In 2020, we were up to our face masks in the pandemic. Everything, from business hours to a business’ future was unpredictable for many restaurants and breweries. Though sporadic for distruptions in terms of the pandemic, thankfully 2021 returned to something that felt a little more normal on both sides of the bar top.
For Second Street Brewery, while it may have felt like a nice return to business as usual for the brewhouse and wholesale operation, for the restaurant side, it was anything but normal. And, 2022 would prove that no establishment, no matter how longstanding and beloved, could predict the effects of the world’s situation as they announced the closing of their original location in March.
Shortly after the news dropped, I sat down with owner/brewmaster Rod Tweet and director of art and branding Mariah Cameron Scee for Second Street’s Look Back/Look Ahead Series entry, to find out what sort of year led up to the eventual saying good-bye to the “home away from home” for many of us, and what’s next for one of the oldest breweries in town.
Though the pandemic is still currently affecting many of our daily lives, as well as many business operations around the state, 2021 was a much different experience for Second Street Brewery than the year before.
“It was good progress from 2020,” Tweet said. “Business patterns are still pretty sporadic, just like a lot of people (are experiencing), but we made a lot of progress. We definitely didn’t sit on our hands. We kept trying to move forward with the restaurants, also moving forward with the brewing operation, with wholesale.”
For 2021, Second Street was less focused on simply surviving the current situation, and more concerned with thriving amidst it. And, in keeping with their long-term plans for incremental growth, Second Street added a few more brite tanks to the lineup. They also added some new lab capabilities in the brewhouse to help refine their processes a bit better. On the wholesale side, they added a second salesperson, which they hope will greatly increase their presence in the Albuquerque area, specifically.
Those steps, as well as a few shiny bright spots in 2021, helped keep spirits up and morale moving in a positive direction. One big bright spot was winning a silver medal for Oktoberfest at the Great American Beer Festival in September. Tweet and company were particularly pleased with that win, as it happened to be Rufina’s first GABF win for the 2920 location.
And, while we’re on the subject of wins, it couldn’t go without mentioning that Second Street also won two craft beer marketing awards in 2021 for Cameron Scee’s Barleywine can and package design.
As any brewery will tell you, any positive tick upwards in the numbers also makes for a bright spot in the months since the pandemic began. And, in hoping to keep up with that upward trend, Second Street has maintained their aggressive program for beer releases with plenty of new package for store shelves and fresh flavors for the taprooms.
Releasing the Lion and the Cobra mixed four packs was more than just a bright spot on their lineup, it was a whole package of shiny deliciousness that started the year off with a slew of new SKUs for their wholesale team.
“That was really cool because I haven’t seen somebody do a mixed four-pack before,” said Cameron Scee. “We were initially going to do just the Cobra, but the name for the album is The Lion and the Cobra. And so, we did a lion and a cobra. And so, I think making that happen is pretty cool. Consumers were asking, what is this mixed-four pack? But, it’s a format that we’ve done with a few things now, and so coming up with a new format is pretty exciting.”
The Lion and the Cobra mixed four-pack was just released back into the wild again, and should be available now at all locations while supplies last.
It was hard to miss at least one of the Sloppy Sloths in their hazy IPA series, as five different versions of Sloppy Sloth were released in 2021 alone, including Mosaic, Southern Passion, El Dorado, Sabro, and Mylodon.
And, did I mention an old favorite was finally released in cans at long last? Cameron Scee told the Dark Side that Cream Stout was also something they were very excited to release in 2021. She said it had come as a response to many people asking for it for a long, long time, in emails, via social media, and even at the taprooms.
Though it wasn’t on the same level as 2020, this past year bore many challenges as well, some carryovers from the previous year, and some new obstacles that no one could predict.
“It’s been sporadic, but we have managed to bring back a lot of our staff that we just didn’t have jobs for, for part of 2020,” Tweet said.
You may remember, at the beginning of 2021, Second Street was only open for patio service.
“It was just Winter, Beer, Patio, and trying to get everything open,” Cameron Scee said. “We purposely took our time reopening things to make sure we didn’t have to close anything down again.”
And, they’ve made good progress, but it still isn’t 100 percent. The supply-chain struggle continues to be a very real headache for the management team.
The industry has seen a huge rise in the cost of food and labor, and Second Street has been forced to take different measures to keep itself in a good position, including limiting items offered and increasing prices here and there.
“Our labor costs went up quite a bit,” Tweet said. “They seem to have stabilized for the moment, but food costs just keep continuing to go up.”
Shipping costs have skyrocketed as well.
“Everything we get in a brewery is heavy — malt, hops, equipment, food deliveries,” Tweet said.
As for aluminum cans, Second Street is fine for now. But, having to tie up so much capital in aluminum, as well as physical brewery space, has been a major struggle as well.
Adding to that the rising costs of fuel, the lack of availability in many other non-food-related supplies, such as, believe it or not, cardboard, and the business model they once knew well has become an alien landscape to navigate. We haven’t yet begun to see the direct effects of the war in Ukraine on the brewing industry, particularly in terms of the barley (20 percent of the world’s crop was grown there), but flags are already being raised.
In 2021, no matter how you slice it, it has become very expensive to maintain a restaurant.
“Depending on the format, the restaurant margin is about 10- to 12-percent, 15-percent margin, if you’re good at it,” Tweet said. “At this point, because of all the things that have happened, financially, we’re looking at a whole new model as far as margins. And, I’m not 100-percent sure how it’s all going to shake out. I’m a little concerned.”
Heading into 2022, Second Street was focused on moving forward. The restaurant side may have taken a large hit from the global pandemic, but the brewery side and the wholesale side have kept producing and growing their operations at a steady pace.
“If 2020 was survival, 2021 is maybe coping,” Tweet added.
Tweet and company aren’t sitting around waiting for a complete return to what the restaurant industry looked like before the pandemic. They’re trying to be more realistic. They’re spending their energy on figuring out how they’re going to make the road ahead work, especially if the current situation lasts another couple of years.
So, when it came time for re-negotiation of the lease at 1814 Second Street, Tweet said he was no more conservative in his considerations than he would have been pre-pandemic, but there was more weight to each decision on the table now.
“It’s probably fair to say we were pretty conservative about signing any long-term lease,” Tweet explained. “There are multiple facets to the decisions regarding the Original, aside from the lease. But, the lease, you know, it happens in business. Sometimes there’s just not an alignment there.
“One of the problems with any new lease negotiation, right now, is there’s so much more unknown than there used to be. We used to have stable business patterns; now we don’t. So that is a big factor. I’m being required to weigh more guesswork than I’m comfortable with.”
In 25 years, Tweet had the model down pat. He could nail a forecast, and predict a whole Santa Fe season with relative ease.
“And, that’s all blown out of the water now,” he said. “So that does enter into any business negotiation for lease.”
Ultimately, the decision was made to close “The Oldery.” But, as you can guess, it was not an easy one to make for someone who had built and plumbed it by hand.
“It’s been agonizing for me and several other people on our leadership team,” Tweet said. “I knew it was a possibility six months ago, but I didn’t think would really happen. And, there’s been a progression since then. I’ve got a lot of emotional investment in that property, as well. There’s so much stuff I’ve done with my own hands in the brewery over there, and so it’s been difficult. And, you know, we’ve talked it through ad nauseum. Ad nauseam doesn’t even cover it anymore.”
“In a lot of ways every conversation goes back to this right now,” Cameron Scee added. “I think the repeatedly talking about it is actually really important, because it is such an overwhelmingly huge decision.”
And, the decision wasn’t made until as recent as February, Tweet told us.
“In the end, we can’t do something that we feel will put us at too much risk, not with all the uncertainty in the post-COVID environment,” Tweet said.
“For the whole company,” Cameron Scee added. “It’s not just one restaurant. The company is much larger than that.”
Second Street currently employs about 70 to 80 people, with around 18 at the Original location currently considering their future options.
As it stands, Tweet and company have made it clear that a position is available for them if they want one.
“It’s going to be a work in progress here for a few weeks,” Tweet said. “But, we have a couple of things in our favor. Number one, we’re going into the (busy) season, and so we normally staff up. So between that factor and number two, offering lunches at the Railyard during the weekday, we think we’ll have a good opportunity to pretty much put everybody to work that wants to work.”
In fact, they timed the closing with the Original staff in mind.
“We picked the timing pretty intentionally,” Tweet said. “Our lease doesn’t run out there till June. The reason we wanted to do it now had a lot to do with the fact that this would give us our best ability to absorb the staff.”
It would have been much more difficult to absorb the staff at the other two locations as they would have already hired for the busy season in May.
As for the brewhouse, Tweet said he has a plan to keep that, as well. The equipment will be moved to a 4,000-square-foot space (about twice the size the current brewery) in the area across the street from Rufina, and it will be run by current head brewer Tom Ludzia. They don’t have a lease signed for the building just yet, but a letter of intent has already been penned and is close to submission.
After many conversations over the past couple of weeks, I know that many of the “Oldery” long-time patrons and staff are feeling displaced. The Original location was an undeniably unique space, with its own feel, separate from the other two locations.
“The response has been overwhelmingly one of support for Second Street,” Cameron Scee said. “People have been very positive, though also very sad. Honestly, I was mentally prepared to spend a lot of time responding to people’s anger and frustration, and there hasn’t been too much of that. Instead, there has been an outpouring of stories about how The Original has been a part of people’s lives for so many years, how their children grew up in that restaurant, how they met their spouses at that bar, how they had their first legal drink served to them by Ernie Bob. The comments on Facebook and Instagram are beautiful to read, though emotionally draining in their own way. I’ve been trying to give appropriate time and thought to both reading and responding since we made the announcement.
“There is also a fair amount of anger being expressed towards the property owner. People in Santa Fe are frustrated by increasing rent prices, understandably, and losing a favorite local institution, in part due to rent negotiations, is adding fuel to that fire. I’d like to remind people that we still occupy that space, and need to continue brewing there as long as we can. It’s a delicate situation.”
I also spoke to long-time bartender and server Fabian Pacheco. He said, “They love to come here because it feels like home. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing shorts and a T-shirt, or a suit, you’re welcome here. They come here because it’s comfortable.”
“The Original location brought community together for many years,” Ludzia wrote in an email response to me. “Many memories, laughs, loves, breakups, celebrations, and moments of mourning were shared there. The people made the space. It can’t be replicated, but I hope the magic that first created it rears its head and creates again.”
After asking Tweet if he would consider ever opening up another restaurant, he said, “No, not at this time.” But also, he said that he would consider opening a taproom without food at some point.
“The reason has to do with the uncertainty of everything. There’s just too many factors working against you,” he said.
Up next for Second Street is a continued focus on stability and a slow march forward with the many plans they’ve had in the works since before the pandemic. Part of that is more market penetration into the Albuquerque area, which naturally means they’ll be bumping up production on the brewery side.
They will be closing one of their venues, but Tweet said they are going to put a lot of effort into fine-tuning the Railyard and Rufina locations.
On the beer side, Cameron Scee told us that they have even more beer releases planned for 2022 than they have in any other year since they opened, which is great news for that Albuquerque market and anyone with room in their beer fridge.
As soon as April, you’ll be able to find Outlier Special Bitter in package, as well as the popular fruited kettle-sour Skimboard as early as June, along with a fresh release of Six Fruit Under.
And, don’t worry sloth-slayers, there are plenty new Sloppy Sloths planned for release. We’re already one Sloth into the year, but a Neo Mexicanus version should arrive just as this article is released.
If you’ve been to any of the locations, you’ll know that musical events are back in full swing at Second Street again. And, if all goes to plan, we just may see the glorious return of the Crab and Pilsner festival in June, which will coincide with a Czech Pilsner can release, and likely to be part of a collaboration with Josh Trujillo at Marble, which was pandemic postponed.
And, while on the subject of festivals with crustaceans, they are talking about the possibility of bringing back the crawfish boils that were made popular at the original location.
For 2022, friends and fans of Second Street can expect more beer, more events, more music. Did I mention more beer? Because there will be oh-so-much more beer!
Tweet and team said they are all excited for the return of festivals, with a cask festival planned at Sidetrack on April 16 and a lager festival at Ex Novo on May 14, as well as the NM Brewers Guild events that will inevitably pop up.
Just as I’ve done for every Look Back this year, I asked Cameron Scee and Tweet what they are looking forward to, or what they are most excited about for 2022.
Cameron Scee said she is very excited about getting a screen-printing studio.
“We have our shirts printed locally, and will still be doing that quite a bit, but this will let me do more artistic merch and do smaller runs of really cool stuff,” she said. “One of the things I’m most excited about is getting vintage denim, vintage flannel, and putting our logo on them. I like being able to go to beer festivals with a lot of one-of-a-kind things as opposed to mass-produced items. It’ll also mean that, you know, theoretically, depending on timing, but Crab and Pilsner design has always been some of my favorite art (pieces) that I’ve done here. And, it means that this year, potentially the posters themselves can be screen-printed posters. It allows me a lot of creative freedom in a way that I think will be unique to the local beer world. So I’m really excited about that.”
Tweet said he is also very excited about the art in and surrounding culture at Second Street, joking that he’ll have go start browsing the secondhand stores for some vintage flannel. For 2022, he said that he looks forward to just moving forward.
“Part of what I enjoy about my job here is the fun stuff like the art, seeing her merchandise,” he said. “I mean, I’m excited about the whole thing, but I’m really super excited about getting these two brites in and about the progress we’re making. You know, taking numbers in the restaurant environment out of it, I think we will make a good amount of progress towards getting back to normal, like the events, having the bands again. I’m excited about that. And, I’m always excited about any new beers coming up. I have a trip to Oregon that was supposed to happen right as COVID happened. It was postponed. So I’m looking forward to getting up to Oregon to see my family. It’s been four years.”
Finally, as a follow up, I asked if there was anything else Second Street would like the public to know during the last couple weeks. Cameron Scee wrote, “I’d ask that they be considerate of the staff at that (original) location. This is such a heavy and emotional time. Some of them have worked at that location for years; they have all of their own memories and grief to work through. It has been incredibly busy at Second Street since we made the announcement, and this is a very rough couple of weeks for them.”
“In addition, I’ve heard some talk about how Rod himself didn’t want the Original to succeed, that he planned this all along, etc. That is so ridiculously unfair. Second Street, and the Original, has been a huge part of Rod’s life since 1996. So much of his own history is wrapped up in that place, and I want to be very clear, this was NOT the intention all along. This was such an incredibly hard decision for him to make, and it wasn’t made lightly.”
In his email response to me, Ludzia quoted Kobayashi Issa, with one of his more famous haiku that he felt suited the situation.
This dewdrop world,
is a dewdrop world.
And yet, and yet …
After reflecting on the meaning, over a beer of course, and while reflecting on my many evenings at the Oldery, the haiku means to me that we live in a fleeting world, one filled with things, people, places not meant to last forever. Buddhism teaches that we should not to cling to such a world. And yet … it is impossible not to cling to something you love so dearly, impossible not to feel the pain of losing something, someone, some place you’ve come to love. It doesn’t matter how much time you spent with it, whether it be every day, or just a few days here and there, or even if you only had a few months to fall in love with it, it’s OK to miss it and not want to lose it, to cling to the memories of it.
Whether we helped build it, helped create it, or whether we spent blood, sweat, and tears maintaining it, making it something worth loving and missing, something worth clinging to, we all have so many memories of the original location. It was special. But, I believe that that spirit will live on, carried on by those who helped create it, and in the hearts of the passionate people that made it special. Sure, I’ll be looking for a new neighborhood pub, but I’ve already got a great start in my search, because it’s not the walls that makes a great pub, it’s the people.
A special thank you to Mariah and Rod Tweet for chatting with me, and to Tom and Shaundel for sharing memories, and to Fabian, Chris, and Ernie Bob, thank you for everything (and all that jazz). Thank you to Forrest, Echo, Gretel, Sam, and Ian, just to name a few at the original, and thank you to guys in the brewhouse, Will and Ben. Thank you to the amazing staff in the kitchens, more staff in the front of house, back of house, those at the Railyard, and those at Rufina. Thank you all for that something special you bring to the people of Santa Fe. We only wish we could repay you in kind. And, to the regulars, friends, family, and community, I may not have mentioned you by name. The list would be so long at this point, my editor would kill me, but you’re in my story. And, I want to thank you for being in it, from the bottom of my heart.
To Second Street’s future, to you, dear beer community, and to the Oldery, the OG, the Original, cheers! May the spirit live on.
For more #craftbeer news and @nmdarksidebc info, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro. Untappd: SantaFeLuke