The story of La Cumbre Brewing Company is one of those feel-good tales that is almost made for the movies, a testament to what can happen when you pursue the things you love and chase your dreams. What is even better, especially for us beer lovers, is that the story of Jeff Erway and La Cumbre is one that is very true. Jeff and his wife Laura and their love for beer led to a search for great beers all over the world. Finding an interest in home-brewing led Jeff to seek more knowledge about what it took to brew wonderful beers. Well, Jeff’s dedication to perfecting his craft eventually led to an opportunity to work at Chama River Brewing Company; after a few years it was time to pursue his and Laura’s dream of opening their own brewery. In 2009 the process began towards that end, and in December 2010, La Cumbre Brewing opened for business, serving up wondrous concoctions of hops and malts to the masses.
Sounds like an awesome beer story, right?
Well, skip ahead to December 2012 and that dream is still alive, and is doing quite well, thank you. With a rapidly growing reputation for their menu of delicious beers, a warm and inviting tap room in Albuquerque, package sales of their award-winning Elevated IPA growing by the week, and the evolving craft brewing community within New Mexico and around the country, one couldn’t ask for a better position to be in. Certainly Jeff Erway couldn’t; after sitting down with him for five minutes, his passion for beer and his brewery are especially evident. Beers like the Elevated IPA, Malpais Stout, and Jefe’s Hefe have put La Cumbre on the map and will only keep growing its reputation, one that already includes a gold medal for the Elevated IPA at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival in Denver. To put this in perspective, the IPA category has become one of the most popular formats, and usually draws the most entries in the competition.
The long hours and the blood, sweat and tears that he and his staff pour into serving up each brew are present in every pint (metaphorically, of course). So with their upcoming second anniversary kicking off tonight (Monday), Jeff was kind enough to give Stoutmeister and myself some time to sit down and discuss the growth of La Cumbre, the craft brewing community in Albuquerque, and what the future holds for La Cumbre.
Brandon: First off, I wanted to say congratulations, I saw that you were just voted Best Brew Master in Albuquerque the Magazine’s annual Best of the City list.
Jeff: Oh, cool, I didn’t even know that!
Brandon: You’ve recently returned from the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado, where you also served as a judge. How was the experience this year? How were the beers received?
Jeff: This is my ninth year going, my eighth year as a brewery rep, my second year as a judge. Being asked to judge is always an honor because you’re one of 170 people in the world that get asked to come and basically decide with the Brewers’ Association who gets to jump up on stage. Unfortunately I wasn’t one of the people this year that got to jump up on stage (this year). But the experience judging with some of these people is a great one for me because, at the risk of sounding a little cocky, it’s not that often that I get to sit at a table and taste beers with a group of people that I know for a fact know just as much if not more about the beers we’re trying than I do. Last year my big wow moment was when I was sitting at a table judging Munich-style Helles with Dr. Chris White from White Labs, who’s one of the three major yeast suppliers in the country. And then the other person was Dr. Andreas Richter of Malteries Weyermann, who has a PhD … There are a small number of times where I’m the least experienced person at the table. For a guy like myself that’s always a good experience to be the little guy at the table.
What I can take away when I’m judging is I don’t know everything. My palate is not perfect. Every year I realize something that I need to go back and hone my palate on. At the end of the day, what you guys, the public, are coming into La Cumbre for is the fact that we have two people back there with really, really good palates. They try every beer that comes out and knows for a fact that nobody is going to be offended by this, as a matter of fact, this is a great example of the style. I think that’s one of the attractions to our brewery. Just like one of the attractions to Marble is Ted Rice has an exceptional palate. Brady (at Il Vicino) as well. These brewers that are brewing great beers in this town, it’s not just because we know what we’re doing in the brewhouse or we know what we’re doing with the fermentation, we know when we taste something off. Hopefully we know how to fix it. If we don’t, we know to dump it and start over. As much as it might hurt to dump a few thousand dollars of beer down the drain, it hurts a lot worse when somebody goes online and tells tens of thousands of people your beer sucks. It’s just as bad they leave here thinking that beer was terrible and never come back. I think for the most part even our worst batches are pretty damn good beer.
Back to judging, I always know that I have to come back and really hone my skills, hone my palate. It’s my number one sensory (organ). Some people have eyesight, some have ears, I use my nose and my mouth. When I was getting started as a beer judge back in the 2000s, back in New York, I was blessed to be growing up next to the biggest beer store in the world. It was a museum, they had a lot of beers with dust on the bottles. They had 3,500 beers in bottles. It was pretty astonishing to go into that store and say I’m going to try that and try that. That definitely hones your palate. Over the course of the last 12 years I’ve been able to try over 20,000 different beers.
Brandon: As a brewer, do you feel you’ve learned all there is or are you still looking for new techniques and to further your knowledge?
Jeff: All I have to do is go by the GABF and stop by the Sandlot and try all their lagers and be like, ah, I have a lot to learn. I try to find brewers that are doing things differently and sometimes better than myself. I tried a truer pils, I’m like I have a lot to learn still. When my wife and I spend a lot of time in Belgium, I’ve got a lot to learn still. Do I feel like I’ve got 99 percent of it down, yeah, pretty much at this point.
Stoutmeister: A big trend right now seems to be the barrel-aging process. Do you feel that this is a trend that will be short-lived or is it here to stay?
Jeff: All you have to do is look at Belgium and realize that anything can be a fad. Lambic producers there have been producing the same styles of beer there for a millennium. In the last 50 years they’ve dropped from 50 Lambic producers to seven. I think craft brewers would be very wise to look at what’s happened to craft brewing in Belgium. Craft brewing was 55 percent in the 1950s, now it’s down to 20 percent. But that’s still better than (in the United States).
Brandon: The craft and microbrewing community has grown a great deal in New Mexico within the last few years. How do you think La Cumbre has fit in as far as carving a niche and making itself stand out?
Jeff: I think that question is probably a better one for our customers. Where I saw us fitting in when I opened — and this comes from the fact that at least in Albuquerque, we are the only brewer-owned brewery — is that we make uncompromised beers. And hopefully at the end of the day, most people are coming in here because they want the best beer that they can find here in New Mexico across the board. Does that mean that I’m saying that our beer is better than right down the street at Il Vicino? Sometimes, and maybe sometimes not. But what we’re aiming for as a company, not just as brewers but as a company, is to produce the finest beer in New Mexico. Not the most profitable, not the most kitsch, not the best branded, but the best quality beer. That goes down to things like who is actually allowed in the brewery … we spend a lot of time training our staff. The one person (Daniel Jaramillo) I picked to come and work with me full-time as a head brewer is the most experienced brewer in the state.
And I myself obviously take a lot of pride in what I do, and hopefully the results speak for themselves. You know, I’ve heard things like “it’s kinda crappy that you only have one product in package” … it took us a lot of time to get there. And the decision to go with one product was simply a decision of space; the cans take up a lot of room. So hopefully in the next year or so you’ll see another product, maybe two coming out. But like I said, uncompromised beers … we don’t mess around and do things like say, “What can we do to make this beer a little cheaper?” And we never will. I think I might be the only brewery owner that will say this, but I would rather us go out of business than release one beer that I hated.
Stoutmeister: We talk to other brewers, and you guys all know each other, and in a sense you are competing. But we get the sense that you guys are all friends as well. When you have that kind of community of brewers in this town, what does that do for you as a brewer, and and as a beer lover and business owner?
Jeff: Well, it’s the reason I got into this industry. Granted, I love brewing. I was a home brewer and I was a teacher. I actually loved teaching, and I was pretty good at it (but) I wasn’t an exceptional teacher. When I found that I was a lot better brewer than I was a teacher, I thought “well, shit … that sucks,” and I just spent all of my free time brewing beer. Then I started really getting to know craft brewers … I met people like Alan Sprints at Hair of the Dog and Peter Zien of Alesmith, and these guys were just the nicest people! You’d ask them what they were doing differently than me, and they’d just open up their recipe book … you know, I know right now I could go into Il Vicino, take their recipie book, go to the copy machine, and just start copying recipes. Brady would come by and say “what’s up?” “Oh nothing, just copying recipes,” and he’d say “OK, right on.” They ran out of Simcoe (hops) a few weeks ago. I could have made Brady’s Exodus a wet mountain of crap because I just didn’t want to give it to him. But of course I’m going to loan him 22 pounds of Simcoe, because we’re friends and he’d do it for me.
We’re friendly with each other because we understand that at five-percent of the (national) beer market, we have the choice of either trying to compete with bigger breweries, or we can cannibalize each other. And wouldn’t we rather just grow the piece of the pie that the craft beer market represents? Sure, Marble is going to take a tap handle of mine every once in a while, and I’m going to take one of theirs, and it’s not on purpose. We just go into a place and say, “Hey, here’s a beer,” and sometimes they get the tap handle and sometimes we do. But hopefully more often than not we’re taking a lot of Budweiser handles, or a Stella Artois handle or a Heineken handle, because we want more local beer on tap. And that’s just the nature of our industry, and it’s a wonderful industry to be involved in right now.
I hope that as we grow … that as we hit 10 percent to 15 percent, maybe even 20 percent, that we don’t lose sight of that. There have been a number of trademark infringement cases in the brewing industry over the last few years, and I hope that these companies do their best to not step on each other’s toes. We’re getting Elevated IPA trademarked, we’re getting La Cumbre Brewing Company trademarked, we’re getting “Get Elevated” trademarked right now. Now, I know Elevation Beer Company up in Colorado. Luckily for me they’re producing Belgian ales, but am I going to go in there once I have the trademark and say you guys have to change your name? No, I’m just going to say do your best to not create any confusion in the marketplace, and I’m going to do my best to do the same. Epic Ales up in Utah has an Elevated series … one of the beers in their Elevated series is an IPA. But we’re not (selling) in Utah and they’re not in New Mexico. I just hope that it continues, because it’s the reason I came into this industry, and it’s the reason a lot of people are in this industry, because it’s a friendly industry. It makes it a wonderful job to have to know that I can walk into any of the breweries in town right now and get welcomed with open arms … you know, “need a beer?” “How’s the kid, how’s the family?” It’s great.
Brandon: So La Cumbre has been open two years now, the business has grown quite a bit and has made a name for itself with Elevated IPA winning a gold medal at GABF. Does that put any pressure on you to keep expanding further or to keep pushing new beer styles or your existing beers further?
Jeff: The only real pressure that I accept in any shape or form is the pressure I put on myself. Now that I have Daniel back there, I know tomorrow if I die, chances are La Cumbre Brewing Company will continue, and the beer will continue to be awesome. It frees me up to take on more projects, and what those projects are is completely up to me. I have a partner in Scot (Nelson), he’s one of the owners as well. He was a silent partner for the first six to seven months, and he only became un-silent because I asked him for as much help as he could give me on the accounting side of things. I’ll tell him, “Hey, I’m going to buy this next week,” and he’ll spend the next 30 seconds looking through the books and be like, “No, you’re not.” But he’ll only tell me that if we really can’t afford it!
But I have what I’ve always wanted, and that’s carte blanche over a brewery. And if I decide to expand we’ll expand, and if I decide not to, we won’t. At this point, sure, we’re going to expand and keep on growing. But I’m also not a greedy son of a bitch; if we get to like 10,000-15,000 barrels, and I just look back and Daniel is making a good living, Paul is making a good living, Scot is making a good living, and I’m making a good living, I’m not going to kill myself to grow further. I don’t have dreams of being in every bar in Amsterdam or Japan. There are brewers out there that do, but that’s not me. I don’t need to be in Chicago or New York. I would like to be in Denver and a few other states, and we’ll see. We’ll do our best, (but) what I won’t do is sacrifice the quality of any of our beers just in the interest of growing.
Stoutmeister: One thing I’ve noticed about breweries is that you came into this from a brewing background, and (then) you got into the business side. The guys at Bosque Brewing, for example, are business guys who got into the beer side of things. People seem to be coming at it from one of those two angles. Over these last two years, what have you learned about the business of beer, as opposed to the brewing of beer?
Jeff: That you better have someone who’s good at both. I mean, you can have one person good at brewing, and one person who’s good at the business side of things … and then I meet someone like Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada, and I’m like damn, you got it figured out don’t you? (laughs) I’m very lucky to have Scot with a business background. I’m very lucky to have someone like Nico Ortiz at Turtle Mountain to tell me how much I’m screwing up, cause he’s got an MBA from Northwestern, he’s a pretty smart guy. And I think in a sense Scot is lucky to have me as a brewer, and I’m lucky to have Daniel as a brewer. You’d better have both sides nailed down.
As far as big surprises … luckily I cut my teeth at Chama River. I can’t imagine a better training ground for someone who wants to open a brewery in that they really make you do all the accounting, they make you do your own inventory, they make you account for all the beer you’ve sold, and your bonuses are dependent upon that. So it made me understand that brewing does have to be profitable; it it’s not, then what the hell are you doing it for? But it also developed me as a brewer. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today if it wasn’t for my time at Chama River and all the help I had from the many brewers that worked above me and under me. I had Ted Rice, who was my first brewer that trained me there … and I learned a lot from Daniel Jaramillo, because he would come in there and tell me how bad my beer was all the time, so that was a good thing!
But on the business side of things, I try not to worry too much about it, because I know what I’m good at and that’s not it. Sure, I can look at a spreadsheet or look at Quickbooks and tell that we’re making money, or “nope, that was bad.” But I also believe that it’s a huge mistake to go through and figure out your cost and sales on a beer and say, “Well, that’s too much, we need to cut out that ingredient.” We make our recipes, and then we figure out how much it costs to make them. If we figure out that it wasn’t a profitable beer to make … for instance, the Hoppy Hippy … holy crap was that not a profitable beer to make! And I can’t say we’ll make it again; if we do, maybe we’ll just charge more for it. That being said, we still brewed it, and we just said screw it, we’re going to do it. Things like the Acclimated, we NEVER figure out how much that beer costs before we brew it, ever. Because we know what Scot would say! But at the end of the day, and luckily for our customers and my sanity, I’m the one in charge so I can say, “No, we’re brewing it.”
Brandon: You mentioned Daniel Jaramillo, who was brought in as Head Brewer, was that back in June or July?
Jeff: Firing him tomorrow! (Laughs)
Brandon: How has the transition been bringing him in as Head Brewer?
Jeff: Exceptional. He has skills that are very complementary to my own. Most of the specials we’ve brewed since he’s come on have been collaborations between the two of us. He writes a recipe down, I write a recipe down and he’ll say, “I don’t like that about yours,” and I’ll say, “Well, I don’t like that about yours.” We come together and come up with a recipe and it’s great, and it always comes out really well. He and I have equally evaluated each other’s techniques in the brewery; we’ve both found out that we’re obviously competent in what we do and we’re trying to make everyone in the brewery more competent. He has his way of doing things and I have mine, and we come together and come up with ways that hopefully are better for both of us in brewing beer. Together we’ve got the quality control of our cans to, I think, be just about as good as anyone could expect of a brewery of our size. Are they what Sierra Nevada’s are? No … we don’t have a 10 million dollar lab! (laughs) But it’s been an exceptional fit for both of us … it gives him a brewery that he has a little bit more control over than I think he did down at Marble, because at the end of the day Ted Rice is a full-time brewer … and rightfully so, he wants control over that brewery. I wanted control over my brewery, too, but I wear a lot more hats. So if I get back in the brewery 25 to 30 hours a week, that’s a great week for me, I love that. But there are other weeks when I’m lucky to get back there 10 to 15 hours. At the end of the day Daniel is back there 50 hours a week, and he’s controlling what is going on back there, and I think that’s good for him and he’s happy doing it. It’s been great.
Brandon: It’s been two years since La Cumbre has been up and running. Where do you see things going in the future? What do you have coming for us in the next year?
Jeff: Well, 11 beers on tap here is about as much as you’re ever going to see here. I’d like to see at least one more beer, if not two more in package in the next 18 months … I’m not going to limit myself to a year. Can I promise that, though? No, so we’ll see. We are going to start looking at locations for a second tap room in the next three months. How soon that can happen though, not entirely sure. Part of that might depend on banks. I like doing things with working capital because I’m not a businessman, and I don’t like trying to run budgets and be like, “We can take on this debt, because we can pay it off over this period of time.” I like working with working capital, so to that end we will try to get another tap room open. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, expanding draft accounts, expanding can sales … I’d like to get up into Colorado in the next few months. Texas is a possibility, so is Arizona.
Brandon: I would imagine that somewhere like Austin would be a great market for your beer.
Jeff: Austin would be a great market for us, (but) Texas is a pretty limiting state as far as their regulations are concerned, though. For instance, we might have to change our can … and changing a can is very expensive.
Other than that, we’ll be expanding the brewery into the building next door. Scot, Daniel and I will each have our own offices; we’ll have a proper laboratory, we’ll have a barrel room, we’ll have a racking room in there, and we’ll be expanding some parking.
Stoutmeister: Do you get a sense that Albuquerque is slowly and steadily starting to put its name on the map in the beer scene the way cities like Denver and Portland have?
Jeff: I will take the beer from the breweries in Albuquerque over any city on earth, with the exception of one, and that’s Brussels. I think that message is being heard loud and clear by the brewing community as a whole right now. If you look at RateBeer pages for Il Vicino, La Cumbre, Marble, Chama River … just try to find even a couple of beers that are rated below 50 percent as a style. These breweries are producing world class beers. They get really great reviews … people who come to our breweries from out of town think these beers are great. The people from outside of Albuquerque that are trying, you know, Marble’s Red Ale think it’s awesome, and obviously the same about our Elevated IPA, and that’s a great thing for Albuquerque breweries. It’s a great thing when people go into Chama River for the first time and a good bartender asks them what they’d like, and they have no idea, and the bartender says, “Try this Class IV lager,” that’s a great thing for ALL of the breweries in Albuquerque.
I hate to pick on anyone, but I think it’s bad for our industry when they go into a brewery and try a beer, and it’s crappy, and they think to themselves “Budweiser is better than this,” and they’re right. Budweiser is better than this, because at least they know what they’re getting. It’s always an unfortunate thing … I hope and pray that more and more people get exposed to this good craft beer in Albuquerque by going to one of the great breweries here, because that’s more business for everybody. I personally think there are very few people that only go to La Cumbre … there are very few people that go to Chama River and the same goes for Il Vicino and Marble. I go down to Marble, and I see 20 people that I see at my place regularly … and the same thing with Il Vicino and the same thing with Chama. It’s a great thing, we’ve got an awesome and dedicated craft brewing crowd here, and I feel blessed to have them.
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It’s pretty much assured that the Albuquerque craft-brewing community feels just as lucky to have a brewery of La Cumbre’s caliber right in our own backyard; although, with breweries such as Marble, Nexus, Tractor Brewing, Turtle Mountain, and so on, one could easily make the case that we are spoiled with great beer here in New Mexico. I’m certainly inclined to agree, and it looks like La Cumbre will be one of the breweries leading the charge in great beer for a long time to come. With up to 11 beers on tap, you’re certain to find something you will love during your next trip to the tap room; and with an ever increasing presence on taps around town, chances are you will be indulging frequently. Don’t forget you can also find four-packs of Elevated IPA in your local package liquor stores, and if you happen to be outside of New Mexico then you can always order online at Beerjobber.com.
And lastly don’t forget to stop in the tap room tonight, as they will be officially celebrating their anniversary with Aladocious playing some tunes, and finally tapping their Russian Imperial Stout, aged in Syrah and Pinot Noir barrels! Get excited about this and all the other great beers that La Cumbre Brewing Company will be bringing you from here on.
Until next time…
— Brandon Daniel (Cryptogrind)