A Saturday drive up I-25 to Bernalillo went a little quicker than anticipated, so I arrived a bit early at Kaktus Brewing for a rare weekend interview for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series. While owner Dana Koller was busy getting things set up for the eventual on-rush of customers coming to see the jazz band play on the patio, I got a chance to sample the new Winter Bock. That alone was worth the jaunt up the freeway.
When Koller was ready, we sat down to catch up on how the past year went for his brewpub, and what he expects from the rest of 2023. After that, I check in with head brewer Michael Waddy, who was busy getting the next batch of the Helles Lager ready, as it still remains the most popular beer with the locals.
Going back to 2022, the year started off somewhat bumpy, but eventually snapped back to normal.
“Labor-wise, it was interesting, I’ll say that,” Koller said. “I’ve never had to work so hard to get people to come in the door, employee-wise. The funny thing was, it didn’t matter how much you paid. I could have offered a server a guaranteed $60,000-a-year salary. People were flighty. I don’t think it had anything to do with our space; people just didn’t know what they wanted to do (with their lives). So they would come in, accept the job, act like they’re excited about it, and literally the next day not show up.
“But, towards the end of the year, it totally shifted. It went back to normal, literally on the turn of a dime. It wasn’t a gradual thing. It was like for eight months, labor was ‘what the hell is going on?’, I’d hired more people than I’d hired in my life in one year. Then all of a sudden, that eight months passes, and I’m back to that super loyal, super good staff. Now we have tenured people. Now almost everyone has been here a year, except for my new cook.”
Kaktus received a pleasant surprise at the end of the year.
“In the midst of that, we still got top five in Albuquerque the Magazine for best brewery staff, which was nice because it was more work than ever to get them on the same page,” Koller said. “Now I’m happy to say (after) we closed down for two weeks during Christmas, and we did some hardcore training, and it changed everything. This place has never been cleaner, things are running more smoothly, our numbers are already up. Our average ticket price has gone up I’d say by 20 percent, which is a huge uptick.”
While Koller was focused on the front-of-house staff, Waddy was busy learning the ins and outs of the new 3.5-barrel brewhouse that was just being unwrapped when we all sat down for last year’s entry in this series.
“You know how they always say don’t by the new model year car, wait until the next one when all the kinks are worked out,” Waddy said. “That’s kind of what we did here, we bought the first model year of this system. There’s all kinds of kinks. My first couple runs we came up pretty shy on volume. I took some measurements on inside diameter. These sight glasses are not placed correctly. They measure the outside diameter. The volume is on the inside. We had to adjust some things.”
Once those adjustments were complete, things have been running smoothly, Waddy said.
“That’s been a blessing, man,” Koller said of the new system. “That was such a wonderful improvement. His productivity has just skyrocketed. That’s been really good.”
The new brewhouse is just one of the things that will help Kaktus in its new focus for 2023.
“This year we’re putting a huge focus on education, and not just brewery-wise, not just for ourselves, but general education,” Koller said. “We’re really making sure our staff are really prepared to lead a good lifestyle for themselves. We’re working with business coaches, personal coaches. My brewer is taking on extra hours for beer training with our staff, which we really haven’t done in a long time, to be perfectly honest. We’re excited about that, and the same thing with our cooks. We want our cooks to become chefs.”
As the band started up on the patio, it was a reminder of how 2022 was all about getting things back to normal in terms of the events that really draw in the crowds.
“Last year it was entertainment, that was our focus,” Koller said. “Every year we try to create a (different) focus. We won best in (brewery) entertainment from Albuquerque the Magazine. We’re going to continue, but now that we’ve got our groove on that, we’re going to focus on education.”
That will naturally include educating customers and staff on the beer and brewing process.
“We’re going to do a couple homebrew classes this summer when the weather warms up and stuff,” Waddy said. “I think it will be fun to get more people excited about it. We’re coming into our tenth year of operation here. We just celebrated our nine-year anniversary in October. I still love it, I still love what I do, but you do anything for almost a decade, it’s different than what it was when you first started.
“So I think I kind of want to bring some of that magic back. I think the best way to do that would be getting other people excited, seeing it through their eyes. If you go to Disneyland, as an adult it’s like whatever, but if you have a kid there, you see it through their eyes, it’s magical again. The year of beer education, I kind of want to reinvigorate and get re-excited about that.”
A more beer-centered focus will be important for Kaktus in 2023, Koller said.
“Not to give away our own marketing strategy, but I think when you and I first met, the brewing industry was just starting to go nuts,” he said. “Everybody was all about cicerone education and pitching what makes their beer different. Now I think it’s gone to pitching environment, so now everybody is hiring music, everybody is pushing their environment, and nobody is talking about their beer, in my opinion.
“So this year, we’re going to get really aggressive in talking about our beer, what makes it different, what sets us apart, how we’re able to source our materials and our ingredients. We want to be very transparent about it, and we want to get people excited to talk about beer again.”
Other changes on deck include some new food items on the menu, which should appear in the next few weeks. Oh, and more parking, which just about every brewery would for this year and every year. Koller said that will help with the crowds for the larger events, and enable Kaktus to expand the patio area. That project should be underway in March or April.
There is also talk of doing a small packaged liquor area, featuring spirits from New Mexico distilleries, and possibly some canned beers from other local breweries. Koller also said that he and Waddy will be bringing back some of the bottle-conditioned beers like the imperial stout and barleywine, which will be easier to brew thanks to the new system.
“On our old system, we were pretty limited, just on the malt that we could fit in the mash tun,” Waddy said. “With this, we can have some high gravity fun, which is definitely something we’re going to do this year.”
Other than the parking lot expansion, Kaktus will not be expanding its footprint this year.
“I have my place downtown, the UN-17 speakeasy is fully licensed,” Koller said. “Because I have the two places going, it’s hard to imagine doing any kind of wild renovation here. I don’t think we need it. We need to get back to our roots. I feel like we need to get back to our roots of a true brewpub, and then maybe we’ll get back to (talking about) expansion again.”
Koller added that he hopes to have Kaktus start attending festivals and entering their beers into more competitions this year. Waddy noted that the latter is something they have not been good at doing in recent years while the focus was elsewhere.
“Honestly, we’re the worst at that,” he said with a laugh. “We don’t stay up to date on what’s going on. Oh, the IPA Challenge is next week? Whoops! … We’d like to do that again, it’s fun. We have to stay on top of that stuff a bit more.”
On a couple of final notes, Waddy said the old brewing system is still for sale, in case anyone out there is looking for a pilot system or something for a small start-up. Koller, in the meantime, said he is looking for a type of business lawyer or advisor who can help Kaktus set up a program for employee-owned options for the brewpub.
Overall, 2022 was another strong year for Kaktus, and the brewery leadership already has many of the plans for 2023 set out and ready to go.
“We’re having fun,” Koller said. “We’re good. It was fun winning those awards, getting a little bit of recognition for our staff.”
Congrats to Kaktus on the awards, thanks to Dana and Michael for the interviews and the pint of Winter Bock, and I will be back to taste that batch of Helles Lager that I helped mash in during my visit. I almost forgot what a good workout that can be.
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