Duel Brewing parries a slight setback in 2014 and thrusts boldly into 2015

Posted: January 23, 2015 by Luke in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2014-15
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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, 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. My final Look Back/Look Ahead article in the series found me at the Belgian-style brewery, Duel Brewing.

The snow had come to Santa Fe that day, but there were still a few loyal patrons who had made the trek to their favorite local watering hole. They gathered around the bar, sipping Belgian-style suds from tulip glasses, discussing such things as painting and hunting, all in the same breath. An eclectic mix of modern tunes played lightly from Pandora’s box, and a suit of armor stood sentry, high above, in place of a bouncer that’s never needed.

After ordering a What Wood Amber Do, I sat down with Todd Yocham, the head of brewing operations. Brewer Michael Karr joined us soon after.

Let’s talk about how the year went for Duel. How’s business?

Todd: Good. You know, for our first year, really. 2014 was our first full year of business. It was nice. We learned a lot.

And what were some of the highlights of the year?

Todd: Surviving. (Laughs) That’s a highlight. Working on those high-gravity beers. Paying attention to those techniques, and gettin’ that all figured out. Really it was a learning year. We learned a lot about running a business, a lot about what to do, what not to do. We tried a whole lot of things as far as running a taproom and all that kind of stuff. One of the major highlights would be all that we’ve learned this year.

You guys have come a long way since opening up in July of 2013. How would you say 2014 was different? How would you say Duel has grown?

Todd: Well in 2014, we started distributing bottles, so that was pretty big for us. We started out doing some kegs that didn’t pan out for us. It’s the size of our system. We can’t make enough beer of the type of beer we make. Selling 11-percent beer and being competitive in the market, when you only make…well, we have a three-barrel system. We brew 10 barrels at a time. But like most breweries, we multiple-brew to get our fermenters full. But still, the market doesn’t understand 11-percent beer, and I’m sure they don’t understand paying a lot more than $125 a keg for beer. Learning about the market was definitely one way we’ve grown since we started.

You mentioned distributing bottles, you guys have Goya in there, Marcel, several others.

Todd: We have a bunch of beers in bottle.

Michael: Over the last year, we’ve had at least 10 different styles in bottles.

And they’re available in specialty shops like Susan’s in Santa Fe, places like Jubilation and Total Wine in Albuquerque.

Todd: Yeah, and they’re getting to be in more and more places. There’s several Kelly’s that have Duel, some in Quarters, places like that.

Michael: We also want to get into some larger stores that support local businesses, like Whole Foods, Trader Joes …

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Goya’s going fast!

Absolutely. It’s nice to see the local guys up on the shelves and be able to recommend them when someone’s in the store asking for something new, different, or challenging. Speaking of challenging, Goya is a big beer, 15.9 percent. How do you measure a gravity like that? I think my hydrometers kick out at 24 Plato or something like that.

Todd: Something like that. We use refractometers.

Michael: We start with a refractometer, and it goes plenty higher than that. Which is good, because we have plans!

Todd: You can get specialty hydrometers that’ll go higher. But, yeah, 32 Plato starting gravity on that beer.

What were some of the challenges Duel faced this year? Every brewery and business faces them.

Michael: One challenge is trying to maximize our efficiency with what we have. Not being able to expand as quickly as we would like to. So doing as much with what we have. That’s been the challenge, and we’ve inched closer to that.

Todd: When we started, we just had the three-barrel fermenters. In 2014 we added the 10-barrel fermenters, and started triple batching most of our beers.

And that was just how you had to do it. How many times a day do you guys brew?

Todd: Three. Every brew is usually three brews in one session, and usually only one of those a week. I usually come in, in the morning, and start, and Mike comes in in the afternoon and finishes up.

Michael: Todd’ll take off sometime in the evening after he’s already been here for 12 hours. And then there’s still several hours afterwards. Sometimes I have someone come in and help me finish, ‘cause it can go as late as 3 (a.m.). But, between the two of us, we just overlap and just pound out a brew day.

One challenge this year was not reaching the goal for the crowd-funding project on Maintstreet Crowd. Has that affected business as usual? The show must go on, right?

Todd: Yeah. It was just one of those things we tried. We heard from lots of people that they wanted a stage, and they wanted live music all the time, and we said, ‘Okay, we can’t do that yet …’ but so we were approached to do the crowd-funding thing with the City, and so we went ahead and did it, and said, ‘All right, let’s see if this works.’ I don’t know if we were too ambitious or what was going on, but we didn’t even come close. And so we shut that chapter and moved on.

Were there any lingering effects of that venture?

Michael: One of the effects was that we re-committed to being about beer, because (while) entertainment is important, and we need that in this town, but it was also taking a lot of our time.

So it was just more of a refocusing on the purpose, which is bringing the beer to the people.

Michael: Exactly. Focusing on why this place is here to begin with.

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Todd: We decided to focus on the beer and the atmosphere, trying to make as cool a place as we could make to come and drink beer. And sometimes there’s live music, and sometimes we’re just playing stuff on Pandora, and it’s usually a pretty cool and eclectic mix of things goin’ on in here. People like coming in for the atmosphere. They like coming in a place that’s chill, and everybody talks to each other, and that’s pretty cool.

You guys hired some new folks this year, can you tell us about them?

Michael: We just recently hired someone that’s just starting out.

Todd: A probationary guy, scrubbing floors and cleaning kegs. The biggest thing, in the back of the house, is our chef. We got a chef. He completely transformed our food. Nicholas Haupt is our chef.

Michael: He was hired in July.

Todd: He’s completely revamped how we do things. He’s added some really cool specials. And he’s kicked our food into a higher gear, so to speak. In the beginning, food wasn’t even really a consideration. But then we thought, alright, we should probably serve people somethin’, if we’re gonna pour 11-percent beer. That’s the responsible thing to do. So we started making decent sandwiches.

The sandwiches were good. What kind of plates are coming across the table now?

Todd: Oh, we have beer-steamed mussels. We had quail several times. He does some amazing salads. He has bison sliders that he cooks up. We had a blood-sausage special once. It was amazing!

Which goes along with Duel’s whole eclectic theme …

Todd: Yeah, definitely.

Michael: And he uses the ingredients and the beer as much as possible. So spent grain, spent coriander, spent orange peel find their way into the recipes that he’s cranking out back there.

Does he ever bug you guys for some wort?

Todd: Oh yeah. He pulls wort. He does things with that, too.

So the food and the beer here now have a very close relationship.

Todd: Well, yeah. The brewery and the kitchen are the same space, basically. We’re not exactly on top of each other, but we’re talkin’ to each other. The kitchen and the brewery are always functioning together.

That’s a good way to function. OK, so looking at 2015, is there any big news for Duel?

Todd: You know, I’d love to say there’s big news. We have big ideas, but I don’t know if we have huge news. We’ve got three of these spaces. We’re rockin’n’rollin on bottling beer, and gettin’ our beer into the market. I would hope that 2015 is just more of this steady growth, more of this steady incline in our business, now that we’re focused on what we’re doing. There’s a lot of breweries that have had some big plans this year; we’re happy to just climb the ladder a little bit.

If you’re still climbing, business must be good, right?

Todd: Right. I think there’s good things coming for Duel this year. And maybe there’ll be some surprises we haven’t even considered yet.

Most importantly, what about the beer? Any special brews in the works? Any ideas, special recipes you guys are kicking around?

Michael: I don’t know if we can give too much information away …

Todd: No secrets. I mean, we’re pushin’ the boundaries on the level of how much we can take alcohol. We’ve learned a lot this year on how to brew high-gravity beers.

Michael: We hit 16(-percent ABV). So, you know, we have some other ideas in mind, and we’ll see where we can take it.

Todd: Well, Goya’s 15.9. It was right on the edge.

Michael: It was so close to 16.

15.9’s a good number.

Todd: 15.9 works, and we’ve got concepts to push that a little bit higher on some beers that we haven’t made yet. So, we’re gonna go there.

Michael: So that’s exciting. We want to develop some new recipes, while continuing to make the beer that we’ve committed to year-round. And what we can do with sours and barrel-aged beers is something that we’ve only begun to explore.

Todd: We now have a dedicated sour program. Our original three-barrel fermenters are all only doing sours at this point, and so there’s always something making sour. Coming up at Defrost Fest at Blue Corn and WinterBrew, there’s a beer gettin’ released that I think is gonna open some people’s eyes on what beer can be.

Any hints as to the style?

Todd: I’ll give you the name. Stille of the Night. And you’re just gonna have to figure it out when you get there. And it was made in August.

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What WOOD Amber Do

I just had your What WOOD Amber Do (Belgian-style sour amber ale), so are beers like that going to become more commonplace?

Todd: Yeah, we’ve got some barrels back there, and as they empty, we refill them with what we’ve got going on.

Michael: We just did that today, actually, just filled a couple casks that should be ready in a year.

Todd: We’ve got some Brett casks that just got a healthy dose of Grunewald. So in about a year, we’ll have a big batch of Brett-infected Grunewald.

Let me know! Big fan of the Grunewald.

Michael: I can tell you that, as it was going in, and as the air was being displaced and coming out into my face, it smelled amazing! This is gonna be a great beer!

Todd: We also had a pale ale that had been in a barrel with Brett-lacto for a year, and that’s comin’ soon. It’s gonna be pretty limited though.

You guys have a dedicated sour program. In your opinions, do you feel like that’s the direction New Mexico beer is moving in?

Todd: It’s where we’re going. It’s a natural progression for us, being Belgian-style. The farmhouse, the whole-Belgian-French style. A lot of people, when they find out we’re Belgian style, if we don’t have something sour, they’re disappointed.

I think it mimics the sort of natural progression of the public palate. As they’re discovering new beers that they enjoy, they’re willing to try more interesting, more challenging styles of beer, like sours and goses.

Todd: Right.

Michael: Exactly.

Now, I know you’ll be at WinterBrew and our editor will be releasing that list before the event. But what are you guys particularly proud of bringing? Goya will be there, right?

Michael: Just in limited, little samples.

Todd: It won’t even be in the regular pint. We’re taking sample cups. You get a taste. At the event, people’ll be able to buy a bottle of Goya if they want to. There’s already going to be a bit of drinking going on.

Yeah. You don’t want to contribute to the delinquency of adults. I get it. At 15.9 percent, I think folks will understand.

Todd: Mike and I were really proud of the fact that we got Goya to go where it went.

Would you say that was your favorite brew of the year?

Todd: It was a pain in the ass! (laughs) It was a pain! There was nothing simple about making it. And it wasn’t easy! But the effort was worth it in the end.

Any final thing you’d like to say to New Mexico beer fans?

Todd: They’re the best beer drinkers there are. We’ve got world-class beer in a state that doesn’t have a lot of people. And we still have a lot of people drinking beer. That tells me that this is really a beer state. We’re not Colorado. We don’t have Denver with just millions of people drinking beer. We’ve got a very small population in this state, but we love our craft beer.

Michael: Even though we didn’t go to GABF this year, we were very proud for New Mexico …

Todd: Super proud!

Michael: … and for the showing that the breweries made there. It was awesome.

We’re small but mighty.

* * * * *

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Business-wise, Duel has enjoyed a nice, steady growth this year, and is fast becoming a much more prominent brewing presence in New Mexico. In the brewhouse, they pushed the physical limits of their small space and capacity, reaching gravities of nearly immeasurable height, but not only that, they are also pushing the limits of what we know to be beer and beer style. As true artists of the Post Craft-Beer Renaissance Belgian Impressionism, Todd and Michael are re-inventing old styles and creating new ones, like the Bier De Port (which, we were lucky enough to taste at Defrost Fest and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a taste at WinterBrew). Google that style and you won’t find it under any BJCP guidelines. But wait a year and you might find 50 examples of that special beer in breweries all over the country. For Duel, expansion plans will come in time, I don’t doubt that one bit, but they’re already finding ways to reach new heights and push new boundaries.

Cheers!

— Luke

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Comments
  1. […] Duel Brewing started putting their beer into bottles in 2014, giving beer drinkers outside of Santa Fe the chance to try their unique take on traditional Belgian styles. They started this year by unleashing even more new styles at WinterBrew. Expect the experimentation to continue. […]

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