As soon as the World Beer Cup results were announced, we decided to do the impossible and get the six Albuquerque-based winning brewers to meet at the same place at the same time. It can be the hardest thing in the world to find even a sliver of free time for some of the busiest people in the city, right before their busiest production time of the year.
Luckily, Jeff Erway of La Cumbre, Justin Hamilton of Boxing Bear, and Kaylynn McKnight of Nexus were all able to join me over at Matanza on Wednesday afternoon. They just so happened to be the three brewers who brought home gold medals, so that worked out nicely. Even if Jeff forgot to bring his for the picture. (These things happen.)
Do not worry, we will do our best to track down the other three winners from Albuquerque, as well as the Second Street brewing team up in Santa Fe, who brought home a silver.
To recap the winners:
- Honey Beer (55 total entries): Gold — Honey Chamomile Wheat, Nexus
- Kellerbier or Zwickelbier (59): Bronze — Pilsner, Marble
- International-Style Lager (103): Gold — BEER, La Cumbre
- Bohemian-Style Pilsner (65): Silver — High Plains Pils, Canteen
- Australian- or International-Style Pale Ale (84): Bronze — Bosque IPA, Bosque
- Sweet Stout or Cream Stout (63): Gold — Chocolate Milk Stout, Boxing Bear
- Imperial IPA (181): Silver — Trebuchet, Second Street
As for the trio that did show up, they had a lot to say, ranging from what the awards mean for the local beer scene, what they mean to each brewery, and, of course, their appropriately wacky celebrations when their awards were announced.
“I was walking down the street in Philadelphia,” Jeff said. “I’d made the ceremony several times and I didn’t really need to eat that food anymore, so we made some reservations at a very nice steakhouse. I was listening to the ceremony and it got to my category and I stopped in the middle of the street in the rain. And I waited. I had dozens of people looking at me as I jumped up and down and shouted profanities in the middle of the street in Philadelphia as I was walking towards this rather swanky steakhouse. And then Daniel (Jaramillo) and Scot (Nelson) and I made a scene outside the restaurant.”
People in Philadelphia rarely get to celebrate much of anything these days sports-wise, so yeah, they were probably looking at Jeff rather quizzically. The audience for Kaylynn and Justin was more contained.
“So, I was invited to the dinner, but didn’t eat,” Kaylynn said. “It was awful because there were no chairs for anyone that didn’t eat. I was sitting along the back wall. I couldn’t see most of the screen, names of beers, or anything. I was sitting against the wall with Andrew (Krosche). They announced the bronze, not my beer. They announced the silver, and I’m like, ‘Shit! Well, this isn’t happening. I’m certainly not getting gold.’ Andrew looks at me and said, ‘Guess the gold is yours, then.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ So, then they’re like ‘Honey Chamomile’ —”
“Somebody else made a Honey Chamomile Wheat?!” Jeff interjected. “Who the hell’s beer is that?!”
“I stand up so I could see the screen and said, ‘Holy shit, it does say Nexus Brewery!’” Kaylynn continued without skipping a beat. “I hugged Andrew and gave him a big kiss. Then I ran to the front — well, I walked.”
Kaylynn was actually the first brewer to see her beer win. Poor Justin was actually the last, and he had quite the seat for the entire long ceremony.
“I was sitting right there at the front rail,” Justin said, “with John, Jotham, Gabe, and Jessica from Bosque —”
“You were right there, you picked me up and started squeezing me!” Kaylynn added.
“I was like right in the front row, just a terrible place to be, staring up at that huge screen the whole time,” Justin continued. “I see that go up and I jump up like it’s my brewery. I’m screaming at the top of my lungs and they’re going, ‘You’re wearing a Boxing Bear shirt.’ I started looking around for her. When I saw her I gave her a big hug. It was the first win for New Mexico that night. I was waiting for that one, too. I knew that was your category.”
Then came the wait.
“I was seeing everyone else win medals; I was Category 76 or something like that,” Justin said. “We had one just a few categories before, so I knew it was this or nothing. I was sitting next to John Bullard at the time and he was like, ‘You’re going to go.’ Same thing, bronze (nothing), the silver comes out and I was like that’s it.
“When gold goes out, they announced the name the same time it scrolls across the screen. I’m like what? I thought the same thing, somebody else made a Chocolate Milk Stout. The first syllable and I’m like, woo! I was so tired that morning, we’d been up for days. I was exhausted, so I’m just staring at the wall thinking whatever and then it happens. What? What just happened? I jumped up, grabbed Dylan (Davis), gave him a big hug. It was a great feeling to have. It was an awesome, awesome day.”
Jeff noted the connections between the various winning breweries. Justin succeeded Jeff at Chama River once upon a time. Kaylynn met Jeff at Chama, then moved to La Cumbre and learned to brew there before taking over at Nexus. Most of the other winning breweries also had varying degrees of connections.
“The past few years it’s happened a few times that, whether the World Beer Cup or the Great American Beer Festival, La Cumbre hasn’t even taken home any medals,” Jeff said. “It never feels good, but you learn to suck it up and, um, be very responsible afterwards. But, it always feels good when the people you’ve worked closely with, even if you don’t work closely with them anymore, but they’ve gone on and they are successful. But, it feels even better when a whole group of you win. When you and a whole group of them feel successful, it feels great.”
That success has helped further put New Mexico craft beer on the map.
“I think it means a lot, of course,” Justin said. “It means that we knew we had good beer in New Mexico, but it’s saying we still have good beer in New Mexico. It’s a pretty flooded market. I don’t know if flooded is the right word. It’s a very heavy flow market. Being that, it’s good to know that the guys, and girls, who have been brewing for a long time, we (still) know what we’re doing.”
That certainly seemed to be the case with silvers to Canteen and Second Street, two of the longest running breweries in the state, and bronzes to Marble and Bosque, two recent powerhouses whose brewers’ careers go back well before either place opened.
“Is anybody really surprised by the beers and breweries that won?” Jeff asked. “First off, is it just me, or is it kind of shocking that the beers in Albuquerque that medaled, four of them, have medals before in the exact same categories. That doesn’t just say we’re good one time, but these are consistently really good examples of the style.
“In addition, yes, yes, we’re really good at making IPAs (but) Albuquerque didn’t medal at all — well, Bosque, OK, it medaled in a hoppy category — but everyone else didn’t medal in a hop-forward category.”
The biggest hop-forward victory went to Second Street and brewmaster Rod Tweet, who took silver in the Imperial IPA category for Trebuchet. It was the second biggest category in terms of entries with 181.
“That was amazing,” Justin said. “Even though it’s a silver, that was the best medal won. I will put it on the table. The most competitive of those categories. It’s Rod, who’s O.G.”
Jeff credited the tight-knit community of brewers with helping each other improve over the years.
“Everybody that won medals has all worked together,” Jeff said. “Everybody from Albuquerque that has won medals all worked together, at one point or another, in one way or another. Take a note, from these medals that one, become experienced in your craft. And two, if you’re a brewer that is trying to make truly the best beer that you possibly can, don’t try to live in a bubble. You will never learn anything, you will never become better. I have been, for the last six months, begging these people to try BEER. The feedback that you can get from them, if you genuinely want it, is genuine and it’s real.”
With so many new places opening, many staffed by brewers who are not from the vast Chama River/La Cumbre/Marble family tree, Justin said the goal now is to reach out to them and bring them into the fold.
“Good beer is good for everybody,” he said. “Especially with some of the new ones. Even if you’re a newcomer to the scene, I don’t care who you are, if you have good beer, that’s the most important thing. Good beer promoted this city, this state. That’s why we’re here, to make good beer.”
Do not expect any of the winners to rest on their laurels.
“Winning a gold medal does not mean that La Cumbre BEER cannot get better,” Jeff said. “I want to continue to make it better so the next time it is a double gold.”
“I think that’s what the true New Mexico beers, what I’ve grown into for the last 10 years, it’s all about the best beer you can possibly make,” Justin added. “Everyone I know is trying to improve their beers. There’s so little (complacency).
“That’s what it comes down to, there’s always room for improvement. Yeah, my beer won gold, but there’s little things about it that I’d like to fix. There’s always room for improvement, there’s always room to get better.”
One other thing that Kaylynn pointed out was that beer drinkers and their tastes change over time as well. It is something that the breweries must be aware of and willing to adapt to as necessary.
“One thing I heard as I got more into beer is that our palates are constantly evolving, too,” Kaylynn said. “Every bit more you learn, every bit more you taste, it’s going to have an impact. Your palate is always improving or tasting something different, experiencing it in different ways.”
The final question asked at our sit-down was not from me, but from Jeff.
“The question I have for the two of you is, what do you think this is going to do for your business?” Jeff asked Justin and Kaylynn. “Besides put a nice thing on the wall.”
“Besides put a nice thing on the wall, for me what it will do for my business will bring me recognition in a very competitive market with lots of new breweries opening up,” Justin replied. “It’s been the hardest thing for me right now. We opened at the same time as several other breweries. Knowing I have good beer, and generally the general public usually knows (what is) good beer, but sometimes you just support people because you like them, sometimes it’s for different reasons.
“I think it can do things for your business, but I think more than anything it brings back (positive) recognition for your brewery. Whether or not that beer itself sells well or not, people are coming into your brewery, and I have people asking me about GABF all the time. It’s random people. People do see it. But, what I think it does is people think they know good beer, but when they see a medal, especially a gold medal, it reaffirms that.”
As for Kaylynn, she went right to the point.
“I’m really happy to win a medal because my place is almost entirely focused on food,” Kaylynn said. “And, it’s really nice to be able to point to that.”
In the end, we, brewers and beer geeks/writers alike, can only continue to hope that awards like those won at the World Beer Cup, or Great American Beer Festival, or anywhere else, can only further prove to beer drinkers everywhere that some of the best liquid in the country is being poured right here in our humble state of New Mexico.
Thank you to Jeff, Justin, and Kaylynn for meeting up to chat. It is always enlightening, and often entertaining, to share in the perspective and many, many opinions of our brewers.
Fear not, the Crew will catch up with the rest of the winners when our schedules align.
7 Comments Add yours
Congrats to all of the NM winners! It is so cool to be able to go to breweries in other states and have people get excited when they find out you are from New Mexico and drink all these award-winning brews. I had two of these occasions happen during recent trips to Alabama and Oklahoma. Our brewers are making their mark for themselves and for the region in general! I know they will keep up the great work.