Albuquerque: The Frontier of Beer

Il Vicino

When I began this story, I set out to visit all the Albuquerque breweries. “No problem,” I thought, “it’ll only take me a few days!” Little did I realize that the number of establishments crafting locally produced, small-batch beers has positively skyrocketed in the past few years and Albuquerque is now home to some 25 or 30 microbreweries. Simply put, Albuquerque craft beer is exploding. But what’s behind this brewery boom?

Albuquerque’s success is in large part due to the same factors that have made craft brewing popular nationwide, but these factors are amplified in Albuquerque. Factors like an increased demand for local products, a desire for experimentation and an affinity for the low-key, laid back atmosphere microbreweries offer particularly speak to an Albuquerque audience, which eagerly clamors for more.

Take, for example, the nationwide consumer shift toward small local businesses. As Chris Goblet, beer ambassador for the New Mexico Brewers Guild, says, “People are interested in the unique products coming out of their regional area. The independent spirit of small craft beer is very appealing to today’s consumers. There’s a rogue or rebel sort of going-against-the-grain mentality amongst craft brewers, and I think the consumer is responding not only by having a more sophisticated palette and being able to distinguish between flavors and styles, identify hop varieties and complexity, but they’re also looking for challenges. They want to try beers they’ve never had before and they are willing to experiment.”

ABQBreweries-MelyssaHolik-8715This consumer shift harmonizes well with craft beer, and with Albuquerque brewing in particular. Even in the hyper local world of microbrewing, Albuquerque is more local than most. Goblet emphasizes that “New Mexico brewers brew beer for New Mexicans.” Because New Mexico doesn’t export a large portion of its beer, Goblet says, “there’s a freedom and experimentation that comes with knowing your audience are your friends. Not trying to appeal to a mass market or brew for the whole world means we have a bit more fun and there’s more creativity.”

Since small-batch beer is a product that can be produced more quickly than wine or spirits, the doors are wide open for experimentation. Craft beers can change with the seasons, move with trends and zero in on local tastes, leading to a product that is homegrown and feels familiar, but is also exciting, novel, challenging and changeable.

Albuquerque brewers and beer drinkers have certainly embraced this spirit of innovation. Skye Morris-Devore, director of marketing for Tractor Brewing notes, “People are more excited than skeptical of the latest and craziest creations that we offer … It is an exciting time.”

Brewers are even willing experiment with something that’s a proven success, as in the case of Bosque Brewing. Bosque wasn’t content to sit on its laurels after winning the New Mexico Brewers Guild IPA Challenge this year—they continue to change up their IPA recipe with every new batch and “just have fun,” says Director of Operations Gabe Jensen, although they do plan to settle on a house IPA later this year.

Another advantage for Albuquerque’s brewing industry is good old hometown pride. Microbreweries are in touch with and strongly tied to local culture, which is key to creating the genuine, local feeling in both the beer and the taprooms. This is evidenced by names like Bosque’s Burnin’ from Bosque and Tractor Brewing’s La Llorona (a really tasty dry hop amber with amazing citrus aroma), and by the industry’s focus on hop-forward brews, which reflects local tastes.

There’s also a large pool of home-grown talent here. Chris Goblet explains, “A lot of Albuquerque breweries stem from the same collective. You’ve got a lot of folks who have trained or studied together, worked together, apprenticed with one another, so there’s this really tight knit group of brewers in Albuquerque [that] I don’t think you see in a lot of other places. That creates a natural camaraderie where we’re all working together for the benefit of the industry.” Bosque Brewing’s Gabe Jensen echoes that sentiment, saying, “I think most of the talent, with a few exceptions, is home grown. [Our brewer, John Bullard] worked with the best in Albuquerque. Look at the names he worked under before taking over as head brewer at Blue Corn: brewers like Jeff Erway, Ted Rice and Daniel Jaramillo. They’re all homegrown as far as I know, so I think talent begets talent and pushes others to sharpen their skills.”

So what’s on the horizon for the Albuquerque brewery boom? All signs indicate that the success will continue. Gabe Jensen speculates, “As breweries grow in popularity and quality, more people catch on to craft beer and as more people catch on to craft beer, breweries grow and train more professionals, which seems to continue the cycle.” Chris Goblet concurs, saying, “It’s a great time to be in the industry. I think the growth trend is likely to continue, because Albuquerque is nowhere close to being saturated.”

All this makes Albuquerque one of the most unknown—and underrated—beer cities in the nation. It’s not just about the number of breweries either: New Mexico breweries, and Albuquerque’s in particular, have earned bragging rights at national and international competitions. In 2013, New Mexico had the fourth highest ratio of entries to medals of any state at the Great American Beer Festival. This year, they’re entering more beers than ever before and results will be out in early October. (Visit our website for the latest updates!)

Albuquerque was also named the Best Unexpected Beer City by liveability.com in 2011. There are enough beer festivals and competitions here to keep a person busy year-round, including New Mexico Brew Fest on October 11 (nmbrewfest.com), and now even breweries from out of state are now eyeballing Albuquerque as the next big thing.

 

 

 

Albuquerque pint purveyors range from small to large, upscale to back alley, well-established to recently opened, and each offers their own unique spin on the standard formula of barley, hops and yeast.

There’s Marble Brewery, one of the city’s best-known and most popular craft beer producers. Marble opened in 2008 and was soon recognized for its commitment to quality artisanal beer. Its great product and pleasant vibe helped Marble gain support from Albuquerque residents looking to support a small local business.

Also topping locals’ list of favorites is La Cumbre Brewing Company, a standout amongst locals—both for the beer, which is showing up on taps all over the state, and because of its welcoming tap room. La Cumbre opened in 2009 under the leadership of Jeff Erway. Erway’s talent quickly stood out from the crowd as La Cumbre’s Elevated IPA won the gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011—quite an accomplishment for such a young brewery.

Further north in Rio Rancho there’s Turtle Mountain Brewing Company, a brewery that’s made a name for itself among locals by serving up fabulous food along with its craft beers, and The Stumbling Steer, a large, steakhouse-inspired brewery that also puts food at the center of its mission. Also in Rio Rancho is The Blue Grasshopper, a Kickstarter-backed brewery that brings the term “locally-supported business” to a whole new level.

Relative newcomer Bosque Brewing Company opened on Albuquerque’s west side in 2012, but has wasted no time advancing to the head of the pack. It recently brought brewer John Bullard on board and soon after won the 2014 New Mexico Brewers Guild IPA Challenge.

At the other end of the spectrum is Albuquerque’s longest-standing brewery, Il Vicino, which has been racking up national and international accolades practically since its start in 1994, most recently for its stout beers, including the Panama Joe Stout and Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout. Il Vicino and with other well-established breweries like Tractor Brewing and Chama River Brewing are credited with kick-starting the industry and planting the seeds for success. In many cases, brewers trained at Il Vicino or Chama River before striking out on their own.

Other notables in Albuquerque include Nexus, which is part of the newly-created Albuquerque Brewery District (its chicken and waffles do not disappoint!) and Kelly’s, the gas station-turned-brewpub whose patio is a Nob Hill institution.

If that’s not enough, new ones seem to pop up every week. Red Door Brewery held its grand opening at the end of September (too late for publication, but you can read more about them on our website). Other fairly recent arrivals include PI Brewing, Boxing Bear and Lizards Tail. This is by no means a comprehensive list: there are many, many others to choose from.

It may sound daunting to try all the Albuquerque breweries, but it’s a task worth tackling. In my own quest to visit them all, I may have been defeated—for now. But for me, the road to defeat has never tasted so sweet.

Story by Melyssa Holik


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