Oh, it is that time of year again. For those who have not followed us in the past, welcome to the first entry in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series. At the end of every year and into the start of the next, we sit down with as many breweries as possible to discuss how the past year went for them, and what to expect in the coming 12 months or so.
First up, we have Tractor Brewing, where I caught up with head brewer T.J. Frederich and events coordinator Jeremy Kinter at the end of last week.
After our last two entries in this series for Tractor were dominated by the COVID pandemic, things are feeling a little different this time around. Dare we say, perhaps it feels like things are almost back to normal?
“You know, I think you hit the nail on the head, it returned to normal,” Frederich said. “We’re still not brewing at pre-pandemic levels, where we’re double brewing every day and constantly pumping beer out, but it is nice to brewing (once) every day, as opposed to this time last year.
“Let’s just say it’s not a struggle to find stuff to do back there every day. It’s a good problem to have.”
Frederich has been on the job for more than a year now, helping to take a lot of the brewing operations work off the plate of co-owner/brewmaster David Hargis. Frederich, in turn, has been able to put more of his stamp on things, though it can be tough at times when dealing with a brewery that has been in operation since 1999.
“It’s kind of a blessing and a curse, Tractor has been around so long, (so) they have a recipe for everything,” Frederich said. “Anything you can imagine. Sometimes when I’m bored I’ll go back through the recipe book and ask what haven’t we brewed for a while. Boot Girl, which was one of my favorite IPAs, I had completely forgot about. We have that actively fermenting right now.”
One beer that has evolved from a seasonal to a regular is Scorpion Hazy IPA, which is an original recipe created by Frederich.
“There were several iterations before that as we tried to figure out what we’re trying to do with that,” he said. “I think we finally got it. That one was funny. I like to go out to different taprooms and see what they have on that’s interesting, new flavors, new styles, it’s some quick R&D, plus it gets me out of the house. I run into people at the bar and I have my Tractor shirt on, and they tell me they love the Scorpion.”
In addition to newer beers, Frederich has also been able to work with some of the longtime recipes at Tractor, tinkering here and there to make some improvements that have been noticed even outside of New Mexico.
“We sent four beers off to (the Great American Beer Festival competition) this year,” he said. “And, this year was more just getting that feedback and see if the things we’re dialing in on working, or not working. We had overall positive feedback from GABF. Two of our four beers made it to the final round of the styles they were put in. The pilsner had glowing remarks; it actually received two 5-stars and a 4.75. The only critique was it needed just a little more bitterness. We’re on the right track as far as those things (go).”
The more positive feedback that Frederich and his staff receive, the more they are entrusted to continue to experiment and improve.
“As I said earlier, it’s a blessing and a curse, because Tractor has a recipe for everything,” he said. “So it’s kind of looking back on some of those recipes that I thought were good that needed improvement, even back when I first started. It’s a lot of just trying some new styles, a lot with honing in the processes, and the beer doing as well as it’s doing, you gain Dave’s trust. When you gain Dave’s trust, you get to experiment a lot more.”
Kinter has certainly seen that as well.
“I’ve never seen David give this respect to a brewer and space and room for him to operate,” Kinter said. “He’s (still) hands-on, but he’s as hands-off as he’s ever been. So you guys can tweak those recipes and make them their own, which I think is working really well.”
Frederich said that Tractor has been able to adapt to the ever-changing, ever-frustrating new realities when it comes to things far outside its control, like inflation and ongoing supply chain disruptions. One example is in terms of filling the outside silo with grain. What used to take 48 to 72 hours from ordering to delivery, Frederich said, now takes three-to-four weeks.
“It’s just kind of anticipating where those supply chain things are going to happen,” he said. “Some areas are worse, but some areas are getting better. It’s what we learned during the pandemic, being more flexible back there. We’ve been pretty proactive back there.”
It always helps to have a solid brewing team, and Frederich he has just that in John Bastian and Adrian “Cesar” Quezada-Hernandez.
“I was lucky enough to get Cesar, who’s our cellar guy, out of CNM,” Frederich said. “The guy has just been lights out in the cellar. We have a great rapport. If he thinks there’s something we can change, we try it. We’ve also had John on the team for six months. He’s also from the CNM program. The overall knowledge of them coming out … has really helped. We all have a great rapport back there. That’s probably been the biggest overall improvement.”
“It’s really nice,” Kinter added. “It’s the best rapport I’ve seen in the brewery in the seven years that I’ve worked here. And not only rapport amongst you guys, but between me, and you, and Dave, and front-of-house. I think that speaks in the beer itself. You have people who are very good at what they do, but are (also) very motivated and very happy to do what they do. I think our beers are the best they’ve ever tasted, like the Javi Lager and the Traktoberfest. That’s the fastest we’ve ever gone through the Traktoberfest.”
It was not just the public who loved this year’s version of Traktoberfest.
“I think the biggest compliment I’ve received so far was the head brewer (Dave Chichura) from Ex Novo when he tried out Traktoberfest at Marblefest,” Frederich said. “He said this was the best Oktoberfest. I’m like, ‘Damn, I know what I’m doing back there.’”
As for what is next in 2023, Frederich said he hopes to just keep innovating and trying out new beers. On a good note, he will be closing out 2022 with the annual release of Turkey Drool, likely this week, followed by a small, curated batch of barrel-aged Turkey Drool, likely on Black Friday.
“We want to try new styles, different hop combinations with IPAs,” Frederich said. “I don’t want to say anything is off the table. We have a lot of fun back there. A lot of our shift is we’re talking, messing around, thinking about what we’re doing next.”
A fully armed and operational events calendar
For Kinter, 2022 marked the return to a full events calendar, not just at Wells Park but all three of the offsite taprooms — Nob Hill, Westside, and Los Lunas.
“One of the big things I’m getting out of it is some of our taprooms are performing better in the post-pandemic era than in the pre-pandemic, and that’s very promising to see,” he said. “Nob Hill has been killing it. Nob Hill has had a rough go of it. I was around during the A.R.T. (construction). And then, the vortex of death, when Starbucks was closing in front of us, going from A.R.T. construction to a bunch of businesses closing. We had three closed businesses around us, and that hurt a lot. Even after A.R.T. construction was done, and we started to see that rise back up, and then the pandemic hit.
“Now we’re seeing a revitalization in Nob Hill. That’s because of businesses opening up around us, like Ihatov (Bread and Coffee) in front of us, M’tucci’s Bar Roma, Happy Accidents, Scalo’s opening back up. We’ve become an industry favorite down in Nob Hill. We have a lot of bartenders and servers coming in after their places close. We’ve taken over the late-night slot, because we’re the only bar that stays open in Nob Hill until 2 a.m. It’s been amazing, it’s been really good to see that location flourish.”
Wells Park, of course, remains the anchor, both due to the brewery and the bigger events. It also got a little boost this year of the culinary variety.
“Wells Park is what it is, it’s an event-driven location, but it’s doing wonderful (business),” Kinter said. “One of the big assets that we’ve acquired in making Wells Park even better is we now have Taste of Love in the little kitchen. So now we have a kitchen five days a week. Booking food trucks is tough; it’s not hard at Nob Hill, because it has the foot traffic, but other locations like this is harder.”
Major recurring events that have become big hits include the monthly Goth Night and Dark Market, the weekly Tractor of Terror horror movie night, and the monthly Gin & Jazz. Newer events have included Powerpoint Karaoke and Powerpoint Date Night, both of which have been well received by customers. Kinter also said that the weekly trivia night in Nob Hill has easily exceeded expectations, averaging some 25 to 28 teams signing up each time, prompting him to declare it the number one trivia event in Albuquerque.
The crowning event of the year was also back at full strength, as the Stranger Things Arcade Carnival and Bazaar was a massive hit during Halloween weekend.
“Doing Stranger Things, finally, back to its full capacity (for the first time) since 2019,” Kinter said. “It was a challenge, but it was very fortuitous. In my opinion, it was the best one, and not just because of recency bias. In terms of the entertainment, the arcade games, the vendors, and how many people showed up, it was fantastic.
“It has overall been a very good year for events in our taprooms, and it keeps getting better. The slower seasons keep shortening as time goes on, which is nice.”
As for 2023, Kinter is already hard at work planning things out well in advance.
“Looking forward to 2023, well, in terms of just adding new events, (I am) constantly rotating things out that don’t work, and adding in new concepts that are out there, but may work,” he said. “I wouldn’t say Goth Night was out there, at all, it just made sense to me. My girlfriend is a goth, and the goth community is really tight knit and amazing here in Albuquerque. I don’t know what Stranger Things will look like next year. I’ve got some new things that I want to try. I want to try some magic and comedy nights, which are a lot of fun. I’m very optimistic right now.”
Hey, after the last two rounds of Look Back/Look Ahead, starting out with a big old dose of optimism and positivity is just what everyone needs. A huge thanks to Jeremy and T.J. for being willing to go first this year, and of course, for the advance sample of that barrel-aged Turkey Drool.
Keep supporting local!