Picture a farmhouse. It’s hospitable and warm, with a pleasant aroma of earth, food, and tradition. A devoted dog naps quietly on the porch. The entire place is comfortable and casual, and when a stranger comes calling, they are graciously welcomed with a plate of homemade food and a glass of ale. The food is familiar and was grown by friends just down the road and it’s always made fresh for visitors when they arrive. The ale was made by hand, just around the back of the barn. With each bite and every sip, you slip further into calm serenity.
Now drop that slice of pastoral bliss right in the middle of Santa Fe, just off one of our city’s main thoroughfares and you have a mental picture of Santa Fe’s newest brewery. Rowley Farmhouse Ales delivers exactly what you’d expect from a farmhouse brewery, and so much more.
Beneath the rustic charm, something fascinating is in the works. Once they get up to full production speed, Rowley will be the only brewery in New Mexico to specialize in farmhouse, lambic, and sour ales. What makes that detail exciting and unique is the use of wild Brettanomyces yeast, or “Brett”. Typically this yeast is considered a contaminant, but what others seek to destroy, they embrace and celebrate. Where others see flaws, the folks at Rowley Farmhouse see complexity. They see perfection.
It’s the realization of a long-held dream for Chef Jeffrey Kaplan and Brewmaster John Rowley. When asked how it began to take shape, the guys laugh, “It happened over beer!” The two started talking over pints, and found their interests aligned. Jeffery has been a chef for 25 years and has honed his culinary chops working for Wolfgang Puck and La Brea Bakery, among others, and John has been an esteemed homebrewers for years, as president of the local Sangre de Cristo Homebrewers club, active brewer, and full-time chemist at Los Alamos National Labs.
“Beer and brewing is my passion,” he says, and proceeds to delve into the details of history, yeast strains, and beer flavor profiles with infectious enthusiasm. He seems to appreciate the poetry of biology as only a scientist can. “Microbial diversity in beer is something to celebrate,” he says, “There are about 200 yeast species present in these lambic beers, so I’ve always thought of that as the most interesting beer you can brew.”
He also notices the advantage to being a little different, saying, “There’s no one doing it here so we think there’s a spot for us. It’s difficult to do Brett beer and ‘clean’ beer together at the same facility. Brettanomyces can get into your equipment and just take over. It can just ruin all of your IPAs. Wineries hate it, sometimes they won’t even let it near them. But we’re celebrating it, we want it everywhere!” John explains it’s common practice for Belgian breweries to spray down a new location with their beer and let the wild yeast grow uninhibited. It’s a practice he plans to implement too, but first he’d like to produce a few batches of ‘clean’ beer before, as he puts it ”the brewery goes funky.”
They don’t flinch from the unknown and they are not afraid to make a mistake. Rather than pine for a larger facility, John sees the brewery’s small scale as an asset for experimentation. “If you’re a bigger brewer, you can’t screw up your beer, because that’s a huge batch you’ve ruined,” John says. But Rowley’s small batches mean they can be fearless and take chance with Brettanomyces. “Is it unpredictable,” John says, as he offers an analogy, “Brewing with clean Saccharomyces, it’s like owning a dog. You tell it what to do, it does it. Brettanomyces is like owning cats. They have a mind of their own. Sometimes they do what you want, sometimes they do what they want.” He reflects on his choice to brew farmhouse styles, saying, “No, it doesn’t always go your way. It’s a risk. But it’s a risk worth taking.”
It’s rare to see someone so analytical, meticulous, and knowledgeable still leave room for happy accidents and playful surprises, but John does it effortlessly. Hints of his mischievous side show up in his beer names, too: Rowley recent had a Bière de Garde named the Notorious BDG, and they will soon showcase a pineapple berliner weiss called Haole Kook.
Like the Brett yeast which makes Rowley Farmhouse Ales so distinctive, the farmhouse ethos permeates every tiny corner of their business.
For example, even though they’ve brewed a batch every weekend since they moved in, currently John’s brews are only sporadically available because it takes time to stockpile a reserve of Rowley-made kegs. In the meantime, their taproom boasts a motley mix of carefully curated list of beers—one of the most varied in Santa Fe. They have 24 handles, and their goal, as they put it, is to ”celebrate diversity in beer” and offer something for everyone. “We won’t have ten IPAs” they joke, “We get the best example of a style we can find, because that’s what we would want to drink.” They like to mix it up too, adding, “If something comes up and looks interesting we’re going to grab it.” The result is a fantastic cross-section of beer styles; everything from a Tractor Brewing Mexican Lager to a Belgian framboise.
To complement the outstanding beer, Chef Jeffrey Kaplan has worked up a menu that marries farmhouse simplicity with polished sophistication. “A couple of the dishes I’ve been making for a long time,” he says, “The clam chowder was the first dish [of mine] a chef put on the menu.” Each bowl is made to order with live cockles from Above Sea Level, fresh local corn, potatoes, parsley, and cream. It’s fresher and lighter than most chowders, and it’s no surprise it’s one of his signature dishes.
For other menu items, Jeffrey drew inspiration from the beer. “I recognized that first and foremost we are a brewery, so I started working on dishes that went with beer.” For example, instead of a run-of-the-mill pretzel and cheese snack, he created a popover made with bourbon smoked black pepper from Savory Spice shop, and paired it with gruyère cream sauce. It’s traditional pub fare with a serious upgrade. Jeffrey also emphasizes farm-to-table cooking, and partners with local growers wherever he can. “I want to embrace the local farm community we have here,” he says, as he explains how two of the dishes—market salad and market risotto—will change seasonally. The basic recipe is the same, but what’s inside will rotate based on what’s available at the market; things like chioggia beets or shishito peppers from Matt Romero, goat cheese from Old Windmill Dairy, Barrel-aged honey aged in Santa Fe Spirits Colkegan barrels, and so on. For the poutine and the bone marrow dish, he uses Lone Mountain Ranch Wagyu, and the burger uses Flying Sisters ground beef.
To make sure no guest is left hungry, Jeffrey includes gluten free and vegetarian items and menu items start a five dollars. Jeffrey says he strives to create a “casual and fairly priced menu that features farm to table food.”
The diligence John and Jeffrey display is just another example of Rowley Farmhouse Ales’ central values: inclusion, celebration of diversity, and concern for one’s neighbors. “We want to create a community space where people can come and have really great time,” Jeffrey says as he points to the large community tables on their patio, “where you put your phone down, make friends, and have a good time.”
With its unique brewing style, impeccable tap list, and laid-back atmosphere, Rowley Farmhouse Ales is sure to be a favorite for local Santa Feans. No doubt they’ll also offer respite, comfort, and community to all who are just stopping by.
Story and photos by Melyssa Holik