As of this writing, there are nine breweries in Albuquerque alone—several with multiple locations—and many more all over the state. These are tough economic times to start a business: Why have so many microbreweries opened in recent years?
One reason for the growing number of breweries is that a New Mexico brewer's license makes it fairly easy to produce beer and sell it directly to the consumer. For example, for only $10, a brewery can obtain a 'small brewer's public celebration permit' which allows them to pour beer at "any state or county fair, community fiesta, cultural or artistic event, sporting competition of a seasonal nature or activities held on an intermittent basis." Another benefit to the state brewer's license is that a brewery is allowed to operate up to three ‘tasting rooms’: no real kitchen and no liquor, just beer.
In a city with notoriously difficult-to-obtain liquor licenses for restaurants and full bars, the brewer’s license has allowed beer-only taprooms to open with relative ease—and to make a profit even when the economy is weak. “If you have a restaurant license for beer and wine, a certain percentage of your sales needs to be food,” said Ted Rice, head brewer at Marble Brewery. “When you have a small space that has no kitchen and you're selling the beer that you make, your margins are really high and your overheads are pretty low. You're a pretty profitable business. That was the foundation of the concept around Marble.” This strategy has allowed Marble to flourish: Since opening in the warehouse district just north of downtown, Marble has opened taprooms in Santa Fe and most recently on Albuquerque's west side. Other taprooms, such as La Cumbre, are also finding success this way.
And it’s not just breweries that are benefiting from local tasting rooms. By only selling beer, many of the taprooms welcome patrons to bring food themselves, which has created opportunity for other businesses. Area restaurants offering takeout and delivery have benefited, but having so many hungry beer drinkers in one place has also provided a niche for food trucks. While most of the trucks regularly visit UNM, office buildings and other locations around town, taprooms make up a large part of their hours of operation.
I spoke with several food truck owners, and all of them mentioned their appreciation for the space and support of taprooms. Amy Black is the owner of the Supper Truck. “Part of the reason I got a food truck is that I love food trucks,” she said, “but I also love the brewery scene. They go together beautifully.” John Katrinak, owner of the Soobak Korean Seoul Food truck, told me that customers at Marble are especially supportive. “They kind of go there for the food because they've created a food truck culture there,” he said. “They can enjoy good local beer as well as local food.”
Ted Rice sees the same thing happening. “It's really strengthened our business,” he said. “The fact that food trucks can just pull right up and provide a whole other dimension to our concept: It's just awesome.” Just as breweries are creating business opportunities for food trucks, so people are drawn to the breweries by the trucks they love. Many follow their favorites on Facebook and Twitter, receiving updates about where a particular truck will be on a particular evening, and it becomes a reason to go out and have dinner and a pint. In January, Il Vicino hosted the Battle of the Food Trucks which head brewer Brady McKeown told me drew an enormous crowd.
And it’s not just breweries that are benefiting from local tasting rooms. Having so many hungry beer drinkers in one place has also provided a niche for food trucks.
At Marble's downtown taproom they provide electricity to trucks and reserve parking space out front. “We don't charge them,” Rice told me. “We invite them down and have them on a set schedule. We try and rotate people through, get new ones on board here and there and give our customers what they want.”
Unsurprisingly, the beer and the food influence each other, too. The Dia de los Takos truck, for instance, batters everything from sweet potatoes to fish to chile rellenos with Marble's red ale as a featured ingredient. Likewise the Supper Truck advertises that their pickle chips are battered with Tractor's red ale. “When I go out front and get a couple of tacos and I pair it with one of my beers,” Ted Rice said, “it's so beautiful.”
The final element of the relationship between breweries, food trucks and their ability to survive economically is the customers who patronize them. While working on this article, I went by Tractor's Nob Hill taproom for a beer and ran into my friends Richard and Paul. I told them a little about what I was writing and when I mentioned the synergy between breweries and food trucks, they talked about how excited they were to see both develop in Albuquerque. Paul called it “the ultimate localism” saying, “It adds color, it adds life, it adds flavor, and it adds smell to the neighborhood and creates a whole new sense of community.” And beyond food or drink, it seems that's something people want to support.