Stop us if you read this recently, but a notable local brewery moved its brewing operation from one building to another in the past year and has faced some unforeseen challenges as a result.
Except this time, the story is not about Red Door, but Boxing Bear, as we learned when we caught up with director of brewing operations/co-owner Justin Hamilton and director of people operations Felicia “Fee” Gonzales recently at the new Firestone taproom and brewery.
“It’s been cool to see the madness of this going from a building full of rubble to operational,” Hamilton said. “We’ve had lots of ups and downs and setbacks, and just to be able to make beer and have it on draft, beer that was made here on draft here, is so exciting. It tasted good. It’s a new facility and there’s little changes with water supply and how things are going to run, so we really didn’t know how things were going to go. So far, so good.”
The taproom at 8420 Firestone Lane, off Jefferson south of Alameda, opened its doors last May, but brewing did not commence for quite a while afterwards. The final beer at the original Corrales location was brewed on Black Friday, and the process of moving the equipment started in December. It took until February 16 until the first beer was brewed at Firestone, and it was not until the end of March before the brewery was fully up and running again in its new, more spacious home.
“We just started brewing as much as we could, fill all our tanks,” Hamilton said. “We’re still building the place. While that was going, we had to get all the canning equipment done. That’s been kind of wild. We’re not used to doing so much construction at the same time as trying to brew and can and patch up.
“We’re at the point where we’re finally getting functional as to what we need to be doing with brewing, canning, and moving beers. Today (March 25) is really the first day we feel like a functional brewery. We had about five tanks we were playing with when we’re used to about 17. That’s been hard to try and keep stuff on draft. We haven’t done too bad of a job. We’re keeping everything going and flowing.”
While the regular house beers, like Uppercut IPA and Headlock Hazy IPA, are now back in cans, there have still been time for some seasonals like Space Walk IPA. More cans, both classic and new, are in the works now that things are working again.
“We want to get our lager, our Body Czech Pilsner (back in cans),” Hamilton said. “We had it in cans during COVID. But, since we have the added fermentation space and extra bride space, we’re hoping we can keep the Bo Pils in a can. That will be awesome, especially for me. We have our kolsch for our light beer, but we’re really proud of (Body Czech).”
Hamilton said the first goal is to get all four Boxing Bear locations fully restocked in terms of both draft beers and cans. After that, there may be some limited distribution in cans to places like Jubilation and Total Wine. There are not currently any plans to resume keg/draft distribution to bars and restaurants.
“Since we have the ability to can more, we’re going to keep limited releases going,” he said. “We want to be able to hock stuff that’s only in-house. That way our customers get the exclusivity that they deserve for being our loyal customers for so long. That’s definitely something we want to keep, having the releases here. But, we want to get our regular beers, our house beers, out on the shelves.”
The larger brewing space will require more people, and Hamilton said that Boxing Bear is joining its fellow breweries and feeling the pain of adding more people back there. Gonzales, similarly, has been trying to keep all four taproom staffs at full strength.
“The staffing has been somewhat of a struggle,” she said. “Now that we are getting into springtime and summer, we are coming full force into the hiring scale. We did just have a job fair. All of our taproom managers were a part of it, to get the chance to meet the team members coming onto their teams. I can say right now I feel very confident that we’re going to into the spring and summertime and be fully staffed, and be able to work festivals, to be able to work events, to be able to be comfortably staffed.”
There is always a challenge in keeping four taprooms fully staffed, scattered across the metro area, but Gonzales and her team have been up for that task ever since things opened up again last summer.
“Getting through 2021 was a little bit of a sprint, a little bit of a hurdle,” she said. “But, coming into 2022, everybody went ahead and got a chance to breathe at the beginning of the year, as January and February are a little bit slower times of the year, industry-wide. It gave everyone a good time to kind of reset and get really motivated for the rest of 2022, especially with all of the new endeavors that Boxing Bear is taking with the new brewery location and our new Firestone (taproom) as well. It’s been really great.”
Gonzales compared it to a game of Jenga, moving the pieces around to see what, or in this case, who fits best at each location. While they are in the process of adding more employees for the busier months ahead, Boxing Bear has been able to get back to doing much of what it did before the pandemic in terms of supporting other local businesses and nonprofits.
“Our staff is doing an amazing job with more (on-site) events now,” she said. “We’re working with the nonprofits that we used to work with, and I think that’s the biggest thing as well. We’re getting more opportunities with past businesses reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, Boxing Bear, let’s keep on and start rolling with it, pick up where we left off.’
“We actually just did a pet adoption (recently) that went very, very well. We’ve always shown a big heart to showing support for fundraising for our animal shelters in New Mexico. We also show support to our local vendors. Local supporting local is very important to us. That really comes down to every single team member making those coordinations and those calls to bring awareness to the community for a great cause.”
The four different taprooms have also become more oriented towards specific types of on-site events. Gonzales noted that with its spacious patio, the original Boxing Bear is geared toward events featuring live music. The Bridges on Tramway location has a higher volume of foot traffic, so events like yoga are held in the off hours. As for Firestone, because the entire property, parking lot included, is owned by Boxing Bear, it lends itself towards vendor markets, and perhaps even towards bigger events.
“Right now, we just want to try to get things set, (such as) we want to get cans into distribution, hopefully by the middle of this year,” Hamilton said. “Other than that, we’re talking about BearFest, talking about making that happen. We want to have events here, we want to show off our brewery. At the same time, we want to keep our other locations active. We have a lot of individual events going on. We want to keep things fresh, keep our customers feeling exclusivity.”
There is no firm date on BearFest for 2022, but if that festival does return, we will be among those lining up before the doors open at Firestone.
All told, with the brewery operational again, the taprooms in the process of being fully staffed, and cans rolling off the line, things are looking up at Boxing Bear for the remainder of this year and beyond. We will take all the good news we can get these days, so raise a pint or two at your favorite Boxing Bear taproom to the return of the brewery to its full power.
A big thanks to Felicia and Justin, who was slightly under the weather at the time, for meeting up on a busy Friday afternoon.
Keep supporting local!