Every new brewer will always face a challenge when taking over an established brewery. Some, though, arrive in the shadow of a predecessor who just went out and put that brewery on the map. That is the challenge facing James Warren, the new brewer at Blue Corn, who succeeds John Bullard at the well-established Santa Fe institution. All John did in 2013 was take home the IPA Challenge trophy — the first non-Albuquerque-area brewery to do so — and then win a pair of silver medals at the Great American Beer Festival.
I ventured up to Santa Fe on Tuesday afternoon to meet with James and get his take on the challenge of assuming control at Blue Corn. And I would like to pause for a moment to thank my car for waiting until I got back to Albuquerque to have the alternator go out. That really would have sucked to be somewhere on I-25 outside the city. Instead it was on Osuna just off the frontage road as I returned from watching E-Rock’s band, Nexus Elementa, play down at Launchpad on Tuesday night. I’m not thankful for the $400-plus it’s going to cost me, but anyway, back to the interview.
A little background on James first. He’s from Beaumont, Texas, but his parents owned a summer home in Glorieta, so he’s spent a fair amount of time in New Mexico in his life. He comes to Blue Corn from New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge, Connecticut (just outside of New Haven), where he worked for many years.
Q: Start at the beginning. What made you think I like beer, now I want to brew it?
A: I was down with a career in education. I got my teaching certification. I moved to Connecticut. During my time there I went on a brewery tour. I fell in love with it immediately. It was science, it was cooking, it was engineering. It was everything I enjoy, it was hands-on, it was creative. I kind of overheard they needed some help with packaging and I jumped on that and never looked back.
Q: That was at New England Brewing Company, right?
A: That’s where I went on the tour. Then I was an assistant brewer for a brewpub in New Haven called the Brew Room and Bar. They did all English-style beers. I stayed there for a little while and then went to the place I fell in love with, New England Brewing Company.
Q: How big of a staff did you work with there?
A: There was actually only five people there. But when I was leaving they were going through another big expansion. They had just hired a new packaging person full-time. We had been doing double shifts five days a week. Yeah. 60-barrel tanks don’t seem that big for a packaging brewery, but on a 15-barrel system that means double brewing two days in a row to fill one tank. So a lot of times I was there at 4 in the morning till about 1 o’clock. This is a nice little change of pace.
Q: What caught your attention about moving all the way across the country?
A: Growing up for a long time my parents had a home in Glorieta. I spent a lot of summers out here. I loved my job in Connecticut, I loved the people I worked with, but the climate and the culture were not for me. Last winter they got 52 inches of snow. I was done. I started looking around kind of casually. I saw this opportunity come up in a place I already knew I loved the environment, the climate, so I jumped on it.
Q: I move back here in 2008 and while I knew of Blue Corn, it wasn’t on the map like Santa Fe or Second Street. Then John Bullard came in here and the bar got raised. When you saw what he did and the medals he put on the wall, did you think this is a good challenge that I want to take on or did you think man, did I bite off more than I can chew?
A: It is scary, definitely. It is my first head brewer position and I knew I was coming in to somebody’s baby here. In the last two years, he really turned this place around. He left the place in great shape. My first intention is to get all these house beers and make sure they’re up to the same quality and standards that he brought. Then have some fun, explore, go with the double IPA. I’m definitely doing a Berliner Weisse, that’s one of my favorite styles for the summer. I still see John, probably once a week he stops in. It’s good, because he can try the beers and I can get his feedback. Even if I think the beers are up to the quality I want, he knows the beer culture here. He knows what people enjoy in an IPA. What they like on the East Coast is not necessarily what they enjoy on the West Coast or Colorado. It’s a little bit different take on things. It’s definitely a challenge, the first time running a brewhouse. It’s definitely a little bit of a scary thing.
Q: When I was talking to Zach (Guilmette) at Chama River, which has a fairly similar system but maybe a little smaller, he was saying it’s a great system to learn on and perfect your craft. Do you agree?
A: Oh, absolutely. The owner of New England Brewing Company said I hope everyone gets the chance to work at a brewpub. Because your formulation is going to get so much better. You get to try different things all the time. We have six house beers but 10 lines. Go have fun, go learn about formulation, try new things.
Q: That’s another advantage you get to have, playing around with beer-food combinations. Do you feel that food can be a great way to introduce people to different beer styles?
A: Absolutely. Chef David (Sundberg) every week he’s putting together a brew pairing. It’s a good way to get people to try a different beer than they would normally try. It’s a good way to get them to branch out. It’s great to have a kitchen right around the corner to get inspiration in there, too. The chef here is so excited about beer. About once a day he comes in here with some idea of what he wants to do. I’ve got to turn the (tables) on him some time and go to the kitchen. He’s always asking me what beer I have to pair with his dishes. I want him to make a dish that goes with one of my beers.
Q: We were recently talking to a new brewer from out-of-state and he was saying he was pleasantly surprised by the beer crowd here. He found them sophisticated but not overly snobby. What’s your early impression of New Mexico’s beer lovers?
A: I think most of it comes from my time delivering stuff to the Draft Station (in downtown Santa Fe), which is a great place to learn about people as well as beer, is that this is a town of foodies. It’s the same with beer and just drink in general. We’ve got that going for us. But people seem to be accepting. There’s all these new breweries opening up and I feel there’s room for all of them. They’re all bringing something different to the table. It’s all the advantage of the drinker.
Q: Santa Fe, even in New Mexico, is kind of unique. What’s your overall impression of the town, the lifestyle, all of it?
A: It’s a much slower pace than the Northeast. The weather is drier, I’m dealing with that. I keep drinking tea all day. It’s great. I wake up in the morning in my apartment and look out at the mountains. It’s just a reminder every morning that life’s a little slower, mornings are cool, afternoons are warmer. I just get a smile on my face every time I see a tumbleweed roll across the street.
Q: You’re a beer lover yourself. What are some of your favorite styles that you like to drink and/or brew?
A: I’m excited with the Wee Heavy. I’m a malty beer person. I like Scotch ales. I came from a brewery that was very, very well-known for big, hoppy beers. That’s what they did and they did it very, very well. I was kind of considered the old soul at the brewery. I wanted to make the big, malty beers. We had an experimental tank. They went back and forth. The hoppy beers always sold, though. I definitely lean toward the malty side, stouts, porters, Scotch ales. I love to see the complexity that can be created from malt character.
Q: We all lean a little toward the malty, darker side, as our name might imply. But I think we’ve all broadened our palates by drinking a lot of different styles. I wouldn’t have touched a hefeweizen five years ago. The only thing I can’t get into are sours. I’ve tried, but it’s just not happening.
A: I remember the first time I opened a bottle of sour … my first reaction was I hated it, I hated it. It grew on me over time.
Q: Yeah, probably not happening for me. I think some of those random, experimental beers go too far sometimes.
A: My last experimental beer was a cilantro and lime saison. With brett, it was aged in tequila barrels, it was out there.
Q: One thing John did up here was start to age some of his beers in barrels. What’s your take on that? It’s become popular, but is it something that will continue or just start to fade out?
A: I think it’s something that’s here to stay, though I think bourbon barrels have come and gone. Everyone’s moving on to something else now. We’ve got all these great wineries around here. We’ve got distilleries doing (different) barrel-aging things right now other than whiskey. Rum barrels are awesome, if you ever get to try one do it.
Q: Going back to what you said about so many new breweries opening up in New Mexico, it sure seems like everyone is trying to find their own niche. But I still think there’s room for breweries who do lots of beer styles well. Do you think that some places are taking the specialization too far?
A: I do. I mean, there’s a brewer in the Northeast that only did Berliner Weisse. Breweries that only do English beers or only do beers over eight percent (ABV). It’s kind of about experimenting, having fun. Don’t paint yourself into a corner. I always love it when a brewery is known for something but then has something good out of left field. It’s always fun to see.
Q: I know you’ve been working hard since you got here, but have you had much time to check out the other breweries around here and meet some of their staffs?
A: I try to. I’ve been to Duel. I’ve gotten down to Second Street. They were nice enough to let me borrow some (malt) the other day. That’s a great thing about craft beer, everyone is willing to help each other. I got to take a tour of Santa Fe, that’s a huge operation they have going on. Their canning line is amazing.
This state has done a good job of meeting the craft brewing idea. They seem pretty open and accepting. It’s good to see it’s working. It only creates more jobs and more tax dollars.
Q: We’re approaching festival season pretty soon. Are you looking forward to that and maybe seeing the breweries outside Santa Fe?
A: Festivals are always a lot of fun. It’s good to see people who love beer getting together. It’s a good time for brewers, too. We all get to see each other again, meet the new people. See what else people are doing in the state and learn a lot.
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A big thanks to James for taking time out of his busy schedule. He has a double IPA, the ACME Anvil (so named because the house beer is the Roadrunner IPA, and the Roadrunner’s arch enemy is of course the Coyote), fermenting now as well as a Maibock. The Scottish Wee Heavy will be up after that, brewed in collaboration with the Sangre de Cristo home brewers club. We look forward to all of his new creations.
And for the record on festivals, Blue Corn will be part of the Bike and Brew Festival happening all around Santa Fe from May 16 to 18, and will be part of The Yards Craft Beer Premier, a new event happening at the Albuquerque Railyard on June 21.
So unless anyone else around the state is changing brewers anytime soon, and we haven’t heard anything on or off the record, this wraps up our new brewer interview series. Don’t worry, though, the Crew still has plenty of beer news to cover.
Q: Do you know which is the next one you’re going to?
A: I know we’re part of the Bike and Brew Festival (May 16-18) up here. We’ve got the Yards Beer Festival (June 21).