Ex Novo celebrates the year of lager and looks forward to something new

The Ex Novo team, from left, of director of brewing operations Dave Chichura, founder Joel Gregory, sales manager James Gregory, and head brewer Ryan Hillesland.

It was already a busy day at Ex Novo Brewing when I arrived to talk to founder Joel Gregory, sales manager James Gregory, and head brewer Ryan Hillesland last week for their entry in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series. The brewhouse was humming away to produce a batch of an unidentified kettle sour, while the cellar teams were working on the other side of the building, checking on the beers and preparing to transfer some stouty goodness from barrel to brite tank.

Over the hum of the brewhouse, and the occasional clang of equipment being moved, we caught up on how 2022 went for the Corrales brewery and its sister locations in Oregon, and what to expect in 2023. Needless to say, it was as busy of a year as it was that day of the interview.

“It was mostly good,” Joel said. “We got Ryan, that’s a huge change. … We started interviewing for that about a year ago. We hired him in March. That’s been huge. We built our team, not bad turnover this year. We picked one up and lost one brewer. Hudson came down permanently from Portland. We’ve just been adding (since), so it’s been a good year for not much turnover. Things have stabilized for now, so that’s exciting.”

For Ryan, the move brought some positives, some new challenges, and a particular appreciation for one aspect of New Mexico.

“It’s been great,” Ryan said. “Good climate, much different size of brewery that I’m used to, so it’s been a bit of a learning curve. I feel like I’m settling in pretty well. I really enjoy working on the system set-up that we have here. It’s been about as easy of a transition as you can hope for.

“I’m loving the December weather so far. I’m going home to North Dakota for Christmas and it’s probably going to be 7 degrees. It’s been a very good first nine months.”

Fear not, Ryan, by the time folks are reading this, another winter storm will be arriving in New Mexico to help you feel like home.

“He’s been killing it,” Joel said of his head brewer. “The beers he’s created have been solid, doing a really good job of pushing some new techniques, ingredients, processes that we haven’t tried before. We’re doing a lot more R&D this year than we have before.”

Outside the state, Ex Novo has started some limited distribution in Texas, mostly around Austin, but otherwise things remained relatively similar to 2021.

“We haven’t done anything drastic in terms of new brands or new territories,” James said. “We’ve just kind of been working that organic growth.”

While the interview was going on, the brewing team still had to check those lists.

While the COVID pandemic and 2020 -21 lockdown certainly had a lasting impact, James added that the market has not changed that much in terms of what beers people are enjoying these days.

“I don’t think there’s been any wild changes,” James said. “I think the market demand for sours is going down. As far as Ex Novo as a brand goes, we’re still growing, on and off premises. As far as package beer, we’re pretty much in every outlet we could be in. We’re in pretty much all the accounts we want to be in. We’ve got over 120 off-premise accounts. It’s really solid here in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe area, we’re in a lot of places, a lot of really good places, like Los Poblanos, really high-quality places like that.”

“It’s still a core brands market, that hasn’t changed much,” Joel added.

There has been an uptick in sales of seasonal beers out of the taproom and the Corral, James noted.

“One thing about Ex Novo that is great is we’re pumping out new beers all the time,” he said. “People really like that. We have solid core brands, the one-two punch of Mass (Ascension) and Perle (Haggard) are great for a lot of people. But, we have a lot of new stuff, too.”

That has kept Ryan and his brewing team busy, and also enjoying the run of various specialty beers they have been able to create. He has been able to utilize the 5-barrel brewhouse to push out some unique new offerings, while saving the 20-barrel for the core brands.

“I love that we’re able to do decocted lagers, the dopplebock is great, and we’ve got a double-decocted Baltic porter in the tank right now, that’s not something I’ve ever been able to do before,” Ryan said. “The Helles we did, that turned out fantastic. We played around with some thiolized yeast, some phantasm powder, experimental hops. I love that we’re able to do some cool, classic, well-made lagers, and also able to play around with some trending hazy IPAs and the like. It’s great to be able to play both sides of the card.”

It was the year of the lager, in many ways, topped by the LagerHosen event that took over the Corral in May.

“It was a big lager year for us,” Joel said. “We did our little retreat and mapped out as many as we could do in a calendar year, all the different SKUs and UPCs. It was the easiest and most fun to fill out when you look at what do for the seasons. We can really flex seasonality.”

“I do think Ex Novo as a brand really established itself as a big hitter in the lager game,” James added.

This was the biggest on-site event for Ex Novo since it opened in Corrales.

While LagerHosen was a tremendously fun event, its memory is tinged with sadness for what happened shortly thereafter.

“I would be remiss not to mention the hardest thing, the worst past of this year was losing Ryan Buxton, our Portland head brewer,” Joel said. “It was terrible. It was the worst thing you can go through. As a person, a family, a company, trying to navigate out of that and move forward and get back to work, it obviously impacted the team up there the most, but it was felt down here as well. That was the weekend after LagerHosen, the highest high, everyone’s favorite weekend, and right after that … it was just an impossible situation.”

We shared our condolences then with everyone at Ex Novo, and we still raise a glass in Ryan Buxton’s memory.

The Ex Novo team, both from Corrales and Portland, was able to gather again in a positive way in Denver in October for the first in-person Great American Beer Festival since 2019. They even came away with a silver medal for Sons of Scotland, though they had to endure quite the wait at the awards ceremony.

“We were category 96, you’re going into the last day hungover, and you’re sitting there, hearing a lot of nos,” Joel said. “We had a lot of beers passed over. You never think you’re doing to win, but you still kinda think you’re going to. It was good to happen, even late in the game.”

Ex Novo heard its name called just seconds after Quarter Celtic, which had taken the bronze in the same category for Kill or be Kilt.

“I loved that New Mexico got to show up big on that one,” Joel said. “Everyone is going to be drinking Scotch ales now, I guess.”

Something big is brewing for 2023

So many barrels, so little time.

Though he was not able to be there for the interview, I recalled something that taproom manager Stevo Jeter had said about the potential stress of assembling a staff for an offsite taproom. I casually brought it up with Joel, and, well, this is what he had to say.

“I’m not looking (anymore),” Joel said. “I’m not looking actively right now. I’m also not going to say anything. I don’t think we’re terribly far out from being to talk about that one. It’s been a lot of fun work lately, exciting stuff.”

No, we do not have a location yet, nor a projected opening date, so that teaser will have to do for now. Let the speculating begin!

As for the things they can comment upon for the coming year, the Ex Novo team did provide some insight into what is on deck.

“What are you going to brew?” James asked Ryan.

“What am I not going to brew?” Ryan replied with a smile.

“We talked about this last year, but the more years you’re doing it, the more beers you have to revisit,” Joel said. “I’d be interested to know what the percentage of returned one-offs or seasonals versus first-time beers. You have things like Coorales Light, that was awesome, we brewed it a couple times this summer.”

Award-winning seasonals like Threat Level: Turquoise will certainly be back, along with other best sellers.

“When a beer has a following, we can definitely do that again,” Joel said. “That adds a lot here. Our IPAs on the bigger scale, we tend to do a couple a month.”

The double brewhouse will be working hard again this coming year.

The Corral, Ex Novo’s massive outdoor beer garden, has also added another element to planning out the beer calendar.

“It was a great year for that, we got to see what it did for sales, which was noticeable and dramatic,” Joel said. “We have limitations on how many beers we can pour over here, so the variety is not quite as high on this side, but for a lot of drinkers that’s fine. We try to put the beers you would want to be drinking outside, whether that’s hot weather or cold weather.”

With so much of its on-site drinking space outside, Ex Novo is certainly a weather dependent brewery. One of its almost-year-round beers is also seasonal dependent, though in its case, it is not involving nature, but soccer.

“Yeah, next week we’re canning an amber called Extra Time Amber,” James said. “Last year, sales (for Stay Goalden) dipped significantly after the soccer season was over. Let’s do something fun before the season kicks back off in March. During the cold weather, why don’t we do an amber? It’s trying to be a brand that everyone can drink. We think an amber works for that.”

“We have a great relationship with the crew over there at (New Mexico) United, so I’m really excited that continues to go in an unofficial way,” Joel said. “It’s been fun. The label for that is sweet. That will be rolling out next week, and when the season starts again, we’ll bring back Stay Goalden.”

Ex Novo will also be introducing a new hazy IPA that will be available year-round on draft and in six packs. The packaging team will also be putting together 12 packs of The Most Interesting Lager in the World, something James has apparently been for quite often, Joel said.

The new canning line is almost ready to fill those stacks back there.

There is also the new canning line that is nearly ready to be fired up, which has been the primary project for director of brewing operations Dave Chichura for some time now. Dave was able to join us late after he said he misread the calendar.

“We’re almost there,” Dave said. “The new filler we’re figuring out. We need to get that Pack-Tech applicator set. We should get that done in the next week or two. We’ve got some parts to add and a couple software updates. Then we’ll be able to turn that thing up to 11.”

Or, as Joel put it best, “packaging rules everything around me, it’s the thing that has to work for everything else to get done.”

Ex Novo has a few other fun beer projects in the works, too.

“We got to have a nice little retreat in Austin with the leadership, ask what we’re doing next year,” Joel said. “That was really productive. We’re not going to change our brand a lot or do anything crazy, we just want to hone in a few processes and keep getting better.”

“Filling out the year-round calendar with lager releases is super fun,” James added.

“You’ll see some fun collaborations coming this year, it’s always fun to have that on the horizon, both breweries and some other organizations,” Joel concluded. “We kind of have this idea for a Drink Beer, Do Good IPA series. Working with other organizations to promote what they have going on, do some craft branding, use our platform for them. That’s exciting.”

All that, and a new taproom that Joel totally confirmed without confirming, and it should be another fun year for Ex Novo. A big thanks to Joel, James, Ryan, and Dave, plus Stevo, who was there in spirit if not in person. Without him, I would never have known to ask about that taproom.

We will keep everyone up to date on the progress of that project, and of course all the weekly new beer releases. Now to just make space in our beer fridges for this Friday’s Kill the Sun releases.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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