For a brewery as small as Sidetrack, even the littlest changes can be a pretty big deal. This year, however, the changes were pretty darn big, but all for the better of the popular downtown pub.
I sat down with owners Dan Herr and Anne O’Neill, plus new head brewer Cordell Rincon, for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series last week.
“Any little thing that we try to do is almost like a major project,” Herr said. “Everything is positioned just so, so we have to figure how we’re going to do this or do that.”
The projects, as noted, were far from little in 2022. One of the biggest saw Sidetrack host its own mini-beer-fest for the first time, the Alley Cask Festival.
“Just to start out, that was something that we had talked about for one year or two, we talked about that pre-COVID,” Herr said. “That was a fun thing to pull off.”
Herr then looked over at Rincon and asked him if he was among the many brewers in attendance.
“I barely missed it,” Rincon replied. “It was one of those things where I got stuck (at work). I’m definitely coming this year.”
That quickly let the cat out of the bag, so to speak.
“Our plan is to do it again this year (in 2023),” O’Neill said.
“We had great participation, great feedback,” Herr said. “Participation from the brewery side and the attendee side. We’ve got a small space to do it in, but I think it worked out all right. We’ve got to make some small adjustments, but we plan to do it again.”
Being able to host the festival was a result of the improvements made to install a permanent shade structure on the patio, which Sidetrack completed at the end of 2021.
“That was another big thing about this past year, we got the patio done sort of at the tail end of ’21,” Herr said. “And, we got to go through a full year of having it in place, seeing what we can do with it, how it works, how people respond to it. I think in terms of what we were hoping to get out of the patio, it’s good. We’ve got permanent shelter, and don’t have to worry about when the rain comes or the snow comes. We’ve got a protected area out there, and we’ve got heaters.”
Herr added that the next phase of the patio will be to modify the seating and tables, and make it even more unique.
Right next to that, as of early in 2022, was the necessary expansion of the brewery into the outdoors.
“Another thing we experienced this year was having outdoor fermenters,” Herr said. “So in January of ’22, Anne and I drove out to San Diego and picked up two more stainless (steel) fermenters and drove them back. So we had to get those installed, and in order for that to happen, we had to take two of our original fermenters and move them outside. We got those hooked up some time in the summer. We’re figuring exactly out how to use those, the advantages and disadvantages. It’s a little bit of freedom in the fermentation space, we’ve got six fermenters now.”
Sidetrack is still learning how to best work with the outdoor fermenters and the temperature swings of New Mexico.
“You’ve just got to watch putting beers out there in the winter,” Rincon said.
“We brewed an ale into one of those and put it out there for primary, and that was right when the first cold snap happened (in November),” Herr explained. “We learned that those are not impervious to the cold.”
“We had to move it inside almost immediately, (but) it worked out in the end,” Rincon added.
While those accounted for the structural changes, the biggest change at Sidetrack this year was when Rincon succeeded David Kimbell as head brewer.
“As seamless as it can be, I think, it was a nice transition,” Rincon said.
O’Neill and Herr agreed, and gave thanks to their former brewer’s willingness to be a big part of the transition.
“Kimbell was good and stuck around for two weeks,” O’Neill said. “He got Cordell up to speed.”
“David gave us plenty of notice, even helped us giving suggestions as to who we should reach out to,” Herr said. “I don’t know if we ever reached out directly to anybody, I think we put the word out and we got a pretty great response. That was pretty gratifying to (us). I think are places in town that are maybe still looking for brewers after several months or longer. We had a nice list of people that we spoke with and tried to make a good decision on who would plug in well here.”
Rincon, who had previously brewed at Steel Bender and Chama River, was an easy choice in the end.
“We couldn’t be happier with Cordell,” Herr said. “He’s plugged into our culture and staff, the kinds of beer we like to make, just real compatible. I’m looking forward to what we can pull off.”
With a few months under his belt, Rincon has already begun to put his own stamp on the beer lineup.
“The Bohemian pilsner seemed to kick off (well), the crowd here seems to like lighter beers,” Rincon said. “That’s an interesting pilsner, people seemed attracted to that. That one just kicked, but we’ve got a rye lager on now that I’m pretty happy with, too. So far, the lagers have been all right, doing well here, I think.”
“Yeah, but you’ve also been expanding (the lineup) and trying some things,” O’Neill added. “We have our (Purple Haze) sour on right now.”
“Yeah, we have the sour on, and we did that collab with Thirsty Eye, the Side Eye Peppermint Porter,” Rincon said. “That’s a new one for me, as well. That was fun experimenting. I think that one will do pretty well, too. That was my first and I think that was their first, too.”
Another change that came late in the year to Sidetrack was the brewery logo got a revamp.
“We thought we were going to sneak that out there,” Herr said. “That’s how we like to do things. We thought about it for a while. I just wasn’t ever happy exactly with our logo, just in terms of how we could use it in social media, and use it in merchandise, all the ways that you have to put your brand out there. It never really clicked for me. I think a lot of people gravitated towards it and liked it, but it was just something that was always nagging at me. I think the blame goes to me 100 percent on that. We just wanted something that’s a bit more graphic.”
“But, also something that represented who we are now, as well,” O’Neill added.
“Yeah, we’ve gone through quite an evolution since we first started,” Herr said. “I think the concept is the same, and I guess our motto or core values are the same. We just want to make good beer and have a good place to serve it in. But, I think every year we talk about what we’re going to do when we look ahead, and it’s we’re just going to try to make the place better. And so, this is just another iteration of that. It’s just a representation of the evolution we’ve taken so far.”
Or, as Rincon put it best, “keep the identity, and embrace change at the same time.”
“Yeah, there you go, that’s perfect,” Herr replied. “We’re going to make a T-shirt out of that.”
The old railroad spike logo will not disappear completely.
“But, we haven’t changed (as a brewery), it’s just a new look,” O’Neill said. “The spike will still be here, it will be around, it will be our tap handles.”
“It’s just our mascot,” Rincon added. “I think (the new logo) stands out.”
The newer, brighter logo will also stand out for the first big project of 2023.
“We’re going to evolve into the normal commercial landscape and we’re going to actually put a sign on our building,” Herr said.
“That is a big goal for 2023,” O’Neill added.
“That was a big part of the logo situation, I just didn’t have a lot of confidence in how we could have a good sign,” Herr said. “So we’re going to follow through on all that, and be able to get some recognition outside so we don’t have to wonder where we are as much.”
So in reviewing 2022, we have already previewed a lot of what is to come in 2023, from some new patio furniture/seating arrangements, to another run of the Alley Cask Festival, to the building signage. Beyond all that, there will still be plenty of focus on the beer itself.
“We’re going to keep pushing Cordell on the beer front, try to get some more versatility and just respond to what people want,” Herr said. “Try to keep things fresh and interesting.”
“See how we can have fun, basically,” Rincon added. “A lot of things. I got a couple of the ones I wanted to brew out of the way immediately. Hopefully we can do some controlled infections in barrels. I know you guys have done that in the past, so that would be fun to bring back.”
“We’ve got to pick our battles, we can’t do everything, but we can (develop) a plan and do one or two things,” Herr said.
“We’ll figure it out as we go,” Rincon said.
That all sounds like a good plan to us. A big thanks to Dan, Anne, and Cordell for meeting up early in the day.
Oh, and they do plan to invite Mighty Mike’s Meats back for the Cask Festival, which is very important, in my humble opinion.
Keep supporting local!