Change is a brewin’ for Sandia Chile Grill in 2015

Posted: January 16, 2015 by amyotravel in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2014-15
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Hello and happy 2015, ABQ beer lovers! I recently spoke with Clint Coker, brewer at Sandia Chile Grill, as part of the Dark Side Brew Crew’s Look Back/Look Ahead series. For those of you that are unfamiliar, Sandia Chile Grill is a New Mexican restaurant in Del Norte Center on the corner of Wyoming and San Antonio near Sports and Wellness. They have been brewing beer in this restaurant location for a few years now.

Sandia Chile Grill has made the most out of its small brewing space in the Northeast Heights.

Sandia Chile Grill has made the most out of its small brewing space in the Northeast Heights.

Originally, Clint was going to be brewing on the day of our interview, but he said the weekend was so busy he decided to put it off until next weekend. He will be brewing one of their flagship beers, an Irish Red that Clint said gets a lot of positive feedback. The brewing operation is very small and is actually inside the main seating area of the small restaurant. However, they would like to see that change.

For a little background, I asked Clint about his brewing experience and how he got started.

“Basically how it all started is as kids, my cousin and I always wanted to make alcohol,” Clint said. “We started making alcohol on the mountain where we were living (Cloudcroft). It didn’t go very well. As time went, we were working around this grill, making food, producing salsas and stuff out of our brew pot. It was kind of going slow. We didn’t have a market for it. Distributors were kind of pushing on us, making us not want to do it anymore. So we didn’t. My cousin convinced us to start making beer. We started out just the way everyone else did at the home brew shop.”

Clint said that was four years ago.

“We had our FDA background which really kind of helped us as far as food goes, you know, basic sanitation, what you can and cannot do … Our real big turn was propagating our own yeast,” he said. “Being able to turn a fast beer was basically everything for us.”

Sandia Chile Grill's small brewing system is located in the front of the restaurant.

Sandia Chile Grill’s small brewing system is located in the front of the restaurant.

In last year’s Look Back/Look Ahead story, Clint mentioned a large reduction in fermentation time. I asked him how that was progressing.

“It’s actually gotten a lot better,” he said. “When we first started we had IPAs that would ferment out 40 days, stouts that would ferment out 100 days. That is just way too long. Now with our own yeast, our own monoculture, the strain that we do have, I can get a Hefeweisen fermented out in four days, in your glass by five days. I can get that same stout that was 100 days in 10 days. It’s really gone good. The meads that we do as well, that was six months to a year and a half. We are down to about eight to 13 days, depending on the alcohol.”

Speaking of the meads, Sandia Chile Grill has received numerous awards for them. I wanted to know — what are the future mead plans for SCG?

“Mead is actually one of the easiest alcohols you can make,” Clint said. “It’s one of the oldest known to man. Once you know what you are doing, I would recommend it to anyone who brews or wants to make alcohol, just because of the ease. It’s something you can do in a half an hour. If you ferment it out right, in 10 days you are drinking it. And it’s some of the finest alcohol you can have. Keeping in mind it depends on what fruits you are using, where they are from and how they are pasteurized, whether you have to have heating elements or not. If you have clean, dechlorinated water, and, say a grape juice that has no preservatives in it, nothing that’s going to harm your yeast, it’s all cold processed.

“Mead is a big passion of mine and is something that ever since we started I wanted to be the pinnacle of our company. You won’t find mead out there on the market, and what you do find really isn’t mead. It’s not the fine alcohol that they made 3,000 years ago. It’s been out of the masses for about 300 years. You see really low versions of it, like 10-percent-ers that don’t have enough honey, fermented out really fast … it’s people trying to make a beer and not really knowing what it is. Last year we took 30 gallons of mead to Hopfest. Fifteen minutes in, I didn’t have anybody in my line. I’m starting to bum out. Then a couple of people tried it. By the end of the day, I served over a thousand samples and I ran out.”

Note: here is where I confessed to being one of those people at Hopfest who were a little skeptical, but I tried it and I liked it.

Beer may be the backbone, but mead is the passion of SCG's brewer.

Beer may be the backbone, but mead is the passion of SCG’s brewer.

“Even the people who have had (other meads) are skeptical,” Clint said. “What they have had before has really given a bad name to mead. Not only what an enjoyable drink it can be, but also what a nice experience it can be. Because once you really do get time to take a bottle home, it’s a different ‘drunk’ than you will get off of anything. It kind of lingers. You get enough, and you can get a 10-hour drunk. No headache, no hangover, none of that going on.”

Whoa. That is a very interesting theory. Something for the readers to be careful about! In this case, you might say ONLY try this at home, folks.

For those who do not want to brew their own mead, SCG has you covered.

“So this year we are bringing out four products,” Clint said. “One of them is on my line now. It is a braggot, a style of mead made with grains. Honey being the base, grain being the flavor. We made a wild one since it was our first. We took our Irish Red (and then) I cooled it down separately right out of the boil, added honey, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. It’s 12 percent right now and it is carbonated. You can purchase it in a 10-ounce glass for $7 a glass or you can buy a bottle for $20 for a 32-ounce bottle. I have another one that I am working on carbonating now. It’s wheat and pilsner malt with a base of honey and Bing cherries. It is 12 percent as well. It will be ready in a few days. The honeymoon mead and legacy meads we featured at Hopfest will be ready before then.”

Switching to the topic of IPAs, over the past few years, Clint admitted to struggling with putting out a solid IPA for the Albuquerque market. That struggle is over, he said.

“We finally have an IPA,” Clint said. “It took us about 20 IPAs to finally get it. The Rattlesnake IPA finally has a home. It’s about 120 IBU, running seven percent. It’s Cascade and Chinook hops, Cascade dry-hopped. It’s really nice and definitely becoming one of our flagships.”

Clint said he thinks people are still demanding quality IPAs, but with a slight caveat.

Brew baby, brew!

Brew baby, brew!

“I don’t think it’s getting hoppier,” he said. “If you look at the demographics of IPAs across the nation, I think it’s going down. I think really what’s going on with New Mexico, is with us eating such hot foods with our chiles and our spices, our palates are different.

“I think that our customers are going to drink the bigger IPAs. When you go into competitions here, if you don’t create an IPA like that you are not going to win. These are not standard IPAs. They are creating double and triple IPAs to accommodate our market. A standard IPA is pretty much what you will get around the country, (but) not in New Mexico. It is very hard to keep up with the demand of what people expect an IPA to be here in town.”

I asked if Sandia is still working with Desert Water Brewing or collaborating with anyone else. Clint said they are not because they plan on changing how they brew to a system that is more economical and green. Their methods are going to change and they are keeping the details to themselves, at least for now.

Clint also has a plan for 2015 festivals/competitions.

“We are going to join New Mexico Brewers Guild and start going to some of their stuff,” he said. “We did two or three events last year. I want to try to do 10 events this year and really get out there. Now, people might be disappointed with what we bring, because I’m not going to bring beer. The only thing I am going to do at these events from now on is the mead.”

SCG will be at more festivals in 2015, but they will only take their meads.

SCG will be at more festivals in 2015, but they will only take their meads.

That is understandable, since their current brewing capacity requires that they keep most of what they make to serve at the restaurant and to fill growlers. So I asked Clint about the bigger picture, and if he could pick one word to describe last year in the local brew industry.

“Not really,” he said. “Some people do well, some don’t. Last year was a big push for breweries coming in to the business and 2015 isn’t going to be anything less. We are going to see a huge wave of people trying to get into the brewery business. You’re not trading up. You are going to work just as hard or harder being a brewer than anything else you were. Hopefully you can make a product that’s going to bring it.

“Albuquerque is becoming saturated with breweries. It’s going to continue. By 2016/2017, you are going to see who has beer and who doesn’t. In just those two years, a lot of people who got in business are going to go out of business. The ones who have a really good product and stick with what people want are going to survive. The staples — Marble, Il Vicino, and La Cumbre — they are already making their name. They’re not going anywhere. It’s all the little guys like us that really have to worry about it. So we’ll have to step it up.”

Keeping the production level and quality high enough to make it through are the biggest obstacle that SCG will face in the future.

“It is, yeah,” Clint said. “A lot of professional brewers I talk to around town are already not the happiest with the quantity of beer they are producing this year. It’s just going to be one of those things that are going to happen.”

To wrap up, I asked a couple of general questions.

What do you think has changed the most for you?

“Talking about how to grow our brewery, how to get more product out,” he said. “The location we are in now is so small we are really limited in what we can produce. 2015 will be about change and about larger production space.”

If you could predict a new breakout style trend in local beer, is there something you see coming or have a feeling about?

“Sours might be one of the next things,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s anything that’s going to take hold, though. It’s a real small demographic. I see a lot of product aimed towards women starting to come out. Ciders are huge.”

For fun, let’s say somebody gave you a large fund grant that you could use just for brewing locally. You couldn’t take it and go live in the Caribbean or anything — what would be the first thing you would do?

There was no hesitation at all in his response.

“Start a propagation lab,” he said. “The yeast is the most important part of what we do. If you don’t have enough yeast, you’re just not going to get there. We don’t reuse anything. Everything comes from an original pitch right out of the jar. (In fact, that would require less room than I imagined — AmyO.) … About 100 square feet. You could have everything you needed. If we increase our beer production, protocol on how we propagate our yeast will have to change. I would need people to help me do it — clean room, gloves, washing hands in and out, the whole nine yards. Here, I am the only one who deals with it.”

Thanks, Clint, for taking the time to talk to me on a very busy weekend. All in all, it sounds like there are some significant changes coming up for Sandia Chile Grill. We wish them well and look forward to seeing increased exposure for them at festivals and competitions.

Cheers!

— AmyO

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Comments
  1. Amy, can you describe the brewing system in more detail, thanks.

    • cjax33 says:

      If you’re asking about the new system they wouldn’t reveal any details. They weren’t brewing on the old system when Amy was doing the interview. About all we’ve got are the pictures shown here. You can always search our archives for past stories on SCG. Might have more detail there.

  2. […] Sandia Chile Grill had steady progress in the year gone by, including finally settling on a permanent IPA recipe. They continued to rack up the awards for their mead, which will now be all they bring to festivals. Beyond that, they have some plans for this year, but were not willing to share too much just yet. […]

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