For the finale of our series of interviews of new brewers around the Albuquerque metro area, I visited Nexus on Wednesday morning before they opened. Kaylynn McKnight, formerly an assistant brewer at La Cumbre, is in the process of taking the reins from Manuel Mussen. She will be the first female head brewer in the metro area in some time (or so we’re told, we don’t know who her predecessor(s) was/were).
While things were going just fine for Kaylynn and Manuel inside the brewery (he is staying on for a bit to train her on the system, which is different than the one she used at La Cumbre), it was a bit chaotic in the rest of Nexus due to computer problems. Owner Ken Carson was finally able to take a breather and chat after I finished with Kaylynn, so this whole interview process went in two parts.
Here is what Kaylynn had to say about her first head brewing gig and more. I think all will agree she did well in just her second career interview with a reporter.
Q: I heard the story from Jeff (Erway) about how you were just an 18-year-old hostess at Chama River and you came up to him and said you wanted to learn how to brew. What compelled you to choose this profession?
Kaylynn: It was always interesting to me. My dad was a home brewer. Just smelling the brew in the morning was amazing, it was an awesome experience growing up. And then growing up I’d smell their Miller Genuine Drafts that they’d drink or I’d taste a little bit of them, but then as soon as I tried a few craft beers I wanted nothing to do with those beers anymore. It showed me the meaning of true beer. After that it just looked like a rewarding job. You get to enjoy what you make at the end of the day.
I was in food service for a while as a waitress at a couple different restaurants. I didn’t feel rewarded after that at all. I made money, but I definitely enjoy what I’m doing now a lot more than what I was doing.
Q: How were you eventually able to talk Jeff into letting you get into the brewing operation at La Cumbre?
Kaylynn: Well, when I applied I wrote down bartender-slash-assistant brewer, almost half-jokingly. I’d been harassing him for four years and he kind of laughed at me every time. He sat me down for the interview in his office and pretty much told me that I was hired as a bartender and finished up the interview. Then he turned it around on me and said, ‘Well, for the brewing you’ll need some steel-toed boots. You’re going to have to wear long pants. You’re going to have be here early in the morning. You’re going to start one day a week and we’ll see if you do well, then we’ll bump you up to two days a week, three days a week, so on and so forth.’ He gave me the chance as soon as I got hired there, (but) I think he was still a little skeptical.
Q: What were some of the things he had you doing at first?
Kaylynn: Scrubbing floors. He had me do inventories, just counting hops and grain. Then I eventually learned how to clean tanks. I would help him on bigger brews, but I wasn’t brewing for the first couple months. The first batch we did was either a Baltic porter or a Russian imperial stout. I think it was a Baltic porter. The first batch I did on my own was a pilsner. I kind of worked my way up to brewing.
Q: A lot of people get into brewing because that’s all they’re interested in is just the brewing, but then they find out all the hard work beyond that like the cleaning and inventory and the like. Do you feel that because Jeff had you start on the less glamorous side of things it made you appreciate the job more as a whole?
Kaylynn: Oh, definitely. I think the actual process of work production of brewing is the easiest job in the brewery. When you know how to successfully transfer or clean a tank or work with really high pressure, the more dangerous aspects I’d say like chemicals, it really makes you appreciate just getting up in the brewhouse and (brewing).
Q: You were at La Cumbre from 2011 to 2014, during which time the staff got bigger and bigger as the beer became more successful. What were some of the things you were able to learn from that collaborative group?
Kaylynn: Everyone had their own styles to their own techniques, from organizational skills to brewing advice. Daniel (Jaramillo) was always very, very organized. Jeff was the most anal-retentive one in the brewery, but that’s why he makes wonderful beer.
Q: When did you hear about this job coming open and what intrigued you about it?
Kaylynn: I’d heard rumors that Manuel was leaving, so I was kind of interested in it, but I didn’t know if I would get hired if I came and applied, so I was a little bit hesitant. But Manuel actually approached me about it and just told me that I should go in and check it out and see if it’s something I want to do. So I came in and talked to Ken and got an interview and that was pretty much it.
Q: The other new head brewers in town have kind of been thrown into it, whereas you have Manuel sticking around to help show you the system. How much of an advantage has that been for you so far?
Kaylynn: I feel very lucky to have him here right now. There were a couple of pieces of equipment that I wasn’t too familiar with, that I’d never worked with before. So it’s been good just learning how to use those things, like the grundies. For example the grundies in the back were something we never had a La Cumbre. There were different things, like I’d never done taxes before, so I’m learning that. It’s not a hard job, it’s just something that has to be done every week.
Q: The brews at Nexus and La Cumbre are pretty different. What are some of the things you’re looking to do with Nexus’ beers in the future? Any changes, tweaks, stay the course?
Kaylynn: I definitely like that the beers here, you can’t just go anywhere in town and find a Scottish ale, for example, or a year-round porter. So I really like what they have here. I’m not going to change anything drastic. I’m going to ease into it, take over, and see how the beer will change from Manuel doing it to myself doing it. Definitely see how that goes before I change anything, if I do anything. I’ve just got to see how my (brewing) style affects the beer. As far as seasonals, I plan to do … well, it’s up to me completely now. So I’d love to do some interesting seasonals. Me and Manuel were throwing around the idea of doing an altbier as my first seasonal.
Q: You and the other new brewers, Zach and Chama and Tim at Turtle, all have the unique setup where your breweries are also restaurants. That gives you the opportunity to do a lot of beer pairings with food and maybe use those as a way to introduce more casual beer drinkers to new styles. How much of an advantage can that be for you?
Kaylynn: I’m really excited about working with the kitchen. We’re about to hire a new kitchen manager. I want to talk with the new manager and Ken and see what I can do as far as beer dinners or just pairings, be it an appetizer with a good pairing list next to it. This is a new experience for me, too. At La Cumbre all we had were the food trucks.
Q: You are the first female head brewer in this area as far back as I remember. We’re starting to see more and more women taking different positions in breweries, whether in the front office or working as a brewer like yourself. You may not want to be seen as blazing a trail or anything like that, but with this opportunity what do you think it does for women in craft brewing in New Mexico?
Kaylynn: Well first of all, women started making beer long, long ago. Women were the brewers (and) then men kind of took it over eventually, so I think I’m just bringing it back. I love seeing women in powerful positions, labor-intensive jobs, doing things that wouldn’t be expected of them, necessarily, but showing the world that we can do it is fantastic. When I got hired here Ken wasn’t sure if I could lift the bags for the mill. Don’t get me wrong, when I first started at La Cumbre it was a challenge, but if you’re dedicated to it and you put your mind to it, you can do anything.
Ken has given me a wonderful opportunity, also, to trust me to be the head brewer here. I really appreciate that.
Q: We’ve seen people jump from Chama to other breweries in the past, but now we’re seeing local breweries take from La Cumbre and Il Vicino, saying we’ll make your No. 2 brewer our No. 1. What does that say for the brewing industry here that we don’t have to import brewers from out of state anymore?
Kaylynn: I think we have a really tight-knit beer community. I think our brewers all get along with each other. We call each other and buy ingredients when somebody runs out of something. We can talk shop and discuss recipes. It’s very open and friendly. I really like that. It’s definitely moving in the right direction for a good, strong, tight-knit community. All the collaborations that the breweries have gotten together and done, I love that idea, too. I feel like it’s strengthening our scene.
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And as noted above, Ken was dealing with computer issues, so he joined me later on in my visit to Nexus.
Q: So what convinced you to interview Kaylynn and then offer her the head brewer position?
Ken: Well, Albuquerque is a small town and you get to meet all the other different brewers. Really what happened was I was hoping that she would apply among a few others. I didn’t want to go to the other breweries and try to steal anybody because I’ve talked to other brewers before and gotten in trouble for that. So I said well, everybody will know sooner or later that this position was open. The word was out in the streets even before I knew about it.
I’d met her before and she really seemed like a sharp lady. The other thing is that she’s a really nice person. I think when you’re working with people it’s really important to work with people you feel comfortable with. I had a strong feeling that she would be one of those types.
So when she came over I was really kind of ecstatic. So let’s talk and see if we can meet each others’ so-called demands. So things worked out and today she’s with us.
Jeff is one of the most respected brewers in the state of New Mexico if not the United States. Having someone who trained under him is a real positive to me. So I’m looking at that really positively. She seemed ot handle his system over there and brew over there, and based on talking to her and even some other discussions I had asking questions to other people about what she does over there, it seemed to me like it would be really easy to pick up this system.
I’m really please and I think it’s going to be a good fit in our organization.
Q: Not only is she a nice person who’s young and enthusiastic about beer, she’s also a local who knows the brewing scene here. How important was it to you to bring in someone who already has an idea of what Albuquerque customers want?
Ken: My first desire was to pick up somebody (local), a known entity. Because I know from hiring out of state, even when I was in the banking arena, you really don’t know that person’s background. You don’t know about that brewery, what kind of beer they brewed. The same thing in banking, you don’t know how they used to do loans. But I can tell you the guys across the street are down within the state, I have an idea of what they did and how they do things. So it’s important. I would have been happy to get somebody from Il Vicino if that had worked out, because I know Brady’s a great brewer. Chama, Justin, Justin’s assistant, all those guys. We have a good flock of people. The secondary guys need a chance. It’s not that they’re not getting a chance, they’re learning, but at some point they grow to having their own (place). So this is working out very well.
And by the way, when I went and tried to hire Manuel I had like 50 resumes from all over the world. When I put the ad out on Pro Brewer, which I hoped would it not only go out of state but be local in the state, I got five applications total, or resumes. Apparently, across the nation, because of so many new breweries out there I guess demand is sucking up what you can get out there.
Q: I think also some folks might be a little hesitant to jump to any established brewery. They would rather start their own place. But then you have people like Kaylynn, like Zach at Chama, and Tim at Turtle, who welcome the challenge.
Ken: Manuel’s done a great job for us. I have no regrets at all in hiring him. I wish him happiness going back to California. There was always a part of me that thought he might go back to California. It’s actually happened. It’s a parting on good terms and he did a great job for us. So we’re just looking positively to the future.
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A big thanks to Kaylynn and Ken for taking the time to chat on what turned out to be a much busier day than they expected. All of us in the Crew are looking forward to what the future holds for one of our city’s top breweries.
Assuming that there are no other major moves on the horizon, that concludes our series on the new head brewers around the metro area. There are still plenty of other stories for us in the weeks ahead. We will be checking in with Bosque and Tractor in the coming days on the progress of their new brewhouses. We also have lots of new brewery news to catch up with as soon as we find ways to touch base with them. There is also an exciting ABQ Beer Week event (we’re less than two months away, people!) that the Crew will be participating in at Tractor Wells Park that we will let you know about as our plans come together.
Until then, we will we see you all around the brewing scene in ABQ and points beyond. Enjoy your weekend!