Editor’s note: We sent Andrew to Pi Brewing for its Look Back/Look Ahead Series entry a while back. Pardon the delay. Let him know how he did in his first Brew Crew Bullpen story in the comments. — S
Tuesday, November 8 was a day that will likely go down in history as the Election Day that marked the end of one of the most divisive presidential campaign seasons …. not to mention one of the most unprecedented election results in American history. I confess that it was also a day where I was glad to have a distraction from the political process (after voting earlier in the day, of course). That distraction was Pi Brewing on Albuquerque’s West Side. I had suggested the date to Greg Villareal, head brewer and co-owner with his wife, Nicole, a week or two prior. At the time, it hadn’t occurred to me that we had picked Election Day. If Election Day 2016 becomes one of those days that you will always remember what you were doing, even years later. I will remember hanging out with Greg and Stoutmeister at a table just far enough away from the TVs in the bar area that the “Trump this, Trump that” and “Hillary this, Hillary that” blended together into a spectacular white noise.
Greg was gracious enough to host me on my first interview since becoming a contributor to the NMDSBC, and I was also fortunate to have Stoutmeister providing moral support. As it turned out, distracting me really wasn’t difficult at all. Apparently, the trick is feeding me pizza and pouring various delicious beers down my throat. Somebody must have tipped off Greg, because this is exactly what he did. He also discussed this past year’s challenges and successes at Pi and provided some insight as to what the future might hold.
Regular readers might recall that Greg and Nicole’s business started as Nicky V’s Pizzeria before adding the brewery next door a couple years ago, followed by a complete re-branding and combination of the two under the name Pi Brewing. Greg explained the further evolution of the business over the past year since the re-branding in February of this year.
“I think we’ve kind of become a brewpub over time,” Greg said. “Breweries are very dynamic and they tend to kind of change to meet demand, whatever that demand might be, and that’s kind of what we’re seeing as well. Over time our demographics have just changed a little bit, and we’re just kind of changing with the people that are coming through the door. This year’s been a year of just kind of putting the feelers out there and trying some new things. I want to try something new, so I have been doing, as you know, a lot of sours this year … and, we’re getting some decent traction with the sours. … That’s kind of what we seem to be having decent success with right now.”
Greg jumped right into describing some of the sour beers that he has been passionate about this past year.
“The first one we did was a gose, a key lime gose, and that was more of a kettle sour then like a traditional multiple bacteria yeast fermentation, so that was just a really clean kettle sour and it was popular,” Greg said. “After that I was like, ‘You know what? This is kind of cool, why don’t we try actually doing some barrel aging and see what happens?’ That’s when we kind of went down the path of doing a more, you know, traditional sour in barrels.
“Time frames obviously went up. They take forever. So, we started filling barrels, and we just harvested everything out of those barrels over the last few weeks to a month, and refilled the barrels and put them down for the winter, and that’s kind of where we’re at right now.”
The Pi customer base has been receptive to the sours.
“So, some of the sours you have tried … Manhattan Project already is gone,” Greg said. “That was on for a month and it’s out of here. Right now we’ve got Sleepy Hollow on, which is not necessarily a sour, more of a pumpkin farmhouse is what we’re calling it. We also have the Trinity on, that’s kind of a cool one, it’s got some fruity qualities to it that’s organic white peaches and apricots. Zinister Dichotomy … it was a red sour. It spent about 40 days on raspberries.”
Greg’s passion for brewing was palpable early in our conversation and it was equally balanced with his awareness of the challenges that are inherent in running a small brewery.
“Breweries take up a lot of room… it’s just the nature of the beast,” Greg said. “You need room. I just need space just to brew, to bring in additional fermenters. We’re kind of stuck in this little space next door. So, I need to figure something out in the coming year.”
While space might be a limitation for any small brewery (or even a big brewery, just ask Marble), it seems that sour beer further amplifies the challenge by introducing additional considerations related to cross-contamination and barrel storage. Greg suggested that, while he has no intent of focusing solely on sour beer, he is considering the possibility of isolating the sour brewing in a separate facility.
“Something comes down the pipe that works perfect, like maybe somewhere down in an industrial area where we could just do nothing but our sour beers, that would be really cool,” Greg said. “Plus it would maybe also give us the taproom potential.”
Taproom potential, all right, now we are talking. That’s right, Pi Brewing is not shying away from expansion. Why not take it a step further and get Pi’s beer in bottles this upcoming year?
“We’re looking at, especially with the sour beers, I’m trying to figure out now how to do some limited bottling runs because that beer just ages so well,” Greg said. “It really ages well. Just to let it bottle condition for time, I think, would really be a benefit to the product.”
Sour beers are still being produced only in limited quantities around Albuquerque. They remain a sort of final frontier for local brewers.
“This year I’ve spent a lot of time working on sour beers,” Greg said. “I had to talk to a lot of people about sour beer … a lot. Not a lot of guys here in this state are doing sours. There’s not a big pool of reference here in this state when it comes to sour beers. It takes travel. You gotta travel and you gotta go hit places like San Diego, Portland, (and) San Francisco. You gotta move.”
Greg made it very clear that, in spite of the challenges, he does not intend to put anything on tap that is not up to snuff. He also has a lot of respect for the quality of brewing in ABQ, which seems to further elevate his standards.
“If we make bad beer I’m going to dump it,” Greg said. “I’m not going to try and butter it up with like blueberries or something and try and make it palatable for somebody. If it’s bad, it’s bad. If it’s not palatable, it’s not going to get served, obviously.”
Greg’s standards and expectations were also evident in his comments about working this past year to ensure that Pi was putting out enough beer.
“One of the things I wanted to commit to, coming into the brewhouse, is keeping eight beers on our handles and that took a lot of time,” Greg said. “At one point we were down to one handle of our beer and seven guest taps, and it drove me insane. Having a brewery that doesn’t have beer of its own (was unacceptable). So, we fixed the glitch. Obviously, we have eight handles on now and we’ve got beer behind it.”
Furthermore, it’s good to see that Greg isn’t just a passionate brewer but a passionate supporter of our local craft brew scene.
“If there is one bright spot out of like just the sheer number of breweries that are out there right now, I think the quality … it’s just … it’s getting really good in this city,” Greg said. “You know I’ve been drinking beer in this town for a long long time. These days, man, just about everybody’s got pretty decent beer. It’s cool to see that we’re kinda getting some national traction. I think it’s good. It’s good for the state.”
During our conversation, a couple specific goals were mentioned for this coming year. The first was a result of my prodding about the possibility of an in-house Pi Brewing beer dinner. Greg’s wife Nicole is a step ahead of both of us on this one.
“Nicole and I have spoke about trying to put together a beer dinner now that we have like a really broad range of beers on our draft handles,” Greg said. “I think now would be a good time to kind of go into that as we get through the holiday season. And, it’s something were trying to … Nicole just had this idea like two or three weeks ago. For us it’s something new. We’ve done a lot of wine dinners out of this space. We’ve never really done a beer dinner, per se, and I think it’s about time to kind of do one. Kind of see what the kitchen can do, and kind of see what they can do to match up with some of the beers on draft. So, I think it’s something that’s going to be happening … my guess would be in January or February.”
The other specific goal, which Greg brought up himself, is the effort to enter Pi’s beer into more competitions.
“If there’s one thing I want to do more of going forward, it’s actually getting our beer entered into competitions,” Greg said. “I miss dates all the time because I’m stuck dealing with stuff. Life happens and I turn around like I have forgot all these different dates. I need to start getting our beer into more competitions. That’s one goal I have for this year.”
Last, but not least, a significant Pi success from this past year that demonstrated their effort to be involved in the community, and a source of pride for Greg, was the founding of a meetup group.
“Actually one thing we did put together this year is we put together a meetup group called Albuquerque gears and beers,” Greg said. “It’s been big. We’ve got like 325 people in our meetup now. We took a number of our riders to Santa Fe century this year. A number of our other riders did Enchanted Circle, which is a really hard century. It’s no joke. It’s 100 miles and it’s at like 8,000 (to) 9,000 feet. It’s hard.”
Those of you who have not had a chance to make it out to Pi Brewery, make it happen and give Greg some feedback on his beer. He will appreciate any constructive criticism. If you are a sour lover, then you might find a new favorite. If you have yet to find a sour that you liked, this might be the place where your luck changes.
Either way, you are bound to find something you like from the eight house beers on tap, plus do not forget about the selection of Italian entrees. We didn’t have much time to discuss the food, but I would be surprised to find someone who couldn’t pick out a pizza or pasta dish on the menu that fails to satisfy, or doesn’t match up well with a beer.
Thanks again to Greg for being a great host and we wish him, his wife Nicole, and Pi Brewing the best of luck in this upcoming year.