Chama River is one of my new favorite breweries

Posted: December 4, 2014 by Luke in Brewery Reviews
Tags: ,
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Thanks AmyO for all the snaps!

Now, I didn’t say they were one of my favorite NEW breweries, as they’ve been around since 1999. But after spending some time talking to Zach Guilmette and David Facey of Chama River Brewing Co. and sampling their beer, I can definitely say they’re one of my new favorites. A couple Saturdays ago, I was invited to spend some time with the brewers, to see how the whole operation works. Looking further back, someone once said to me that you can’t really know where you’re going, until you know where you’ve been. I paid little mind to that phrase until recently, when I got to chatting with Zach and David. After learning a little bit about where these guys have been, I’m very excited to see where they and Chama River are headed.

I showed up just as they were finishing with The Crew’s brew, “Obey the Darkside,” a Foreign Export Stout coming in a 6-percent ABV and 65 IBUs. From what Zach tells me, it’s tasting good and should be on tap as soon as the Face Time Porter kicks. With the keen eyes of a wannabe journalist, I watched as the men went to work. It didn’t take long to tell that these guys were an excellent brewing team. Just the two of them there, they bounced from station to station, clamping hoses, priming pumps, opening and closing valves, dunking steel parts in buckets of sanitizer with the greatest of ease, and both with the grins of a kid who just discovered the joy of using dad’s power tools. One would move to an area, begin a task, move away, and the other would pick it up and finish it, just as others might finish a good friend’s sentence. These guys were on the same page, two cogs of the same machine. And man, were they meticulous!

During most of the cleaning process, Zach was more than happy to tell me a little about his brewing history. Coming from Vermont, his road to head brewer wasn’t a quick or easy one. This guy has seriously paid his dues. He’s been around, working here and there, sometimes as an assistant, such as in Moriarty, and sometimes with more control, like playing with recipes over at Kelly’s Brew Pub, when Kellys used to do that sort of thing. I kid Kellys, of course. But more importantly, he told me that the best thing his first brewing job ever taught him, all those years ago, was that brewing was exactly what he wanted to be doing with his life. He talked about where that road has led, and the great opportunity it was working at Il Vicino. There, he learned a lot and continued to build on his brewing skills, and that he’d never worked with better guys — which was pretty self-evident by his choice of assistant brewers, a little further down the road.

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The ONLY way to eat wings now. Brilliant, Mr. Guilmette!

After a little time and some hot wing munchery, he showed me the cold storage capable of freezing the drool on any craft brewer’s face. Inside, we talked about how, in today’s beer scene, there’s a lot of pressure from Albuquerque’s other great brewers (and from himself) to continue to keep the quality of the beer high. Even though Albuquerque is not brewery-saturated like say, Portland is, where one brewery opens as another closes, Albuquerque brewers — and I should say New Mexico brewers, in general — still have to compete for the discerning palates of the beer drinkers. We are not novices, even as a young craft-beer crowd. We don’t drink beer to be cool as part of some hipster movement (well, not the majority). While many of us may rock the Mumford-and-Sons-meets-the-Brawny-guy-look at each brewfest, we still know great beer from just good beer, and we won’t settle for anything less. A brewery can be badass on the outside, but it won’t survive in our harsh craft clime if it isn’t serving a solid liquid in the glass.

It wasn’t until after five years in the business that Zach began gaining recognition. “And that’s how it should be,” he reflected. “A brewer should really be making good, solid beer before he’s thrust in the spotlight, otherwise your flaws are just gonna show.” He took the job at Chama River because he wanted to be part of the shaping of the brew scene, not jumping in later and just adding to it. I can appreciate that. Albuquerque’s scene is still young and very much in the stage of defining itself and shattering its own image, much like that of a 21 year old. Albuquerque continues to show this. For instance, though Albuquerque may be known for its hoppiest hitters, they can still kick ass at national competition with a world class lager. Crash!

After all the cleaning had been finished up, both Brew Crews headed out into the bar area to enjoy a beer after all their hard work. Note: I didn’t do anything, but I was going to enjoy that beer all the same, as if I had. I suppose after all my question asking, my mouth was a little dry … ahem.

We sat down and all of us had Facey’s first recipe the Face Time Porter. Balanced and deliciously robust, the only one that could find any flaws with it was the perfectionist creator himself, assistant brewer David Facey, with whom I had the privilege of sharing a pint or two. Maybe three. A few minutes with him and you begin to wonder, how come this guy isn’t designing rockets for NASA or something? Luckily he’s focused his keen intellect toward something worthwhile, that being the production of the liquid happiness we call beer. We got to talking about the industry, because you probably wouldn’t be reading this if we were talking about gardening or something else. I asked about the learning curve of coming into a new brewery. He mentioned that though all the equipment may be a little different when it comes to breweries, the process is basically the same. “When I first started here,” he said, “I would just stare at the system. I’d follow the hoses until I knew where the beer started and where it was going. Now it’s just muscle memory.”

I asked him about his journey, which began with roots in management and homebrewing as a hobby. He started more scientifically at 21 years of age than I can say I still am about homebrewing now. He would brew so often they would be “drowning in beer,” he said. They would brew several times a week. And one time they brewed a few batches of the same beer style, with just slight tweaks, just to learn about the differences and how ingredients could change a beer. This was very similar to his experience working at Two Fools Tavern, where he had learned about the subtle differences between whiskeys. He had taken that new understanding even further, enough to begin teaching private whiskey classes at one point. In fact, he still teaches beer classes to new servers at Chama River, because, as his philosophy goes, the servers should know what they’re serving. It’s not just so they can sell a product, but so they can have an open, knowledgeable discussion with beer drinkers, whether they be craft veterans or craft virgins. As for how he arrived at Chama River, it was certainly due to his successful working experience with Zach at Il Vicino, and then history was just a phone call away.

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Cold storage. Nuff said!

From all that I’ve seen at Chama River, even if they may have been caught up in the complete deluge of new breweries in recent years, they have remained rooted in good brewing tradition and dedicated to bringing Albuquerque a better beer experience. A good example of this is their recent win at the Great American Brew Festival in October. The Class VI Golden Lager was a huge win. From my conversations with brewers, most would love to brew a really good lager, but simply don’t have the space or the time to let it lager properly. It’s where the economics and physical limitations of a brewery can hold a good brewer back. Luckily that’s not the case with Chama River. Their horizon is limitless. They’re on a good course right now, and have two great brewers at the helm. I’m very thankful to have spent a day on their tightly-run ship. The beer that they’re making is better than it’s ever been, and is only getting better. But what puts it up there among my favorites? It’s the philosophies of the brewers, their honed creative focus, and their absolute dedication to pushing quality that puts it in that category for me. And you can taste all that in the beer. I’m glad to have learned about where these guys have been; it only inspires more excitement for what lies ahead.

Up next, Chama River is brewing a beer with James Warren of Santa Fe’s Blue Corn Brewery on Friday. Don’t be surprised if a little peated malt sneaks its way in there. All joking aside, it’s going to be one helluva Dopplebock and it’s name shall be ‘The Collaborator.” Get it? Good! Soon after that, Zach will be feeding the yeast for a smoked rye lager they call “Rye on the Hog,” which, according to Zach, is “a German lager, along the lines of a bock in style, with beechwood smoked malt, and both flaked and rye malts.” You can bet that one will be easier to drink than describe. They will also be releasing another Radioactive IPA for the holidays. In February, heading to a glass near you will be their Saul-utations Pils, a tribute to the upcoming TV show Better Call Saul, which actually filmed part of an episode at the Chama River Microbar downtown. Pretty dope, if you ask me. With great beer already on tap, and fresh ideas in the fermenters, I won’t hesitate to make Chama River my vessel to brew-town next time I venture down to Burque, where the big wheel keeps on turnin’ and Proud Mary keeps on burnin’. Sing it if you know the words.

Cheers!

— Luke

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