Sidetrack Brewing finds being small can be big in advance of its 6th anniversary

Sometimes being small can be a big advantage, as Sidetrack Brewing learned over the past year.

The general belief that the smaller breweries were taking the brunt of the pandemic has not quite proven to be the case, as we have learned for this go-around of the Look Back/Look Ahead Series. Take Sidetrack Brewing, for example, where things seem to be thriving rather than struggling as they prepare for their sixth anniversary this Saturday.

I sat down with co-owners Dan Herr and Anne O’Neill, and head brewer David Kimbell, to recap the year that was and preview what is to come in 2022.

It was not easy surviving 2021, but Sidetrack managed to pull through and come out ahead.

“I think just like everybody else, just day by day, (we’re) trying to keep up with all the different changing rules, all the different demands and expectations of customers,” Herr said. “It was all confusing and chaotic. Every time we seemed to settle in and it started to seem kind of familiar, oh, we know how this is going to go, then something else would happen.

“But, after things opened back up (in late May), it was still kind of creepy and scary. Everyone seemed sort of tentative. But, people woke up pretty quickly at that time, and I feel like, I won’t say it got back to normal, but it got close to normal, that whole stint from late spring to summer. I don’t know when it got weird again (in the fall), but it started getting weird again and we just had to roll with it.”

Kimbell was happy to report that the supply chain disruptions that have made life hell on the bigger breweries were not really having much of an effect on a smaller place like Sidetrack.

“To be honest, the whole time I’ve never really had any issues with ingredients or supplies,” he said. “I buy all our hops from mostly local breweries that hand select. Malt, one time I couldn’t get Munich malt, but otherwise I’ve never had any issues with any other supplier. Really, nothing, (and) I know a lot of the bigger guys had issues, but we’re not canning or anything like that.

“Ingredients have been great, but costs have gone up the last month and a half. That’s definitely been challenging. We’ve contracted our malt with Malt Europe and locked in the price at pre-price adjustment costs. We’ve got 2022 locked down for that, so we don’t have to bite the bullet there. We’ll see what the rest looks like. Yeast we’re good on; I know there’s been some issues with suppliers there. Hops, everyone takes care of us on hops, I’ve got good connections in the industry, I have the ability to buy from La Cumbre, Santa Fe, Ex Novo, whoever, all those guys are really good to us. It’s nice we can get their quality hand-selected stuff and pay for it.”

The supply chain disruption has not really affected brewing operations at Sidetrack.

At their size, Sidetrack does not require a huge staff, which in turn has helped them through a time when staffing is an issue for many businesses.

“We have a great staff and I think partly because of that, yeah, we’ve weathered it,” O’Neill said. “We’ve been fortunate. (Dan and I have) worked a couple of shifts, but we have a good staff.”

It all comes down to just taking care of the people in place, Herr said.

“We don’t really have turnover,” he said. “When we hire somebody, we really try to make a commitment to them and hope they do the same for us. We try to take care of everybody. Throughout this whole pandemic situation, we’ve tried to be as engaged and connected as we can to all the bartenders. We tell them we want to make sure you feel good, and whatever we can do to help keep you safe, or feel more safe, whether it’s adjusting hours or adjusting rules, whatever it is that we need to do, we try to be really up front with them. They’ve been good to us, hung on and suffered through all the B.S., smiling as best they can. They take care of the customers.”

Kimbell was likewise impressed by the commitment of the beertenders up front, calling them amazing. He even poached one, in a way, with Kristy Bounds now helping out in the brewery in addition to still taking the occasional bar shift. While we were talking upstairs, Kristy was down in the basement, working on some casks, and making a bit of a ruckus that left us all having to pause from time to time so the noise would not obscure anyone on the digital recorder.

“It’s really nice to have (scheduling) fluidity with her,” Kimbell said. “She can cover for me. She can cover at the bar. It’s been really nice.”

“Whenever anybody needs a helping hand, they’re all ready to pitch in,” Herr added.

The staff at Sidetrack is among the best in town. (Photo courtesy of the brewery)

Sidetrack has never been an event-heavy brewery because of its size, but O’Neill has been able to bring some small events back, mainly out on the patio.

“Like Dan said, at the beginning it was a little scary,” she said. “That’s kind of our consistently big event, the First Friday (ArtWalk) with Adobe Disco. Then, as you saw, people were willing to come out. Our customers, for the most part, have been really good about wearing masks inside. They really follow the rules. The other thing is we just throw everything out on the patio, the music is out there.”

The patio was actually the biggest project of the year for Sidetrack, with a new shade structure installed, one that includes both heating for the winter and fans for the summer.

“We made a big effort to improve the patio,” Herr said. “That was semi-related to COVID, but there’s other reasons to have it out there. I think COVID made us do it a little quicker, but to have that covered outdoor space, to have it sheltered from the sun, or if it rains you don’t all have to rush into the taproom.”

The heaters for colder days have been especially appreciated by customers, and Herr said there are still improvements to come, ranging from the tables to other smaller aspects. Not every customer wants to sit outside, as some quite enjoy the relaxed indoor vibe at Sidetrack, but enough do that it became a priority.

“I think we feel better, just knowing that we have that, and it is there for people, so those people who do want to sit outside you can sit out there in the cold,” O’Neill said. “You can feel comfortable, and we’re going to keep working on it.”

The new patio shade structure, which includes heaters for the winter, has been a big hit with customers.

As for the rest of 2022, the only thing planned of note so far is the anniversary party on Saturday. It will be a scaled-back affair, with Tikka Spice providing the food, DJ Leftover Soul providing the music from 1 to 5 p.m., and free koozies (one per customer) being given away until the supply runs out.

“I think we got a little scared with the (Omicron) and all that coming around, so we didn’t plan too big of an event,” O’Neill said.

Kimbell will have a couple new beers on tap.

“We’ve got a nitro beer, which I don’t think we’ve ever done a nitro beer here, a nitro (Seca) Stout,” he said. “We’ve got an IPA, which is pretty much like a juiced up version of our Basecamp. I’ve been wanting to try hopping that up, add more Vienna to that. Whatever you want to call it, a double IPA, (but that) depends on what brewery you’re at, it seems like. It’s a 7.4ish (percent ABV) IPA. Here you might call it a double IPA, La Cumbre you might call it a pale ale.”

We all laughed at that line about La Cumbre. Kimbell added there might also be some new casks available, or there might not. Beer cannot be rushed, after all.

The good news behind the scenes is that Sidetrack did increase its production capabilities, somehow squeezing more equipment into the brewing room.

“We’ve got two new fermenters,” Kimbell said. “I should be installing those this week, so we can do some more bock styles, something that needs to sit for six months or whatever it might be, (and) do them right. Have the space to actually hold things, lager them as long as they need to be lagered, instead of having to rush things. Six fermenters for a brewery our size is actually quite a bit. We want to give the lagers as long of a time as they need.”

We can only imagine the game of Tetris they had to play to fit these new fermenters inside. (Photo courtesy of Sidetrack)

Do not expect any sort of wild style departures in 2022 from Sidetrack’s beer lineup, as Kimbell discussed with the now-former head brewer from Bow & Arrow recently.

“We color between the lines,” Kimbell said. “Ted O’Hanlan and I were talking about this the other day, you gotta learn to color between the lines, and that’s what we like to do. We don’t like to throw all sorts of stuff in our beer; we like beer-flavored beer.”

We are oh-so-happy to learn that one of our finest neighborhood breweries has not only weathered the pandemic storm, but managed to find a way to thrive. A big thanks to Dan, Anne, and David for meeting up, and a hearty congratulations on their sixth anniversary!

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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