There is growth afoot over at Brew Lab 101 in Rio Rancho, even if most folks cannot see it yet. The brewery has expanded one suite over to help alleviate storage concerns, there are plans to expand the back patio, and a possible increase in distribution is on deck for the rest of 2022.
I caught up with owner Scott Salvas and head brewer Tevin Gray last week for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series. While the pandemic was as tough on them as everyone else, both expressed a sense of optimism and resiliency moving ahead.
“I guess the way I sort of break 2021 down was it was a very good year for Brew Lab,” Salvas said. “Financially we did well. We accomplished a lot, we added new things. But, it was a very challenging year at the same time. We had to work really, really hard to keep everything moving in the right direction, and to make sure we had staffing when we needed it.”
Staffing was, no surprise, a big issue, especially when indoor capacity limits were all but eliminated in late May.
“We had to make sure we could keep up with demand, because when everything opened up in the spring, it got crazy,” Salvas said. “Everybody came out and they all had the same demands they’ve always had for good service. There were times Tevin was serving, there were times I was serving. Whatever we had to do just to make it work out.
“It was definitely very challenging, but overall I think we grew a lot. We learned a lot about ourselves and strengthened our business model with that better sense of where to go in the future.”
The supply chain issues that hit some breweries hard did not have too big of an effect on Brew Lab 101 due to its smaller size in terms of production.
“We’re still relatively small, so we didn’t see a lot of really big issues with the supply chain,” Salvas said. “We’re still getting cans from secondary (suppliers); grain hasn’t been an issue.”
“I agree, we really didn’t have a ton of issues,” Gray added. “Maybe there was a few delays on glassware. Cans were somewhat hard to come by, but at the same time, we didn’t really struggle getting them. Prices increased, of course, we all know about that. It was pretty stable, I guess.”
While most of the focus was on what was happening in-house, there was one external issue that required a fix. A deal was reached in July with Big Boss Blue Sky to become the permanent food truck out front.
“We started in July with him being our resident (food) truck,” Salvas said. “He’s here every day. We love our partnerships with food trucks, but sometimes schedules can’t hold, things happen in people’s lives, and we had cancelations. For us, it’s always critical to have food, and so we needed to guarantee there would be food all the time. Going into partnership with James allowed us to have food every single day, a standard set menu, and then on our busier days we bring in a second truck. … That really allows some options, too.”
The future of food at Brew Lab 101 will soon include a small kitchen, which will be located in the new suite that the brewery expanded into this past year. That space, two doors down from the taproom to the east, already serves as a storage area with more room still available.
“It was one of these things where we were getting busier,” Salvas said. “We could see (that) once you got so far from COVID we realized we weren’t going to be dead, we were going to survive, and if anything we were going to thrive. How do you capitalize on that? That space had been sitting there and we thought it would probably be a good time if the landlord would give us a good deal on it. We were able to work out a deal.
“We were busting at the seams as far as storage. We needed a place to put grain (bags). Then the idea of this kitchen came along and so it’s like here’s an opportunity to grab the space at a reasonable price, and get us set up for years into the future.”
Salvas said the brewery is already growing faster than originally planned. In some ways, the pandemic downtime made it easier to plan for expansion. That has certainly helped Gray in the brewery, as well.
“It’s super exciting to see Tevin growing — and part of that growth (was the) need for (more) storage — we finally got this year to all 20 taps being Brew Lab,” Salvas said. “That was also sort of ahead for schedule. We always had some level of guest taps. So Tevin needed more room for grain, and room for products, and we’ve added more (equipment). We added a couple fermenters this year, we added a brite tank this year. We have plans to get more in the future.”
Gray said that for the most part his beer and cider lineup is made up of permanent fixtures, but he still has room to try out other styles.
“I have two rotating taps at the moment, so I’m constantly trying to bring out new stuff that I’ve not made before,” Gray said. “I know last year I was saying I wanted to focus more on a lot of darker beers and stuff. Now I want some lagers. We’re starting to roll a lot of that out. That’s been a fun experience.”
“We released our Mexican lager this year, the Sexi Nu Mexi, and that quickly became our number one seller,” Salvas added. “It’s like 15 percent of our daily sales. Pretty much the big sellers for the most part are the lighter beers, the Sexi Nu Mexi, the blonde, and the IPAs. That is probably more than 50 percent of the sales.”
This being winter and all (well, supposedly), there are still some darker beers on the menu, and more to come.
“I’ve got a Munich Dunkel that’s lagering right now, I’ve got a pilsner in the fermenter,” Gray said. “As far as the darker beers, I’ve got different variations of the porter. We were able to barrel age the Singularity (Imperial Stout) for nine months.”
The new liquor laws passed in New Mexico in 2021 also meant that Brew Lab 101 could join its peers in serving mixed drinks and cocktails.
“We’ll probably look at doing different (drink) specials,” Salvas said. “Hollow Spirits and I have talked about maybe partnering up on doing a collaboration whiskey or something to that effect. I think getting in some collaborations this year would be really nice.”
The relationship with Hollow Spirits, and other local establishments, has grown out of Brew Lab 101 starting to distribute more of its beer and cider around the metro area.
“We’ve got a delivery van out there we bought this year,” Salvas said. “We’re on tap now at four different locations — High and Dry, Enchanted Circle, Hollow Spirits, and Flix Brewhouse is the newest one. That’s pretty exciting. They’re carrying our peach cider and our root beer. As we expand production we can increase distribution.”
Salvas also said they are considering alcohol delivery whenever that gets up and running (it was passed as a new law last year), but so far there has not been much movement by anyone in the state on that front.
The other major change coming is out back, where the north-facing beer garden is due for a remodel and expansion as it moves from a temporary pandemic-necessary feature to a permanent fixture.
“A big thing like I mentioned was the temporary back patio — we’re working on making that a permanent fixture now,” Salvas said. “It’s one of these things we’ve been operating it for a year-and-a-half. A lot of people liked it back there. Businesses like mine, all the other breweries, know the value of outdoor space. We’re making the back patio permanent, we’re doubling it (in size), almost 5,000 square feet, a backyard beer garden. That should be open this spring. We’ll have a little outdoor bar.”
Brew Lab 101 will also be taking advantage of more potential on-site and off-site events in 2022.
“We are starting to do more planning on events,” Salvas said. “Events are great, they helped get us through the pandemic. We now do events Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. … Those really pick up the softer days on business. We want to do more holiday celebrations, St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras. It looks like a lot of beer festivals are starting to come back. We want to get on several of those this year. We’re really excited.”
To help keep things running smoothly inside the taproom, Brew Lab 101 also picked up a key new staff member to run the show.
“We added Christie (Kelley), who’s our taproom manager,” Salvas said. “We added another layer of management, so that shows how busy we’ve been. She’s been great. She’s got the staff very cohesive. We’ve got Tevin running the brewery, she runs the taproom, I just drink beer. And, sign a lot of stuff and write the big checks.”
As Brew Lab 101 was only about nine months along when the pandemic hit, it is good to see how the staff has worked together to not only adapt and overcome the challenges that began in 2020, but survive and thrive, as Salvas said. It all adds up to the fact that it is indeed possible to still succeed as a small, local business even amid all the restrictions, disruptions, and uncertainties of the past 18 months.
A big thanks to Scott and Tevin for the interview, quick tour, and a pint of the coffee-infused Lockdown Porter. Get that one before it runs out.
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