Good News! There has never been a better time to be a beer drinker in New Mexico. That may seem like a bold statement, considering there were people living around what we call Clovis some 13,000 years ago, but let’s say it again … beer drinkers have never had it this good. Twenty years ago, New Mexico had no breweries at all. Today, there are close to 40, with more on the way. Many of the world’s finest beers are distributed on shelves and in kegs all over New Mexico, and some of the very best beers are being made right here in the 505. Friends, now’s the time to get involved in this burgeoning craft beer scene. Step right up, don’t be afraid. This column is your invitation to the party. We’ll get you up to speed with your beer taxonomy and teach you to navigate the frothy seas of delicious beer. This first article is your crash course, laying a foundation to understand what you’re drinking. In future columns we’ll pick a beer style or two and explain them. Then we’ll talk about who’s brewing those beers locally, and compare the local brews to classic examples from all over the globe. We’ll let you know who’s touting the best taps, and where to buy the hard-to-find bottles. It’s time to shake off your suds routine, and be reborn as a bonafide beer geek… welcome to the beer revival!
Before we get to all that, let’s take a minute to explain some of the basics of beer. Welcome to Beer 101. What is beer? Beer is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting malt. Ok, but what is malt? Malt is dried, germinated grain. To make malt, you start with grain. For beer, barley is the most important grain. Basically, you steep the barley in water and let it germinate. The grain, reasonably thinking it is spring, begins to form enzymes to help reinvent itself as a happy plant. Alas, the grain will never sprout, because at this point the maltster will dry the grain (often gently roasting it in the process), which ends the germination process pre-sprout. Ta da, malted barley! These malted grains are then ground up into grist, which is in turn soaked in warm water. Now the enzymes spring into action, converting starches to sugars. Strain out the spent husks. The remaining water, which is now very sugary cereal-water, is called the wort. The wort (pronounced wert) is then boiled, and hops are added. Depending on what type of hops and when you add them in the boil, you are adding bitterness, flavor and aroma. Sugars can also be caramelized during the boil, which often happens in a copper kettle.
All that work and we now have bitter, flavorful, aromatic, sugary cereal-water … but still no beer! At this point in the brewing process, yeast is added to the wort and … voila! Beer. The yeast eats the sugars which have been so carefully concentrated and flavored and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide in their stead … a trade so one-sided that brewers have been snickering about it for countless years. Yeast is the real miracle worker here. We have cultivated, utilized and revered yeast for much longer than we have known it existed. It wasn’t until the microscope was invented that we were even aware of these tiny single celled saints of fermentation. Back in the day, brewers would scoop off the yeasty foam from their fermenting beer and sell it to bakers to leaven their bread. Now brewers cultivate and protect their strains of yeast, which are often proprietary, often going so far as to send samples to brewing schools for safekeeping. Yeast is so central to the whole process that it is how we define all beers. As surprising as it may be, there are only two kinds of beer in the world. Why is that? It’s all about yeast.
All beers are ales or lagers. Beers are classified according to the type of yeast used, and the vast majority of beers use one of two cultivated yeast types … top fermenting or bottom fermenting. Does your yeast float during fermentation? That’s ale. Does your yeast sink to the bottom during fermentation? That’s lager. Do you just open a window and let whatever yeast is blowing around ferment your beer? Congratulations, you beautiful weirdo, that’s a wild ale, made famous by the Belgian lambic beers. That’s really it! Any beer you’ve had fits into one of those three categories, and realistically it was probably ale or lager (Lambics are made in a river valley in Belgium that is smaller than Bernalillo County, so they don’t account for much volume.)
The key is to realize that all the different beer styles fall into one of those yeast defined categories. IPA? The A stands for ale. Porter? Ale. Guinness? That’s a stout, which is an ale. Coors? A lager. Pilsner Urquell? Pilsners are a subset of lagers, i.e. all pilsners are lagers, but not all lagers are pilsners. Are lagers all lighter, easy drinking beers? Dive into a malty doppelbock and you’ll have your answer: no way! Are all ales rich heavy beers? Perish the thought. Blonde ales are super refreshing light beers. Is your beer tangy and sour? Good chance it’s a lambic. Is that bowl of cereal you left on the window sill a lambic? Maybe a wild ale … now please throw that away.
Okay! That’s enough theory for now. Time to practice the preachin’. So who’s getting it done? I said earlier that some of the best beers around are being made right here in New Mexico. This is no mere braggadocio. For example, Marble Brewing won Small Brewing Company of the Year at the most recent Great American Beer Festival. For those of you who don’t know, the GABF is a ginormous beer competition held in Denver (In 2014 about 50,000 people showed up to watch over five thousand beers be judged, making it the largest commercial beer competition in the world). Add the two gold medals that Marble snagged, and they had a pretty good day at the races. But it isn’t just Marble bringing home the glory… La Cumbre has medaled twice in ultra-competitive IPA categories recently, and the Gold Medal Oatmeal Stout from Blue Corn Brewery has prophetically won a gold medal (and a silver to boot). Chama Brewing has pulled in gold, and Santa Fe Brewing and Bosque have both medaled as well. The list goes on and on. New Mexico entered about 1 percent of the beers and won 3 percent of the medals last year, which is a legitimately fierce winning percentage and testament to the high quality brewing happening here.
The beers are here and the movement is in full swing. All that’s left is for you to go out and join in! Your homework until next time is to wet your whistle with a beer you haven’t had before. This shouldn’t be difficult. Go out to your local beer bar, brewery or bottle shop and look around. Ask for a lager recommendation and an ale or two for comparison. Buy some Marble Pilsner, La Cumbre Elevated IPA or some Santa Fe State Pen Porter straight from the source, if you haven’t had them. Scout for a lambic or wild ale on the shelf at Kokoman, Jubilation or Susan’s. Get a seasonal beer or a Belgian pint at Sister in Abq or Fire and Hops up in Santa Fe. Keep an eye out for beer dinners, like Loyal Hound has hosted recently in Santa Fe, or like Farm and Table in ‘Burque. Check this article out next time to catch the buzz, but until then, take advantage of the incredible beer network that is already in place, and raise a glass! Here’s to beer!
Story by Michael Waddington, Photo by Melyssa Holik