Kaktus Brewing overcomes numerous obstacles to post its best year to date

Kaktus head brewer Michael Waddy, left, and owner Dana Koller squeeze in between the just-unwrapped tanks of their new brewhouse.

There has always been a general sense of optimism that permeates just about every aspect of Kaktus Brewing in Bernalillo. Even amidst all the challenges of 2021, the staff there was still happy to report it was a positive year, as we learned in our latest Look Back/Look Ahead Series entry.

I sat down with owner Dana Koller and head brewer Michael Waddy last week to cover the tough parts — supply chain, staffing — and learn about the good news — new brewhouse, full return of onsite events, and more.

“Overall, funny enough, even though we had closures, we had supply chain issues, all of that stuff, it happened to actually be our best year (for sales),” Koller said. “We actually did really well. We’re pretty excited about that.”

Koller said the entertainment side of the business grew quite a bit in 2021. Kaktus now has live music Wednesday through Sunday, and the Desert Darlings will make their triumphant return to the patio stage starting this coming Sunday, and every Sunday after that from 6 to 8 p.m.

“We were fortunate to continue the cultural aspects of supporting live music, the dancers, and all those types of things, so that was really cool,” Koller said.

While that was certainly a positive aspect of 2021, the aforementioned supply chain was a major hurdle, both on the brewing side and for the kitchen.

“Supply chain issues did change things,” Koller said. “As you know, we’re big proponents of natural meats and foods. The same thing with our beer, we really source great ingredients. So I was really nervous about the quality of meats that were going to be in the market. Sure enough we found that a lot of companies were putting nitrates and things in the food. So we decided to invest in a rotisserie grill, and we now order all of our meats from all-natural farms and sustainable farms, which allows us to rotisserie our meats before we put all our stuff on the pizzas. We were big proponents of staying true to the cleanest ingredients that we have.”

Kaktus has been able to regularly book live entertainment for five of the six nights a week it is open.

Koller said it is more labor intensive, but the customer response has been good. Kaktus also made the move to invest in two large shipping containers offsite, which enabled the brewery to buy in greater bulk than before, which has helped keep down the increased costs in goods and shipping. Kaktus has also stopped ordering glass growlers, focusing entirely on aluminum crowlers.

“There are a lot of reasons we went that direction,” Koller said. “But, by purchasing in bulk, we were able to keep our prices among the most competitive in the market. I do believe we are the best priced currently still.”

Throw in the fact that Koller owns the property, and it has helped Kaktus keep the costs lower than other breweries of a similar size.

“What that also allows us to do is hire really great entertainment,” he said. “We can invest in different directions. We probably spend as much as everyone else, but in different directions. I think that’s what sets us apart.”

As for brewing operations, Waddy said the supply chain issues have not had too big of an effect.

“It’s been not too too bad, as far as supply chain issues, it’s not been too too difficult to get our ingredients,” he said. “The biggest thing is that I have to do a hop substitution if I can’t get a certain variety. For the most part it hasn’t been really that difficult as far as ingredients and stuff.”

The biggest new addition to the brewing area is still being unwrapped, but it has Waddy quite excited.

“The big thing I would say is our new brewery,” he said. “It’s a 3.5-barrel system. It’s brand-spanking new. It’s going to be a lot more efficient and just in time and energy, a whole lot better. We’ve been waiting on parts for that to finish it, the ductwork, to finish the gas plume.”

If any breweries are looking to add a small pilot system, Kaktus’ old brewhouse will soon be for sale.

Waddy said they have also invested in their own mill, which will save money on buying pre-milled grain. All of it should add up to even more interesting and unique beer styles appearing on tap once the brewhouse is fired up, which Waddy is projecting for late February/early March.

“Part of what we like here and what our customer base likes here is we have a lot more sessionable stuff,” he said. “With this new system it’s going to be a lot easier to make those higher gravity beers. With our old system it was very restrictive as far as the total grain bill that we could use per batch. This new system we’re really not going to be restricted with that. We’re not going to become this crazy high-gravity brewery, but it is going to be fun to have a little more freedom to play with those different kind of recipes.”

Perhaps the toughest part of 2021 for Koller involved the constant changes in staffing in terms of bartenders and cooks.

“We hired and lost more people, I’ll be honest, it doesn’t sound good, but we went through more employees in that one year than we’ve ever had in a year,” he said. “It did make it challenging, absolutely, because we couldn’t find our groove with a solid staff that supported each other, because so much has changed. Right now luckily I can say that we feel confident we have a solid staff for the next eight to 12 months. One of them is about to have a baby, so it might shift slightly, but I do think we have a solid staff that is going to carry us through the summer.”

Koller said it felt like a revolving door, but he acknowledged that Kaktus was far from alone in experiencing that in 2021.

“When you have people leaving all the time for different reasons, and I don’t think you could pinpoint any single reason why it was happening, but it was happening across the board at breweries, restaurants, construction companies, everywhere,” he said. “People would show up to their first meeting, or show up to get trained, and then not show up (again), and I hadn’t even paid them yet. It was so wild.”

Keeping the taproom staffed was a challenge in 2021, but things are looking up this year.

Koller said he thinks things are starting to stabilize, but he will be taking more time in hiring in the future, just to ensure employees are truly committed to working there.

“When you have that happening, I was getting to the point where I didn’t want to give much time to somebody, not knowing if they’re going to stay or not,” he said. “That was not a good feeling for me. I really want to give people the greatest opportunity that we can.”

With most of those issues now in the rear view mirror for Kaktus, Koller and Waddy said they are both looking forward to some positive new developments for 2022.

“We’re taking advantage of the reciprocity bill once again,” Koller said. “We did that when wine came out, (and now) we’re doing that with spirits. We did that with really great, fresh spirits that we have added to the menu just last week. We’re excited about that. I love the wine industry, but it’s really challenging to make those numbers work. With spirits, I think we’ll be able to support the distillers a lot more, just because of the way the numbers work. We’re super pumped about that.”

Koller said the cocktail menu is still fairly small, as Kaktus is committed to being a brewery first and foremost.

“I would say that our beer numbers, our pints out the door are constantly growing, still,” he said. “Beer is definitely not going anywhere anytime soon. Obviously we invested in a bigger system, a newer system because we know that we are going to sell more beer this year than we’ve ever sold. We’re super excited about that.”

They are also offering up “mocktails” for customers who prefer not to have alcohol, but still want to come enjoy live music or just hang out with their friends at the brewery.

As for events offsite, Koller said they have been so focused with onsite entertainment that there is not much planned, save for one big event in the early summer.

“We will be hosting the Farm House Ale Event again,” he said. “We’re in the middle of booking the music for that. That’s always going to be the first Saturday of June. That’s our largest event that we fully sponsor in partnership with the town of Bernalillo.”

The sun is still shining on Kaktus Brewing.

The biggest upcoming onsite event will be a Mardi Gras celebration on February 27. It was last held in 2020 before the pandemic hit, featuring live music, food specials, and the crowning of a king and queen. It does not hurt that many of the local musicians who populate Bernalillo, Placitas, and other nearby communities have lived in or are originally from New Orleans.

Kaktus is also opening a new offsite location, albeit one with a slightly different twist that Koller and Waddy could not go into too much right now.

“What’s cool is we have a nonprofit organization that we’ve started called UN-17,” Koller said. “It’s kind of important to put the dash in there because we are partnered with the United Nations and the 17 goals of sustainable development.”

UN-17, which will be located in Albuquerque, will feature a private club inside. Those memberships will support the nonprofit side. More details will be announced closer to opening, with no exact date announced as of yet.

We are quite happy to hear that Kaktus and many other smaller breweries are actually doing well, even better than expected, during this ongoing pandemic. It is a good sign for the future of our brewing industry as a whole. A big thanks to Dana and Michael for taking the time to sit down and chat. Make sure to head up for a pint of the new Dark Bock and give a hearty welcome back to the Desert Darlings this Sunday evening.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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