Wow, where has this year gone? Is it really time to start our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series? Why, yes it is, and once again we kick things off with La Cumbre. For those new readers, this series is meant to give brewers and/or brewery owners a chance to recap the year that was and preview the year to come. I sat down with La Cumbre owner/brewer Jeff Erway last week before things started getting crazy this week with their Fifth Anniversary series of events.
Last year at this time, construction was just getting underway on the brewery expansion. The full project was completed by the start of April.
“We successfully designed, purchased, and installed the state’s most advanced and efficient brewhouse,” Jeff said. “We didn’t hit all of our goals this year, but the fact that we have gotten a completely new brew system up and running and are producing what is to me, inarguably, better and more consistent beer than we ever have, is probably my great accomplishment of 2015.”
Not everything was perfect with the new system right from the get-go.
“Daniel and I designed that system and it took us probably five or six brews before we felt at all comfortable on it,” Jeff said. “Running a brewhouse like this is not like driving a car or pedaling on a bike. It’s closer to like running a nuclear submarine. They are eight pumps and 129 valves or thereabouts. There are three heat exchangers, three steam-jacketed vessels, there are nine components to our grain-handling system.”
The toughest part of mastering that system was the heat itself.
“But probably more challenging from a beer quality standpoint was we were moving from a direct-fire brewhouse to a steam-fire brewhouse,” Jeff said. “I would say in almost every way this is a finer piece of equipment. It’s more consistent (and) we get much better evaporation rates. I think right off the bat the quality of our hefeweizen, the quality of our pilsner, the quality of our IPA went up drastically. I felt like pretty much overnight they were better beers.
“The Red Ryeot, it took probably four or five batches before I was really happy with the way that was. But now it’s probably the best red ale I’ve ever had. The Pyramid Rock, it took us 15 worts before we were happy with that beer. Now we’re happy with it. Getting it all put together was a chore to say the least, but we’re really happy with how things are going now.”
On the seasonal beer front, La Cumbre continued to release new styles and old favorites. The most notable was probably the State Fair Cream Ale, the first time a New Mexico brewery had the official beer of the State Fair. As for his personal favorite, though, Jeff picked another of his specialty offerings.
“I thought that the Fievre d’Abricot this year was one of the better fruited Belgian-style beers we’ve ever had,” he said. “I really loved it, thought it was great. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t think the Elevated IPA was a world-class IPA on the old system and I truly believe that’s been improved upon. I know this next year, because I’ve already selected the hops that are going into it, the Elevated will be even better.”
That news is sure to please the many, many hopheads who make La Cumbre their second home (or fill their home fridge with Elevated four-packs). Overall, it was a good year for La Cumbre as far as the beers went, even with the adjustments necessitated by the new system. Of course, not everything was perfect, it was just mainly the things customers did not notice.
“Nothing beer-wise, everything business-wise,” Jeff said. “There were a lot of things that happened … things that were out of my control, things were in my control. I won’t bore your readers with the ups and downs of our internal brewery business and distribution. We had a good year, we had a profitable year. We saw a lot of breweries get up and running and we were happy to see that. We were happy to see that our business was unaffected by that. You can’t ask for much more than to see your industry continue to grow and yet see your individual business continue to grow, despite the increased competition.”
As more breweries open, more begin to fight for shelf space at liquor and grocery stores or tap handles at bars and restaurants. For La Cumbre, however, even though that is happening it is not having much of a negative effect.
“John (Bullard) over at Bosque makes great beer and he’s releasing beers not entirely dissimilar from ours and they’ve very good quality,” Jeff said. “Of course there’s increased shelf competition, there’s increased tap competition. But in spite of that we continue to grow our wholesale business by quite a bit, about 40 percent every year. We added a patio and so the taproom is up quite a bit this year. And we’ve added another nine jobs to the local economy and that’s pretty awesome.”
La Cumbre will cap a successful 2015 with a week’s worth of special events leading up to this Saturday’s Fifth Anniversary Party. Today (Monday) will see a special brewer Q&A featuring Jeff and Alan Skinner at the taproom at 5 p.m.
Tuesday will feature a Beer Dinner at The Artichoke Cafe at 6:30 p.m. That one costs $65 per person. Then on Wednesday at the taproom, My Sweet Basil will provide Charcuterie pairings for $15 starting at 4 p.m.
Not to leave out the Santa Fe faithful, Thursday will feature a beer and tapas pairing at Taberna for $45. Or, stay in Albuquerque for the tap and bottle release of an annual Crew favorite, the La Negra Imperial Stout, and sign up for the 2016 Mug Club at the taproom.
There will be a special Firkin Friday, followed by the main event on Saturday. The Ryeot on Rye, a special version of Red Ryeot aged in Taos Lightning single-malt rye barrels, will be released. I got an advance sample (thank you, Daniel) and man, it is a smooth, but powerful beer. Jeff and Daniel will give brewery tours from noon to 3:30, followed by Tres Pendejos performing live from 4 to 7 p.m.
2016 could have some surprises in store
So what is in the cards for the coming year?
“World domination!” Jeff replied with a laugh. “It looks like the end of 2015 will see us open up (distribution in) the vast majority of Colorado. I’m pretty excited about that and I won’t be shocked if we open up another state. I’m not terribly sure where that’s going to be yet. We’re looking around, we’re weighing our possibilities.
“For the first time in our company’s history I can say that business is good right now, and business is growing right now completely organically without us doing any sort of heavy lifting, I know we’ll grow 25 percent next year. If I feel so motivated, and I push, I’m confident we could have another 50-percent growth year. But that will greatly depend on whether or not we can find the right people to help get us there. That’s the rub, basically, is finding truly gifted brewers that want to work in a production brewery, have experience working in a production brewery, and haven’t been offered to go off to a brand-new brewery and given (partial) ownership. It’s kind of hard to compete with that.”
As noted in a story we wrote about a job posting for a head brewer earlier this year, LC is still looking for someone to handle much of the day-to-day brewing while Jeff and Daniel oversee more aspects of the business.
“We are looking actively,” Jeff said. “We’ve got somebody coming in. I’ll just put it this way, he has a very good pedigree. He would definitely be one of the most experienced brewers in the state. He will be coming in here hopefully in the net couple weeks to come visit us. Hopefully it works out, hopefully we come to an agreement because we need him.”
One of the most repeated questions the Crew gets about La Cumbre is when are they opening a taproom.
“I will say that I’m not going to rush into finding a taproom,” Jeff said. “One, I’m not willing to go into an area that’s going to cannibalize my own wholesale accounts. Those are the people that helped us get open, helped us get running with distribution, they’ve the ones that have helped make us successful and I’m not going to slap them across the face by opening up in their backyard.
“But also, I’m not going to just take any old location because I think it could work. I’m going to wait for a location that I think is really perfect. I go into that Marble taproom over on the west side, I’ve only been there a couple times — I don’t know how long it took them to find that, I should ask John (Gozigian) or Ted (Rice) — but they nailed it. They’ve done a really good job of making it a second Marble home. It’s not just an independent thing of its own. It’s very identifiably Marble, and it was before the whole logo change, too. It looks like them and I think that’s great.
“I don’t want to jump into doing it just because hey, that’s spot’s open, we’re taking it. Our business is successful enough I don’t have to feel that pressure.”
As Ken Carson from Nexus has told us in the past, there can also be the issue beyond merely the location of where the taproom is, but who you have to be in business with to make it work.
“That’s the other thing, trying to find the right landlord is going to be difficult,” Jeff said. “I don’t have a landlord right now except myself and I really like myself as a landlord. I’m a really good landlord to myself. I would definitely love to find a location I could purchase. Trying to find that on the West Side, trying to find that up in the Northeast Heights, it’s really hard to find any place that wants to sell. So then we’re talking about build to suit, now you’re talking some serious money. Could we do it? Yes, we could do it. But do we want to do that? I don’t know. There’s probably better uses of our resources right now. But also I only have so many hours in the day. Right now I’m brewing six batches a week.”
As for developments at the brewery, Jeff was not able to say much of what he hopes will develop in 2016, but he did offer this.
“There could be some very interesting moves coming forward over the next couple months,” Jeff said. “We can’t guarantee anything. There are some unknowns right now. I promise you, if you’re not the first to know, you’ll be (among) the first couple of people to know if a certain piece of real estate becomes our property. But we’ll see. I don’t really have anything else.”
La Cumbre could certainly use a little more space.
“We are literally maxed out,” Jeff said. “We’re going to be building a 2,500-square-foot cold room out back in the next year. But that’s kind of boring stuff. Yay, hops fridge!
“I can safely say that we have more hops on site right now than any other brewery in the state. We just took ‘em all. We took everything we had on contract. We just stuffed it into coolers.”
Hopheads, you may commence with dancing a jig now. As for new beers, Jeff said he has at least one new packaging item in the works.
“We will be releasing a new can in 2016, which I’m not going to say what it is yet, but it’s not currently in our year-round lineup,” he said. “There will be some process changes we’re going to see in the coming year. There is definitely a possibility of purchasing a centrifuge. We’ll keep on rocking and rolling. The whole real estate will greatly determine what happens in the coming months.”
As soon as Jeff lets the Crew know what that is all about, we will be sure to pass it along. Until then, enjoy the upcoming anniversary events, and keeping on thanking the beer gods for giving us a brewery like La Cumbre right here in our humble state.
Keep your eyes peeled for more entries in our Look Back/Look Ahead Series. Bosque and Tractor are next up on my interview list, with many, many more to follow.