Ponderosa Brewing is about to celebrate their second anniversary with a party on Saturday. The festivities include a special release, a 2014 barley wine that has been aging for 18 months. The impressive, or at least unique, fact is that beer was made four brewers ago. Ponderosa has seen a lot of change in two years, so on a recent, spectacularly beautiful fall day in Burque, I met the new head brewer, Antonio Fernandez.
In these two years, Ponderosa has had four brewers. But, to be fair, initial brewer Matt Kollaja was basically meant to be on a short-term loan, if you will, to get things started up, Fernandez said. His successor, Andrew Krosche, could not pass up the head brewer job at Chama River, and the most recent brewer, Bob Haggerty, has moved on to the massive Steel Bender project, which aims to open in early 2017.
Readers may ask, “Who is this Antonio guy?” Fernandez is a newcomer to the Albuquerque brewing scene, and in this writer’s opinion he arrived in a really cool and unique way. I did not expect the answer I got when I asked what his background was.
Fernandez was born and raised in Albuquerque and has had several careers. His first was actually in music as a trained classical guitarist, but playing all different types of music. Hopefully, someday he will have time to play at Ponderosa, but as a head brewer with no assistant brewers, he said it might be a while before that happens.
Following that, he was a sous chef at Trombino’s in Albuquerque for seven years. (Developing a strong palate, no doubt.) The restaurant cut back on staff when they stopped doing lunch, and Fernandez was laid off. He was a home brewer for a lot of years and was really interested in beer — he is also a certified BJCP beer judge — so he decided to apply to the American Brewer’s Guild. The program started right after he got laid off, so the timing was right. After completing the program, he was working at a home brew shop in Rio Rancho, the Grain Hopper out by Intel. It closed in April. Fernandez decided that was the impetus he needed to go out and get a serious brewing job.
“I was applying for a bunch of things and I figured I was going to be an assistant, go and wash kegs, and things like that for a while,” Fernandez said. “I had the degree and all that and experience in restaurants and everything. You know, I applied for a bunch of jobs and then I got the call over here and they were like, ‘Yeah, we would like to interview you.’ I was like, cool. I had met Bob quite a few times, actually, and he’s a nice guy, good brewer.”
I asked Fernandez if he knew he was interviewing for head brewer or if he thought he was interviewing as an assistant.
“You know, I kind of thought I was interviewing for assistant, actually, because they just had … the posting was for brewer, that’s all it said,” Fernandez said. “You know, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that would happen … Bob was here, and Alan, one of the owners, was in town.”
During the interview, Fernandez found out that Haggerty was leaving. The interview ended up going on for about four hours, Fernandez said. It clearly went well.
At this point, it was time to taste some of Fernandez’s beer. Because Ponderosa has quite a few beers on tap, I decided to limit the tasting to one of the regular beers, and each of the seasonals. Overall, I was impressed. Fernandez said he actually enjoys brewing the more involved beers with bigger malt bills and more hop additions.
I wanted to try his version of the Ghost Train IPA (6.2% ABV, 70 IBU), since that is the style that locals favor. It has been a while since I had the Ghost Train. It’s still not an over-the-top hop bomb, which is perfectly OK with me, but the malt bill seems to have been mellowed, allowing the hops to shine a little more.
Fans of lighter styles will enjoy the Belgian Pale Ale (5.2% ABV, 30 IBU), which Fernandez said is probably his favorite to drink right now, and the Oktoberfest (5.8 % ABV, 30 IBU), a traditional, lighter, Munich-style beer brewed according to the German Purity Law. The Oatmeal Stout (5.8% ABV, 25 IBU) was flat out delicious, with an abundance of coffee, cocoa, and caramel notes, next to no bitterness, and only subtle sweetness. The carefully managed sweetness continued in the Imperial Black IPA (8.2% ABV, 110 IBU). Their version of a fall pumpkin beer is the Chocolate Pumpkin Porter (5.6% ABV, 30 IBU). Fernandez said he is not a fan of heavily-spiced beers, so this is a rich, only slightly spicy offering.
Quality control is one of his biggest concerns, Fernandez said. He said he is a fanatic about it. He said he likes the fact that without any assistants, from grain-to-glass, he has absolute control.
Fernandez said he soon plans to brew a single-hop Mosaic Pale Ale. He also said he thinks it is kind of strange that Ponderosa has never had a regular Amber, so there are plans for that as well. There is a sour Belgian Brown in the works, too. And, what I am most looking forward to is an upcoming Smoked Imperial Baltic Porter in late winter.
Fernandez said also hopes to increase the frequency of the bottle releases. There are tentative plans to collaborate with the forthcoming Hotel Chaco down the street, perhaps providing them with their own beer and having other Ponderosa beers on tap.
Ponderosa will be hosting a beer dinner in mid-November. Fernandez promised more details on that event soon.