Nexus Brewery weathered the toughest parts of the pandemic, and is now almost back to its prior sales numbers. It has not been easy to get there, but owner Ken Carson and head brewer Randy King are feeling upbeat as 2022 rolls along. I sat down with both of them for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series last week.
“Well, I don’t know how to describe it,” Carson said of 2021. “We started off the year, kind of opened up, we were able to serve beers. I can’t remember the order of things. It’s all jumbled up in my mind as to what happened when, because sometimes we opened, then we closed, then we went to the patio again.
“I guess I would say that every time they knocked us back, we responded relatively quickly to the positive. The governor would come with an order that would head off sales, reduce the sales that we were doing, but within a few weeks we would recover and we would be back doing the same thing again. … We got really good at to-go meals.”
On the beer side of things, Nexus has been able to regularly can three of its most popular beers — Scottish Ale, Imperial Cream, Honey Chamomile Wheat — and often has at least one seasonal available, as well.
“We’re looking into the possibility of distributing and getting our cans out into a few stores, but we’re not going to do full-blown distribution,” Carson said.
The Snow Storm IPA was the top finisher among the hazy contingent at the New Mexico IPA Challenge this summer, and is almost a regular beer now as a result.
“That beer in particular, I’m really proud of Tim, myself, and Nexus, because we won the blind tasting for the IPAC this year, we’re the winners,” King said. “We put a lot of work into that. Since I’ve been at Nexus, we haven’t advanced out of the first round. In the first preliminary round, we were the third to last to be announced, so that was a lot of fun. All right, we’re not going to make it again, and then to actually compete and for us to do that well in the blind tasting, it felt pretty good.”
There are several upcoming seasonal brews, a mix of new styles for Nexus and some returning favorites, that have King excited.
“The Belgian Dark Strong is a really interesting beer,” he said of his most unique seasonal currently on tap. “The Oralé Mexican Lager, we used Motueka hops in that, so it’s got this hint of lime in it now. If you don’t want to put a lime on it, you don’t have to. I actually love that beer. The Snow Storm (IPA) is on, and we have another batch of that since it did so well, I want to keep that one around. We’ve got Märzen coming out here in a few weeks, (and) a Trappist single, so that will be fun. I haven’t done a Trappist single before, it’s got some Hallertau Blanc hops in it. And then, a Belgian golden strong hasn’t been made yet, but it’s in the plans. I haven’t talked to Ken about this yet, but I’d like to can the Oralé. It could be a fun seasonal offering, or who knows where that could lead.”
Upon suggesting that Cinco de Mayo would be a good release date, both King and Carson seemed intrigued by the possibility.
Another thing that Nexus was able to get back to doing was collaborating with other breweries. The Red Beers and Rice, a red rice lager, was recently made with Marble and Hollow Spirits and is still on tap at all three establishments.
“The collaboration was fun,” King said. “We met down at Marble, with Andrew (Krosche) and Mick (Hahn), getting to know those guys a little more, having a beer and chatting about what we’re going to do. The morning we’re doing the collaboration, actually brewing the beer, I had a COVID scare, and Marble’s policies were you have to have a (negative) test to get in. I didn’t actually get to be a part of that. That just seems like it’s normal for COVID. It was fun. And, for a very good cause. Ken had way more to do with the cause than I did, I just helped make the beer.”
“Barbie (Gonzalez) over at Marble is the one that pulled us all together,” Carson said. “It’s supposed to help the Welstand Foundation, which is going to house under-privileged or disadvantaged African-American kids, that’s the goal. I know she’s still fundraising, (but) COVID has set her behind on her goals and what she planned on doing, but we continue to support her. This is the second time we’ve done a collaboration for the foundation. It’s a good thing. It’s also good to be able to participate in helping our charitable organizations again. ’20 was not a good year for that, or ’21.
“But, things have come back. Profitability is back. We’re really just trying to fine-tune this year. We’re doing a lot of work on our systems to improve those and solidify them.”
The biggest project for 2022 is the completion of the internal expansion of the Nexus Blue Smokehouse.
“For the upcoming year, we’re almost finished with the construction on the Smokehouse,” Carson said. “It will include a stage, a bar, and we also did a heated, covered patio.”
Like any other brewery owner with a construction project, Carson has run into the same challenges in terms of getting it all finished.
“I’d like to get open, but the problem is getting the contractors to finish anything is almost impossible nowadays,” he said. “We thought we would be done at the end of December, and here we are heading toward March. I’m hopeful and crossing my fingers that we’ll get done in March. Once that happens we’ll probably have a re-grand opening with music and bands. From then on, we’ll try to work out programming where we do have music on a regular basis on the stage, maybe inside and out depending on the weather. In the spring, it will be really great to be outside, but in the hot of the summer, it will be nice to be inside.”
For anyone who has worried that there might not be anywhere to sit if the Blue Smokehouse is too crowded, fear not, as Carson said seating capacity will go from 36 to about 120, and that just accounts for inside.
“My plan is for it to be a destination, a place where people feel really comfortable and hang out,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out ways for it not to be as formal and be as much of a restaurant, which is kind of interesting to say. But, even today, I want to be a brewery first, with great food.”
Nexus, like so many other breweries, also faced issues with having enough staff for its kitchens and taprooms. The original location is currently closed on Mondays, while the Blue Smokehouse is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
“One of the things we want to get back open (seven days) again, and that’s an employment issue,” Carson said. “I think on the barbecue side it’s going to probably stay that way. Mondays and Tuesdays aren’t great days for barbecue, so we’ll probably leave that alone unless we see volume and demand. Hopefully by mid-March we’ll get back to seven days a week and open up on Mondays. I’m looking forward to that. It takes a while to hire, and then you find out who you hired doesn’t work out. Or, doesn’t show up.”
Even with those lost days, Carson said Nexus is almost back to its pre-pandemic sales numbers at the original location, and the Blue Smokehouse is “only a couple thousand dollars a week away from what they were doing in seven days.”
There is also one other project that Carson hopes to get underway later in the year. He has applied for one of the new liquor licenses that will enable Nexus to start selling spirits and mixed drinks, but it will not be at the two existing spaces. Instead, the west-facing part of the original location will be sectioned off and turned into a bar with a limited menu of appetizers. It should help alleviate some of the crowds on weekends by allowing people not seeking an entire meal to have a space of their own.
We will, of course, keep everyone updated on the status of the Blue Smokehouse expansion and the future cocktail bar at the original. Both should really help Nexus to not merely get back to where it was before the pandemic, but to truly take off.
A big thanks to Ken and Randy for the interview, and of course all the beers and food over the years.
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