Bathtub Row Brewing survives and thrives during the pandemic

Head brewer David Seymour has quickly made himself at home in Los Alamos. (Photo courtesy of Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op)

Well, 2021 is gone, and many would say good riddance. The COVID vaccines arrived and brought us a bit of a return to normality, but even still, COVID continued to affect businesses and consumers. But, for Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op, 2021 wasn’t that bad, and 2022 is shaping up to be even bigger and better.

I sat down in early February with David Seymour, the head brewer at Bathtub Row (AKA “the Tub”). David has only been on the job for about seven months, but he’s already had a big impact on brewing operations. Fortunately, he and his family love living in the area, with all of its hiking and outdoor activities, good food, and wonderful people. From talking to David, it’s clear that he also has a love for the art and science of beer-making.

As we mentioned in the intro, though the first half of 2021 was challenging, the Tub actually had a pretty normal second half in terms of sales. Assistant manager Rob Hipwood normally joins us for these interviews, but he had some business to attend to, so he responded to some questions via e-mail.

“The summer and fall felt very normal for us,” Rob wrote. “The June through December time period was very good, including some record months.”

The Tub had expanded its outdoor seating to help deal with demand, and there’s now much more space on the patio and adjoining area.

“With the expanded outdoor space, it was pretty hectic for our servers trying to cover so much additional real estate!” Rob wrote. “Certainly a good problem for us to deal with, and our staff did a tremendous job adjusting our serving model.”

David has a scientific approach to the brewing process, and it’s led to many improvements and a high-quality product. He described his changes: “On the brewhouse, I’ve already upgraded pumps, switches, burners, temperature probes, sensors, and so on. On the cellar side, I improved fermentation controls and added spunding valves to all the fermenters, which allows us to ferment under pressure, thus preserving natural carbonation and dramatically improving mouthfeel, foam retention, and lace. For our quality control program, I bought a nice dissolved oxygen meter, a microscope and hemocytometer for inspecting yeast, and assorted hardware and software analytical tools.”

All of the changes, large and small, have helped him and his staff to very consistently brew their offerings.

Major upgrades are still planned for the brewhouse. Since opening about seven years ago, the place has had six serving vessels. There are eight taps, however. This mismatch means that two of the lines are fed by kegs, which is a lot of manual labor in terms of kegging some of the newly-made beer, cleaning the kegs, etc. To remedy the situation, the Tub has purchased three more serving vessels, with one extra containing the next beer to go on. To keep the vessels filled will, of course, require more and larger fermenters, and a larger glycol chiller. 

That is phase one for “the cold side”; during phase two of the expansion, they plan to get an entirely new brewhouse, grain-handling system, dual-stage heat exchanger, electric-powered steam boiler, and other hardware for “the hot side” of the process. All of the upgrades will also require additional electrical transformers to be installed, and increased water flow by the county. With all of the requirements and delays with fabrication and delivery, the end results may take many months or even years. Everyone involved, including Los Alamos County, the Chamber of Commerce, and even Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, have been extremely supportive of the plans.

Albert, lead bartender at the Tub.

As for the beers, the staples like Hoppenheimer IPA and New Mexi Lager are almost always available. Surprisingly, Hoppenheimer was recently dethroned as the Tub’s best-selling beer. The lager and Caldera Kolsch have outsold it recently, and the stout has sold very well, too. Whether it’s a trend is anyone’s guess, but have no fear, the IPA isn’t going anywhere.

David brewed a few interesting beers at the end of 2021.

“We brewed two popular holiday beers — a 7.4-percent (ABV) Helles Bock and a 9.4-percent Henley’s Scotch Beer based on a historical recipe with local honey and organic ginger, orange peels and coriander,” he said.

And the Tub continues to focus on “buying local”: RZ’s Honey Wheat featured honey from local beekeeper Ricardo Z. Sanchez, and they brewed a great White Crow Green Hop beer with local growers. They also collaborated with Bow & Arrow Brewing in Albuquerque to create Native Land Hazy IPA.

“(It) acknowledges we brew on unceded ancestral lands of the Tewa Pueblo People in general, and Pueblo de San Ildefonso in particular,” David said. “We are donating proceeds to a scholarship fund for young people of San Ildefonso to attend college or trade school.”

One beer that David was particularly proud of was the Ranch School Rustic Ale, named after the ranch school that preceded the national laboratory on the site. It was a farmhouse/saison brew. In David’s words, “That uses a yeast that we actually foraged here locally. It was on locally grown wine grape skins that we use to ferment of wine grape wild ale that was very popular. … It does it all; it’s very Belgian in profile, it’s got the black pepper and clove, and kind of bubblegum esters. It’s convincingly Trappist, but it’s literally from here.”

He was so excited that it worked well that he will brewing with the same yeast again.

Available draft beers at the Tub as of February 7.

In exciting event news, the Tub will be hosting the New Mexico Brewers Guild’s Stout Invitational again this year. It will be held on Saturday, March 5. The contest is always popular, giving dark beer-lovers their alternative to the extremely popular IPA Challenge. (Many of us love both events!) As in previous years, there will be three sessions, each lasting one and a half hours, with 16 New Mexico breweries duking it out for the title of best stout. Visit the event’s web page for more information and to buy tickets. Also, note that proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test must be provided in order to enter.

On a related note, I asked about the Tub’s plans to participate in various beer festivals in the state, which also seem to be making a comeback. WinterBrew in Santa Fe was a big success in January; the Tub wanted to participate, but they didn’t get drawn in the lottery system that was used to determine the participating breweries. As Rob pointed out, though, there’s plenty going on, and they can’t be everywhere.

“It’s a lot of work to participate in ABQ events and we stopped doing so even before the pandemic, but we’ll try to participate in festivals closer to home,” he wrote. “And, honestly, as we get closer to summer/fall, the request to do off-site events locally really increases and keeps us pretty busy here in town.”

For example, the free Friday night concerts in Los Alamos are very popular, and the Tub sets up a booth at most of them.

There are several very good food options near the Tub, which does not have a kitchen on its premises. Still, they are looking to establish options even closer.

“We’d like to have more food vendors on a more regular basis,” Rob wrote. “Our hope is to have a shipping container on-site, with a kitchen, at some point in our future. We’re working with the county to possibly have a restaurant accelerator program, plus established restaurants could use the space, as well.”

As just about anyone who has been to a brewery taproom knows, food trucks and breweries make a great combination.

You may have also heard about a movie, Oppenheimer, being filmed in Los Alamos. It’s a historical piece about the Manhattan Project in World War Two, which is the town’s main claim to fame. There are many big-name actors involved, such as Matt Damon, Cillian Murphy, and Robert Downey Jr., and Christopher Nolan is directing. It turns out that such projects need beer, and the Tub has made arrangements with the NM Film Registry to supply them.

Los Alamos has a long, interesting history dating to that era and beyond, and the Tub honors that history with its beer names. Even the name of the business harkens back to history — “Bathtub Row” is the name of a street where scientists during WW2 and Los Alamos Ranch School teachers before that lived. As David pointed out, “I brew three beers — Hoppenheimer IPA, Prometheus Pilsner, Ranch School Rustic Ale — which all connect to the story they’re telling.”

Come to Los Alamos for the history and to visit its museums, but be sure to stop by for a beer!

Employees at the Tub celebrated a pretty good year.

All in all, 2021 wasn’t bad for Bathtub Row considering current events, and 2022 and beyond is looking even brighter.

For more information about Bathtub Row Brewing, visit their website: Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op.

Cheers!

— Reid

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