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Hop Talk: New Mexico's Craft Brew Industry
Thursday, 20 September 2012
Photo illustration By Kevin Hopper, Wes Naman and Adria Malcolm
Marble, La Cumbre, Turtle Mountain: Local microbrew experts gather to chew the fat about New Mexico beer
Story by Mike English • Photos by Wes Naman
It’s always an interesting conversation to sit down with the people working in the heart of Albuquerque’s craft beer scene. Local iQ recently gathered together a few of the prominent players in the Duke City beer world: Marble Brewery co-owner John Gozigian, La Cumbre Brewing Company owner Jeff Erway and Turtle Mountain Brewing Company owner Nico Ortiz. The wide-ranging talk, at a table in the middle of Marble Brewery littered with growlers and pint glasses (yes, beer was consumed), ranged from the state of the New Mexico craft beer industry to the tastiness of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The following are some snippets of a beer meeting with the beermakers.

How much beer are each of you making right now?
Nico Ortiz: We’ve averaged 1,200 barrels for the last three years (editor’s note: a barrel is 31.5 gallons of beer).
John Gozigian: Our capacity at this moment is 13,000 barrels, but in real life it’s probably about 11.
Jeff Erway: Our capacity is 6,000 barrels.

Is there a reason for the craft beer explosion in Albuquerque and New Mexico? Were we behind the times and are now catching up?
No, we weren’t behind the times. It’s a national trend. You could say California and Colorado were ahead of the times, but the craft beer explosion started at the same time in other cities around the country as it did here. This used to be a Coors Light or Bud Light town, but now it’s a craft beer town, and if it’s locally made craft beer, even better. That’s really happened in the last five, six, seven years.

Photo by Wes Naman
How does the quality of New Mexico beer compare with other states?

Erway: When I first got here in 2001, the craft beer around here was not that good. But you cannot make bad beer and survive in this town anymore, and because of that the good beer has gotten more and more popular. There are five breweries in this town I would put up against any breweries in the country, and we feed off each other. The beer is a hell of a lot better for it.
Anybody who drinks craft beers nowadays, you say San Diego and Portland, and they’re like, that beer is amazing. In all honesty, I would take the beer made in Albuquerque over those cities any day. I would argue that Albuquerque has a lot more variety. I wouldn’t order a lager in San Diego. Brewing a 5 percent light lager is hard, it’s a hard beer to brew. We brew world-class beer here.

What does it take to succeed as a craft brewer?
Ortiz: Santa Fe Brewing languished for how many years, until Brian Lock took over and made a commitment to do whatever it took to succeed. This sadistic SOB here (he points to Jeff Erway) is willing to work 100 hours a week to be successful. If you’re into a 40 hour work week, guess what, this is not the industry to get into.
Erway: I hope the number of small brewers opening now, they are willing to put in the hours it takes to survive. We all have to kick ourselves in the ass in order to succeed.
What’s good about Jeff (Erway)’s IPA? Probably that he can only brew 6,000 barrels of it. But it’s a great beer.
—John Gozigian
Marble Brewing
Are we reaching a saturation point for craft breweries in New Mexico?
Ortiz: Marble came in and there was an unrealized need. Sierra Blanca, Santa Fe were content doing what they were doing. Marble went from zero to hero in 18 months. Erway came in, and he went from zero to hero in 18 months. These two breweries are pretty much it for the time being.

Gozigian: There’s a finite number of highly talented brewers. You’ve got to find the talent. I wouldn’t want to be opening another packaging brewery right now. There’s us, La Cumbre, Santa Fe, Sierra. To try to come in now would be difficult.

Photo by Wes Naman
I would not want to be a packaging brewery with an IPA being the flagship of your brand. There are two world-class packaged IPAs already in this town. That being said, I think there’s room for another packaging brewery. They would need to have their own schtick, possibly Belgian ales. All Belgian lagers, something like that.I truly believe there is always room for more good beer. Take Nexus. Nexus beer has gotten better and better every time I’ve tried it, and he (owner Ken Carson) has got this killer menu of soul food, and the food is really good. You don’t always have to go with the status quo. I thought he was nuts, but I’m not always right. There’s plenty of room for good beer.

You mentioned that local brewers feed off each other. Is there healthy competition among New Mexico brewers?
Erway: Ted Rice (Marble head of operations) does not want to come into my place and say, “Damn, that beer is better than mine.” Just like I don’t want to go into Marble and say, “Damn, that’s better than mine.” That’s good, healthy, friendly competition, and that’s always a good thing. I have an interesting relationship with Marble, because Ted trained me. His beers have always been crisp, clear and delicious. I look forward to how we make ourselves better in the future. We both make really good IPAs. It’s like Il Vicino too. It’s good beer. You can’t deny what is painfully obvious. The breweries in this town make really freaking good beer.

Gozigian: What’s good about Jeff’s IPA? Probably that he can only brew 6,000 barrels of it. But it’s a great beer.
Is it complicated to do business outside New Mexico?
Gozigian: It’s not complicated. You forge a relationship with a distributor in that state. The hard part comes when they order more beer than you can produce. Our Colorado distributor started ordering full semi-trucks of beer, which is about 21 pallets. Our entire cooler holds 19 pallets, so the staging and timing is really difficult. If you’re producing multiple labels, trying to juggle what you’re going to brew and when, getting the pipeline full, is really challenging.

Photo by Wes Naman
Does La Cumbre have plans to go outside the state?

Erway: You know, that depends if we’re able to sell the beer I would like to sell. It depends what kind of sales we see. The market I’m looking at more than any other is Austin. It’s a college town, the local beer scene is not that huge, and the distribution of beers like mine is not well represented there. We’d like to get to selling 550 cases a week, and if we can get there quickly, fantastic. Then we’ll see.

How do you see the New Mexico craft beer scene evolving?
Erway: There’s plenty of room for a great restaurant concept that makes exceptional beer. I would love to see a great Ethiopian restaurant downtown that makes beer. Raise your hand if you would go there. You know you would. I want to see more brew pubs that come up with really cool restaurant concepts. There’s no reason you can’t have a New Mexican restaurant with a brew pub attached. If Sadies opens a brew pub tomorrow, I guarantee it would be successful.

Ortiz: When I opened Turtle Mountain in 1999, there were four brew pubs in town. Now there are two.

Do you see craft beers taking over the market from big corporate brewers like Budweiser?
Gozigian: We’re not far from a state of equilibrium. The growth trajectory we’re on now, is it sustainable? Probably not. Macro beers are always going to be around, and once craft beer drinkers move on from a holier-than-thou attitude, I think they’ll realize, hey, some of these macro beers are pretty good.

Erway: PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) is in the middle of its renaissance. There are pictures of me on Facebook drinking PBR. And you know what? It is not bad.
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