One big project down, one even bigger project to go.
That essentially sums up what we learned from our Look Back/Look Ahead Series interview with La Cumbre Brewing owner/master brewer Jeff Erway this week, as we caught up with him to discuss all aspects of his award-winning brewery.
“I’m going to give this year a B-minus,” he said. “Obviously, to start off positively, the labor market is so much better than it was a year ago at this time. Our turnover rate has plummeted, and we’ve probably got the best crew across the entire company that we’ve had since before the pandemic. So that’s a bright, shiny yay.”
It is always good to start on a positive note. The other positive was the completion of that aforementioned big project in the brewery, which took up much of the staff’s time and effort this year.
“We completed a big packaging line expansion, a huge reinvestment in the facility as well as our overall quality of beer in package,” Erway said. “Not only did that go over, I think, about as smoothly as can be expected, the resulting beers are of a higher quality than we’ve ever had in package by a good amount. For so many that are drinking our beers super fresh, they might not notice a huge difference, the thing they should have probably noticed is a little bit more carbonation in the beers, because we’re losing so much less. Maybe a little bit more aromatics, maybe a little bit crisper flavors to the beers overall.”
Erway said the change in quality is best measured in not the beer freshly canned and on the shelf, but instead in the beer that has been there two to three months. He called the difference “night and day” for how Elevated IPA and Slice of Hefen taste now even after several weeks in cans.
“That was a big deal, because obviously we’re shipping beer out of state and across the state,” Erway said. “That was a big win to get that in there. I coulda shoulda woulda done it pre-pandemic. The pandemic shined a big light on that big discrepancy in our packaging line, not because of the quality, but because of the speed. We were having to run our old canning line 80 to 90 hours a week, sometimes. Now that’s fixed, so that’s good.”
Next up for La Cumbre in 2023 is, well, we will let Erway explain.
“I usually try to only take on one project a year, and that project this year was the canning line. It took up a huge amount of my time, and Daniel (Jaramillo) and Alan (Skinner),” he said. “But, I think for this next year, 2023, I’m looking at the marketplace as it is and I think it’s staring at us right in the fact that regional breweries, in general, have to find ways to become more relevant locally. Because being relevant regionally is damn near impossible.”
Erway said a good example was Port Brewing and Lost Abbey in Southern California, which went from winning multiple medals and awards a decade ago, to deciding to put its production facility up for sale, scaling back to focus on its taprooms.
“That should speak volumes to absolutely everyone running a packaging brewery,” he said. “I think everyone should be asking themselves the question, are you somehow better or different than them. For some, that answer is going to be yes.
“For certain breweries, I think the answer is going to be to try to become everything to everyone, and become a brand that is a drink corporation. You make every sort of drink under the sun. For others, I think this holds true for my friends in San Diego, they’re going to refocus on beer, craft beer, and refocus their business. I think that’s probably a very tough choice for them to make, but that’s what they’re deciding to do.”
No one should panic, however, that La Cumbre is going to abandon its packaging and distribution model in New Mexico and beyond. Instead, it is more about maintaining things outside of the state, while putting a new emphasis on growing locally.
“For us, I think we’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing, continuing to distribute in Arizona and Colorado, but right now I’m not seeing an avenue to expand beyond that,” Erway said. “Not because I don’t think we can, but I don’t think it’s something we can do properly. But, I do feel like we can reinvest in Albuquerque and Santa Fe profitably, and I’m going to be looking long and hard at what exactly our target demographics are, where exactly those people are located density wise around this city and between here and our neighbors to the north, potentially to the south, and try to find a really great location as close to them as we possibly can be, and build a smaller brewery that can hopefully … what my goal is is to double down on the curmudgeonly beers that bring out the passion in a lot of us here, and offer those hardened craft beer fans have always supported us something unique. That’s not to say I’m promising anything, that’s my goal.”
A second La Cumbre brewing location focusing on the kind of styles that make beer geeks like us extra happy? Yes, please. This is a situation we will be closely following, but as Erway said, it is only in the preliminary phase. A location will have to be found and secured, then built or at least remodeled. That will take time, probably stretching beyond 2023, so be patient, everyone. Still, it is a promising development for all involved.
In the meantime, La Cumbre will keep having fun with its seasonal and specialty offerings alongside the bigger releases and year-round beer that we have all come to love.
“I’m going to keep trying to create new and interesting beers on our pilot system,” Erway said. “The local drinkers can expect to see a lot of new beers out of our brewery in cans and on draft. But, unfortunately, I think the reality is that it’s a mistake to push those beers far and wide. Because I think anybody that’s been out to the really large retailers of craft beer outside of the state understands what happens to all of those beers. It’s not that the beers themselves aren’t high quality or well marketed, and I’m talking about mine and other breweries, there are a ton of beers on the shelf that 10 months ago were exceptional, and now they’re collecting dust.”
Erway said that the best course of action for any packaging-and-distribution brewery is to keep distributors, especially those far from home, focused on the core beers. That will keep distributors and their retail partners happy, and in this day and age, that can be crucial to staying the course.
There were some other challenges and changes at La Cumbre in 2022.
“We added some great co-workers and lost a couple that hurt, not because of the way that they left,” Erway said. “Honestly, the two that come to mind in particular are Cory (Campbell) and Dr. Elizabeth Agosto. (They) gave us tons of notice and were very gracious when they left, but the loss is felt all the same. Overall, I’m very proud of some of the seasonal beers that we put out there, particularly Oktoberfest just absolutely killed it for us from a business standpoint. We produced another 180 barrels of it this year, more than we had last year, and it wasn’t enough. That’s always good news.”
In the case of Campbell, who handled graphic design of can labels and much more, La Cumbre has already found his successor.
“We lost Cory and obviously Cory had been here for almost six years, and we loved him,” Erway said. “He just did a fantastic job. On his way out, we found Andrew McCollom, a local graphic designer, and brought him on board. He’s just finishing up his second can design, and we’re super pleased with what he’s coming up with. We’ll continue to try and push for new and interesting graphic designs like that.”
The recent Hop Tumbler IPA was the first label that McCollom designed, and his second label should appear on an upcoming release.
Speaking of cans, La Cumbre had to work its way around those shortages in 2022.
“On the challenges of the year, the can issue was kind of a hair-on-fire moment for a bunch of us here, scrambling to secure the printed and blank cans that we needed,” Erway said. “We had always purchased all of our cans from Ball. We tried a bunch of different companies, some shipping cans in from Canada, some shipping cans in from Colombia and China. Some of those were fine, and some of those were not fine. But, we learned quite a bit. We dealt with it how we possibly could have, and I think we’re probably through that as much as we can be at this point. We’ve secured cans through 2023, (so) I’m confident. Onward and upward.”
It all just comes back to finding that balance between the expectations and demands of being a regional distributing brewery.
“I think you can say, by and large for breweries that are distributing out of state, this is a challenging time,” Elway said. “Because nearly every market around the country has a, let’s say a decent craft brewery that’s already distributing. If you just look at our own market, what the top beers in this market were back in, say, 2007 when I got into the industry, and what the top craft beers are today, I bet you there was two or three in the top 10 that were local. Now, in the top 10 there isn’t one that isn’t local. And, it’s that way in just about every market. One could easily make the argument that isn’t that a good thing. Shouldn’t we be trying to drink more locally? If you’ve got a good local brewery, I can’t really argue too much with that.
“Distributing outside the state is challenging, and we’re definitely seeing that challenge. We’re making investments in those markets, but overall our focus continues to be Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and greater New Mexico. We’re trying our best to hang onto the business we have and trying to expand that.”
As always, we thank Jeff for taking the time out to not just do an interview, but provide us with insight and a little greater beer world education. We will have more from this interview in a later story previewing the 2023 state legislative session, which could be pivotal for a lot of breweries in ways we have not seen in some time.
Until then, please make sure to head out to La Cumbre this week for the 12th anniversary events and special releases. Here is a quick calendar of what is happening.
- Monday: Tapping of Klitsch(KO) Imperial Stout on nitro (we mention this because if any is left, you need to get some ASAP)
- Tuesday: Siren Song draft only, Magokoro Pop-up, 5 p.m. until sold out
- Wednesday: Barrel-aged Siberian Silk tapping
- Thursday: Imperial Red tapping, plus 2020 La Negra bottles for sale
- Friday: Vivid Wild release, plus 2021 La Negra bottles and draft
- Saturday: 12th Anniversary DIPA release (both locations), 2020 Siren Song bottles and draft at brewery only, music by Chris Dracup and Hilary Smith 5-8 p.m. at brewery, Screen Kings live printing with limited edition T-shirts at brewery
Happy anniversary, La Cumbre! Here is to the next dandy dozen years.