Blue Corn Brewery sailed through smooth waters in 2015 and now aims for big waves in 2016

Posted: January 25, 2016 by Luke in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2015-16
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Greetings from Santa Fe! Luke here with another entry in the Look Back/Look Ahead Series. Recently, I met with brewers James Warren and Kyle Yonan of Blue Corn Brewery to see how their 2015 went and find out what’s in store for craft beer lovers in 2016. We talked about all the changes they saw, the shuffling of management, fun beers they made, and the big beers that are currently in the works.

It was just after 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and I found the duo in the brewhouse, just finishing up. Not a word needed to be said. It was clear to everyone that it was time for a booth, a beer, and a chat with the Dark Side. In the bar, the winter sunlight pierced the windows at such an angle that made the shadows run long and far, and from it, the copper tanks gleamed, stirring my stainless steel heart (this view always does). We grabbed a spot in the big booth and ordered a round of Stranger Than Fiction, a Belgian IPA similar to Duel’s Fiction, but … stranger?

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Not just pretty faces. They’re working tanks.

DSBC: Let’s talk about your year. This is your second year at Blue Corn Brewery, right, James?

Warren: Yep.

DSBC: And Kyle, this is your first year at Blue Corn.

Yonan: Correct.

DSBC: How did it go?

Warren: It’s been a good year. It’s been a year of transitions and different things going on. Overall, it was a much smoother year than the year before. You know, you start to get into a rhythm with things, so it’s been a pretty smooth year.

DSBC: How was it for you coming in?

Yonan: It was great! You know, I’ve kind of always been into a more aggressive American interpretation of British-style brewing. That’s really conducive with James. It’s been a really great working experience. And, you know, going to GABF and stuff, and putting out tons of specialties. It’s been a blast!

DSBC: How has it been different from, say, the last brewery you worked in (New Mexico Craft Brewing in Las Vegas)?

Yonan: This is a slick operation. The brewhouse is pretty sweet here, and there’s been a lot of support for creative endeavors. And, so there’s a lot of freedom to put things out there and get involved in festivals and what-not, instead of trying to piece together nuts and bolts to MacGyver something at the last second.

DSBC: You might see that a lot more in a smaller brewery.

Yonan: Mm-hm.

DSBC: OK, let’s talk about some of the highlights of the year for your guys.

Warren: The Santa Fe Open Brewing Competition was a lot of fun to do and be a part of. It’s so great to see the home-brewing community get involved, do the judging, and all that kind of stuff. And, of course, to take home that giant trophy and put that up, that was definitely one of my highlights. And, of course, always going to Denver every year, and even though we didn’t win anything this year, participating in that festival, getting to see everybody is always a highlight.

Blue Corn Trophy SFOPEN

That’s quite a trophy for the Pro winner of the Santa Fe Open Brewing Competition. Quite a trophy indeed! (Photo courtesy of Blue Corn Brewery.)

DSBC: If memory serves, you guys also cleaned up at the State Fair Brewing Competition.

Warren: Yep, and that’s another one. I love that kind of community, with home brewers. All of that is good. It’s always exciting to come home with a handful of State Fair medals there.

DSBC: What about for you, Kyle? What was a personal highlight for you? You did that wet-hop beer. That was big.

Yonan: That week was a great week, because we had those hops come down from High Wire Hops Farm in Colorado. As well as barely pulling together a tiny crew and having no idea if I was going to find the harvest that I needed, just having a complete boon. We picked all day and stuffed my car with wild hops and pulled off the largest wild harvest in our day, ever done.

Warren: If you can pick the hops, you can do it. And, when he brought those in, I was just amazed. All those malt bags. Fifty-pound malt bags filled with hops! It was astonishing to see (laughs).

Kyle Yonen With Wet Hops

That’s a lot of hops for the wet hop beer. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Yonan.)

DSBC: What were some of the beers you guys were really pleased with this year?

Warren: I think our IPA Challenge beer turned out really well (the Hoplon IPA). I really enjoyed that beer, yeah.

DSBC: Oh, yeah, I remember it fondly.

Yonan: Yeah, that was a really fun time, too. Everybody seemed pretty psyched on that, and having it at the Draft Station was really cool. People were really involved. And, the Good Guys Triple IPA, that was probably one of the highlights for me, ‘cause it was just one of the most ridiculous beer I’ve ever made. And, I thought it was fantastic.

DSBC: It was huge. It was mean and aggressive. I enjoyed that one. You guys also won several awards at the NABA, right?

Warren: Oh, yeah! That’s right! We took five medals at the NABA this year.

DSBC: Five medals. Not bad!

Warren: Yeah, including one for the Imperial Gose, which was really fun, a beer that I thought was going to be the bane of my existence for a few hours. For it to go on to win a medal in the Experimental Beer category was a lot of fun, along the same lines of winning the gold medal at the State Fair for the Malt Liquor. The Malt Liquor was another fun beer.

DSBC: That you weren’t sure about? That was the Brown Paper Bag.

Warren: Yep! (Laughs)

DSBC: It’s great to see what you guys have been getting away with! What about struggles this year? I know you guys went through some management changes. What kind of obstacles did that create?

Warren: You know, we did have several big management changes this year, here at Blue Corn. They weren’t really struggles, but everyone’s got a little bit of a different take on how they want to run things. And, while there’s a big separation between the brewery and the restaurant when it comes to the day-to-day stuff, a lot of it does change, and the paperwork, but it’s always a lot of fun to see someone’s new style of management. They have different insights, like the type of beers they like to drink and what they like to see on tap. And, everybody who’s been a manager thus far has done a great job, loves beer. We have that to go on.

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The separation between brewery and restaurant isn’t that wide.

Yonan: I agree with that. The shuffling around was never like … there was never a point when there was a slump in how things were running. It was a big shuffling, but everybody’s really good.

DSBC: One picked up where the other one left off.

Yonan: Yeah, everyone hit the ground running wherever they went. It’s been pretty cool. And, the Chef (David Sundberg) has been a real pillar, you know. Like the pairings and all that he’s done really keeps things rolling.

Warren: Chef has been the constant here at Blue Corn for a long time. He’s kind of held the fabric together over time between brewers and managers and everything else.

DSBC: In several of my other interviews, I mention that Chef has always shared that vision of a craft-beer-centric destination.

Yonan: Yeah, and that’s really important in the brewing industry in general. You know it is a business, and you do need to be thinking about how to increase profits and things like that. That’s important, but just to have that constant hunger for new things and excitement and good times, that means a lot more. Because if you don’t like what you’re doing, why are you doing it?

DSBC: Absolutely. So, Kyle, it was your first time brewing with James for a full year. Were there any struggles that you had to overcome? Anything that took a while getting used to?

Yonan: Yeah, James wakes up earlier than I do. (Everyone laughs) It’s hard to drag my ass out of bed after having a date night or something. No, it’s really been a blast. I’ve had a great time!

DSBC: So it’s been pretty smooth then, for Blue Corn this past year. Now, I know there are some major changes coming down the pipe. Not sure yet what we’re allowed to talk about so I’ll leave that up to you.

Warren: Well, let’s start off with the fact that the biggest change here at Blue Corn, recently, is as of about two weeks ago, Kyle is now head brewer of Blue Corn Brewery. That’s the first biggest change, and you can talk to Kyle more about that.

DSBC: Stepping into that big role, after just one year at the brewery, how do you feel about that?

Yonan: It’s fantastic! (Laughs)

DSBC: Do you feel like you have more freedom than before to try new things that maybe you’ve wanted to try?

Yonan: Yeah, but James has been really cool about allowing me a lot of creative expression. It’s just really nice to have my hands on the reins and run with my ideas.

DSBC: Do you have any plans for an assistant brewer yet? Are you currently looking to fill that role or are you going to go it on your own for a while?

Yonan: The company has a lot of big stuff going on in the coming year, so there’s going to be a long transitional period, but the answer is really, “No.” James is really going to be hands-on for the foreseeable future in his new role.

DSBC: And so, what, James, would this new role be, for those who don’t know?

Warren: Santa Fe Dining has made me Director of Brewing Operations, and so I will be overseeing Blue Corn and Chama River, and working with the Draft Stations here to try to bring more of a cohesiveness to the company and to what our mission is, as a company. And, then from there, after we get some things done there, we’ll be moving on to a couple of other projects that will require a little more of my time than I can give to Blue Corn.

DSBC: OK, excellent. And, congratulations to you both! So, Kyle, in your new role, is there anything that you would like to see come to fruition, here at the brewery?

Yonan: Blue Corn has a really long tradition. It’s had some really fantastic brewers. It’s really an honor to have my name on that list. And, you know, this isn’t the kind of place that you and start throwing grenades around, because there’s been very highly respected beers here for 20 years. And, so, I’m not going to go start throwing hand grenades around, but I am really excited to be pushing some of my aggressive recipes.

DSBC: We would expect nothing less. So, guys, what’s in store for Blue Corn? What does the beer-drinking public have to look forward to now with all the changes? Can we expect more of the same? Any surprises?

Yonan: You know, the original title they wanted to give James was “The Dark Overlord of Fermentation,” but we talked him down to Director of Brewing Operations. But, having a Yoda with the Jedi Council of brewers is really going to do incredible things for the way that we’re able to get things out there more, be more participative in festivals, and actually throw them ourselves. Yeah, there’ll be a lot more direct involvement, a lot more fun events.

Warren: And, I think, over time, you’ll probably see a lot more hop-forward deals. You know the IPAs were never my style! And, now we got someone behind the brewhouse for whom hops is the path. (laughs)

DSBC: The guys would kill me if I didn’t ask, but are we still going to see the big dark monstrous beers? Can we still expect to see the annual Russian Imperial Stout or beers like the Alpha Reaper?

Yonan: Oh, hell yeah!

DSBC: Excellent, excellent.

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Coffee Cream Stout = humina humina humina …

Yonan: I’m known for my love of hops, but it’s really not that I’m just obsessed with hops. I’m really obsessed with big, aggressive beers. Barleywines and Imperial Stouts, as well as Imperial IPAs, are some of my favorite beers to make. And, I’m really looking forward to making some malty monsters as well.

DSBC: So, I talked to James last year for the Look Back/Look Ahead Series, and we were talking about barrel projects. Are you continuing to work on that? Has it scaled down a bit? Are you still pushing that?

Warren: So, I guess overall the barrel project hasn’t really gone as far as I wanted, but that’s because we don’t have a lot of storage space in here, unfortunately. We’re still waiting on some of these barrels in here. I’d still love to see it. If we get the chance, I’d like to push forward with that. Hopefully here in the next few months, you will see a barrel-aged sour beer that will be available in the taproom.

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Show us your sours!

DSBC: I always have to ask, any plans for Blue Corn expansion?

Warren: I think that money is probably going to get spent elsewhere. (laughs) No, we’re still looking forward to an expansion here, but we do have some big projects that will be coming first.

DSBC: And, are they something we should all be excited for?

Warren: Yes.

DSBC: I think that’s it for my questions. Do you guys have anything else to add?

Warren: We’re excited and scared.

DSBC: How about you, head brewer?

Yonan: I’m really looking forward to the next year in general for the brewing industry in New Mexico. All kinds of stuff is happening all over the country, but New Mexico is really exceptionally special. There’s all kinds of start-ups, there’s all kinds of expansions, and there’s all kinds of shifts in business models. And, there’s going to be this big dust storm, and it’s just going to be a wild ride, and the dust is not going to settle this year. It’s probably going to take two or three years for it to settle. It’s time to hold on to the reins, because we’re about to go on a wild ride.

DSBC: Awesome. Oh! One last thing. You guys had mentioned, before we got going here, that you were already brewing for the National IPA Challenge.

Yonan: Oh, yeah, they’re in the fermenters.

DSBC: Can we talk about those beers?

Warren: Sure! There’s three categories this year for the IPA Challenge. There’s Imperial IPA, American IPA, and Session IPA. We’ll be entering the American IPA category and the Session IPA category. And, I’m excited. It’s only about two days in the fermentation, but I’m excited.

DSBC: What steps have you guys taken to make these beers stand out?

Yonan: We took the most expensive beer recipe that we’ve ever known of, and we made it more expensive. (everyone laughs)

DSBC: Excellent. How soon can we expect these guys in the taprooms and draft stations?

Warren: Three weeks.

Yonan: Even on its way to the fermenter, it was just the ambrosia on the wort. It’s exciting.

Warren: Sometimes you brew a beer and you get a good feeling about it … I got that good feeling about it.

DSBC: Awesome. I can’t wait to taste it.

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Gulden Woelf, 8-percent-plus ABV.

* * * * *

The parent company, Santa Fe Dining, may see a great deal of change in the coming year, but one thing we don’t have to worry about are the breweries underneath the careful and brilliant watch of James Warren. In two short years, he’s done great things for Blue Corn, proving that he is not only a competent brewer, but already one of the greats that once called Blue Corn his training ground. And, one of his first orders of business, at the helm, was to name his assistant brewer Kyle Yonan as head brewer. We’ve seen great and delicious things out of this team already, but if you’re wondering whether Kyle will keep the ship steady through smooth or choppy waters, ease your mind, my friends. After all, James has worked closely with him. James trusts him, and so should we. Much thanks, as always, to James and Kyle for sitting down with a humble beer blogger. Thanks for reading and remember, think globally, drink locally!

Cheers!

— Luke (Craft Crusader)

LukeSFBrewing

For more #craftbeer news and @nmdarksidebc info, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro.

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