Lizard Tail tries to stay optimistic while facing ‘brutal’ reality of growing pains

Lizard Tail owner Dan Berry, left, and head brewer John Ruyak are navigating the brewery through a lot of ups and downs.

The last time we checked in with Lizard Tail Brewing, things were looking up after the brewery purchased and revamped the former Cantero Brewing, had plans to open multiple taprooms from Nob Hill to Four Hills to Mesa Del Sol, and was even ready to start canning and distributing beers.

When I caught up with owner Dan Berry and head brewer John Ruyak earlier this week for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series, the tone had shifted quite a bit, as the stark reality of doing business in a pandemic world had taken quite a bite out of their plans and optimistic outlook.

“It was pretty brutal, to be honest,” Berry said of the last eight months. “Honestly, we’ve gone through a lot of staff. We lost the whole kitchen staff, we lost some servers. … And, Nob Hill has just been one thing after another. There’s construction down there now. It looked like in January we were turning things around. We put a lot of attention into that spot. We did some marketing, got some new signage, tried to get more entertainment in there.”

Unfortunately, the City of Albuquerque decided it was time to do some construction outside the spot at 3417 Central Ave. NE, mainly in terms of replacing the water mains underneath Campus and Amherst, which certainly affects the taproom that does not directly face Central.

“The Nob Hill spot has just been one thing after another,” Berry said. “First we got into a fight with the landlords about the sign. They put a dispensary right above our spot, so we couldn’t put our sign there. That was our only visibility on Central. I spent a month-and-a-half fighting with them about that. I was almost to the point where I was going to break the lease and walk away from that spot. When we came to terms we were allowed to put the sign up next door above the record store. I was like OK, whatever. It was something. We got a whole bunch of A frames, we got the big banners out. And then, they shut down the whole street.”

While that has been a headache, at the very least, Lizard Tail has been able to take advantage of its brewhouse at the Industrial location to start getting the beers to where Berry has always envisioned they could be in terms of quality.

The beer lineup will remain varied, but expect more lagers and Belgian-style beers in the future.

“We’ve come a long way in terms of dialing in the brewery,” Berry said. “The beer is starting to be what it can be, more or less, so we have a lot of high hopes for 2022. We’ve kind of defined, more or less, the direction we’re going to take it. I want to focus mainly on Belgians and lagers, or in terms of differentiating ourselves, let’s put it that way.”

“We’re still going to offer ‘traditional American craft beer offerings,’ but to really highlight the strength of the Belgian and lager recipes,” Ruyak said.

The Alligator Abbey has already become one of the most popular beers on the menu, and Ruyak let me sample some of the Belgian Tripel that will soon be on tap.

“The priority now is to get the taprooms going,” Berry said. “They’re doing really well, they’ve been growing. Our customer base has definitely been growing. It’s looking really good. Getting the right management, the right employees in here has been hard.”

In contrast, the original Lizard Tail in the Northeast Heights has been a huge positive.

“We’re kicking ass, that’s our saving grace,” Berry said. “Up there it’s jamming. We’ve been doing better than … our second and third years there were our best by far. We didn’t have Marble up there, we were kind of the only ones up there. Once the word got out there, we were jamming in our second and third years, and it’s back to that. We’ve just been killing it up there. It’s saving our ass. Everywhere else, we’re almost break-even here, Nob Hill we’ve been losing our ass.”

Ruyak added that despite the staffing issues, Industrial is starting to take off.

“I think we’re really starting to carve out our niche here at Industrial, and people are seeking us out for a particular experience that we offer,” Ruyak said. “Whether it’s music on the weekend or trivia or open mics or karaoke, we seem to be pulling some different people back to the area that were maybe lost to the pandemic.”

The customers are returning to Industrial, even if staffing the taproom and kitchen remains a challenge.

Regardless of on-site events, Berry said that ultimately it is all about the beer.

“There is all that, and it is all important, but my whole thing was I just wanted a professional brewery see how the beers could be be,” Berry said. “I think we’re finally dialing things in and getting there.”

“It took 25 to 30 runs to really understand what the brewery does,” Ruyak added. “How the boiler operates, temperature controls, nailing mash temperatures, the way we changed our hop addition schedules, things like that. Just the different reactions we get from our pitches that we weren’t expecting.”

Of course, even that part of the business has had to deal new hurdles, mainly on the supply chain side, as items become scarce and costs shoot through the roof.

“Breweries our size don’t order further in advance, and there have been supply chain issues, particularly with British malts,” Ruyak said. “We needed to brew our Mexican lager again and we had to wait an extra week to get the base malt we need for that. BSG said maybe next week. We had to stretch that a little bit.

“Certain hops we buy on spot are disappearing that we didn’t think would. It’s good we have contracts. BSG was really good in that they let us rebalance our hop contracts. With the pandemic, everybody had old hops sitting on contract that they were trying to eat their way through. They actually let us, with the reduction in production across the board, move all our hop contracts forward. Instead of using something from 2018, we just replaced it with 2020s, 2021s, 2022s to freshen us up.”

The plans to can and distribute some of the more popular Lizard Tail beers have also been shelved.

“We hadn’t really gotten to where I feel that’s going to be feasible for us for a while,” Berry said.

“It’s more about what Ball (Canning) did,” Ruyak said. “We don’t buy directly from Ball, but our secondary supplier has to buy one million cans.”

“To be blunt, it’s just the cash flow, it’s not working out,” Berry said. “We don’t have the money to buy the next round of cans.”

“It’s a three-pallet minimum, right? We have to buy 10,000 cans, and that takes up space in the brewery,” Ruyak said.

One of these signs is now up at the Nob Hill location. We just thought it was a cool piece of artwork.

Lizard Tail did obtain a winemaker license for Industrial, but Ruyak said that the cost of making cider is increasing even faster than it is for beer, so those could be going away soon. No final decision has been made on that side of the business, though Lizard Tail is still making mead, so it will keep the license.

While Berry did say that he would like to get Lizard Tail back out to the beer festivals as those resume, the majority of the current focus at the brewery will be on the beer itself.

“I guess to just hammer on that point more, I’m really just excited about where the beer is going,” Berry said. “The quality is getting up there to where I’ve always wanted it to be. I think the realization that this was basically set up to a lager brewery, we get to do some lagers finally after doing not even a micro, but a nano brewery. Now we get to do some actual lagers. I’ve been sitting on some recipes for years that I’ve just been dying to do. I’m really excited about that.”

There may not be any additional taprooms coming soon, but Lizard Tail is still fighting to establish those that it has already, mainly by the continued improvement in the beer lineup. It is on that hopeful note that they will move forward into 2022, battling to carve out their own niche in the local brewing scene.

A big thanks to Dan and John for the interview and the beer samples. I look forward to trying that strong Scottish ale again when it is on tap in a few weeks.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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