Steel Bender Brewyard makes it through some big changes behind the scenes

The Steel Bender leadership team, from left, Monica Mondragon, Tom Sadja, Shelby Chant, Ethan Chant, Matt Meier, and then the Crew’s own Franz Solo, who also happens to work there.

Sitting out in the taproom at Steel Bender, the average customer probably has not noticed too many changes. Go behind the scenes, especially in the brewery building next door, and you might notice a lot of new faces.

Our Look Back/Look Ahead Series often focuses on the changes that occur from one year to another, but sometimes those are fairly minor. As I sat down with the new Steel Bender leadership team, though, it was apparent this was more than most places endure in a year or so. But, for all that changed, the popular Los Ranchos brewpub sure feels like it is back on an upwards trajectory.

“I think in general we just feel really good right now, we really do,” co-owner and marketing director Shelby Chant said.

“We feel great about our brew team, we feel great about our taproom management,” said her husband and co-owner Ethan Chant. “All of that change, it was hard, but we had to go through that fire.”

Joining the Chants and I for the interview were head brewer Tom Sadja, brewery operations manager Monica Mondragon, and sales and distribution manager Matt Meier. If the latter two names sound familiar, Mondragon ran the lab at Santa Fe Brewing for years — where Sadja also used to work — and Meier was previously the head brewer at Red Door.

“This has definitely been, among the leadership and management team, the most change we’ve had in the short time since we opened our doors,” Shelby said. “It’s all been very purposeful change, and really getting some incredible results out of the people we have.”

If you’re just hanging out in the taproom, you probably didn’t know about all the staffing changes behind the scenes. (Photo courtesy of Mario Caldwell)

With the new faces now in place, that also meant that some familiar ones were gone. Founding brewer Bob Haggerty and sales and distribution manager Adam Auden both departed. Haggerty had given the Chants an almost three-year notice, of sorts, that he did not foresee himself as a long-term fit for a production-and-distribution brewery.

“He loves brewing and he loves what he does, but he said from the get-go he never wanted to get into heavy production,” Shelby said. “In reality, we went there anyway. And, he was excited about it. We accidentally got into distribution a little bit earlier than we though we were going to with Bob. So then, he just made the decision about three years ago, he gave us his notice and said look, I’m going to stick around, I helped you guys build this, but this isn’t what I see in my future. We completely respected that.”

Sadja came on board as assistant head brewer, and then slid over to the big chair when Haggerty formally departed.

Replacing Auden, however, proved to be more difficult. He had been commuting all the way from Los Alamos, where his wife had taken a job at the national laboratory. Auden now works much closer to home at Bathtub Row Brewing.

“That guy hung in there with that commute,” Shelby said. “Adam, we’re surprised he held on as long as he did. He was coming in four days a week. He just needed to be closer to Los Alamos. We put the ad out to hire his replacement and got some incredible applicants.”

The hiring process actually went slowly at first. Auden tipped off the Chants that some good candidates were about to arrive without naming any of them. Meier, who was looking to move out of brewing, was one of the first to arrive. Mondragon, who was also a little tired of the commute to Santa Fe, arrived soon after.

That left Steel Bender with the dilemma of who to choose between the two of them. The more the Chants thought about it, however, the more they realized that Auden had been doing the job of two people.

A rare moment of quiet for the production brewhouse. (Photo courtesy of Mario Caldwell)

“Adam was kind of a jack of all trades,” Shelby said. “He did a lot in there from a coordination standpoint, really working closely with Bob, definitely working with Admiral and distribution.

“Matt Meier walks in and we go, there you go, we’re done. We’re sitting out there waiting for the next interview, and it’s Monica. Monica walks in and we go shite, what do we do? The four of us, within about an hour crunched numbers and said this was too good of an opportunity to turn away (either of them).”

“It made sense,” Ethan added. “Adam did a tremendous amount, both Adam and Bob did a tremendous amount in how quickly we grew. Adam had to do a lot of learning on the spot, and distribution really started taking off. He really did a tremendous amount with production and sales. And then, it just became a lot for one person. We really need two people, one for sales and one for production.”

Once everyone was hired and their roles were defined, the newcomers got to work.

“It was really more of working on process improvements,” Mondragon said. “The process that we use in our brewpub, for instance, is not the same efficiency process you want in a production facility.

“Brewpub life is a little bit different from production in that when you’re working in a production facility, the you really have to think about it as food manufacturing. Use those food manufacturing practices as part of your process throughout all of it. … Get the process easier, get it more efficient, because our volumes have been increasing.”

With those processes in place, Sadja got to work on the beers.

“A lot of it has just been hammering home flavor profiles on the beers, really, starting with the flagships,” he said. “We got Skull Bucket more orange-y, Mañana more tropical, we’ve got a tropical pale ale as well. But, just picking and choosing which flavors we like more of in the beers, and making them shine more.”

A lot goes into making this brewery work smoothly. (Photo courtesy of Mario Caldwell)

Meier was able to give himself a little bit of a physical break before he drew on his past experience on the business side of the brewing industry.

“My back doesn’t hurt as much, that’s the main one,” he said with a smile. “No, it’s nice. Before I moved to New Mexico, I worked for a distributor in South Carolina, so I was pretty familiar with the sales side of it. It was only when I moved out here that I threw myself head-long into brewing. So, it was time to hang up the boots and sit down at a desk and play with spreadsheets all day. It’s been a nice transition.

“The biggest learning curve for me in this job was going out and meeting the accounts, building those relationships. Luckily, most of the groundwork has been laid by Adam, and inheriting Mario (Caldwell) and Bill (Heimann) as my sales guys, they made most of the transition super easy. And then, the Chant family, they know most of the people in town, so that made my job easier. It’s been a pretty nice transition.”

Now that everyone and everything is in place to move forward, things are starting to feel a little closer to the normal that existed before 2020, at least on one side of the business.

“I would say definitely in terms of the taproom, we just had a our anniversary two weeks ago, and that was the first time in three years that it felt like how it used to feel,” Ethan said. “It was a lot of fun, a big part of the reason I wanted to get into this industry in the first place. It was people hanging out, drinking beer, sharing stories, that kind of stuff. That was the first time in a long time the taproom felt that way.”

Ethan pointed out that the distribution side of things had only just begun to solidify for Steel Bender when the pandemic shutdown occurred, so in many ways that aspect of the business has always been evolving and will continue to do so.

Keeping both sides of the business humming has been a challenge, but a worthwhile one. (Photo courtesy of Mario Caldwell)

With all that business talk out of the way, we tackled some fun projects coming up for Steel Bender. Mondragon has taken on the task of managing and organizing all collaboration projects. She said that some of the annual ones, like One for 5 with Second Street and Sierra Blanca, the autumn collab with Flix Brewhouse, and the charitable one for Agora Crisis Center with Canteen and High and Dry, are all on the schedule again.

“For the new, we’re partnering with Rowley (Farmhouse Ales) for the Ex Novo event (United in Beer),” Mondragon said. “Something in the works is a Sunday Service collaboration. And, we’re looking at a possible collaboration with Slow Burn Coffee as well. I’m looking forward to that one. We’re going to put the Short Mondays Irish Red Ale into some maple barrels and add some coffee. Long Mondays!”

A recent collab, Policy Wheat, was done with M’tucci’s and Teddy Rowe’s. It also saw Steel Bender switch to 16-ounce cans for that special release. Ethan said the credit goes to Mondragon and Sadja for figuring out how to temporarily convert the canning line from 12- to 16-ounce cans. He went on to say that there should be some future cans in that bigger size, both for seasonal/specialty offerings, and possibly for short runs of some of the year-round beers.

Meanwhile, Meier started looking into some new ideas for how to raise funds for charities. He has one big idea now fully in the works, with a target date of late May/early June.

“Just about every year we do at least four or five projects with a charity to benefit them,” Meier said. “So I had an idea where why don’t we do a golf tournament at Top Golf. That’s now all consuming. It dominates my life right now. We are going to, well, I’m going to say this with giant air quotes, we are in the planning process of holding a golf tournament to close out (ABQ) Beer Week at Top Golf to benefit a local charity, yet to be named, officially. We’ve been talking to Top Golf for the last couple weeks, planning out the details.”

Breweries can form teams of four to six players to compete, and so can members of the general public. The plan is to rent out an entire floor of Top Golf, possibly bring in some bands, and have some radio spots.

“What’s really interesting is this is the first time we’re having to seek sponsorship,” Shelby added. “We’re having to look for some really, really big sponsors to pull this off so that we can make the dollars matter. It’s a little bit of new territory for us. We’re usually the ones asked to sponsor. It will be interesting to see how this works, but we’re going to pull it off. It’s going to be so great that it will be an annual event.”

Yes, they invited the Crew to form a team. I honestly have no idea if anyone else in our collective has even swung a golf club in recent years. I only broke my golf-less streak last year at a small course by a friend’s cabin in between Taos and Angel Fire. The results were, um, well I didn’t get hurt, so that counts for something, right?

The brewery team has been busy back there. (Photo courtesy of Mario Caldwell)

Moving along, Sadja and the brew team have also been hard at work getting ready for a big competition and more.

“We just finished packaging our entries for World Beer Cup,” Sadja said of the upcoming competition, with winners to be announced at the Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville in early May. “One I was very excited about it is Nigel is going in as an entry. We’ve got Bulldog packaged and in, Compa, Esme, and I’m looking to see how those do. It’s always good to get the (judges’) notes back, improving the beers.”

So that’s a Scottish ale, best bitter, blue corn lager, and Italian pilsner heading for the judging tables, just in case anyone wants to start typing up a list in advance.

Beyond that, Sadja said that the barrel-aging program is getting a refresh, with new barrels, and some new beers going into those barrels.

“Tom and our brew team are (also) refining the pilot system, we’re really trying to tackle that now,” Ethan added. “So that’s exciting, not only to try out new beers, but also in how Monica sets out the brewing schedule. We’re really utilizing the pilot system in ways that we originally intended, but also to do some experimental stuff, and short runs. We’ve put out some beers that have only been out for a week. I like that as opposed to something getting stagnant. I like when you come in there’s always something new to try.”

Mondragon said that she and Sadja are just adopting a new philosophy for all aspects of the brewery.

“Tom and I have worked at (another brewery) for a while, and it’s very different in levels of organization and teamwork on a production floor,” Monica said. “We’re trying to take more of a collaborative approach, run ideas by everybody, get more input from everyone. Everybody has great ideas, and we need to try to make it a group, collaborative, group effort, especially when it comes to improving the product. It’s a little bit different from where we came from.”

In a way, it is almost like Steel Bender has undergone a reset, while staying paying tribute to the people who helped get it started.

“I think the biggest thing is I’m just really excited about the team that we have,” Ethan said. “Bob and Adam and Cordell (Rincon) were fantastic. We couldn’t have been luckier with the team we opened up with, that got us started. Now that we’ve reached this level, you see a lot of breweries in a lot of different places — and not necessarily in New Mexico — that when they reach a certain size, their beer changes dramatically. One thing especially Tom and Monica have been concentrating on is consistency. Monica is about sustainability (too). Monica is steadfast on I’m not going to rush this, it’s what it needs to be. Bringing these new and different levels of knowledge and experience, we’re milking it for all its worth.”

“The other reason things are feeling so solid right now is it feels like the walls have come down between the two buildings,” Shelby added. “They were there, a little bit, in all honesty. But, there’s a lot of conscientiousness, Monica is really taking on to make sure that everything is pouring great in here, taking that feedback from beertenders. Everyone company wide, from the food that we’re serving, to the front-of-house staff, to the beer, to the sales, everyone is working well together.”

That sounds like the right recipe to keep Steel Bender moving forward and getting better all the time.

All right, we told them that since they were on the Murphy Stage, to do their best rock star poses. Um, this was the result.

A huge thanks to Shelby, Ethan, Monica, Matt, and Tom for the interview, and for being patient with us in the lead-up to said interview, and then waiting for me to type it up finally (in my defense, we talked for 40 minutes, 44 seconds, which might be a record for one of these articles). A cheers to all, and we look forward to all that the future holds for one of the most popular brewpubs in town!

Just with the Crew luck with our golf skills, or total lack thereof.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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