Santa Fe Brewing continues to dial in recipe for success in 35th year of business

Santa Fe Brewing Co. HQ is one impressive space.

As I drove out to Santa Fe Brewing HQ, just off Highway 14, it reminded me of my old work commute, back when I had slung a few photos for the company and donned the Zia hoodie for a short while. As the dusty road wound around the brewery, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much they’ve grown since that time.

We had always felt like we were doing big things in the early days, working for Brew Co., but now, with the huge packaging, brewing, and taproom halls, buttressed by silos and tanks towering high into the sky, Santa Fe Brewing Company has truly become a bustling fortress, right at the edge of our mañana-paced town.

Entering the beer garden through the main gates still brings a sense of wide-eyed, jaw-dropping awe at their magnificent achievements.

Recently, I made the pilgrimage out to 35 Fire Place to chat with brewmaster Bert Boyce to find out what Santa Fe Brewing Co. was up to in 2022, as well as what projects they’re working on now in 2023 for our latest in our Look Back/Look Ahead series, Santa Fe edition.

Brewmaster Bert Boyce shows us around the brewhouse.

“It was fun and challenging,” Boyce said of 2022.

For Santa Fe Brewing, 2022 wasn’t a tale of rebuilding after the pandemic, like it had been for many. They had more than survived the slowness, as people returned to their normal social habits, and back into public spaces. In fact, they had thrived despite the dark times.

It was very much due to their distribution footprint, Boyce explained. But, perhaps it helped that they didn’t have to rely on taprooms as much as many other breweries around the state. For SFBC, 2022 was about fortifying their position, which for them was a simple yet tried and true recipe, finding what their customers want, and making it in the best way possible.

“2022 had its own challenges,” Boyce said.

The biggest one for them was installing their new canning line.

“We started planning that line about a year in advance, buying the equipment, specking it out, designing, engineering, all of that,” Boyce said. “And then, of course, everything is delayed in these kinds of projects.

Their initial goal was to install the new line by February 2022.

“We didn’t get started until late March, maybe early April, which we were coming into summer build-up time. So that was not ideal for us,” he said.

For SFBC, it proved a logistical nightmare trying to plan their inventory, knowing they would be without a canning line for what they thought would be four weeks.

Brand new canning line from Ska, and new cartoner upgrade (not pictured) from DMM.

That turned into six weeks.

But, once they had what they needed, the crews at SFBC put in long hours, some weeks pushing 60 hours to tear out the old equipment and install the new. And, in the end, they were pleased with how everything turned out.

“Everything does what it’s supposed to do,” Boyce said. “And, in this game, if something does what it’s supposed to do, you’re happy.”

With their new canning line, Boyce told me that when it comes to distribution, they are not looking to expand the lake, but deepen it.

“We’re big fans of the New Glarus business model,” Boyce explained. “We are now only in four states and not looking to expand beyond our current footprint at all. We are New Mexico focused. I’d say 90 percent of our business is in New Mexico, and we like it that way.”

In addition to New Mexico, Santa Fe Brewing is currently available in Arizona, Colorado, and Texas.

“Our philosophy is if we touch that state, we will ship to that state,” Boyce said. “If we have to jump state lines, then it’s just too far. People don’t know who we are. They don’t care. Beer just goes to die in places like that.”

Though they’re one of the larger breweries in the state, Boyce tells me they are still very much affected by supply chain issues, cost of goods, shipping, and as we’re all too familiar with, availability.

“Things like the costs are out of control. But, you’re just lucky if you can get it,” he said. “So yeah, managing supply chain was huge in 2022.”

SFBC was in good position from the previous year, because they did a better job of managing their supply chain than the larger breweries.

“When wholesalers were out of beer from Mexican imports, or the big industrial brewers, none of them could get beer to wholesalers. And, we were on time,” Boyce explained.

Boyce attributed much of Santa Fe Brewing’s success to being just the right size.

“We’re big for New Mexico, obviously, but we’re still pretty nimble,” he said. “We’ve still got a really small team, which allows us to keep our finger on the pulse and get done what needs to be done.”

That has helped SFBC navigate some of the rougher years.

Though the cost of everything has jumped up significantly, Boyce said he believes that there are better days ahead.

“We are actually starting to see prices start to normalize, for the first time in three years,” Boyce said. “Some of these insane surcharges that all the suppliers were just calling it, like, ‘surcharge.’ And so they would just tack on this 20 percent to stuff. And, some of those surcharges, they’re starting to rationalize those. So I don’t know if it’s fixed yet. But, we are starting to see some costs on some materials normalized, which gives us hope for the long term that it’s not just going to keep skyrocketing.”

These fermenters are almost always full.

And, while prices may be returning to something that looks a bit more normal, getting a hold of the goods still feels more like a game of beg, borrow, or steal.

“Grain and hops are fine,” Boyce said. “It’s weird things like PLCs, which are the computers that control automation lines, that tell a motor when to turn on the canning line. You used to be able to buy those off the shelf. But, because certain industries went crazy during COVID, then they went from one month out to seven, eight, nine months waiting time. If you were lucky, you would get your supplier to steal the PLC you need from another project that was delayed. So it’s really just like a shell game of managing delays, and begging people to give you the thing you need.”

A brewery like SFBC, which is heavily focused on package sales, did see a dramatic shift in buying habits during the pandemic, but Boyce said it seems to have evened out recently as well, with folks split between going back to the taprooms and buying a different pint every time, trying the new six packs at the store, and those that continue to buy their favorite case of 7K IPA.

With five daily-operating taprooms, SFBC is happy to see people returning to the businesses again.

“In 2022, there was a while where we set real low expectations for our taprooms, and they just crushed it,” Boyce said. “People were absolutely over it, and they were going out.”

SFBC feels pretty good about predicting what this year may bring, but Boyce said from 2020 to 2022, “we had no idea.”

In 2022, Santa Fe Brewing produced 40,000 barrels, and is looking to do about 45,000 in 2023, which keeps them squarely in the top 10 of the Rocky Mountain region, according to the Brewers Association.

“We’re not approaching the big guys yet. We’re good,” Boyce assured us.

SFBC is still brewing away on their 70-barrel Krones/Steinecker brewhouse, but they’ve added more tank space, like the two big 300-barrel beauties you can see from the beer garden area, to which they’ll be adding a 300-barrel brite tank soon enough.

The new 300-barrel beauties.

Their major upgrade is actually quite smaller in scale, small-batch scale, that is. SFBC recently purchased a 15-barrel pilot brewhouse from MARKS out of Portland.

“We’re building it to basically mimic the Steinecker,” Boyce said. “We can make the beer there, and once we like it, we’ll have confidence that the first time we make it, that it’ll work on the larger system.”

Boyce told us that it will give SFBC the flexibility to do a lot more one-off beers.

That will absolutely mean you will see more variety at both the Albuquerque and Santa Fe taprooms. And, who doesn’t love a little more variety?

Speaking of variety, in 2022 SFBC released several new products such as Cholla Fizz, the hard seltzer series available in four flavors, largely in response to the popularity of seltzers like White Claw.

Boyce said SFBC’s strategy for those was to make it for a New Mexican palate, don’t use fake ingredients, and keep it simple.

In addition to the Cholla Fizz, SFBC released NMX Standard, a light rice ale with German hops, rice, and pilsner malt, which just so happens to be Boyce’s favorite beer to talk about.

“I think it’s the beer that that our state needed,” Boyce said. “I think we’ve all tried to do something like this, but instead of starting with the liquid and then figuring out how to sell it, we kind of worked backwards for the first time. So with that beer, we really started trying to figure out who our customers were, who the drinkers were, and who are customers weren’t yet, but we wanted to be, and trying to figure out what everyone wanted that none of us were doing, certainly what we weren’t doing. But, the demand was out there, and it’s working really well.

“Other markets have their own regional crushable beer that is really locality driven. And, we didn’t know why we hadn’t done it or why anyone else in New Mexico hadn’t done it, so we worked backwards from the question — what is that anytime beer that you can drink before doing stuff, after doing stuff, and still do stuff?”

SFBC does have an impressive lineup these days.

Santa Fe Brewing’s answer was NMX Standard, a low ABV beer, with malt and hop flavor while remaining very drinkable.

“As it was, it made it to the second round at GABF in International Light Lager last year,” Boyce added. “So that’s what we’re trying to do, make a beer that tastes like a light lager that isn’t.”

If all goes well, NMX Standard is already on its way to becoming SFBC’s number two selling beer by the end of the year.

For score-keeping, 7K is still far and away their number one best seller. Happy Camper and Social Hour are currently tied for number two.

Happy Camper has morphed from a more English-style IPA to a more modern 90s West Coast style. Boyce said that it is absolutely hanging in there. In fact, you’ve probably already seen the retro fab 35th anniversary can designs making their way around the state.

(Photo Courtesy of Santa Fe Brewing Co.)

“I mean, that was the first beer put in cans, like the first canned beer in New Mexico was an IPA, which is awesome. Cheers to Brian (Lock, SFBC owner) for trying them and figuring that out,” Boyce said.  

Recently in 2023, SFBC released Sky Island, a margarita-inspired flavored malt beverage (FMB) in mixed packs. Their aim was to can the classic flavor of the wildly popular cocktail, while keeping the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) happy, by adding just enough malt to follow the rules, and of course nixing the tequila.

If you think SFBC’s been resting on its core beer sales, you’d be wrong. They also launched Social Experiment a couple months ago, which is a beer that gives us a bit of insight into the future of Santa Fe Brewing and their current philosophy.

“We think that the future, at least, this year or next year anyway, is fruit,” Boyce said. “Fruit things of all shapes, colors, sizes, ABVs, bases, whatever. People can’t seem to get enough of the fruity things in general. And so, Social Experiment is a like a cherry lemonade (version of) Social Hour. We’re coming up with another one here in the next few months called Slightly Social, which would be lighter, orange-y wheat beer for all those Blue Moon drinkers that are still out there. You’d be surprised how many Blue Moon drinkers are out there still. We probably don’t know that many. And, there probably aren’t many Dark Side readers that are, but the numbers tell us that there are still a ton of Blue Moon drinkers out there.”

As we chatted, we both sipped on the new Freewheeler Hazy IPA, a brand-new summer seasonal, which is as tropical and fruity as a hazy gets. And, as I’m learning from my conversations with brewers this year, fruit-forward beer and beverages are very much what the people want.

A view of the beer garden from the main hall.

In its 35th year, SFBC hasn’t changed the recipe for success completely; the staff has only tweaked it over the years.

“Our philosophy is simple,” Boyce said. “Just figure out what our customers want and make it for them. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We take our process and our product seriously. Instead of reading about this beer style and then making it because I think it’s cool, and then someone has to go and figure out how to sell it; we’re working the other direction now. We figure out what people want. And then, we figure out if we can do it correctly and if we can make it the way that they want it. So I’d say, as we mature, we’re kind of working backwards starting with our customer, which feels more authentic to me.”

* * *

A huge thank you to Bert Boyce for taking the time to meet with the Dark Side Brew Crew amidst his very busy schedule.

As I mentioned earlier, Santa Fe Brewing Company is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. That’s a long time right up there at the top of one of our greatest industries in New Mexico. If you’re thinking to yourself, good lord, how time flies, then take note that the Brakeroom is celebrating its fifth birthday already on May 27 (be sure to dress up in your best 70s themed costume for that event and show them some love).

These guys have truly been there from the beginning, and are a huge part of our history. Santa Fe Brewing Company is where we’ve been as an industry, but with each new milestone, each new innovation, it continues to show us where we’re going. To another 35+ years! Cheers!

— Luke

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s