The sun has barely risen above the ridgeline of the Sandias by the time Brew Master Mark Matheson begins making Kaktus Brewery’s newest batch of beer.
With over 20 years of experience as a brewer, Matheson said he has seen the ups and downs of the craft-brewing movement first hand.
The first one
“I started the first brew pub in Albuquerque in 1992, called Assets Brewing Company,” Matheson said. “It was a different time altogether, with only a handful of restaurant breweries around the city of Albuquerque.
He said he traces the origins of the now-booming craft-beer industry back to the ‘80s, when Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco began brewing its own product and bottling it for distribution.
“At this time, the industry wasn’t set up to support really small guys (breweries), so they had to make their own equipment,” Matheson said. “Since everything was made for a large industry, you can imagine how hard it was for a smaller brewery to succeed.”
One way many businesses handled this dilemma was combining the brewery with a full-service restaurant, he said.
“This was when the second wave of the craft-beer movement took shape in the ‘90s,” Matheson said. “For a brewery to support itself, it was unheard of then to just serve beer; it had to be coupled with food.”
Now, Matheson said, you can find a small brewery in any little town in the rural U.S.
“It’s staggering how many breweries there are now, because when I came up in the business, it was a fringe thing,” he said. “You could tell people back then you were a brewer and it was rare. Now it’s considered mainstream.”
Matheson added that the quality of beer being created at many local breweries is top-of-the-line with expensive and rare ingredients.
“Many things have contributed to the brewing boom and I think a lot of it has to do with us coming out of the last recession,” he said. “Before then, there weren’t a lot of industries that were working very well.”
Matheson said that after the initial investment of equipment, a new brewery owner has to look at the right location and return on investment versus the cost of materials.
“If you have the right beverages, you can do well and make a lot of money, and that’s why so many new breweries have popped up over the last five or six years,” he said. “But on the flipside, if the product isn’t consistent, then a brewery could fail.”
Nico Ortiz, owner of Turtle Mountain Brewing Company, said a long-time friend persuaded him to open a brewery/restaurant in Rio Rancho after looking over a set of demographics in ’98.
“I was looking in the Albuquerque area, but at that time, Nob Hill already had Il Vicino, and this was long before the market was developed like it has now,” Ortiz said. “So you could not put another brewery where another one was located because that was looked at as saturating the market then.”
Ortiz said most of the desired areas for a brew pub had already been taken in Albuquerque, but he found a vacant building with a great location in the City of Vision.
“At that time, I purchased some used equipment — I say used but it was basically brand new, from a company that was bankrupt and opened shop in the old Suds building on Southern (Boulevard),” he said.
“I got the used equipment for $50,000 cash and used it to build my business,” Ortiz said. “Back then, that price was unheard of; today you can’t even find used equipment, because there is such a demand for it, you’re going to pay top dollar.”
When Ortiz opened Turtle Mountain, he said the restaurant brewery business had the corner on the market early on.
“It was way more difficult back then because the market was still unfamiliar with craft beer,” he said. “This obviously all changed when Marble (Brewery) opened up 10 years ago with a whole new outlook on the industry.”
Ortiz explained that Marble’s model was to just sell beer without any food or an available kitchen, an idea that pushed the business to the forefront of what modern craft breweries are today.
After going through some tough eras over his almost 20 years in business, Ortiz said he has integrated himself into the community of Rio Rancho.
“I am an old dog now as far as my business; I mean we are established,” he said. “I feel like we paved the way, the restaurant breweries, for the new guys like Marble and Bosque (Brewery). They have it easier now than we did when we first started out. We were the pioneers.”
Bosque Brewery Director of Operations Jotham Michnovicz said his foray into the microbrewery business started with home-brew equipment and a business model that looked good on paper.
“My cousin Gabe (Jensen) and another guy named Kevin Jameson were all working on another company at the time and it wasn’t really taking off the way we wanted it to,” Michnovicz said.
The push his family and friends needed, he said, came in the form of a straight-forward question posed to Jensen at a party.
“My cousin Gabe mentioned that he would love to own and run a brewery, and one of the girls at the party just asked him, ‘Then why aren’t you doing that?’” Michnovicz said.
After thinking it over on the car ride home, soon Jensen, along with his business partners, created a business plan to start a brewery, Michnovicz said.
“I had already developed a taste for different styles of beer before getting into making micro beers,” he said. “Yet none of us were home brewers, so we purchased a home-brew system and it took us about two and half years to develop all of the recipes and business model that we thought would work.”
It wasn’t until Michnovicz and his partners decided on hiring a master brewer to help them with their consistency of product that everything changed, he said.
“We could get ourselves started, but we knew we needed that expertise on hand,” he said.
Throughout 2014 and 2015, Michnovicz and several of his business partners were able to quit their day jobs and focus on the brewery, with Jensen, who was already a full-time employee, working on the business up to that point.
“Now I think it would be hard for a new micro brewery to come on board, because there is so many already in play that have been established,” Michnovicz said. “We were lucky that we got into this business when we did. Now I think it would be hard to make a go of it.”
Today, Bosque Brewing Company produces nearly 10,000 barrels of beer annually and has won several awards, not just for its beer but for its workplace environment as well.
By the end of June, BBC will be in a new location, taking over the former offices of Stolar Research in Rio Rancho, just down the street from its new building on US 550.
“Now we have almost six years of industry experience, so we are a lot farther along than we were, but there are still things that come up on a weekly basis that we are still learning,” Michnovicz said.