Every year the Crew sits down with our local breweries, giving them a chance to take a look back at the year they’ve had and recap for you, beer fans, their wins and their loses, and the challenges they may have faced along the way. We also give them the opportunity to tell us what we should be looking forward to in the year to come. As the Santa Fe Correspondent, I’ve done my best to cover the four breweries in the Santa Fe area, so keep an eye out for those articles as they post. For my second installment, I spoke with recent GABF gold medal-winning brewers James Warren and Nick Richardson of Blue Corn Brewery.
It’s a Thursday night, and already the bar area of the Southside location is filling up fast with patrons. The Jaguars are playing the Titans on several of Blue Corn’s very large array of flat screens. It felt like any other Thursday night in winter, coming in to get out of the cold grasp of Santa Fe’s freezing fingers, for the game and a beer or two. The only difference tonight is I’m not here for the game. I’m here for the beer, and to have a chat with the guys who make it. They greet me shortly and we take up one of the tables near the bar.
I take a sip of my Gold Medal Oatmeal Stout and get to work. “How are you guys doing tonight?”
“Good. Doin’ good,” Nick says, leaning back in his chair.
James leans forward and creases his GABF cap. “Good! It’s kind of a slow time right now. It’s actually been … kind of nice,” he says and laughs.
“Let’s talk a little bit about how your year went. This was a big year for Blue Corn.” As I’m asking, I look to James and remember something very important. “Now, this was your first year with Blue Corn. When did you officially join on?”
“March 18, 19,” he tries to recall, shrugging.
“It was the 17th actually,” Nick chimes in. “I know. I remember dates weird like that.”
“That’s a useful skill. So since March, 17th then. Well, what a first year it’s been! How do you guys feel about how it all went?”
“It went well,” Nick said.
“Yeah. It’s been a good year,” James agreed. “You know, anybody coming into a new place, you got new equipment, you got new people; here we’re dealing with the restaurant side of things, which is something I’ve never encountered before. You know, overall, it went really well. I mean, there’s always going to be hiccups in the path, but it’s nothing that we couldn’t manage or get over, and I really couldn’t ask for it to go smoother than it did.”
DSBC: Coming from a big production facility, was there a bit of a transition period for you?
James: It was interesting. John (Bullard) left this place immaculate. It was beautiful. All the beers were great. But the only problem was that John was already gone for a week, and so they ran out of a lot of beer. So it was kind of instant from Day 1. They told me, ‘You gotta get in right away. You’re running out of beer!’ So that was fun from the get-go. So yeah. And coming into a different mindset of seven barrels back there at a time …
DSBC: But Nick, you were there for the last few months with John. How did you smooth things over for the next guy (James)?
Nick: So I worked with John for four months before he left, and I think the best thing that John did, for me, and probably my biggest help to James, was that John taught me my basic operational skills, how to work within a brewery day-to-day. So by the time James got me, I had already learned my core things that I needed to know on how to get things done, so he didn’t have to teach me a lot, from that perspective. I remember the first time that I ‘brewed a batch of beer by myself,’ was with James, and it was James’ first time that he brewed a batch here.
Nick: So, I’d always helped John, but I wasn’t quite to the point where I could do an entire batch by myself so it was a lot of, it was fun because it forced me to remember everything that we were doing from a step-by-step process, to show him how we were doing it before, and just different procedures. But obviously he was going to come in and implement his own ideas and procedures. But really, anyone coming into a new brewhouse can benefit from having someone there, who worked on it before, just to show them around the system.
DSBC: And so that went on for the first few months?
Nick: Yeah, it was an interesting time, because I worked with John and with James and if you know both, you know that they’re really two different people.
James: Yeah, and then, once you’ve learned the basics of stuff, you’ve got to realize, we’re making beer! Life’s not too bad! And then there’s going to be some playing and some experimenting. And if things don’t exactly the way you want them to, it’s not the end of the world. As long as the basics are in order. You’re good!
DSBC: After the transition period, and aside from GABF, which we’ll get to in a minute, let’s talk about some of the ups and downs of the year.
James: One of the ups and downs, hmm, we have a lot of regulars here, and so anytime you have a transition like that, there’s always going to be some thought, especially from your regulars, about how the beer is going. And it was a little rocky to get started with, to be honest. But now, all the regulars are still here. They’re happy, and that’s always great to see. And with some new little variations on things.
One of the challenges they faced this year was learning how to work together.
Nick: I think, whenever you make a transition like that, it took us a bit to get into the groove together as a team. It’s one of those things that doesn’t just happen overnight. So you go from kind of having to understand how each person operates in a certain way, to now, we don’t even have to talk to each other, where if he starts something, I can finish it and vice versa. I think more than anything, it was interesting to see us go through a phase where it was like, OK, how are we going to work together as a team, as opposed to doing things our own way, however that works. I think pretty much now, we have a system worked out that we’re both comfortable with, and it runs really smooth. And it was really awesome to hit that groove after a few months of trial and error.
James: We’re stuck in a 10-foot-by-20-foot room with each other, for a lot of time, you know, so you have to learn how to work with someone then.
DSBC: But there’s beer all around you! (Laughs all around.)
James: And another one of the challenges too, was in the same week I started, this restaurant got a new general manager. So we were all kinds of lost, confused, and afraid. But no, Gustavo was never afraid! He’s been a fearless leader for this company, here, for this brewery. And without him, I would be very lost. So I have to give props to Gustavo, and how he runs this restaurant, and his mind toward beer culture. He’s been instrumental in a lot of things.
Nick: He’s really made sure that we are a beer-first brewpub. Before, things went from a beer oriented brew-pub to a sports bar, for a while there, but he really wanted to get things focused back on the beer more than anything.
DSBC: So what kinds of things did you guys do to make sure it was a beer-first establishment this year?
James: One of the ways we do that is having Chef move more towards food that does well with beer, doing more beer pairings, trying to make recommendations. And this year we’ve focused more on Thursday’s at the Brewer’s table. And we’ve seen a great increase in people and the excitement that’s around that project.
One of the big things is what Nick’s in the middle of right now, which is beer education, and making sure that all of our servers and staff know at least the basics of serving beer, how to talk to people about beer, making sure our staff is ready and capable of serving our customers.
Nick: With our servers, we go over the basics of the brewing process, but really, I think the more important thing for the servers, is from tap to table. And the education of how to talk about beer, beer styles, and how to help the customer understand what craft beer can look like, smell like, and taste like. There are a lot of people that come in who have never had craft beer before, but there’s the experienced customer that knows their craft beer, so you want to be able to talk to both, and it’s important that our servers know that. I like doing the beer education, things have been very beneficial. I got a lot of good feedback from our servers. Our servers are our last stop before the beer reaches the table so it’s important. They’ve got to teach our customers about what we’re trying to do.
DSBC: What about from a brewer’s perspective? Is the beer that you make in any way affected by your clientele? Because Santa Fe has a very different crowd than, say, Albuquerque.
James: We all have our own preferences in what we want to brew, but I think the big thing that I’ve learned this year in experimenting with putting specialty and seasonal beers on tap, is that we are in a small place, making seven barrels at a time, and while we have customers that sometimes aren’t the most craft beer centric, they’re willing to try things. And I’m willing to try things.
So yeah, we can go up there and make the IPA that we know will sell, but we can go back in there and make the Winter Warmer. We can make all kinds of lagers and things. And if we can execute them well, I think that we can get our customers to try them. And that’s very important. We have a customer crowd where we can kind of push things a little bit. And we can try and get them to adapt.
DSBC: Your seasonals and specialty beers have been great this year, but one of your cores regained some well-deserved respect. Let’s talk about your GABF win for the Gold Medal Oatmeal Stout. That must have been an amazing experience. What was it like?
Nick: First of all, I think it was the most amazing experience that I’ve ever had. Neither one of us had been before. But to go, as a representative of Blue Corn, and for something that you’ve worked so hard at, that made the experience. But there were a couple beers that we entered that we knew had a good shot. I remember tasting that Oatmeal Stout before we sent it off, and thinking, Damn, this is a good batch! And the Schwarzbier, too. We really thought we had a chance in the Schwarzbier category, because it had like 26 entries or something like that.
DSBC: That one came out really well, as I remember.
Nick: We found out that we made the final table when we got our judging notes back on that one.
James: Well, of the five beers we entered, four of them came back with very good notes. And with a little bit of good feedback, I want to do the Schwarzbier again. I love that beer. I love making that beer. And now we got a little bit of feedback and it did. It made it to the medal round. And I want to bring that beer back, make the adjustments that need to be made, and we’ll take another swing at it.
Nick: I will say this, going back to the specialty beers, and what we can push, I think that Blue Corn now, and I can’t speak to before John, because I didn’t drink here a whole lot before John, but I think that that’s the best thing that James has brought to this place is this creativity of how to make specialty beers.
James: What’s the point of working in a small place like this, with four seasonal lines, if you’re not going to try things? And if you have sound technique, you know that the beer isn’t going to be bad. It may not be on style, it may not be exactly what your customers want, but you can make a technically sound beer that isn’t bad, and anyway you do it, you’re going to learn a lesson. And that’s what it’s all about, especially for me right now. Let’s learn these lessons. Let’s have a good time. Let’s push things. Let’s get our customers to try new things.
DSBC: And sometimes perception alone gets customers to try new things. I remember coming in, after GABF, and the Oatmeal Stout was out. People were drinking a beer they may never have had before because maybe they heard about it, or maybe read about it. How did things change for you guys personally after the win?
Nick: I think it kind of validated what we were doing here. For me, at least, I kind of stopped second guessing about a lot of the things that we do. You’re always your own worst critic, but after a win like that, you think, OK, whew, maybe we are doing things right!
James: Also, the win, it’s huge. And people in the brewing industry recognize that. But we almost had to educate our customers. I don’t think they quite understand the odds you’re up against for something like that. While it was great to bring home five medals from the State Fair, and they look great up there (hanging). But then sometimes they’re looking at this one little thing. (At this point James mock-holds up a gold medal) And I think, no-no-no-no-no, this one is important to me.
Nick: To even get one medal out of all the beers entered, that’s huge.
DSBC: Yeah, that one went up on the fridge. How did it change things from a business aspect?
Nick: Had to brew stout more often! (Laughs)
James: It’s one of those things. You win and it’s fantastic. It’s a big deal, but my instant thought was, alright, you did this the first year, as a head brewer, and it could be the only time you ever win a medal there, but what about the other beers? What do we do? What did we miss? What are we going to do next year?
DSBC: Inquiring minds want to know! Last question, looking back. Brewhouses have a lot of good or funny stories. Are there any that you’re allowed to tell?
Nick: So, don’t ever try to Ferm-Cap on the second day of an IPA brew, I can tell you that.
James: (Laughs) Yeah. Nick got christened.
Nick: I definitely got christened.
James: It happens to all of us.
DSBC: Walk us through this.
Nick: So, essentially, we do the IPA in two separate days, because it’s our most popular beer, and we have a 15-barrel fermenter in the back and we want to brew IPA into it, because it almost outsells every beer two-to-one. So we brew it one day, and then we come back in and brew the next. And so the first day, it’s already starting to ferment. The next day, I thought, oh sh*t, I didn’t add any Ferm-Cap into it, and I wanted to go up and add Ferm-Cap into it so it wouldn’t overflow, so I did what I would’ve normally done, which is go into the PRV (Pressure Release Valve), and I go to open it up. Now, there’s a lot of pressure under there, and I’m not really thinking about it. And it blows the gasket from underneath, out. And there’s beer just spraying and spraying everywhere. And so I’m holding the PRV, on top of it, trying to keep it from going and I’m just soaked in beer, and it’s all over the ceiling. It’s all over the walls. I mean we were finding beer for months and months later. And the funniest part about the whole thing is James is in the cold room. And I can’t get off the ladder to ask him for help because if I do, it’s just going to go everywhere. So I’ve got it pretty well-sealed off, and I’m just screaming, ‘James! James! James!’
James: I’m in there, filling kegs. And there’s a speaker in there. There’s music going. And every once in a while, I think, what? What was that? And I go back to what I was doing. But every few minutes, I’m sure I’m hearing something out there. And I open the door. And there’s Nick up on top of the ladder, with his hand over the tri-clamp port, and beer is just spraying everywhere. And my first reaction is to laugh. There’s nothing you can really do, at this point. You kind of learn that you can’t stop those things. You’re going to get dirty. And it’s going to happen to every brewer at some point in their career.
Nick: We still haven’t found the gasket after it shot off.
DSBC: That’s a great story! Thanks guys. Let’s dry off and move on. Let’s look at 2015. What’s next for the brewery? Any big plans?
James: We’re heading into one of my favorite times, and a beer I haven’t gotten to make yet here, a barley wine.
DSBC: We’re all pretty excited about that one.
James: And I’m kind of excited to sit down the first week in January to look back through the brew-log, and to really think about the specialty beers we made this year, decide what to bring back, what to re-do, and what to axe altogether.
DSBC: Now, if Santa got my Christmas letter, there might be expansion plans on the horizon? I guess I’m kidding. I mean, I know it’s not as easy as that, but …
James: There are definitely expansion plans for this year.
DSBC: Holy stouts, there is a Santa Claus!
James: Absolutely. The blueprints are already done and underway. But as for the details, we’ll have to save for another time.
DSBC: My article is going to say, you heard it here, first, folks.
(Editor’s Note: You heard it here first, folks. — S)
DSBC: Okay, let me collect myself, here. Um, beers. What about beers? Any beers you’re excited to brew this year, besides the Barley Wine?
James: I hope, as part of what happens this year, to try some more barrel-aging projects, to get that underway, especially if we can up capacity some this year. We’ll have some extra beer to play around with, because anyone who comes here on a regular basis knows we’ve been running out of house beers more often than we should. I guess it’s better than making beer that doesn’t sell. So, yeah, I want to work on that. I want to do some collaboration beers this year. I’d like to work with other brewers in the state, like what we did with Chama (River).
DSBC: The Dopplebock, right? ‘Collaborator,’ if I remember correctly.
Nick: Yeah, (that) should be tapped at the end of January, beginning of February. Also, too, and going along with the barrel program, which I think we’re both really excited about because we’ll have some fun to play with there, but also, I know I would like to get a little more sour beer going as well. I don’t know to what depth we’ll get into that at the beginning of the year, but I know it’s something I would like to play around with. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year, you see a couple of sour beers on tap, besides the Berliner Weisse that we did this year.
DSBC: Sounds like its going to be a great year. Last section for me, I wanted to do something different. A Lightning Round. I’ll ask both of you five questions and you have 10 seconds to answer them. Nick, you first. Starting the clock.
What was your favorite beer you made this year?
Nick: Alpha Reaper.
DSBC: What was your least favorite beer to brew this year?
Nick: … Amber.
DSBC: What beer would you love to win for at GABF?
Nick: Pilsner, but probably German Pilsner.
DSBC: What would you oak age for two years, if you could?
Nick: Man. I have so many ideas of what I would oak-age …
DSBC: Ahh. Time’s up! Kidding. Go.
Nick: I’ll be traditional. I’ll say barley wine.
DSBC: If James were to give you a nickname, what would it be?
DSBC: OK, James, your turn. What was your favorite beer to brew this year?
DSBC: What was the least favorite to brew this year?
DSBC: What one beer style would you like to win for at GABF?
James: Light Lager.
DSBC: What would you oak-age for two years, if you could?
James: A quad.
DSBC: If Nick were to give you a nickname, what would it be?
James: “Yoooouu F**ker!”
DSBC: Thanks for playing guys. Finally, anything you’d like to say to our readers out there?
James: I think a lot of the New Mexico-based drinkers tend to stick to their geographic area. They tend to drink their part of Albuquerque. And here in Santa Fe. I would urge them to get out. Go out and try some different things in other cities. See what else is out there. There are so many breweries opening up around. Get out there and support them. Go drink. See what’s interesting to you. It’s always great to have a home brewery to come back to, but don’t be afraid to get out there and see what other people are doing, you might be surprised sometime.
Nick: I would say that don’t be surprised in the next five years if sours really start to hit it big in the state. We’re kind of behind the rest of the country in that aspect, especially beer cultures like in California, or especially back East. And when it does happen, get out and try your sours and interesting farmhouse ales, and wildly fermented ales. New Mexico is already experimenting with those kind of beers, putting out a few great ones, so it’s coming. It’s inevitable.
James: One great thing about us kind of being behind the times is that we have a lot of great examples, already, to learn from.
Blue Corn had an incredible 2014, with some pretty impressive highs. For a small seven-barrel system, they did a solid 890 BBLs this year. And supplying two restaurant locations and several outlets like the Draft Stations in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I’ll put it this way — like a new pledge in a frat house, they simply couldn’t hold onto their beer. Kegs went faster than they could fill them, and the brewers had to get creative with their time and fermenter space. Thankfully, the beer gods listened to our prayers, and with their newly approved expansion plans (which the Crew will cover when the time comes), Blue Corn Brewery hopes to double their output by 2016, and that may just mean that more of Blue Corn brews will find their way to Albuquerque and beyond. And New Mexico craft beer drinkers win again.
Much thanks to Nick and James for always sitting down with me and answering my questions, stupid though some of them may be. And as always, thanks, guys, for doing what you’re doing, and doing it with heart. Keep it up.