Taos Mesa Brewing

TMBtl_8Frankenbrew. Among brewers of craft beer, frankenbrew is a self-deprecating boast. Their beer-making rig didn’t arrive on a truck, as a turnkey system, with shiny copper domes and temperature controls. It was hammered together, improvised, with moxie not money. Taos Mesa Brewing’s original brewhouse, cobbled together from used dairy equipment, is a classic of the type. And the hip, happening and slightly radical beer-and-music venue preserves a strong spirit of frankenbrew in its business culture.

Four diverse partners, with disparate skills, shared a vision of “a brewery on the mesa” that could be driven by live music shows, great beer and a joyful atmosphere. Gary Feuerman, the lawyer in the group (because there’s always a lawyer in the group), first teamed with music man, Dan Irion, who had pioneered, in the mid-aughts, underground music shows in a warehouse out on the overly apt Tune Road. Dan, in turn, familiar with the skill of the well-known local craft brew stalwart, Jayson Wylie, brought the beer guy into the mix, and builder/developer Peter Kolshorn completed the band. Not quite John, Paul, George and Ringo, but a formidable collection of imagination and undaunted determination. In 2007, they bought the land that would host their vision and confidently strode off. Straight into the buzzsaw of fierce resistance that is the Taos County Commission. (Insert plaintive violin solo here.) “Taos hazing” is the term Gary philosophically applies to the experience in retrospect, allowing that all ventures come with a price, and being put through hell for a year by an obstructionist governing board is a price one pays in Taos. A wedgie from the upperclassmen, if you will. Ultimately, the commissioners came through with the permits and have since become regulars. ‘Everyone loves us, now,’ says brewer Jayson Wylie. Taos hazing.

With the hazing period over, the frankenbrew-ing of TMB could begin in earnest and, true to form, building materials were scavenged from salvage yards and defunct commercial properties. The former Borders Books location at Sanbusco Market Center in Santa Fe, yielded a rich treasure trove of recyclable fixtures, some repurposed as wall treatments and trims, while a buddy at 3M turned them on to a massive and free cache of foam that became critical to managing the building’s acoustics. “Managing acoustics” might evoke images of hanging a few decorous panels of highly engineered, space-age material to tweak the direction of a wave or two. Nope. Their building is a Quonset hut, those military staples, semi-circular in section. Music in a half-pipe is awesome if it’s you and your earbuds rocking the reverb. But fill that space with brewing equipment, a bar and large numbers of people who insist on being able to move at will. Top it off with five band-members doing mic-checks, and things become very complex. That’s before you attach a very large, straight-lined greenhouse to the south side of your curved-wall building. Now go manage those acoustics.

Under the expert guidance of a few talented acousticians who donated their time because it’s such a trippy project, four inches of clean sand were poured under the stage to deaden the sub-structure. The free foam scavenged from your 3M guy? Drape it in cascading waves so that it catches some sounds and releases others. Keep adding; keep subtracting; keep tweaking; keep listening to the free expertise pouring in and the music pouring out. End result? Great acoustics, to which the house has added first-rate sound equipment, a rare instance when they went new-out-of-the-box instead of craftily improvising. Mission accomplished. Then it was time to start the outdoor performance space.

TMBtl_9New Mexicans love the outdoors and Taoseños, particularly, seem to relish living out their lives in the glory of nature. For free-ranging entrepreneurs with a fantasist streak, a dramatic sun-and-star streaked performance space seemed, well, natural. Partner Peter Kolshorn, tasked with leading all of TMB’s construction projects, has a commitment to sustainable building. He has collaborated, off-and-on during his decades in Taos, with Mike Reynolds, the originator of the Earthship phenomenon. The crazy-but-cozy architecture spawned by Reynolds, a sort of Mad-Max-Meets-The-Hobbit-look of tender warrens and ecstatic vaults, infuses the entire TMB site. Students from Reynolds’ Earthship Academy played a role in the creation of the amphitheater that serves as the venue’s splendid outdoor concert stage, frankenbrewing arches and near-arches into a beguiling mix. Bands love it, as do alert music lovers. Music man, Dan Irion, fills the indoor space and both outdoor spaces with a calendar of events that would not look amiss in a music-mad town like Austin, his home for many years.

It’s a plus if your music-booker loves music, and Dan plays mandolin and fiddle for the dance-friendly area band Last to Know (LTK) as well as lending vocals to the jam band’s “discofunkgrass” get-down style. Now in his third year of seeking acts, Dan observes, “The level of submissions is way up,” meaning bands on the road are hoping, in increasing numbers, for a Taos Mesa gig. Big names—Reverend Horton Heat, Lucinda Williams, Justin Townes Earle—find their way to Taos and TMB, along with countless up-and-comers. Along with his partner role at TMB, Dan is also a partner in 93.5 KNCE, Taos’ newest FM music station. The two entities work tidily together to co-promote and grow the Taos music scene. KNCE’s commitment to newer artists is critical to Dan’s involvement. Having felt over the years of playing and listening that great new acts “deserve some radio time,” Dan helped found a station that would give it to them. Further advancing his “rising tide raises all boats” philosophy, Dan ensures that the brewery and KNCE are close allies and collaborators with Live Taos, an online magazine (livetaos.com) of news and events that seems to have penetrated the market in important and creative ways. Not all of Live Taos’ contributors are hale, hip and 35, but it can seem that way. Rising tide, indeed.

TMBtl_18This collaborative impulse is not limited to Dan. The whole organization seems to practice an easy-going civic-mindedness, hosting fundraisers for Taos’ charter schools and other local groups, keeping all of their shows in the family-friendly all-ages bracket, and generally, “Doing lots of things that have nothing to do with beer or music,” as Dan puts it. They have inserted themselves into the very center of Taos’s community life with an easy grace.

Jayson Wylie, the man who puts the brew in Taos Mesa Brewing, is reassuringly big and bearded and looks like he might captain a Viking longboat when he’s not busy making beer. On the day we met, he was wearing a Cabela’s fleece cap that could easily have had a pair of horns mounted on it. He allows one of his partners to make the case for his contribution: “Our product is beer. Music is an attraction and it attracts people to our product. Music is a vector for beer.” Blunt, a little surprising, and—once spoken—a completely self-evident truth. Stand-alone music venues face insurmountable financial challenges. TMB’s savvy formula—using the music to keep the energy up and using the beer to pay the light bill—assures the continued health of both.

Jayson just tripled the capacity of his brewhouse, allowing him to produce an anticipated 1,350 barrels of beer this year. That’s nearly 335,000 pints. A lot of beer. Bestsellers for Jayson, thus far, are his Kolsch 45, a quaffer, and a successful tribute to this traditional Cologne style, using the true altbier/kolsch ale yeast that gives the beer its non-lager, fruity undertone. His Three Peaks IPA draws its 101 IBU’s from Amarillo and Citra hops, putting an alert and bright bitterness to work balancing the body of this beer, all while rocking a nose of hoppy pine and citrus. It may emerge as their signature brew.

In a shocking burst of regulatory enlightenment, New Mexico’s rules allow any NM brewery to have up to three off-site tasting rooms, and each can serve their own beer as well as those made by any other New Mexico brewer. TMB’s got one outlet up and running in the Ski Valley, overseen by longtime craft-beer maven, Carla Wollum. Carla is fetching and fierce. Fetching enough to grace the cover of the (slightly racy) Women In Craft Beer calendar, and fierce enough to manage a roomful of après-ski beer geeks with one hand tied behind her back. Joined at the tiny, mountain outlet by former Carson postmistress Vonnie Zepeda, the duo flies the flag for the mesa-locked brewery exhibiting rock-hard skills and a carefree bonhomie. While the new brewhouse gets up to capacity, guest handles (other brewers’ beers) have tended to predominate the Ski Valley location.

Taos Mesa Brewing’s free and fun Frankenbrew philosophy is clearly sprinkled with madness, but there’s a grounded and fundamental method at the base of it all. It’s really quite simple. Pour a beer. Turn up the music.

This spring, a planned second tasting room, right in the center of town, will be all about TMB. Consult their website (taosmesabrewing.com) for complete calendar information, but upcoming big events at Taos Mesa Brewing include Winter Carnival, February 11-12, featuring Red Baraat and Zuvuya, Last to Know, fire dancing, aerial performances, visual art and ski jibbing off the amphitheater. (Yes, off the amphitheater.) The Reverend Horton Heat is in the house on March 4, and the weekend of June 3-5 are the dates for the next much-anticipated Music on the Mesa Fest. With lots more in between now and then.

Story by Andy Lynch


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