Today we’re here because Tom Riggs loved beer. We’re here because we all love beer. We love sipping our favorite suds, or trying out new tastes, finding new flavors. Some of us love brewing beer, the process, the end result; and some just love sitting back and whiling away a moment or two with a nice cold pint (or two). It’s safe to say many of us have different relationships with beer, but I think we can all agree that beer brings people together, whether brewing it or drinking it, beer is a connector, a unifier, a bridge between time and place. Sometimes, in the oddest of ways, beer can bring people together who had parted ways through life, or, even parted from this life.
Tom Riggs was a homebrewer. He passed away in December 2009 of esophageal cancer, but his memory lives on, in his friends, family, and even in a recipe for a very New Mexican-style homebrew, a green chile beer, and a good one at that.
But how did we stumble upon this recipe? Most recently, it came in the form of a request of a kind woman in an email to a brewer. The recipe was passed down to three young friends who would make it, not once, but twice, yet under very different circumstances each time. These three friends are brewers at different breweries now, yet they had come from the same place, learned to brew at the same brewery. After a few years, these brewing friends had split in different directions to pursue their own career paths, but luck and coincidence had afforded them the opportunity come together, once again, and it was to make this green chile beer for Bonnie, and for Tom, and they did it all for the love of the brew.
Recently, I sat down with Bonnie Chauncey-Riggs, Tom’s wife, along with lead cellarman Leif Rotsaert of Santa Fe Brewing Co., and Hector Santana of Bathtub Row; the only one of the brewing team missing that day at Bathtub Row Brewing Co-op was John “Carnie” Bevs, now the new head brewer at Albuquerque Brewing Co.
DSBC: Tell me a little about Tom and his love for beer.
Bonnie: Well, Tom was a homebrewer. He loved beer, and he loved to brew it. He was the kind of guy that was a quick study, so he picked up things very quickly and always got very good at whatever he tried to do. He was a very good homebrewer.
DSBC: How long had he been brewing?
Bonnie: He was a homebrewer for a long time, as long as I can remember.
DSBC: What did beer mean to you both?
Bonnie: Well, he loved beer so much, he came home one day and said, because we live off the grid, and so we have a little propane refrigerator for our stuff, he said, “I got a second refrigerator, and it’s just for beer. So, you won’t have to worry about me putting my beer in there any longer.” It was a part of life. He loved it, and I learned to love it as he did.
DSBC: It was important to him, and you.
DSBC: How did the green chile beer come up?
Bonnie: Tom knew that I loved green chile. So, he wanted to come up with a recipe for green chile beer. He played around with it for a while, and he found something that really worked. I loved it, and he loved it, so we were happy. (laughs)
Leif: What time-frame were you guys together, while he was brewing this beer?
Bonnie: OK, so this was from 2003 to 2006 when he was messing around with the green chile recipe. It took him a few tries, you know? But when he got it right, I loved it.
DSBC: What about you guys? How did you come across this recipe?
Leif: Honestly, it’s probably because Bonnie contacted Nick Jones, one of the former lead brewers, head brewers of Santa Fe Brewing Company. And Nick, at the time, was mentoring me how to brew. And at that same time, he was also mentoring Hector how to brew. And we were kind of both handed this recipe, through Bonnie’s request. I think it really all comes down to Bonnie, who wanted to have us brew this beer. Her request is what gave us this opportunity.
DSBC: Bonnie, what was your relationship with Santa Fe Brewing Co.? Why that particular brewery?
Bonnie: Well, when Tom and I got married, our reception was at Santa Fe Brewing, and when Tom got sick, a friend of ours from Oregon came down, Ken Fisher, and he contacted Nick Jones to say, “Hey, let’s do just a small batch.” And Nick did a very small batch, I don’t know, either 5 or 10 gallons, and brought it back to the house, because Tom was unable to travel at the time. And Tom was very impressed at how Nick had brewed his recipe. That’s what happened. It was about a week or a week and a half before Tom passed away.
DSBC: And so this is important to you, then.
DSBC: This beer, this recipe, was a pretty powerful memory that you shared with Tom. And so, for Leif and Hector and Carnie to brew this beer, it was like a tribute to that memory.
DSBC: And so, Leif, why now? How did you come across this opportunity to brew this beer this time around?
Leif: It was honestly that I had never been provided the opportunity to have friends who have brewing systems in multiple sizes. Carnie, who was part of this (from Albuquerque Brewing Company), he has a system on a 3-barrel. Hector, you have a, is it 7?
Hector: It’s 7-barrel fermenters and a 3-and-a-half barrel system. We have to brew twice to fill them.
Leif: So, I’d never had that opportunity in the past. But I remembered that the last time I brewed it, the beer, it was a 5-gallon batch and it had emptied in less than two hours at one of our tap rooms, and I found that quite frustrating, because, of course I tried to be there for that tapping, but I never got to even enjoy it. But because I knew it was so popular, I knew it must be a very good recipe. And so I presented the recipe to Hector, and he was into the idea. And I thought it would be really fun if we all got together as friends and brew a beer together. And we did, and we had a laugh about brewing a beer together.
DSBC: And you guys all met at Santa Fe Brewing Company, originally.
Hector: Yeah, Santa Fe Brewing Co.
DSBC: You guys have brewed together, cleaned together, bled together, drank beer together. How’d you guys meet, exactly?
Hector: How did we meet? Well, I was getting out of the Army after about 8-and-a-half years. I just got out, and started hanging out at Santa Fe in between going to school, finishing off my commitment to the Army Reserves. At that time, Leif was bartending on the weekends, and also like bottling and cleaning kegs. At that time, it was slow enough to be able to do a little bit of everything and do the tour at the same time. And, that’s when basically me and this other guy Kyle bugged Nick Jones to bring his homebrew system and let us brew on a Saturday at the brewery. So he brought his system in, and brewed with us once, taught us how to brew, and just kinda set us free. We had so much beer left over, we didn’t know what to do with it.
DSBC: Were you already working there?
Hector: I was doing some part-time bottling work. Anytime they needed some help with bottling, they would give me a call. That kinda thing. And I was going to school full time. And that’s when I met Leif.
DSBC: Is that how Small Batch (Saturday) started at Santa Fe Brewing?
Hector: That’s how Small Batch started!
DSBC: And when was that beer brewed?
Hector: It was 2010?
Bonnie: Yeah, 2010ish.
DSBC: And now, you guys are all at different breweries, with your own sets of responsibilities, and you get a chance to brew this again.
Hector: And that’s the crazy thing. You look at the brewing industry and you see a lot of brewers start at one brewery, they get their training there and move on, but they all still share that relationship, that camaraderie. That’s one of the things that makes New Mexico a bit unique is that we all share information with each other because we want each other to have good beer. And just like Blue Corn and Chama River, Santa Fe Brewing did a little of that.
DSBC: And so you, Leif, and Carnie were doing that, learning to brew together then.
Hector: Yeah, exactly.
DSBC: Flashing forward five years, what was your experience brewing the beer again, Leif?
Leif: I messaged Hector and Carnie, and I was going through old emails, but this email came up, from 2009. And I said, “Hey, Green Chile Beer, remember that time that I was small batch brewer and bartender? And I was like wow, that’s pretty darn far-out!” And I think, even you were there on the front porch, and I knew that I had to brew this beer, and I never got to try it.
DSBC: I remember you mentioning the Tom’s Green Chile Beer, yeah.
Bonnie: I never knew that, Leif. I never knew you didn’t get to try it.
Leif: I don’t think I had one pint of that beer before it was sold. So I messaged Hector and Carnie, and said, do either of you want to brew this beer? I think it would be cool to use a real system, larger than small batch. And both of my friends did now!
Hector: And I jumped on it right away!
Leif: You were like, what? Hell yeah!
Hector: And I already had most of the ingredients. All I had to do was take the Blonde Ale off for a couple weeks and we need to just get a few pounds of a couple other ingredients. And then it was a just a focus on getting the green chile. So, I went to the farmer’s market at Romero Farms. Matt Romero, he provided me with the cucumbers for the Cucumber Saison I did. He talked to me about chile for an hour and a half. I knew pretty much everything I needed to know about chile (laughs). And so the Joe Parker Chile was what I want, because that is the mildest chile. You know, it’s all flavor. I just had him roast them a little bit longer than normal. And so I basically spent the next couple weeks following him around to all his farmer’s market events, whether it was here or Santa Fe, and basically meeting him at the end of the day to get the scraps — the chile peels. Because the key ingredient in this beer is the chile peels to throw them in the mash, you know?
DSBC: A green chile beer has got to be tough to do well. There really aren’t many that are good, in my experience. Tell us about the process. What did you guys do differently?
Leif: So after peeling the chiles, you then have to mash in with them. So you mash in and you’re mixing in the chile peels.
DSBC: How many pounds did you need for the mash?
Hector: It’s supposed to be 30 pounds just for the mash.
DSBC: Of just chile peels …
Leif: Per mash.
Hector: But, we probably had about 20 pounds. But, if we’d actually had time for that much, it might be too intense.
Leif: So, instead of doing the extra chile peel in the mash, we decided we would add a little bit of the meat in the whirlpool, into the flameout addition. Because, we knew we didn’t have enough to put in the mash, so we had to make up some of that flavor. We knew we were gonna get our smoke from the mash. And you might think that this recipe calls for smoked malt, but, there’s no smoked malt. But, you can smell the roast.
DSBC: You can taste it. It’s there.
Leif: Let’s all imagine we’re driving our truck to go roast some chiles, but, we’re all drinkin’ a beer in the backseat; that’s what this beer is like.
DSBC: And, what’s more New Mexico than that?
Bonnie: And, that’s what Tom’s Green Chile Beer is about. It’s not about the kick of the spice. It’s about the roasted flavor.
DSBC: I think he nailed it then. I think these guys nailed the recipe.
Bonnie: Tom would be so honored. And, I feel him here today with us, because where else would he be? If he could be anywhere, this would be the place. And I’m so tickled and honored to know that this has happened, and at such a huge volume, too, as opposed to when I used to beg the brewers to do like a 10-gallon batch, because I’m not a brewer. I don’t know how to make it, but I have the recipe, and they made it happen for me. And this is just absolutely amazing.
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As coincidence would have it, Bonnie’s been working on a tribute to Tom’s life in the form of DVDs and they just came out very recently. You can find them here in this [Tribute]
Tom’s Green Chile beer has already been tapped at Bathtub Row and Albuquerque Brewing Co., but if you still want a taste of this roasty Autumn Amber Ale, it will be available at Santa Fe Brewing Company this weekend for Oktoberfiesta, in Santa Fe, as well as at the SFBC Albuquerque Taproom.
If you’ve been reading, you’d know that supplies are very limited, so get there early and try this really good Green Chile Beer for yourself. Tom would want you to enjoy this beer, because that’s what he did. He enjoyed beer, plain and simple. He brewed, not for any commercial purposes or fame, but for the love of the brew, and that’s why this is so fitting, what Leif, Carnie, and Hector did. They came together not to further their own agendas or businesses, but because they saw an opportunity to hang out as old friends and make a beer together for the love of the brew alone.
This is for you, Tom.
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