Porter Pounder and I (Stoutmeister) wandered over to Ponderosa Brewing on Wednesday afternoon to try their beers for the first time. Neither of us was along for the sneak preview visit a couple weeks ago, so it was our first experience at the location at 1761 Bellamah NW.
First, let us start with the location. Once you get inside it’s a lovely place, with ornate wood-carved walls, a spacious interior, and a positive ambiance. There also seems to be plenty of parking outside, always a plus at an Albuquerque brewery. Finding the joint, however, is not easy. There is no exterior signage of any kind. Zippo. Hopefully they will get that changed in the near future. The easiest two ways to get there are as follows: 1) On Rio Grande near Hotel Albuquerque, turn east at the light at Bellamah. Go east until the road starts to curve to the south. There is a colorful apartment building there on the northeast corner. Turn into that parking lot and drive back until the parking lot starts to curve east. Ponderosa occupies the entire ground floor of the northern half of the building. 2) If you are coming via Mountain, turn north onto 18th St. and head keep heading north, past Explora and the Natural History Museum, and the building is located at the north end of the street before the road curves west and becomes Bellamah.
So once we figured out where Ponderosa was, we headed inside and took our seats at the bar. It turned out that Jason from the Brew Crew Bullpen had been there earlier when they opened (11 a.m. every day, staying open to 11 p.m. except Sundays, when they close at 10). We ordered flights just like he did, though we were there late enough for the Helles Lager to come on tap and give us six beers to sample.
After we were done drinking, we got a chance to go in the back with Matt, Ponderosa’s head brewer, who shared the ups and downs of the brewery opening. Basically, Ponderosa ended up in a rush to open. The first beers Matt ever brewed on the state-of-the-art system were all the ones we were drinking. Many of them had room for improvement, which he expected. It’s rare that a brewery hits all the right notes right off the bat, and Matt was candid about what he will be doing differently in the future. We appreciated the honesty and the tour. It was nice to be able to give constructive feedback and have an open discussion. Hey, brewing is hard, and sometimes all of us forget about that when we get critical about beers. Certainly trying to brew on an accelerated schedule is far from easy, especially when it’s your first batches on untested equipment.
For the record, all three of us agreed that the Sawmill Stout was the best of the initial bunch, while the Ghost Train IPA needed the most work (Matt agreed on the latter). I could ramble on, but I thought I would allow Porter Pounder to also share our respective thoughts on each beer (Jason got swamped at work; if he has time to add to this later on, I’ll add his comments in here). Oh, and Porter Pounder says that no matter what you order on the food menu, make sure to get the barbecue sauce they make with their Rip Saw Red. It’s delicious stuff.
This version of a Kolsch was brewed to German specifics handed down to Matt by the brewmaster at PINTS Brewing in Portland, Ponderosa’s “parent” brewery. As such, it uses a lot of German wheat malt. Too much, for my liking, though other customers seemed to enjoy it. I found the sweetness of the Kolsch to be muted by the wheat flavor.
Porter Pounder: At only 4.9% ABV, this was one of their smallest beers. One thing I noticed about every one of their beers, this included, was how cloudy they are. The strong wheat tones in this definitely factor into the cloudiness. The initial taste you get is a little sharp from the little bit of hops that are in this, but despite the wheat it has a very crisp finish that gives it the classic Kölsch profile. The wheat still tends to bring it towards the body of a Hefewizen, making this a pretty unique hybrid of the two.
XPA1 Pale Ale
The first in a series of rotating single-hop pale ales, made with an experimental hop. It didn’t have much bite of any kind, and the finish was kind of dry. I wanted a stronger malt backbone. Perhaps with a different hop it will hit the right notes.
Porter Pounder: 5.0% ABV. Also surprisingly cloudy for a pale ale. The idea behind this beer, using the same exact unchanged recipe, but keeping it on rotation with different experimental hops each time, is an awesome idea to really get people new into beer to understand how the hops alone can create a whole new flavor profile. It was very light and smooth, and I loved the very floral scent on the nose before you take your first sip. However, because of the single-hop method, this batch didn’t leave much on the back end, except a very light bitterness. Personally, I think that adding just a touch of citrus to the general recipe of these will just brighten up the flavors quite nicely and give it that little push forward it needs.
Ghost Train IPA
A lot went wrong in the fermentation process. It’s hard to describe, but essentially the new fermenters Ponderosa are using have these pipes near the bottom that point upward. They are designed to help keep things swirling about and not all settling at the bottom. The problem was that the hops clogged up the pipe and were hard to remove (just blasting them with hot water would have crashed the gravity). Things have been fixed and this won’t happen again, but the initial result is an odd IPA. It has little aroma, minimal bite, and the bitterness hammers you on the back end. We’re looking forward to trying to the corrected version.
Porter Pounder: 6.2% ABV. This one, unlike the XPA1, was very bold w the hops. It did have a floral nose much like the other, but this one was much more subdued. he initial taste will be much better for hop heads more than I, but that bitter hop will follow you to the bitter end.
Rip Saw Red
Another beer that didn’t quite turn out as planned. It ended up falling in between a hoppy red like Marble and a sweeter Irish red, but it did not have enough positive qualities from either. It was fairly dry and lacked a strong flavor either way from the malts or the hops. It either needs a bite at the front or more of a sweet, malty finish.
Porter Pounder: 6.5% ABV. Cloudy as Hell pt. 3. Every one of these so far except the Ghost Train has been cloudy. The taste, however, is very smooth, with middle road bittering that doesn’t overpower you. Pretty standard red with just a little extra bite.
As noted above, this was the best of the bunch. The roasted malts and coffee flavors dominate this one, with only a little sweetness around the edges. It’s not an overly thick mouthfeel, but in the hotter summer months, it doesn’t need to be. Matt said he plans to rotate stout styles as well, so expect lots of variations (oatmeal, milk, imperial, etc.) in the future. If this is the start, I have a feeling that Ponderosa will become known for the quality of their darker beers.
Porter Pounder: 5.2% ABV. Not surprisingly, I chose to end my tasting with a stout. This turned out to be my favorite of all we tried anyway. This one you can’t even tell if it’s cloudy, because it is dark as a starless night. Holding it up to the large entry way windows, no light penetrated through this beer. Excellent. Beautiful nose to start you off, smelling black roasted malts, definite coffee tones, and then that first sip just coats your palate. It even had good bubble clustering on the head. This, I think, will quickly become a very popular choice here.
This went on tap just before Porter Pounder and I met with Matt behind the scenes (Jason did not get to try it). Our opinions were mixed. It was a little cloudy for a Helles, though that should clear up in the future. It’s got a good amount of sweetness without being overly sugary. There was a little wheat malt here, too, producing just a hint of banana flavor around the edges. The use of wheat malts in non-traditional wheat beers is a little something we will have to get used to at Ponderosa.
Porter Pounder: 4.9% ABV. Lastly, right before leaving, they were able to finally tap their other rotating keg, this time being a Helles. For me, this is still a style I’m recently trying and finding more. It boasts a major Belgian yeast nose, which for me ended up overtaking the German Pilsner malt base a bit. There wasn’t a ton of flavor on this initial experimental batch, but you can clearly see where they’re wanting to take this and I’m looking forward to trying the next batch immensely.
* * * *
Overall, Ponderosa did not get off to the flying start of Boxing Bear or even Lizard Tail. Still, the location has potential and the fact that the staff are already aware of what needs to be fixed is a good sign. We will head on back in a month or so to see how the beer progresses. Give Ponderosa some time and we have a feeling it will be able to hold its own in the crowded ABQ brewing marketplace.