Kaktus gets into a groove heading into its first full year

Posted: December 13, 2013 by cjax33 in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2013-14
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And we’re back with the Look Back/Look Ahead Series for 2013-14. This series is designed to give a recap, from the breweries themselves, of 2013 while also previewing all that is to come in 2014. We have already visited La Cumbre and Bosque, so click the links if you missed the stories.

This time around I (Stoutmeister) drove up to Bernalillo to sit down with Dana Koller, the owner of the metro area’s newest brewery, Kaktus. A true nanobrewery, Kaktus has only been open for three months, but has already made a name for itself. For those who have not trekked north, Kaktus is quite easy to find. Just get off Bernalillo at the first exit (avoid the Highway 550 exit, as the overpass is under construction). Just west of I-25 is South Hill road, and there is a sign telling you to turn right (north) to Kaktus. Head up the road a little ways, past the KOA Kampground and you will see the big sign for Kaktus on your left (west).

The setting alone for Kaktus is unique; the only other brewery location in the state that’s comparable is Blue Heron in Rinconada, on the road between Espanola and Taos. And much like Blue Heron, Kaktus brews in small but delicious batches.

There are cool places to conduct interviews and enjoy a mug of great beer. Then there's the Breaking Bad table at Kaktus. Epic stuff. Though sitting on Saul is a bit intimidating.

There are cool places to conduct interviews and enjoy a mug of great beer. Then there’s the Breaking Bad table at Kaktus. Epic stuff. Though sitting on Saul is a bit intimidating.

Reflecting on 2013

Kaktus’ genesis actually goes back to 2011, when a fortuitous meeting occurred between Dana, brewer Mike Waddy, and Turtle Mountain brewer Mark Matheson. The trio were enjoying a party at Dana’s house, which is actually located right behind what is now the brewery building. They discussed the prospect of opening a nanobrewery on the property and agreed that it would be a good idea.

“It just made sense,” Dana said. “There was nobody on the north side of (the metro area) servicing Algodones, Placitas, Bernalillo, Enchanted Hills of Rio Rancho, all these places. It made sense to be the one to come in and service them as a community brewery.”

While the idea was easy to come up with, getting the brewery up and running took some time.

“It took us a long time because Bernalillo is a very undeveloped area,” Dana said. “It took us a long time to get permitting done. We’re using an updated septic system instead of being on a city sewer. There’s a lot of hoops we had to jump through to make things happen.”

Everything came together this fall, with a soft opening on Sept. 13 and a grand opening on Oct. 7. Though there are still plenty of beer lovers who have yet to find Kaktus — it is away from Bernalillo’s main streets — Dana is convinced that the location is a good one.

It may be winter, but you can still enjoy Kaktus' front patio underneath a nice, warm tent.

It may be winter, but you can still enjoy Kaktus’ front patio underneath a nice, warm tent.

“We actually do have a great location,” he said. “It’s just that people don’t realize there’s a frontage road in Bernalillo yet. We’re walking distance from the RailRunner. We’re right next door to the KOA. We have a lot of potential to bring in business. And we’re right dead-center between Bernalillo, Algodones, and Placitas.”

This was actually my fourth visit to Kaktus, the third since its grand opening, and on prior visits on a Saturday afternoon and a weekday evening, there was a large, lively crowd. Part of that comes from the beer, of course, but also the friendly, laid-back atmosphere that Kaktus is trying to create.

“We definitely wanted to give that feeling to people,” Dana said. “In New Mexico, all of the new breweries have a similar theme, a warehouse, kind of more of an urban feel to it, more of a metro look. We wanted to be more comfortable than that. We wanted a place where people can come in, bring their dogs, bring their family, bring their kids, (make it) a kid-friendly environment.

“So we didn’t want to be just like a bar. We wanted to bring back the old feeling of a pub. We’re doing our best to X out the televisions. We want people to talk, we want people to really get to know each other, we want to build a community. So it’s important for us to give that feeling. When people leave, they say exactly what we were going for, ‘I just had a beer at a friend’s house.’ That’s exactly what we wanted.”

Owner Dana Koller, talking to a customer, has created a nice, relaxing atmosphere at Kaktus.

Owner Dana Koller, talking to a customer, has created a nice, relaxing atmosphere at Kaktus.

Community involvement is also a big development for Kaktus. The paintings on the walls, and even some of the chairs and tables, have been created by local artists. Dana said he has a rotation of about six artists, changing things out every two to three months.

“Obviously we want to put a fun focus on the place, but our absolute main focus is quality beer,” Dana said. “So we started with the reverse osmosis system to make sure we have the cleanest water available. We built our own water profiles for the styles of beer we want to brew.

“Our equipment came from Germany because we wanted to give something we thought New Mexico was missing. A lot of breweries are brewing real strong, high alcohol-content beers, very hoppy, very distinct and aggressive taste. We wanted to do something a little more easy palated. Because of the area we’re in we have a lot of Mexican culture. And because of that we are the place that’s introducing microbrews, craft brews to people for the very first time. It’s important for us to have easy-drinking, light-style beers, session beers, basically. Lagers are going to be our first and foremost special style. And then we have our London Porters, ESBs, IPAs, and stouts.”

Like most breweries, getting into a flow with beer production and making consistent flavors was a bit of a challenge, though perhaps not as much as at other sites.

“We didn’t know how the new equipment was going to work, being from Germany,” Dana said. “We had to replace a lot of parts to Americanize it. Piping, electrical … all these different things. That was somewhat of a challenge. Then once we got that up and running, our first batch came out nice and good. It wasn’t perfect, but for our first time through it was drinkable.

You can take an interactive, self-guided tour of Kaktus' brewery room to learn all about the brewing process.

You can take an interactive, self-guided tour of Kaktus’ brewery room to learn all about the brewing process.

“Our challenge after that was carbonation, how we were going to carbonate our beer. Our first month we were very inconsistent with how our carbonation was coming out. Now I think we’ve got it down. We wanted to go for a very European style, just about a quarter inch of head on a beer.”

Operating on a two-barrel system, Kaktus tends to change out its beers on a fairly consistent basis, averaging about one or two tap changes per week, Dana said.

“I think there’s a pretty big advantage to it,” he said. “We have a new beer or two every week. We like to give a lot of diversity. We like to really rotate our taps often. We do take more chances with things. If we destroy a batch, it’s not the end of the world. Luckily we haven’t had to do that. There’s always that chance. We can take a little more aggressive stance on something new.

“Small batches are delicate. We keep a close, close eye on them. We have some wonderful flavors coming through. I’m very happy with our beers.”

The future setting for Kaktus' back patio, which will have plenty of games and possibly an outdoor bar, all in time for warm summer days.

The future setting for Kaktus’ back patio, which will have plenty of games and possibly an outdoor bar, all in time for warm summer days.

Preparing for big things in 2014

Like much of the ABQ-area breweries, Kaktus is focused on improving its current location for the coming year. Unlike its larger brethren, Kaktus is not worrying about distribution for off-site sales or putting its beers into bottles and/or cans.

“We want to sell all in house,” Dana said. “It’s not our first priority to sell kegs or bottles or do any of that distribution outside of our place. We’re really focusing on generating a very comfortable and friendly environment here. We’re looking forward to putting a lot of money into our establishment itself.

“We’re going to be opening another patio specific to gaming. So we’re going to have a bocce ball court, a petan court, a couple dart boards. Potentially we’re going to have a small stage back there. We might put in an outdoor bar so we can have some taps out there. It’ll be some fun expansion for this summer. We’re really excited about this summer. We want to have some things people haven’t seen yet at Kaktus Brewery.”

One new change right here in December is a self-guided tour through the brewery, since people have to walk through that area when getting inside to the bar during the winter months. There are signs on the walls explaining the process and giving folks an idea of how the beer they’re about to enjoy was created.

There is also a tent covering the front patio, helping Kaktus remain at capacity even when it is cold outside. It just further adds to the relaxing atmosphere at the pub.

There is room for some additional fermenters in the back of Kaktus, which you can see while taking the self-guided tour.

There is room for some additional fermenters in the back of Kaktus, which you can see while taking the self-guided tour.

While comfort is one thing, it all comes down to the beer. As the crowds increase, so will the demand, thus there will be a few changes in the back.

“We are going to look at doing some bigger holding tanks and upping our capacity a little bit, expanding to two more fermenters,” Dana said. “After that if we’re really doing well we’ll double our system to a four-barrel instead of a two-barrel, but that’s really more toward the end of 2014.”

In addition to current unique seasonals like the the delicious Peppermint Stout — which offers up a very nice, balanced mix between the peppermint and stout flavors — there will be more intriguing beers on the way. Dana said Mike is planning to brew a coffee lager soon, and there are plenty of other new experiments going on in the brewery.

“Our beer is where we want it right now,” Dana said. “Obviously we’ll always refine our recipes. But I think the biggest attraction of 2014 is just working our establishment itself.”

Kaktus will also begin participating in beer festivals throughout the state, starting with the Taos Brew Masters Festival on Dec. 21, to further get the word out.

* * * *

A big thanks to Dana for taking the time to sit down and chat, and of course for that pint of Peppermint Stout. If you have not made your way up to Kaktus yet, get on up there ASAP. It only took me 10 minutes on I-25 from the San Antonio exit to Bernalillo, so it is not nearly as far as you might think. If you need a place to kick back and chill out with a good beer, it is worth the short trip.

Our revised schedule for the next few entries in the Look Back/Look Ahead Series: Monday — Marble, Tuesday — Sandia Chile Grill, Wednesday — Broken Bottle, Thursday — Nexus. I am still trying to work out interview times with Back Alley, Chama River, Il Vicino, Tractor, and Turtle Mountain, but I hope to finish this series before the calendar flips to 2014.

See some of you at Santa Fe Brewing on Saturday. Until then …

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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Comments
  1. […] Kaktus gets into a groove heading into its first full year […]

  2. […] 2013 while also previewing all that is to come in 2014. We have already visited La Cumbre, Bosque, Kaktus, and Marble, so click the links if you missed the […]

  3. […] 2013 while also previewing all that is to come in 2014. We have already visited La Cumbre, Bosque, Kaktus, Marble, and Sandia Chile Grill, so click the links if you missed the […]

  4. […] 2013 while also previewing all that is to come in 2014. We have already visited La Cumbre, Bosque, Kaktus, Marble, Sandia Chile Grill, and Broken Bottle, so click the links if you missed the […]

  5. […] 2013 while also previewing all that is to come in 2014. We have already visited La Cumbre, Bosque, Kaktus, Marble, Sandia Chile Grill, Broken Bottle, and Tractor, so click the links if you missed the […]

  6. […] 2013 while also previewing all that is to come in 2014. We have already visited La Cumbre, Bosque, Kaktus, Marble, Sandia Chile Grill, Broken Bottle, Tractor, and Nexus, so click the links if you missed […]

  7. […] 2013 while also previewing all that is to come in 2014. We have already visited La Cumbre, Bosque, Kaktus, Marble, Sandia Chile Grill, Broken Bottle, Tractor, Nexus, and Il Vicino, so click the links if […]

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