The global pandemic has left no business unscathed, but for breweries with a big focus on hosting events, it was particularly rough over the past year-plus. Perhaps no brewery in New Mexico endured the ups and downs quite as much as Tractor Brewing.
I sat down with marketing director Jeremy Kinter and co-owner/brewmaster David Hargis last week to catch up on how they navigated an unpredictable 2021, and what they hope the remainder of 2022 holds for their brewery and its three offsite taprooms.
“This is kind of hard (to recap) because, I’ll be honest with you, it feels like a blur of a year,” Kinter said. “I remember very distinctly talking with you last year, and I can’t believe it’s already been a year.”
The shortest longest year ever, right? It certainly might have felt that way for Kinter, who went from no events to plan for the first half of the year, to suddenly cranking things up for the second half.
“Summertime, things really started to pick up,” he said. “We played it cautiously in terms of bringing back full-time events and all our stuff. Late summer is when we decided to go full bore and bring back all our events, all the live music across the board at all our locations, and then, bringing back some of our regular programming here at Wells Park.”
It all culminated, in a way, with the return of the brewery’s popular Halloween event.
“And then, bringing back Stranger Things Carnival, which is our biggest event of the year,” Kinter said. “It was a really good event this year. I pared it down. My overhead was substantially less, and also, it’s easy because I don’t have to look into legislation, I don’t have to permit my parking lot without tents. I just had a couple food trucks. It was good.”
Tractor also brought a renewed focus on local creatives, from artists to musicians and so on.
“Another thing is I’m sticking strictly with local musicians,” Kinter said. “I am not booking any touring musicians. The two reasons are COVID, and the second reason is to dedicate that to our local creative economy rather than giving it to anyone passing through.”
Kinter said he still gets about two email requests per day from touring musicians, so apparently that aspect of the music industry was not as limited by the pandemic as one might think.
Events are also particularly popular at the Los Lunas Taproom, where live music, karaoke, and trivia nights are all back on the schedule. Small-scale events are back at the Nob Hill and Westside taprooms, too.
“Once the floodgates opened with (events returning) it turned into a busy year,” Kinter said. “We had a little bit of a hard time with food, because we didn’t open back up our kitchen in Los Lunas. We decided to partner up with Hot Mess Food for the Soul and they ended up leasing our kitchen from us. That’s been a successful partnership because finding food trucks in Los Lunas was very hard. Fifty percent of the time I wouldn’t have one show up.”
Kinter said the food truck rotation at Nob Hill, which has one daily, and Wells Park and Westside, which are less often, has actually been more consistent than it was before the pandemic. That was certainly something that Tractor, and many other breweries, have struggled with in the past, so it is good to hear.
New events that have taken off at Wells Park include the Goth Night & Dark Market, which typically features up to five vendors and goth DJs, and the Tractor of Terror movie nights every Thursday, a collaboration between the brewery and Spectral Youth.
“Tractor of Terror has been awesome,” Kinter said. “That’s another regular event we’ve added. We brought back the regular stuff like Hops & Dreams with the (Desert Darlings) bellydancers, Gin & Jazz, Poetry & Beer, (and) First Friday Comedy Contest.”
Nob Hill has also seen a marked improvement in sales and attendance, which Kinter attributes to the fact that a certain major city construction project is long since done.
“Things have been really good in Nob Hill,” he said. “This is kind of a renaissance there. Prior to the pandemic we were still coming out of the recovery of A.R.T. (Albuquerque Rapid Transit). That impact was still radiating over things, (and now) it’s finally starting to come together. Things have been looking really good in Nob Hill. New businesses opening up helps us in Nob Hill. We’re not in this black hole vortex. We’ve got the Ihatov (Bread and Coffee) in front of us, a CBD place next to us.”
Nob Hill has also begun selling spirits and cocktails, which Kinter said now accounts for 50 percent or so of the sales there. A regular clientele, which he estimated accounts for 60 percent of the total customer base, has also settled back into their favorite spots.
As for event plans in 2022, Kinter said he is already hard at work.
“Going to be booking some of the big stuff back again,” he said. “Hopefully try to bring back something resembling Bees and Seeds. Also, doing Drag Queen Bingo quarterly, those are back. We’re just to keep on doing our thing, adjusting, and bringing in new stuff, throwing out old stuff, and rotating. Hopefully do more stuff in Nob Hill, bring more music there. I’m just trying to get back after the floodgates opened in late summer, play catch-up with our events and stuff.”
Meanwhile, in the brewery
Hargis kicked off his part of the interview with some good news regarding a key member of the brewing staff.
“A big change back there was T.J. Frederich is now our head brewer,” Hargis said. “We had a lean crew, and he got them up to speed during COVID, and then he’s doing a great job, so we officially moved him into that position in September.”
That took a little off Hargis’ plate, but it still remained pretty full throughout 2021. A big chunk of that involved Tractor’s Troubled Minds Distilling.
“We’ve got our first barrel-aged stuff, that was made from scratch, out here this (past) year,” he said. “That was the American whiskey and the single malt. They came out pretty good. We’re more barrels deep on that. We’ve got more aging.”
The need for more spirits prompted Tractor to purchase “a new used still.” With the new equipment also came the need to get moving on a construction project that had been on hold for a while, but needed to finally get done, mainly due to the placement of the still in the east side warehouse. It is the reason the east side parking lot is currently unusable, as it currently looks like the surface of the moon back there with craters galore.
“We are currently re-plumbing, there was no plumbing on that part of the building,” Hargis said. “We’ve got new drainage and new water supply going down there, which is going to allow us to run that (anytime) instead of around the clock. That’s going to be exciting to be able to run that during the day, along with new water pressure in the building overall is probably going to shave us an hour or two a day.
“You can only do one thing with the water back there at a time. If the cold liquor is filling, everybody else is doing nothing, because that needs to get filled for the next brew. If we’re graining in, you can’t mess with it, because it’s going to mess with the water temperature. If you’re cleaning kegs and somebody needs to clean a fermenter, you gotta wait until they get their barrel filled. All kinds of production time was lost.”
With a head brewer in place and the new plumbing system coming online, it will help Tractor expand its menu of specialty offerings again.
“Just from playing it safe during COVID, we were sticking to the flagships and making sure production was (focused) there, not doing a lot of fun, challenging, or interesting things,” Hargis said. “Now we’re at a place where we can start having some more fun with seasonals. Get back to having some fun and hopefully coming up with some interesting stuff.”
Of course, that assumes that the supply chain disruptions do not get in the way. They have been tricky in all aspects of Tractor’s business, from beer to spirits to cider.
“It’s super real across the board,” Hargis said of the supply chain woes. “Some things, cans for example, we’ve adapted to the lead time, so it’s just a matter of managing it differently. We’re not that big, though, as far as cans are concerned. We’ve not felt it there, but we did miss a month in midsummer of no cans. It was already out eight-to-10 (weeks), which is double, we used to have a three-week lead time. We get ours sleeved so we don’t have to carry a bunch of inventory. Then it bumped to 12-to-13, and we didn’t see that coming. We had more than doubled the lead time.”
If anything, it has been tougher on the distilling side of things than in terms of cans for the beer and cider.
“Bottles for the still products is an ongoing problem,” Hargis said. “Every time something comes up that fits our even close to what we use, we buy everything they have. Take it all, if it’s 600 bottles or 2,600, buy it, and then all of a sudden we’re out of it.”
“Glass has been a huge one,” Kinter added. “We had to change one of our bottle designs three times in the past probably year and a half, because we can’t get the original ones we want, and will not get them in the foreseeable future. Lead times on glass in general are (horrible).
“Supply chain issues with corks as well, getting what I can get with those that fit our bottles and our design. Glass has been a tough one. It doesn’t make sense to me, but whatever. We can’t even do our clear cider growlers right now.”
As much as the supply of physical items has been an issue, the sharp increases in the cost of everything from shipping to the actual products have been felt across the board.
“Shipping, depending on where it’s coming from and the product, can be up anywhere from 25 to 100 percent,” Hargis said. “All our raw materials are up. New malt contracts are up, well, I don’t have an exact number, but 10 to 15 (percent) is where it fell. Apple juice, there’s a shortage of apple juice. We secured a ridiculous supply and had to pay (extra) for it. We keep quite a bit on hand, but we almost … for six weeks we couldn’t find anything. We’re contracted, and our supplier cut us off. ‘You’re not nearly big enough, we’ve got bigger customers.’ We had to find alternative suppliers of apple juice. And that went up about 25 to 30 percent. That’s before doubling shipping.”
Hargis acknowledged that it is an industry-wide problem, so the Tractor staff has had no choice but to find a way to work through all of it. Luckily, they have plenty of friends around town to help out from time to time.
“It was depressing, part of 2020, and the beginning of 2021 were rough,” Hargis said. “Now it’s like if we’ve got a problem, let’s figure out how we can handle it. We’ve got so many great people in this industry, if we’re out of bottles or something, being able to reach out (to other breweries/distilleries) has solved a few issues. Over the years, and even during now, it’s more important.”
Now, more than ever, it will take all of us to get through this time in history. A big thanks to David and Jeremy for meeting up, even if it felt like it was just yesterday for all three of us.
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