Kaktus Brewing brings good craft beer back to Bernalillo

Just up the road from Albuquerque along I-25 sits the small, sleepy town of Bernalillo. Back in the day it had the Milagro Brewery, but that place did not last. Amid the post-2010 brewery boom in New Mexico, Bernalillo had been left behind until now. Kaktus Brewing is now undergoing a “soft opening” before a more formal grand opening on Oct. 1. Any opening is worth checking out, so yours truly (this is Stoutmeister) headed north on Thursday with Monica from the ABQ Craft Beer Drinkers Group to check out New Mexico’s newest brewery.

The charming patio of Kaktus Brewing in Bernalillo.
The charming patio of Kaktus Brewing in Bernalillo.

Kaktus is located at 471 S. Hill Road, a fairly nondescript part of town. Basically, if you get off I-25 onto Highway 550, Hill is the first light west of the freeway by the RailRunner stop. From the train, it is an eight-minute walk south, or a quick jaunt by vehicle along the road. Kaktus is working on getting more signage up to guide people; basically, if you’re driving on the road and get to the KOA campground, you’ve gone too far.

The brewery is small — it will really only qualify for nano status, brewing about 500 total barrels a year using a two-barrel system and four fermenters (they plan on having six in the near future) — and utilizes a lot of German equipment. When the Crew interviewed Mark Matheson from Turtle Mountain last year about CaskFest, Mark was storing Kaktus’ future equipment in the back of his winery’s tasting room. Mark has served as a mentor of sorts for Kaktus brewer Mike Waddy and owner Dana Koller. Hey, it’s never a bad idea to seek counsel from one of the state’s best and most experienced brewers.

The inside of Kaktus Brewing is still getting some finishing touches.
The inside of Kaktus Brewing is still getting some finishing touches.

Kaktus will have a small menu featuring brats and a homemade Frito pie, plus other food items may be added later, but they never plan to be a food-first establishment. The main idea behind Kaktus, as Dana explained, was to have a brewery where people can leisurely gather and relax away the afternoons and evenings.

As such, there is a patio area out front, a small interior, and there are plans to create a back patio where patrons can play games and listen to music on a small stage (this part of Kaktus still needs to go through the legal hoops; you can go back there and have fun, but your beer can’t go with you yet). Overall it is a charming little location, not unlike Blue Heron Brewing on the road between Santa Fe and Taos.

This being a beer review site, let us get to the beers that are currently on hand. The initial roll-out of beers includes a Helles, Hefeweizen, Pale Ale, London Porter, and an ESB. For what are essentially the first batches brewed, four out of five were rather good.

Four of the first five beers at Kaktus. From left, the Helles, Hefeweizen, Pale Ale, and London Porter. Only the ESB is not pictured.
Four of the first five beers at Kaktus. From left, the Helles, Hefeweizen, Pale Ale, and London Porter. Only the ESB is not pictured.

Helles: This German-style beer actually tastes like something you would find at a biergarten in Munich (trust me, I’ve been there). It does not have that slight bitterness you get from a pilsner, but instead has a sweet (but not overly so) flavor that makes this a very easy-drinking, lazy summer day kind of beer. You could sip this for hours on end (it’s only 4.3-percent ABV) and just chill out the way they do in Germany. I’m guessing this was Monica’s favorite, since she got a second small glass of it.

Hefeweizen: The difference between a good German hefe and an American can usually be found in initial appearance. The American hefes all look like Widmer, cloudy and murky. German hefes are hard to distinguish in appearance from a Helles/Kolsch/Pilsner. The flavor is different, of course, but it looks like a regular golden ale. Kaktus’ Hefe falls into that category. It has the aroma and taste of a German hefe. It’s not my style, but I could actually drink this if it was all that was on tap. I can’t say that about most hefes around town. E-Rock would be the best judge of the quality of this hefe. Darn, I’ll have to go back to Kaktus and take him with me. Darn.

Pale Ale: Out of the five this was the only “meh” offering in the bunch. It has a good aroma of mild, piney hops, but once you taste it the hops vanish. It just ends up more like a smooth, light lager. It needs more punch. I would recommend to the Kaktus crew to pick up a six-pack of Alaskan Brewing’s Freeride APA (American Pale Ale) and aim for something more like that. It would set it apart from the pale ales at other NM breweries and appease most hopheads. (And yes, an IPA is in the works at Kaktus, but don’t let that stop you from visiting)

London Porter: The average porter nowadays is hard to distinguish from stouts in appearance, sometimes even in flavor. The London Porter is more of a traditional British style, with a lighter appearance (more brown ale-esque than stout black) and a smoother, lighter flavor. There are strong vanilla tones here. This is a sweeter beer, not bitter, and also checks in as something you can quietly, slowly enjoy.

There are taps for up to eight beers at Kaktus. An IPA, Oktoberfest, and Stout are coming soon.
There are taps for up to eight beers at Kaktus. An IPA, Oktoberfest, and Stout are coming soon.

ESB: For whatever weird reason, this is a rare style in New Mexico, with Second Street in Santa Fe being the only real champion of the genre. Kaktus’ ESB is a smooth, slightly sweet, multi-flavored concoction that Second Street’s patrons would enjoy. It was really a three-way tie between the Helles, Porter, and ESB for my favorite at Kaktus, though I might lean slightly toward the ESB for how well it holds up to the standards of the style.

All in all, as noted before, it was a solid debut lineup for Kaktus. It is a small, quiet place, a nice respite from the noisy crowds that sometimes overwhelm Il Vicino/La Cumbre/Marble/Nexus/Tractor/Turtle Mountain. As the final dust settles and everything is put into a smooth working order, the Crew will definitely head back up (as in, not just me) and keep tabs on Kaktus’ progress. As with any other establishment, the beer will evolve and change over time, so don’t go up and then write ’em off forever if their initial batches aren’t to your liking (or if you absolutely, positively won’t visit a place without an IPA, you crazy hopheads). The thing is, the initial beers were pretty darned good, so I’ll definitely be heading back up. The convenience of the RailRunner stop being within walking distance will certainly help, but it is not really that far from Albuquerque (about 15 minutes north of Paseo del Norte). None of the current beers was over 5-percent ABV, so that should help, too.

A big thanks to Dana for hosting the two of us during our impromptu little visit. I’ll “drag” the rest of the Crew up there at some point, hopefully for the grand opening or shortly thereafter. If you can’t make it to Bernalillo, Kaktus will be one of the breweries pouring its beers (along with Turtle, Santa Fe, and Cazuela’s) at the Oktoberfest in Rio Rancho on Sept. 28-29, which for once is not falling opposite a major beer festival.


— Stoutmeister

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