The good folks at Rio Bravo Brewing had already given me a list of possible interview times for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series when I learned that their newest limited beer release, Putin’s Mistress (Rum-Barrel-Aged Coffee Imperial Stout), was due out right in between those possible dates. Luckily, director of brewing operations Austin Giorgetta also realized this, and saved me from two trips by scheduling our interview for the release day.
Good timing is something that everyone at Rio Bravo has learned to take advantage of in the past year, much like the other breweries in town. I caught up with Austin, marketing director Jennifer Baker, and co-owner Randy Baker on Friday afternoon to discuss how they navigated an unpredictable 2021, and what challenges they will face in 2022.
“I think COVID has kind of been a blur for us,” Austin said. “There was definitely a decrease in our off-premise production (in 2021). That being said, having such a big venue, the start of 2022 we were like the roaring 20s in here with our on-premise sales. Month after month, we’ve been breaking sales records on premise, food has been keeping up, beer has been keeping up. We’ve been able to come up with some new and exciting flavors. I think 2022 is going to be trending in that same direction, with even more excitement, more new flavor, really pushing the boundaries moving forward.”
Jennifer agreed that 2020 and 2021, at least the first half, seemed to blur together.
“I feel like 2020, no one knew what to do with that year,” she said. “I feel like we were able to come back in 2021 and finally have the time to organize everything. We had a better rollout with the kitchen, the beer, and what we wanted our production to look like. We got ourselves set up for 2022. I’m very OCD, and I think we’ve got everything well organized. We’re working on a (packaging) rebranding. As far as beer goes, we’ve got a schedule (for releases). It’s really fun to have more of a schedule for what our limited releases are going to look like. We have our core beers year-round, but getting to do something fun each month, sometimes more than once a month, but First Fridays for sure.”
The new limited releases dubbed First Fridays will continue throughout 2022. A four-pack of 16-ounce cans will debut at the start of each month, and Austin would only say that they have everything planned out, but will be keeping the styles of future releases a secret until close to release day.
“For the brewing side, in 2021 we were pretty much streamlining things,” Austin said. “Back in January, we took a hard look at what needed fixing. We did that (throughout) 2021, and we’ve been doing that every quarter, just evaluating our processes. We’ve got new equipment for quality control, and have taken a look at everything. We’re figuring out better ways and more efficient ways to fine tune our production.”
That has all carried over into 2022, as a combination of the supply chain disruption and price increases for materials has led to a reorganization of sorts.
“This year we’re focusing on doing a rebrand,” Austin said. “The original packaging was kind of a mix of 12-ounce cans and 16-ounce cans. We’re doing all of our mainstays in 12-ounce cans, and all these specialties that we’re doing will be in 16-ounce (cans).”
The rebrand will extend to the actual packaging on the outside of the cans, specifically with the main brewery logo.
“For our mainstays, we don’t have a specific date, but you’ll see our mainstay beers distributed throughout New Mexico, those will switch to 12-ounce cans with new rebranding,” Jennifer said. “You can see it on this can, our new logo. We’ve been wanting to do a rebranding for a while. We loved the Zia in our old logo, but at the same time, every other company in New Mexico uses a Zia. We’re all really happy changing over. The last two cans we’ve released for first Friday have been a little sneak peek of that. We’ll be launching that within the next month or two for our four mainstays.”
Those four core beers will also see a change in names, with Austin noting that they will simplify those to simply being IPA, Hazy IPA, Coffee Porter, and then Summer Honey will retain its name. That final beer proved to be the breakthrough brew of 2021.
“Summer Honey, which is a ginger honey blonde ale, is surprisingly, even in the wintertime, it falls to being our number two seller,” Austin said. “In the summer it’s number one.”
“We went back and forth about having summer in the name having a negative effect in the winter, but it turns out everyone wants a taste of summer in the winter,” Jennifer added. “So we decided to keep it and it’s doing really well.”
While the beer side will be getting a new look, it was hardly the only change at Rio Bravo in 2021 that will help the brewery moving forward.
“The kitchen, I think, has really come together,” Jennifer said. “We made such a huge commitment the past two years, but this past year we really tuned in on what the menu should look like.”
“We also expanded the kitchen,” Randy added. “We doubled the size.”
Of course, the bigger the kitchen, the greater need for staffing. Much like other brewpubs, Rio Bravo struggled to find enough workers for that part of the business. Otherwise, staffing issues were not too bad in 2021.
“I think as far as front of the house, servers and bartenders, we stayed pretty consistent,” Jennifer said. “Obviously there was turnover, but nothing any crazier than a normal serving turnover. I think we had more difficulty in the kitchen. I think that also had to do with expanding.”
The bigger and better kitchen also helped in terms of events.
“What that really did for us was help us with our catered events,” Randy said. “We had an event for 350 people where they wanted Frito pie. We set the whole Frito pie bar. It was a wedding reception and we handled 350 people with Frito pie. They loved it. It was like a taco bar. That portion of the kitchen really helped us scale up with the larger events that needed a large volume of food.”
“The kitchen just does incredible work,” Jennifer said. “Our head chef, Brian (Johns), he’s really good at being creative and being able to work with any kind of event that comes to us. We have a layout of what our catering menu is, but for so many events he works with people to see what they envision for it.”
Private events, usually held upstairs in the barrel room or out in the beer garden, have consumed most of the available calendar dates at Rio Bravo, but Jennifer has been able to start booking some events again for the general public.
“We’ve gotten back to doing beer dinners,” she said. “We did a friends-giving, and that did really well. We’re actually doing a chocolate pairing, it’s not a ticketed event, but it will be available (this) weekend through Valentine’s Day. We teamed up with Chocolate Dude over on Central. There are four different chocolate truffles with four different beers on tap. One will be this one (Putin’s Mistress) right here.”
Jennifer said that Rio Bravo was booked for private events almost every day throughout the holiday season, and many more dates are being claimed throughout 2022.
“Now, looking into 2022, brewery weddings are a big thing,” she said. “We’ve had so many people booking their weddings with us, whether it’s the reception or the ceremony, so that’s pretty cool. For 2022, that’s something we’re excited about, our calendar filling up again.”
As for upcoming public events, Rio Bravo is planning at least one big one in March.
“From when we opened up until 2020, we would always have a big celebration for St. Patrick’s Day,” Jennifer said. “We’re going to try do that again this year. That’s another big event we’re hosting, but it’s hard to find a day where we don’t have private events happening so we can have a public event. They’re always taking up the beer garden or upstairs, and we’re limited on space to have other events, but we’re not complaining about that. It’s just a matter of finding an open date.”
The aforementioned supply chain issues are still present for Rio Bravo, though it has not been too bad, save for a current issue with a CO2 shortage from their supplier.
“We haven’t had too many issues,” Austin said. “I think we went from being a two-week preconceived notion of planning things in advance, to now we’re at four-week, six-week planning phase. Our brewery hasn’t had the same issues as other breweries. Cans for us haven’t been the same issue. We aren’t going through eight truckloads a year.”
One thing that will help Rio Bravo is an expansion of its available storage space for cans and other raw materials. Randy has purchased the Lewis Brake and Clutch building on the southeast corner of Rio Bravo’s property.
“We bought the building next door for storage for cans and equipment,” he said. “That’s the future home of our (new) taproom. That’s a work in progress.”
As to the exact nature of that taproom and what will set it apart from the existing one, well, we will have to save that info for later, once all the licensing is in place.
Overall, like many of the other brewery staffs we have interviewed for this series, we get a sense of cautious optimism for 2022 and beyond. After the last couple years, it is a welcome change.
“I don’t want to speak too soon, but 2022, I feel like America in itself is looking at reopening and going back to more of a normal (state), whereas in 2021 you were still on the edge of your seat,” Austin said. “You never really knew, so we could never plan with confidence. Now we’ve set out a plan and have some confidence.”
A big thanks to Austin, Jennifer, and Randy for taking the time to sit down and chat. And, for that pour of Putin’s Mistress, which is a behemoth of a beer. Make sure you have someone around to help you split a can.
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