Pulling into Kaktus Brewing Co. feels like pulling up to a friend’s house, where the only plans for the evening are catching up over a beer on the back porch. Wedged between the susurrus of commuter traffic on I-25 and the Rio Grande in Bernalillo, the locale is bordered by a coyote fence bedecked with Crayola-hued doors and a prickly pear cactus mural. Nearby, royal blue chairs perch in a tree as though cast there by an artistic hurricane. The covered patio invites visitors to gather on couches and benches. Inside, they belly up to a blonde wood bar for one of the breweries craft creations. There are no TVs with baseball games blaring—an intentional choice to encourage conversation. The only background noise here is the occasional crow of a rooster.
In the greater Albuquerque area, a place saturated in good beer—there are more than 40 breweries/taprooms and counting—Kaktus is staying purposely small. Other breweries, like relative behemoths Marble Brewery and Tractor Brewing Company easily outpace the brewery’s German-made two-barrel system and 500-barrell-a-year production, but co-owner Dana Koller is unconcerned. “We want to be community based and a neighborhood place,” he says. Its vibe is friendly and eclectic, from the ambiance of its residential setting, to its neighborly values and sundry creations.
Dana, who has a background in management and marketing, joined forces with flavor cognoscenti Mark Matheson to open the brewery in 2013. Mark, who is both co-owner and head brewer at Kaktus, is a classically trained enologist, has worked in the state’s wine industry since 1987 and opened his own winery, Matheson Winery, in 2007. The Bernalillo location brands the brewery’s homey feel and keeps it out of the Albuquerque suds overflow, but Kaktus also opened a location in Nob Hill just over a year ago.
From the start, the duo created an environmentally friendly operation. A fourth of the brewery’s power is solar—with panels in its front yard—and Dana envisions it operating purely on solar power in the future. It recycles, but not just its aluminum soda cans and cardboard. Spent grain from the brewing process and kitchen scraps feed the chickens on property, whose eggs will soon make their way into the brewery’s restaurant. Food scraps also go to the brewery’s vermiculture bins, where red wiggler worms turn them into nutrient-rich soil.
In a remarkably creative reuse, the brewery also reclaims its waste beer—some two gallons a night lost to overpours—to make a different kind of suds: soap. One variety uses dark beer as its base and blends in charcoal for purification and a chocolate aroma that befits the malty base. Another variety uses light beer and combines eucalyptus and lavender essential oils for a calming aroma and a soothing soap. Dana envisions making a batch of 24 every week, but for now, they make it as they can, and it sells out in a matter of days. Beeswax, from its raised-onsite hives, also goes into the soap. The bees’ honey is funneled into the brewery’s honey wheat beer.
Breweries are somewhat notorious for their terrible food (thus their magnetic draw for food trucks), but Kaktus may be the exception. Its flat-crust pizzas feature 100-percent whole milk cheese and gourmet toppings, like a wild elk option drizzled with truffle oil and a vegetarian pie topped with butternut squash, goat cheese, pine nut and a drizzle of red chile. Dana says 90 percent of the kitchen’s ingredients are organic. “I’m not going to serve anything that I wouldn’t eat myself,” he says. Organic is the priority, but the brewery sources as much local food as possible, drawing from the food shed that extends into Colorado. “Sometimes, it’s more important to eat healthy than to eat local,” Dana says.
With all this brewing behind the scenes, Kaktus’s foremost focus is still great beer. Kaktus customers come for the Helles Lager, a Munich-style Lager; its old-school IPA with balanced hop and malt flavors that pushes the floral notes to the top; and its Best of the City Stout. Dana says award-winning beer starts with good water. Brewers went to school on the water profile in Ireland—home to fine Stouts, including Guinness—and tried to replicate that profile in Kaktus’s operations. It’s debuting its first barrel-aged Sour beer soon—likely this month. Matheson repurposed a good-bacteria-rich oak barrel that formerly held an IPA to create a true Sour. Unsure of how the experiment will turn out, Koller says, “We’re just as excited to taste it as everyone else.”
Its off-dry cider took top marks at the 2016 New Mexico State Fair. With his vineyard experience, Matheson knows tannins well, so in creating his cider, he blended the traditional apple flavors with walnut tannins to create a three-dimensional cider that’s not too fruity and has a rich body.
Most of Kaktus’s beers are sessionable, ranking on the lower (less than 5 percent) end of the ABV scale. However, it’s also one of only a handful of non-alcoholic kombucha fermenters in the state. The wellness-seeking set has embraced kombucha—a fermented black or green tea—of late, thanks to the effervescent drink’s natural probiotics and the associated health benefits. Kaktus brewers went to California to study fermenting and brought home knowhow to create its popular ginger blackberry and prickly pear varieties. “It’s a fantastic, non-alcoholic alternative to beer,” Dana says. The kombucha is on tap in Bernalillo, where the delicate flavors go down easy.
Wine also figures prominently on the menu. There are nearly two-dozen New Mexico wines available at the Nob Hill location. Of course, Matheson Winery is available, as are selections from Casa Roñdena Vineyards, Casa Abril Vineyards, Vivác Winery, Corrales Winery, and Acequia Vineyards & Winery. Dana’s picks of the season include Casa Roñdena’s 1629 and Viognier, and Casa Abril’s Tempranillo and Malbec.
Where the Bernalillo brewery is secluded and homey, the Nob Hill taproom is urban-centric. The rooftop patio overlooks not only Nob Hill and Central Avenue, but also the University of New Mexico, just across Gibson Avenue. To serve the caffeine-craving university clientele, Kaktus added an espresso bar that opens early and serves organic coffee and artisan-style lattes (try the Naarangee Mocha) until beer-drinking hours. For its food menu, it partners with Kitchen Sev7en, which serves casual bar fare with Asian/Hawaiian and New Mexico twists, like nachos with green chile and kimchi. Dana says they may have arrived too early in the neighborhood, since the location’s growth has been somewhat shackled by ART construction along Central Avenue. However, he expects to see activity returning as soon as the orange barrels are relocated a few blocks down the thoroughfare.
Kaktus Brewing Co. may envision itself as the community watering hole, but its congenial and sustainability-minded community is growing. In Bernalillo, signed dollar bills—a tradition started by an early customer who wanted to wish the budding brewery luck—paper the walls signed by travelers from Texas, Vermont, New York and even Sweden.
471 South Hill Road, Bernalillo, 505.818.7285; 2929 Monte Vista Blvd. NE, 505.265.9030; kaktusbrewery.com
Story by Ashley M. Biggers