Back during the holiday hustle and bustle, I sat down with Turtle Mountain owner Nico Ortiz and talked about his plans for his soon-to-be-15-year-old brewery in 2014. One thing he mentioned was a desire to push the beer forward to a level that could compete with metro area heavyweights like La Cumbre, Il Vicino, and Marble. To that end, all of us in the Crew knew changes would be coming to TMBC this year, but the full scope of those changes was not apparent until the hiring of new head brewer Tim Woodward.
Tim had spent the last year-and-a-half as the assistant brewer at Chama River under the tutelage of Justin Hamilton, but the opportunity to take over his own brewery was too good to pass up. Tim and Nico sat down with me outside on a lovely Tuesday afternoon to discuss just what the patrons of their well-established Rio Rancho brewery are in for in the months ahead.
Q: What’s it like taking over an established brewery like this and taking the reins as head brewer for the first time?
Tim: It’s been an adventure so far. It’s just a blast to be here working with Nico and the Turtle Mountain family. Everyone here is so supportive of everything that I have done and am getting ready to do in the future. So that’s really exciting. When you venture out to be a head brewer somewhere, you have a lot of options for different start-ups. But the bottom line is it’s kind of comfortable to move into a place that’s already established, has a name, has 15 years of notoriety, good pizza, good food, good beer. And I’m just excited to be a part of it and take us even further forward with hopefully some medals and some winnings and hopefully a lot more recognizable beer.
Q: You told us at the end of the year you were really looking to kick it up a notch this year. What is Tim going to bring in terms of getting you in that direction?
Nico: Man, he has already brought amazing amounts of renewed focus simply on the basics of brewery organization in terms of transferring and gas lines, dispensing, sort of re-working all the processes back there. Cleanliness, especially; sanitation I guess wasn’t one of our strong suits back in the day and so it is now. He’s just bringing sort of a renewed focus to what I like to call attention to detail. Brewing is significant amounts of attention to detail. The first thing he’s bringing is just a reorganization and a clarification of the processes. As soon as he gets all of that done, then we start the fun part of recipe formulation and sampling. We’re all eager to have Tim get all this (stuff) out of the way, so to speak, so we can start drinking beers. We’re just excited. I’ve already warned everybody, all of the recipes, he’s going to have them in the recipe book. Some of them may reappear from time to time just for nostalgic purposes, but he has a clean slate to get all of the beers totally reworked and we’re excited to see where the beers are going to go.
Q: When Nico told you that you could come in an rework the beers, how much of an appeal was that for you in terms of taking this job?
Tim: That’s like a brewer’s wet dream, really. Let’s be real here. Having the opportunity to basically start anew … it’s exciting and a little nerve-wracking. We have our regulars who are very passionate about Hybrid (IPA), Cabo (Lager) and (Red) Rye. It’s going to take some convincing and obviously some great beer to show them that things are just going to be going up and up. So in that regard it’s a little nerve-wracking. Frankly there’s nothing more exciting than having a clean slate and carte blanche to do what I please with the recipes and the direction. The trust that Nico has put into me to do that is quite awesome.
Q: Being a head brewer is unfortunately not just about the beer. There’s also a lot of paperwork and administrative tasks. How are you adjusting to dealing with all of that?
Tim: I’d actually had a pretty solid training in that realm before I’d left Chama River. Justin (Hamilton) had been planning to leave for some time now. I hadn’t really reached out to anyone and no one had reached out to me, so I was just assuming that I would take over at Chama. I got to take about six to eight months of head brewer training under Mr. Hamilton. That work is all pretty comfortable for me. I can handle inventory and taxes and all of that sort of thing.
Nico: I’m just happy that Tim’s taken over (so much). We do updated beer pages that we put out on the table with the numerical profile of the beer with two-sentence descriptions. We have more lengthy descriptions on the website. The front-of-house staff used to take care of (that) as well as a lot of other administrative marketing tasks that Tim is now inheriting, which I’m very happy because the front-of-house staff has enough to deal with. In addition to the usual stuff about inventory and ordering, he also is now Mr. Beer Marketer, so his words of wisdom regarding the beer will now be on the website and out in social media.
Q: We’ve talked in the past about how Rio Rancho and the west side are a little different in terms of demographics, more families, than the rest of Albuquerque. In terms of the beer, do you feel you can really push boundaries with that in mind or are you compelled to hold back a bit?
Tim: I think for the most part the brewpub scene, the crowd of people that go to the brewpub as opposed to the taproom at La Cumbre or Marble, I feel like they’re all still interested basically in the same styles of beer. You’ll have the foodie types come out, they may not be as interested in certain types of beers. So we’ll have what some people call entry-level offerings, we’ll have a nice, lighter lager. We’ll have plenty of offerings; we’ll have a phenomenal IPA that hopefully will be as good as anything else in town.
Q: You’ve talked recently about wanting to brew a beer that can truly compete in the IPA Challenge again. Do Tim’s plans meet that expectation?
Nico: The competition has become significant, not just for IPAs. You were talking about the west side being different from the other side of the river. A lot of people that live in Rio Rancho work in town. So we have a ton of people that on their way back from (Kirtland Air Force) Base or on the way back from working in town they’ll stop by Cumbre, Il Vic, and Marble. So they’re very, very familiar with those beers and they come here also because they live in Rio Rancho. Our beers are obviously compared to those beers on a regular basis. It’s important because we don’t exist here in a little vacuum on this side of the river. The clientele that comes here, and as we’ve gotten older, our clientele has gotten younger, which is good. Rio Rancho still has a lot of older people but they’ve been filtering out of Turtle. The clientele we’re getting is a lot more of the Marble, Cumbre, and Il Vic drinkers.
IPA Challenge, it’s sort of a grudge match. (John) Bullard set a new standard for dominance last year after Il Vicino ran over us for four years in a row. It’s one of those things that’s an ego thing, it’s an absolute ego and pride thing. But it’s like we’re all in this thing together. IPA is our style. From an IPA Challenge standpoint, the pressure is on Tim to frickin’ knock it out of the park, if not this year than certainly next year.
Q: (to Tim) Good luck!
Tim: (just smiles)
Q: We’ve got Bullard at Bosque now, we’ve got Jeff Erway winning a national competition with Project Dank. It’s only getting tougher out there.
Nico: I would much rather have the bar be set so high because you know exactly what it is, as opposed to having it be mediocre like it was. Up until five years ago in this state the bar for IPAs was good, but it wasn’t great. The past five years it’s gone from good to ridiculous. Now the learning curve for anybody coming in as a head brewer is very high. But blessedly the guy (Jeff) that makes the beer which is a standard for IPAs around the country is 15 miles down the road and he’s a nice guy to talk to.
Q: Chama River has done a really good job of producing head brewers over the years. What is the thing about Chama that essentially breeds good brewers?
Tim: It’s kind of a complicated question to answer. I would say it starts with Chama having always been recognized as producing outstanding product. When you train under someone who produces outstanding product, assuming that you pay attention and work your ass off, will also likely produce an outstanding product. That heritage, the genealogy if you will, of excellence definitely continues to flow through the pipeline. It just works really well. Ted Rice begot Jeff Erway begot Justin Hamilton begot Tim Woodward sort of thing. But talking specifically about the brewery, it’s a little five-barrel DME system and it’s a wonderful, wonderful system to brew on. Erway always used to call it the Cadillac of breweries. And a lot of ways it’s true, it’s smooth-running, it works well, you can produce a kick-ass beer on it, it’s well maintained and continues to be.
Q: We’ve seemingly reached a point where when an Albuquerque-area brewery needs to hire someone they don’t need to look to California or Colorado. Now instead of just someone from Chama moving to a local brewery, we’re starting to see others like La Cumbre and Il Vicino produce head brewers as well. When there is this much talent locally, what does it say about the brewing scene here?
Nico: I think it’s exceptional. New Mexico is such a backwater state in many, many respects. For us to actually be at the forefront (of brewing), where people at some point may be trying to lure our brewers to California or Portland or Boston instead of the other way, I think it speaks volumes. The brewing industry is finally starting to get some attention from the state, the tourism department and other types of stuff are recognizing how important the industry is.
I think it’s fantastic to actually have this home-grown and home-trained crop of what I call the Class of 2014. Which includes Tim and Bullard and Kaylynn (McKnight), people who have gone from either second chair or to being head brewers at places that didn’t appreciate beer. To (now) actually being in new positions to be able to take Albuquerque and New Mexico brewing on into the future is fantastic.
Q: Talking to Zach Guilmette at Chama, we discussed how having a brewery plus a full kitchen gives him some unique opportunities to pair beer with food and really help open up people who aren’t serious beer drinkers to different styles. Do you feel you have the same opportunity here?
Tim: I think it’s paramount. Thinking back in my early days of learning which beers I enjoyed before my palate expanded, but if I’d been introduced with certain styles of beer with the pairing of a food item, I think I would have been more open to them in the first place. The first time you have an IPA when, of course, you’re of legal drinking age, it might have been a little profound. If it was paired properly and introduced in a way it might have been easier to understand. And that’s something that Nico and I, moving forward, are excited about. We’re going to have some staple beers that will always be on tap. We look forward to tying that on very directly with our menu. If you like this pie, you should drink this beer with it. I think having that pairing between the brewery and the restaurant is going to help us out tenfold.
Q: Not only can you pair a beer with food, but you can make some food dishes with beer as an ingredient. How does that help expand kitchen creativity as well?
Nico: Oh, absolutely. The kitchen is full of beer drinkers and nothing would make them happier to sit there and have an excuse to drink beer and actually talk about food and beer. We have our 15th anniversary dinner coming up on (April) 1st. It’s the last dinner of a sort because it features the majority of recipes that are going to go by the wayside. Tim’s Anniversary Ale is the first beer he’s going to take credit for. It’s the one beer on the dinner that’s a teaser for what’s going forward. The kitchen is stocked with guys who are enthusiastic about integrating the beer and the food. They’re excited to see what Tim is going to bring forth so that they can now adjust kitchen offerings and specials. Before, even though we were a brewpub (and) beer and pizza goes great together, but aside from brewmaster dinners the two sides never really kind of interacted. Now going forward we want to have that interaction on a daily basis. Tim’s in the building, I want the kitchen and the brewery to go lock-step forward. It’s good now that Tim is starting off with some new recipes, in essence we’re starting anew. The kitchen will have its recipes, but now we can slightly modify them to fit in with Tim’s beers. We’re all excited.
Q: All right, now I’m curious, what are some of the new beer recipes you’ve been kicking around?
Tim: Nico and I have talked and we’re looking to offer five standard house beers. We’re going to cover a lighter lager style, probably a Munich-style Helles or something similar to that. We will offer an amber with some rye offering in it, I’m thinking maybe 15-percent rye in the profile to give you that nice spiciness people enjoy about the rye. We’re looking at a couple of different pale ale options. I actually brewed one last week. It’s a wheat-based pale ale, so kind of a play off the white IPA that’s been going around. We’ll try out some different pale ales. Of course we’re going to have an IPA. And then we’re looking at a couple of different dark beer options. A stout, a foreign extra stout or a robust porter. The four special beers will probably be my folly.
Nico: Turtle always had, up to this point, I always prided myself that if you came here all the time you will never see the same beer lineup ever, no matter when you come in. And that’s worked all well and good in terms of having a lot of variety. We obviously went to always having typically the Rye, Cabo, and Hybrid. They became the de facto three house beers. They weren’t on 52 weeks a year, but they were on 50 weeks a year. So that makes them about as close to a house beer as you could get. It is one of those things where I think there does need to be some standardization. Just because everybody else is doing it doesn’t mean Turtle has to do it, I’ve never subscribed to that philosophy. But it is nice just so people can kind of come in and at least the people that like the five beers can be happy. We have 13 taps, so there’s plenty of space for Tim to have some fun. You don’t want the brewer making the same thing all the time because that defeats the purpose of having a system. But then again it also makes the brewer’s life tough when it’s like, ‘Hey, Tim, just brew whatever you want.’ It makes it tough on ordering, hop contracts, scheduling. It’s one of those things where after 15 years I think I’m ready to settle down, so to speak. Commit to a relationship with five beers.
Tim: And on top of that, that gives us the advantage, like I said, working very distinctly with the kitchen to pair things with the menu. They can have their daily specials and they can pair them very easily with the five house beers that will always be on. Then even further on top of that sometimes a person goes to a place where they’re comfortable and they want to drink a beer they know is going to be good. Having that as a reliable option I believe is just super, super important. I mean that’s why Erway sells, what, 70 percent of the beer out of his taproom is probably (Elevated) IPA and Dank.
To have an offering of beers that people will always know is there for them, call it maybe a security blanket. It will also increase consistency. Our IPA will become more and more consistent as we go forward. Same with all of the other house beers. I will be brewing them on a regular basis. I will have expectations on how things will perform. Having consistency is probably one of my number one focuses.
* * * *
A big thanks to Nico and Tim for taking some time out of their busy days to chat. And thanks for the pint of Irish Dry Stout, too, it was a tasty post-St. Patrick’s Day treat. We look forward to trekking out to Turtle when Tim’s full lineup of beers are unleashed. To hell with the Paseo del Norte construction calamity, west side beer beckons!
Anyway, I will be back Friday to wrap up the new brewer series with an interview with Nexus’ Kaylynn McKnight. The future of beer in the Albuquerque area is only getting brighter. Rejoice one and all!