Greetings everyone, Stoutmeister here with the first post in the Look Back/Look Ahead Series for 2014-15. As the year draws to a close, rather than just write up a single summary review of the last 12 months in beer, I decided to take what free time I have and go talk in person to breweries in the ABQ area to get their thoughts on both the year that was and the year to come. I’m not going to put up any sort of schedule for this series, and it will likely extend beyond December and into January with other Crew members chipping in as well.
So with all that out of the way, I know a lot of you have been wondering about that construction photo we posted on Facebook the other day about La Cumbre Brewing. That was taken during my interview with owner/brewer Jeff Erway where we discussed all the good his brewery has done in 2014 and what’s to come in 2015.
First up, La Cumbre is celebrating their fourth anniversary this Saturday, starting when the brewery opens at noon and going all the way to closing at midnight. Art’s BBQ and Rustic Food Truck will be parked outside. The Watermelon Mountain Jug Band will perform from 3 to 6 p.m. Oh, yeah, and there will be some special beers, too.
“Starting at noon we’ll be tapping our anniversary beer,” Jeff said. “We’ll also be selling bottles of that. The anniversary beer is a beer I’m really proud of, it’s a British-in-style barley wine with a maybe a touch of an American hop approach, just trying to balance out the enormous sweetness of the malt. It’s been aged for four months in rum barrels.
“The rum barrels were at one point Jack Daniels barrels and then Bacardi got them and filled them three separate times with 151. So the barrel actual character is real subtle. It comes across much more as a butterscotch-y character, so I love it.”
Oh, but wait, there are more.
“We’ll also be tapping a cask of our La Negra,” Jeff said. “And we’ll be tapping a keg of our third anniversary beer (a Belgian quad). Everything else has a yet-to-be decided. Daniel (Jaramillo) and I today will be going up to our proverbial cellar to figure out what other kegs we want to bring out. You can be sure there will be several other beers that have not been released in quite some time.
“We’ll also be re-releasing a few bottled offerings that are quite old, that have been sitting around in our cellar for quite some time. There won’t be any price gouging, we’re pricing them the same price they’ve been at.”
OK, so lots of awesome beers, many beautifully aged, and bottles of vintage styles for sale at original prices.
“You’re going to kill us with all of these,” I said.
“They won’t kill you, just bring you one step closer,” Jeff replied with a smile.
The anniversary party will cap another big year for La Cumbre. Project Dank won the National IPA Challenge, run by the Brewing News, and it later brought home the Michael Jackson Award for Best American Cask Ale at the Great British Beer Festival. Those two trophies aside, the year also saw the debut of Malpais Stout in cans and multiple new beers released in bottles.
When I asked Jeff to recap all of the ups and downs of the year that was, he had a good answer.
“Honestly I can’t say there’s been too much down,” Jeff said. “I remember in November of last year I called a meeting of our managers at 7 a.m. on a Monday. Something hit me on the behind. Daniel, just the week prior, had said what are we doing, it feels like we’re just sitting here in limbo and not doing anything to grab people.
“And I sat down and said look, here’s a rough sketch. I gave them a list of eight different beers I wanted to try to bottle and release. I’ve still got that list. We released six of the eight of them, plus several others. From that list of beers we’ve decided on our next new can which (has) actually been sent over to the Tax and Trade Bureau for review.”
The goal for any established brewery these days is to remain prominent even in the face of all the new, yet welcomed, competition.
“I feel like we’ve done a very good job of doing exactly what I set out to do, which was to make sure that as this brewing industry grows, as the brewing industry in this town grows — and I’m all for it, I’m all for competition, I’m all for the growth of the industry, I love craft beer — that La Cumbre firmly maintains as itself as on the cutting edge locally as well as being relevant,” Jeff said. “I want to make sure that when people both in town and around the country think of Albuquerque beer, La Cumbre is right on the top of their list.”
La Cumbre has certainly maintained that place with local beer lovers. Elevated IPA won the first Beer Madness competition held online by ABQ Business First. It beat Project Dank along the way, but Dank remains one of the most popular beers that La Cumbre has ever brewed.
“We’ve established Project Dank as a year-round beer, which will actually continue to stay in bottles,” Jeff said. “We’ve decided we’re not going to put it into cans. We can’t source that much hops. We were able to get the National IPA Championship with that beer, which I was very pleased with.”
The thirsty public has also enabled La Cumbre to increase the size of their staff.
“We’ve added four new brewing positions in the back,” Jeff said. “We’ve added a salesman. I feel that, beyond the new beers, I feel our standard lineup has gotten even — and I know this isn’t what the beer geeks crave — but it’s gotten more consistent and more consistently right on the money, exactly where we want them. I’d say the majority of that credit goes to Daniel Jaramillo. He’s done a great job of training our staff and making sure everyone knows what they’re doing at any given time.”
That consistency is huge, especially for a brewer that packages and distributes.
“There’s always that five percent (of beer lovers) that wants to know exactly how much alcohol is in this, how many pounds of hops,” Jeff said. “Ninety-five percent of people, they want to come in, they want to have their IPA, they want to have their pilsner, they want to have their hefeweizen, and they want to know it’s going to taste the same every time. There is honor in brewing (consistently). If you can’t do that, time to find a new job.”
The dawn of a new brewhouse tops what is to come in 2015
Anyone stopping by La Cumbre during the daytime has probably heard sounds of construction coming from behind the north building. It is hard, though, to see what is really going on back there as the brewery offices in the front block your view. Jeff took me to the back and lo and behold, a lot of construction has already gotten underway. The point of it all is to make room for a new brewhouse, fermenters, and a silo, all of which will help La Cumbre continue to expand and continue to improve the quality of their beers.
“So we’ve ordered our 30-barrel brewhouse that’s in production right now,” Jeff said. “It’s actually being built for us right now in Portland, Oregon. With that will come two 120-barrel fermenters (and) a new boiler for the brewhouse. We’re moving from a direct-fire to a steam-fire system. Which will inevitably have inherent differences in character, but it will enable us to make beer more consistently. Steam is more controllable.”
To fit those new fermenters and the brewhouse, the entire roof has been removed from the back (west) part of the northern building. The construction crew was preparing to put in new support beams before beginning to raise the walls in the next three weeks. The roof will then go on, making the northern building at least as tall as the current brewery operations room.
“Right there’s going to be sitting a 120-horsepower, high-pressure steam boiler,” Jeff said, pointing to the back left area as we walked into the now open-air space. “Right here will be the 30-barrel brewhouse. Out here will be a silo. And over the next several years we’ll be filling this space with five 240-barrel fermenters.”
The grain silo will be external, much like at other ABQ area breweries.
“This is where the silo is going to sit, (an) 80,000-pound silo,” Jeff said. “It’s going to be a little shorter than Marble’s and a little fatter than Marble’s, because I’m shorter and fatter than Ted (Rice).”
To help power all of this, La Cumbre had a new transformer installed outside that will quadruple their current power. The existing roof is already covered in solar panels, with the hope to add more atop the new roof once that is completed.
“You can see the solar panels from here,” Jeff said as we stood outside. “They literally cover that entire roof. That’s about 43 KBA, so that’s approximately a third of our current usage is being produced by solar now which makes us the biggest solar producer of any brewery in the state. Not for long, though, I think Santa Fe is doing a huge solar expansion.”
A new 50-horsepower glycol chiller will also be installed outside to keep everything inside nice and cool.
“That’s how our expansion is going,” Jeff said. “I’m hoping to have the new brewhouse up and running by late February, early March. And then the new brewhouse, but more particularly the 120-barrel fermenters will allow us to start distributing around the rest of Colorado, hopefully, fingers crossed.”
There may be some additional distribution expansion, which will come as good news to my many beer-loving friends in the state where I went to college.
“Arizona will probably be next on the list, (but) I don’t want to be nationwide,” Jeff said. “I absolutely adore what New Glarus has been able to do. You can only be in this business so long before you stop just thinking about the beer and think about the business itself. Honestly, the thing I’ve found that’s been really interesting over the last four years is I’ve fallen in love with the business, not just the beer. I’ve fallen in love with the growth of craft brewing as an industry. I’ve fallen in love with the characters that fill up the craft-brewing industry.
“From the beer side, I see what New Glarus has done and it brings a tear to my eye. 120,000 barrels of beer in one state alone. Who would ever want to leave the state? Why would you ever want to distribute outside your state? I love the fact that people from all over the country want to trade for La Cumbre, but I want you have to come at least in our general vicinity.
“What Sierra Nevada has done is truly inspirational. It’s great (but) I don’t think you’re going to see anybody else come along that’s going to do that much.”
With news that breweries in California, like Sierra Nevada, are facing issues with that state’s terrible drought conditions, Jeff said La Cumbre is already making plans to reduce their own water consumption here in parched New Mexico.
“We’re going to spend about 25 grand this year on a CIP cart that will reduce our water usage during cleaning by about 90 percent,” Jeff said. “We’ll be able to reuse that water we use for cleaning over and over again. For sanitizing cycles, we’re going to stop using chemical as a sanitizer. We’re going to create this loop from our hot liquor tank that allows us to push water in from the hot liquor into a tank and then it goes back into the hot liquor tank. It’s a better way to sanitize. Hopefully with the next year or two we’ll have added solar panels up on this new building that will mean the water we’re using to sanitize the tanks is heated by the sun. We’re not going to be using any energy and we’re not going to be using any water to sanitize our tanks, which is pretty awesome.”
While Jeff is certainly happy with all of the new technology that is due in the coming months, he and his staff remain focused on all of the little things as well that keep the brewery humming and customers happy.
“I want to get this new brewhouse completely dialed in before I start trying to say what we’re going to be able to brew and what we’re not going to be able to brew,” Jeff said. “I sat down last week with my managers and said we’ve accomplished what we were setting out to accomplish (in 2014), now we’ve got to get more organized. We’re going to have a new website that’s going to come out in the next few months. We need to get a lot better about promoting the releases we have. We’ve got to get a lot better about getting our faces out there and be sure that amongst all the clatter around the new breweries that people don’t forget about the breweries that are well established. But as I said, the more the merrier.”
So what will that new can release be that Jeff mentioned earlier?
“As far as beer releases go, we’re going to be getting Red Ryeot out in cans,” Jeff said. “(Then) my goal and Daniel’s goal is to do a lot of research in what we need to do to get our South Peak Pilsner in cans and make sure it’s shelf stable. I refuse to have a pilsner out in the market that’s not going to taste like I want it to just a month or two out. It’s a very delicate style. We’re probably going to be looking into getting a centrifuge to help us along with that and playing with some different hopping techniques to make sure we get it there.”
Part of that process with the hopping techniques will come with the new brewhouse and it will affect more than just South Peak Pilsner.
“Our new brewhouse is going to have a hop back on it,” Jeff said. “A hop back is basically between the brewhouse and the fermenter, which will allow our hop wort to pass directly through whole wheat hops on its way to the the fermenter. Our Elevated IPA will immediately start getting that treatment once that brewhouse is up and running. Hopefully that will create a much more stable hop aroma over the months. Something I find really good about Odell’s IPAs is I can get them three months out and they still taste great, they still have a big hop aroma. I think that’s really commendable and I think a lot of it has to do with them using hop back.”
The hop back and other elements of the new brewhouse will lead to some new brews and the continued refinement of existing brews.
“You’ll definitely see some type of harvest ale out of us this year, which I haven’t done in the past just because of what it would take to do it,” Jeff said. “I don’t want to put my hop wort back through the mash lager tun, it’s not sanitary.
“As far as beer releases, I’m not going to try to spend too much (time) on what we’ll be doing. There will be some new beers in bottle, but as much as anything I want to focus on honing in on the recipes in bottles we’ve already done and adding a couple more. And then honing in this brewhouse, because I think this brewhouse for us is going to be a huge game changer as far as overall beer quality and consistency.”
So to sum it all up, La Cumbre’s outstanding beer lineup is about to get bigger and better and even more consistent in flavor and aroma.
2015 is going to be a very good year.
Thank you to Jeff, once again, for taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to keep us all informed on all the awesomeness to come at La Cumbre.
All of us in the Crew cannot wait to indulge in those many great beers this Saturday. Even if we don’t make it out alive, we will die with smiles on our faces.