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The New Beer Frontier

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Beer lovers, take note. New Mexico is quietly staking its claim as a new mecca for craft brews. Jen Murphy goes in search of deliciously original IPAs, stouts and Pilsners
Photography by Douglas Merriam
New Mexico’s oldest microbrewery, Santa Fe Brewing Company serves up bold beers like Chicken Killer Barley Wine and Barrel Aged Sour Porter.
New Mexico’s oldest microbrewery, Santa Fe Brewing Company serves up bold beers like Chicken Killer Barley Wine and Barrel Aged Sour Porter.

Santa Fe Brewing. Santa Fe, NM. Server Colleen Rafferty

New Mexico is known for many things: chile peppers, Georgia O’Keeffe, Route 66, space and, more recently, the hit AMC series Breaking Bad. But in the past few years, I’d started hearing New Mexico whispered with an almost mystical reverence among my beer-geek friends. Beer pilgrims — obsessive brew fiends who travel the world visiting both cult and experimental breweries — were adding New Mexico to their destination short list, alongside popular beer spots such as Belgium, Germany, Colorado and California.

My Denver-based friend Campbell Levy is so beer-crazed that he has beer “pen pals” around the world who send one another the latest, impossible-to-get craft brews. High on his wish list are the IPAs coming out of Albuquerque. “They are in a class of their own,” he tells me. “They don’t really fit into a West Coast IPA or any other mold, for that matter.”

IPAs (or India pale ales) are America’s most popular style of craft beer, and the secret is slowly getting out that brewers in New Mexico are producing some of the country’s most exciting IPAs. For the last two years, Albuquerque breweries have claimed gold in the National IPA Championship, an annual competition that pits 128 American IPAs head to head in an NCAA bracket-like contest. In 2015 Albuquerque had three breweries represented in the “Elite Eight” with Bosque Brewing’s Scale Tipper, a juicy IPA loaded with tropical and floral hops, taking home gold.

New Mexico food culture, with its strong, bold flavors, may be part of the reason local brewers have become so adept at making distinctive IPAs. It takes a bold beer style to stand up to or even enhance dishes such as green chile stew.

Sampling the goods at Santa Fe Brewing.
Sampling the goods at Santa Fe Brewing.
Many of New Mexico’s beers are crafted to stand up to the bold flavors of Southwestern cuisine.
Many of New Mexico’s beers are crafted to stand up to the bold flavors of Southwestern cuisine.

But IPAs aren’t the only style New Mexico brewers are getting noticed for. At the 2014 Great American Beer Festival, the world’s largest beer competition, New Mexico had the fourth-best ratio of medals to entries with six breweries taking home nine of the festival’s medals. Santa Fe’s Blue Corn Brewery won gold in the Oatmeal Stout category, Albuquerque’s Chama River Brewing Company captured gold in the Bohemian-Style Pilsener category and Albuquerque’s Marble Brewery claimed gold in both the Imperial Red Ale and Other Strong Beer categories. Perhaps most noteworthy, was that Marble Brewery took home the competition’s most prestigious award: Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year.

It seems as if the craft beer scene in New Mexico had appeared out of nowhere. Yet, with all of these awards, why was it I’d still never seen a New Mexico craft beer on tap or on shelves at even the most artisanal of beer bars or shops? The reason, I soon learn, is that like many of the best things, you must go to them — they don’t come to you. “Ninety percent of the beer produced here is consumed in state,” explains Christopher Goblet, director of the New Mexico Brewers Guild. “You can’t get your hands on it unless you visit us or you’re in a beer-trading circle and have people on the ground sending it to you.”

Part of the reason New Mexico’s craft beer scene is so exciting is that locals have gotten really into craft beer. “There’s a legit, boots-on-the-ground scene developing,” says Christian DeBenedetti, author of The Great American Ale Trail. “Breweries aren’t just popping up for the sake of satisfying tourists — they’re satisfying a curious local audience.”

A fresh pour from Blue Corn’s tap.
A fresh pour from Blue Corn’s tap.

Walk into any brewpub in Albuquerque, and the vibe is more like Cheers, where the bartender and even the brewmaster know everyone’s names. Jeff Erway, president and master brewer of La Cumbre Brewing Company, tells me that once-a-week regulars make up over 70 percent of his business. “It’s their watering hole,” he says. Clientele range from an after-work crowd of young professional 20-somethings to an 80-year-old man on a corner stool with a pint and his newspaper, and weekend cyclists coming back from long rides. Erway opened the taproom in 2010, and despite its location in the industrial area on Girard Boulevard, surrounded by warehouses and parking lots, he’s created a welcoming atmosphere with yoga offered Sunday mornings and live music on Saturdays.

But make no mistake, La Cumbre is 100 percent focused on beer. The moment you walk into the taproom, doors you are smacked with the smell of hops and fresh beer being brewed. Erway, arguably one of the best hop-forward brewers in the country, is known for his signature Elevated IPA, which is aggressively hoppy, yet still incredibly drinkable with hints of pine, citrus and a sweet, malty backbone.

Ted Rice — a youthful forefather of New Mexico’s craft beer scene, and a mentor to Erway and many of the state’s other up-and-coming brewers — tells me he thinks of new brewers as comrades rather than competition. When Rice moved to New Mexico in 1999, Albuquerque had three or four breweries. Today, there are more than a dozen. “The growth is really pushing us to evolve and brew top-notch beer,” Rice says. “Because God forbid your neighbor brews a better beer than you,” he jokes.

Perhaps no place better evokes the spirit of the state’s grass-roots brew scene than Marble. This spring, the Albuquerque brewery unveiled its expanded Westside brewpub, which boasts 50 additional seats, an indoor stage for live music and beautiful reclaimed-wood community tables and large chandeliers made from old wood frames. “We didn’t want the taproom to just be a place to taste beers,” says Amberley Rice, Ted’s wife and Marble’s marketing director. “We wanted it to have all the things Ted and I love: live music, good food and a great atmosphere to be with friends.”

Like many local breweries, Marble avoided the stresses of opening a kitchen and, instead, invites the area’s best food trucks to park out front of the flagship downtown brewery and new taproom different days of the week. Regulars time their visits to eat killer burgers from Rustic Truck, real-deal Mexican street food from Chicharroneria Don Choche, and everything from shrimp and grits to Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches from the bright yellow Supper Truck. On any day of the week, Marble is packed with locals: kids running around on the outdoor patio; dogs eating Marble’s housemade Brewery Bones, made from spent grain; and regulars seated in front of the taps waiting to try the latest releases and quirky new experiments such as the chipotle-infused Fuego or the rich, oaky, bourbon barrel-aged Reserve Ale.

Oktoberfest, New Mexico style in the beer garden at Eskes Brew Pub in Taos.
Oktoberfest, New Mexico style in the beer garden at Eskes Brew Pub in Taos.

With more breweries popping up, beer tourists are slowly starting to find their way to Albuquerque. “It’s not an audience stumbling out of bars,” says Chris Jackson, founder and editor of the popular New Mexico beer blog, Dark Side Brew Crew. Jackson, a New Mexico native who also goes by “Stoutmeister,” has a team of seven contributors around the state who provide readers insight into the key players and personalities shaping New Mexico’s craft beer movement. The blog has become the go-to site for both local beer nerds and brewers to learn about brewery openings and new beer releases, as well what’s on tap around town.

Jackson, a sports reporter by day, can rattle off where every brewer in the state has apprenticed and the tasting notes of the latest beers on tap in Albuquerque. He’s currently excited about Hoppiness Envy, a collaboration between Bosque Brewing Company and Canteen Brewhouse, which reminds me of a liquid Creamsicle spiked with malt. The beer debuted at ABQ Beer Week, one of the many events and festivals that have emerged in the state.

Santa Fe has long been the heart of New Mexico’s tourism industry, so it makes sense that the city hosts some of the state’s most popular beer festivals, including Winter Brew in January and Outside Bike & Brew, three days of riding, craft beer and live music in May. These festivals have helped put New Mexico’s beer scene on the national radar. “We’re a beer state up there with California, Colorado and Oregon,” says Santa Fe Brewing’s Josh Lochner. “In the next few years you’ll hear more about us.” The state’s oldest microbrewery, Santa Fe has a tasting room off Highway 14, and a taphouse in the suburb of Eldorado. Though its flagship Pale Ale is still its most popular, the brewery is far from a traditionalist, churning out boundary-pushing brews such as its Chicken Killer Barley Wine.

Blue Corn Brewery’s head brewer, James Warren.
Blue Corn Brewery’s head brewer, James Warren.

James Warren, the head brewer at Blue Corn Brewery in Santa Fe, came onboard just over a year ago after working on the East Coast at the New England Brewing Company. “There isn’t as big of a beer culture here as there is in the Northeast,” says Warren. “But in a way because the beer culture is so new it gives us more freedom to experiment. I came here because I wanted to be adventurous and get customers to try new things. I’m making sour beers and getting my customers to expand their palettes. ”

New Mexico’s craft breweries are largely clustered in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but there is some seriously good stuff being brewed elsewhere, and festivals make it easy for visitors to get a taste. Jackson tells me about Comanche Creek Brewing Company, a family-owned microbrewery set in a log cabin nestled at 8,500 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just outside of Eagle Nest. Those who make the trek are rewarded with stellar views from the patio and beers such as Homestead Amber Ale, which is made in the traditional German old style to give it a sweet maltiness and mellow hop flavor.

In Taos, Eske’s Brew Pub is known for its festive outdoor beer garden, live music and popular Green Chile Beer.
In Taos, Eske’s Brew Pub is known for its festive outdoor beer garden, live music and popular Green Chile Beer.

In Taos, Eske’s Brew Pub is housed in a nearly 100-year-old adobe home and has become known for its live music and Southwestern pub food — and for showcasing the state’s best craft beers alongside its own microbrews, including its popular Green Chile Beer. Road-trippers making the drive from Taos to Santa Fe are now making a point to stop at Blue Heron Brewery, which lies just 50 minutes north of Santa Fe along Highway 68 in Rinconada. Residents of Taos have been known to make the 20-minute drive just to refill growlers of the seasonal Autumn Sun, a light ale brewed with local hops, or the super smooth La Llorona Scottish ale. And then there’s Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery in the tiny town of Abiquiu near where Georgia O’ Keeffe once lived. The monks grow their hops to brew beers under the Abbey Beverage Company, which can be sampled in the on-site taproom.

After a few days of brewery hopping, I can understand why my beer-nerd friends talk about New Mexico in whispers. Tasting the beers, talking to the brewers, you feel as if you’ve discovered a new beer frontier. There’s an energy and excitement in the craft beer community here that will only continue to grow, and I’m sure by my next visit at least a dozen new breweries will have popped up. For now, I can only savor one last pint of Marble’s Imperial Red and ponder how I’ll be able to get my hands on more of it when I get back home.

For a guide to planning your own brewery crawl in the Land of Enchantment, click here.

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