When I first heard about a new brewery opening in Santa Fe, it was just a small rumor overheard at a bar between buzzed beer fans. I didn’t know who was opening the brewery or what kind of brewery it was going to be, and man, now that I think back on it, neither did those guys at the bar. But, the prospect of another brewery in Santa Fe, and this small town inching its way closer to the status of say, Bend, Oregon, was pretty exciting.
Soon, word got out, and it was more than just a rumor. The word was that this new brewery was going to be focused on mixed-fermentation and bottle-conditioned beer. It wasn’t long before the internet was abuzz. Over Twitter and Facebook, the shrill shriek of sours rang out from among many of those that tend to, shall we say, over-simplify their understandings of the industry. They were right, partially. Yes, a brewery was opening in Santa Fe. Yes, there would be sours, but there would also be salt and fruit and funk and much more in between.
It was about that time when a name popped up. A familiar name — John Rowley. Among many in the industry and home-brew community, Rowley was already well known and respected. I mean, despite the fact that the man wasn’t a professional brewer (yet), it’s very hard to deny that he makes good beer. Rowley might not be the kind of guy (and, hell, he might be) to have a trophy or ribbon wall in his house, but he certainly could if he wanted to with the many brewing competitions he’s excelled in. With his considerable experience and skill, he was exactly the kind of home brewer that you want to open up a brewery.
I sat down with Rowley a little over a year ago and we talked the details of the new brewery plans, back when it was Sub Rosa Cellars, and back when it was to be the fifth brewery in Santa Fe. The name has since changed — and another brewery opened before it — but the idea never did. During that conversation, there were a few promises made. We were promised food. We were promised a well-curated guest beer list. And, we were promised the brewery would be “about having a good time and having a good experience for everyone,” as Rowley said back then.
Recently, I spent some time at the fully armed and operational Rowley Farmhouse Ales to get the full story. I attended the industry soft opening, and I’ve gone back a couple times to try more of the full menu, and other beers. After all, I wanted to see if Rowley’s new place delivered on those promises he made.
It was only as they got closer to opening that Rowley publicly revealed that Jeff Kaplan was one of his partners and the chef. This was only because Kaplan still had a very good gig making very good food elsewhere at the time. I won’t go too far into that, but having tasted several of their dishes now, I can attest that a brewery really benefits from the chops of a solid chef.
The menu leans towards the gastropub style, with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and terms like aioli here and Wagyu there. The great thing about the menu at RFA is that it’s varied enough to suit any mood, whether you’re starving or just need something delicious to pair with your beer. The food ranges from brewery fan favorites to something more suitable to the skills of an iron chef. The menu isn’t huge, but you’d be hard pressed not to find something that would pique your interest.
If you’re looking for something to warm up your palate, you could order the spicy nut bowl, cheese plate, popover, or Korean-style chicken wings. On the lighter, leafier side, you could get a fresh farmer’s market salad, or roasted Brussels sprouts. For a little comfort food, you could try the À la Minute New England Clam Chowder, or the Braised Flat Iron Poutine with Lone Mountain Wagyu beef. You can even grab current brewery favorites such as the Mac ‘n Cheese baked with mozzarella, parmesan, and bleu cheese, or the Waffles with fried chicken, or if you prefer crispy braised Kyzer Farms pork belly.
If you’re just looking for a sandwich to go with your beer, you’ll be plenty satisfied with the BLT with green chile aioli, the “Duck Mì, Duck you!” sandwich, the Warm Prosciutto Pear Sandwich, or even the sirloin burger, made with Zoe’s bacon and melted cheddar cheese, locally sourced from the Old Wind Mill Dairy. On the more upscale end, you could try the marrow and mushroom bruschetta or the farmer’s market risotto.
For the soft opening, I took my gal, and we had the popover, risotto, and Duck Mì sandwich. All of the vegetables were fresh, the risotto was creamy, and the duck was very flavorful and tender. The popover was light and fluffy, and the gruyere sauce was so incredible, I still dream about it.
On a separate trip, the cheese plate from Cheesemongers of Santa Fe had a good selection of quality cheeses and charcuterie, and the sirloin burger with green chile was, to quote my friend/coworker, “Bomb.” I’ll certainly be back to see what else Chef Kaplan has in store for us. My lady has already asked for a second date at RFA.
Curated Beer List
The list of beers was fun and creative, representing a nice variation of styles. The tap list is always changing, or at least I never saw the same list the three times I was there. There were IPAs, saisons, goses, brown ales, red ales, Scotch ales, lambics, sours, and pilsners from breweries like Evil Twin, Firestone Walker, Deschutes, Avery, Odell, Founders, Upslope, and Anderson Valley. The local list was short, but I wasn’t at all disappointed by that. Aside from Marble Red, I’ve seen La Cumbre’s Monzón Wet-hop Pale Ale and even Santa Fe Brewing’s Bourbon Barrel-aged Imperial Java Stout (where the hell did they get that keg?).
And, of course, Rowley had at least one of their beers on tap, the Notorious BdG, a dark Bière de Garde, with a smooth body and a nice funky tartness to it. “It’s a pretty malty Bière de Garde,” Rowley said. “It’s on the edge of the style in terms of color. It’s got a lot of malt. I think it has eight different malts in it. It’s meant to be malt-forward, very little IBUs. Twenty-two IBUs, I think. I fermented it with Brettanomyces Bruxellensis Drie strain, which is the Drie Fonteinen culture. We called it the Notorious BdG because a buddy of mine in Atlanta had a homebrew called that, and so we wanted to give him props because he couldn’t be here tonight. So, it’s kind of a fun beer, definitely not an IPA. That’s not our focus, but we’ll do some IPAs.”
It bodes well, if that’s the quality of mixed fermentation that Rowley has been talking about. As for the list, only a super beer geek could look at it and say, “I’ve tried all those before.” But, even for them, with Rowley’s understanding of what a curated beer list means, that super beer geek will be happy to revisit at least one of those beers, because it’s a good one, and probably hard to get in New Mexico. The rest of us will be excited for the latest permutation of the list.
I asked Rowley about how close they were to brewing there at the facility, which had the equipment, but seemed a little more like storage at the time being. Rowley said, “I still feel like there’s a lot to do. We’re not really close to brewing here yet. We’re actually going to start brewing on a 1-barrel system here. And, we’ll brew on that for a little while. It’s actually getting prepared right now. That’s what we’re going to be brewing on for the next few batches. I think we can start brewing on that in about three-to-four weeks. We’ve got basically everything in place; it’s just a matter of getting everything hooked up.”
All in all, it’s truly a great new place to grab a beer and have a meal. Whether you’re there to try something new or different, or just enjoy something you already like in a very comfortable space, Rowley Farmhouse Ales is my new pick in town to do just that. The ambiance works so well. While the taproom is a little small, it doesn’t feel cramped at the rail. The outdoor beer garden has plenty of room for serious beer contemplation or just kicking back and having dinner in a quiet, serene setting in the middle of town.
The beer list is certainly a reason to come in to see what John and the guys are drinking, or what they’ve just brewed, but if you don’t order food, you’re seriously doing yourself a disservice. The food is of a quality that suggests it was absolutely not an afterthought. The wait staff is knowledgeable, friendly, and are happy to help if you’re having trouble deciding on any menu item, be it a pilsner or poutine. And, say hello to our pal, Kimmie, while you’re there!
True, the brewhouse hadn’t quite been finished by the soft opening, but you can absolutely see all the hard work that Rowley and company have put into the whole establishment. There’s a lot of love (and probably sweat) that went into that space, and you can almost feel the will and passion emanating from the walls. The whole crew is very proud of what they’ve accomplished. And, they should be.
RFA is a great place to bring a group of beer geeks, business partners, or a date, even if he/she is ‘not that into’ craft beer. Now, if your date is not into good food, then you’ve got bigger problems, my friend. I think it would be very hard to go to Rowley Farmhouse Ales and not enjoy yourself. They have, indeed, kept their promise of creating the kind of space that’s all about having a good time and a good experience for everyone. I’ll certainly be back.
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