. Just being able to get it down here is the thing.

“We did some samples, the quality was on par. We didn’t see any difference on our brewhouse, but the final product we did see a few times some notable differences, increase in head retention, foam quality, beer geeky stuff. But, let’s make sure we spread out our availability (of ingredients) for our supply chain, let’s come up with backup options.”

Heine said that ultimately the brewing staff will have to keep nimble and willing to adjust on the fly to anything and everything that 2022 might throw at them.

“In additions to tariffs, and aluminum (shortages), and a boat getting stuck in Egypt, if it’s not one thing it’s another,” he said. “I always remember an adage from a guy who’s an outdoor industry leader, he was one of the first people to summit the Grand Tetons wearing cowboy boots and a hemp rope, his adage was proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance period.

“In this situation, that really has helped. Sometimes you have to commit to it. I think that’s really fortuitous to (think about when) going big on something. It’s not so much of a let’s see if it works out, it’s let’s make sure this works out. That’s been a fun turnaround for us.”

A welcome return for onsite events

It was wonderful to see live music again for patrons, and the staff, at Marble this past year.

Lucero had the tough task of navigating something old in the new normal, namely bringing events back to the three Marble taprooms.

“It’s (been) stressful in the fact that we didn’t know exactly how this virus was going to affect those events,” she said. “Is our staff going to be OK? That’s where my stress came from, if there was going to be an outbreak of COVID between our staff right before a huge event that we planned.”

The biggest events were held downtown in the fall, with Marblefest and the Muertos Fiesta both returning.

“We scaled back significantly on how many people we allowed in by utilizing the north parking lot, too, and just fencing that off,” Lucero said. “I also feel like, there’s a lot of forgiveness this time of year, too. So if there was an unfortunate case that we had to cancel an event, I feel like at the end of the day people would understand why. Luckily we didn’t have to cancel.

“We’re always practicing COVID-safe practices here at the taproom. That wasn’t a challenge for us. Just figuring out ways to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and safe without overcrowding, but the crowds did come out. People did show up. We did our best to keep everyone safe and I think we did a really good job.”

Lucero will be focusing on the marketing side of her job full-time in 2022, but she is still involved in planning out events to a degree.

“Moving forward in 2022, I’ve handed off the events to Amy Levine who was our marketing assistant,” Lucero said. “She’s taking over as event coordinator now. She’s growing into a new position because I just felt like I was ready for something new, something different. I’ll be focusing on marketing and philanthropy moving forward.”

A lot of that means continuing to master the ever-changing world of social media. Lucero said that she feels like she is back in school, relearning how to best market and promote Marble as a brand and to get word out about everything from new beer releases to events, big and small.

Gonzalez said that everyone at Marble appreciated the work that Lucero and her team put in for 2021.

“Absolutely, I think for everyone, whether they’re staff or patrons, being able to host Marblefest or Muertos Fiesta, having music back on the patio, having music back at the other locations, it definitely was reinvigorating,” Gonzalez said. “At all of those major events, I was here and on hand. The staff was just lighting up. They’re busy, but energetically they’re just reinvigorated. And also, just having our guests come up to all of us working and saying I’m so happy that you guys decided to do this. At all of those events, we maintained COVID-safe practices, being able to provide a little bit of comfort, especially because they’re all outdoors. To again reinforce that we take COVID seriously, being able to operate in a way that’s fun but also very safe.”

Marble utilized its north parking lot to help host events like Marblefest.

There will be plenty of familiar events returning in 2022, and some new ones as well.

“New events, we are taking a little bit more of an aggressive approach this year as far as bringing music back downtown and in our taprooms, whereas we were in 2021 running a little bit cautiously,” Gonzalez said. “We are hoping to have a full music season with a full launch after St. Patrick’s Day. We are really looking to dial in at all fo the areas where we’re distributing, all the states. Of course, there’s a ton of things that we’re working on that I think people will get really, really excited about, so stay tuned. 2022 is going to be a really great year.”

The first big event, or possibly events, will take place in April.

“We are talking about what our anniversary month is going to look like in April, about introducing a new beer and potentially … right now at this point, we are talking about celebrating with our community,” Lucero said. “I guess right now we have to wait out this crazy Omicron variant spreading like crazy. We do have things planned and lined up, but we’re also going to be kind to ourselves if they don’t come to fruition, too. Our anniversary month, it’s right around the corner, April is coming soon. We’re going to think about some creative ways to bring some worlds together, I can say that.”

Marble will continue its work with local nonprofits, starting in February with the release of the Red Beer and Rice, a collaboration with Nexus Brewery and Hollow Spirits that will benefit the Welstand Foundation to the tune of one dollar per pint sold at all Marble, Nexus, and Hollow Spirits locations.

From there, Lucero said she hopes to bring the Love Beer Hate Cancer movement back to the downtown taproom, again benefiting Camp Enchantment. Marble will also continue working with the Alzheimers Association, plus the Barrett Foundation with the Pink Lemonade Lager release scheduled for May, and will host Pride events for Equality New Mexico. The brewery will also continue to work with its West Texas distributor to benefit the Stars Scholarship Foundation in El Paso.

The second half of the year will also see the return of Mutt Masquerade, benefiting Watermelon Mountain Ranch, and Marble will work on setting up something with the Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council. Lucero also said she hopes to do something for veterans in November, and work with New Day in December.

“Along the way, it’s not just a beer release or an event, I tried to rally up the troops to go onsite when we can and volunteer our time as well,” she said. “The Barrett House, last year every Friday members from our team would go for a few hours and just help them organize, build whatever they had to do like shelves, gardening, cleaning you name it. I’d like to bring back some Bosque trail cleanups, too, and challenge some other breweries to help us out. We had some success with that in the beginning of 2021.

“I’m just trying to think of more creative ways to give back to the community, as well. I’m researching some different nonprofits as well. Those are the ones that we definitely have lined up.”

Marble has overcome the toughest stretch of the pandemic (we hope), and is again poised to move forward and help bring our little corner of the world back to something approaching normal. A big thanks to Barbie, John, and Geraldine for taking some time out of their very busy schedules to chat. We will catch up with Josh and Greg at the MavLab in a separate story.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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