Back to the front: A tale of Chama River

Posted: December 22, 2016 by Franz Solo in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2016-17
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If they can stuff that many bicycles under the grain silo, surely they can find more room inside for barrels. (Photo courtesy of Chama River)

It was another solid year for one of the oldest breweries in town. (Photo courtesy of Chama River)

Editor’s note: Franz Solo did a slew of interviews in recent weeks for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series. Then it was just a matter of finding the time to transcribe and type them up. With the briefest of openings in his schedule, he was able to complete Chama River’s entry. Look for his stories on Boxing Bear, Quarter Celtic, and Turtle Mountain in January. — S

A simply delectable Monday afternoon brought me back to old haunts just east of the northern Rio Grande valley, which nurtured and crystallized this entity which am I here and now. Chama River was, in fact, the first craft brewery I ever ordered a flight from back in the day when Chama was under the Blue Corn label and I was a student up in Santa Fe. How much has changed in what seems like a heartbeat? I was privileged to enjoy a pint of dunkelweisen in the company of head brewer Andrew Krosche.

Andrew: So, to look back, I’d say we had a really awesome year. We updated and changed our facility to try and bring our beers up to a modern market. Most of my time has been spent in rebuilding the facility one piece at a time, upgrading parts. So, that’s been really fun. It is nice to see where we were and compare it to now. We have gone leaps and bounds. I’m at just a few really large purchase items, all the little upkeep and the parts and the upgrades are there. I’ve pretty much handled all of them. It will just take a few months to get the few big-ticket items, which will be great.

Solo: What are you looking to get as far as big-ticket items?

Andrew: I’d like to upgrade our chiller (wort chiller for the uninitiated – Solo) and I want to redo our draft system.

Solo: All of the above would definitely help. How long has the draft system been in?

Andrew: Honestly, I don’t know. So, we are waiting for the funds and the proper timing and I’m hoping we can do it. It’s getting very positive feedback from corporate, so I feel that it is something in the immediate future.

Solo: It is nice to see a bit of a turnaround from the past, having these same beers (with only minor discernible changes) on tap, when now you have a bit more freedom.

Andrew: It’s awesome, it is almost 100-percent mine. Unless I want to literally take a beer off of the house menu, I really don’t need approval for the changes. Which (the house beers) I don’t mind, I like the group of six. So, all I really did was, on the other side of looking back, I kind of re-formatted the recipes to bring them to a more competitive modern market. So, I kept the styles, kept the names, I just made them a lot more aggressive and with bigger flavors.

Solo: Which is exactly what a lot of us are wanting these days.

Andrew: So, it’s especially one of those things looking back when people say, ‘Well, you only have two specials on? No! Try the house beers! Those are my specials!’ You know, that’s a year’s worth of a project. And, I’m really happy with them. There’s one or two that I’m still tweaking here and there, but there’s four for sure that are locked down and I love the way they are coming along.

Solo: That’s good to hear, it’s been a while coming for sure.

Andrew: Yeah, and like I said, corporate has been very happy, likes the results that I’ve been pulling. The relationship is awesome. I know there has been some history (with other brewers), but I have nothing but good things to say about the relationship I’m having with them.

Brewer Andrew Krosche has taken the reins at Chama River.

Andrew has spent much of this year upgrading the equipment around the brewery.

Solo: Plans for the coming year?

Andrew: The coming year there are two immediate ones, something I did work on some months back but, they’re aging. In January, I will be releasing our big winter release, it’s going to be an imperial Baltic porter on oak. It’s been probably aged on oak spirals for four months now.

Solo: That should impart some good flavor, for sure.

Andrew: Yeah, 10-percent (ABV), solid, it’s really good and I’m loving it. It has already happened.

Solo: Nice and smooth?

Andrew: It is incredibly creamy, black as night. It is very fudge-y, and then it’s got this nice, sharp, black cherry to it on the back. And, obviously you are going to have that warming feeling from the alcohol, and then the oak is going to bring in some vanilla. It’s actually kind of funny, you know, I wanted to do an imperial stout and I said, ‘You know what? Everyone has got a winter imperial stout, so maybe I’ll do an imperial porter.’ And then, everyone is doing a porter this year, so it’s like, ah, you know, whatever. It is my first Baltic porter as well, so it was very exciting to see it come to fruition in a very positive way.

Solo: Yeah, it’s the Russian imperial of lagers. So, what else did you have in barrels?

Andrew: So, in February, which is the other project, that one will have been eight months in the barrels. I will have the heavy cream ale in tequila barrels. I tasted them a few months behind and I said I want to put this out, but you know what, let’s give this that extra four, that’s going to be twice as good. So, that’s turning out really nice too.

Solo: Any other major plans for the year?

Andrew: For the year brew-wise, mainly working towards improving some of the house beers. I’m looking to definitely improve my results from the IPA Challenge, which was not the best (Chama did not qualify for the final rounds). I wasn’t really happy what had come out, but you know, hey, I thought the beer was solid, but I obviously wasn’t aggressive enough. So, I’ve taken that and I’ve put a lot of effort into creating a really big, competitive, double IPA. I will probably be brewing my next version since the IPA Challenge maybe the end of this month. So, it should be something to come out maybe in February, end of (January), we will see. I’m looking forward to that. I’ve learned a lot since then from changing the Jackalope, so I’m feeling very confident about this new whack at the double IPA.

Solo: Always improving, that’s all you can do.

Andrew: I was really happy with some of our lager specials this past year, so once we get further into the year, your traditional maibocks and your Oktoberfests, that kind of stuff, I’m really enjoying those, so I will absolutely continue with those.

Solo: I for one love having these craft lagers everywhere, it’s amazing.

Andrew: I’m one of the few who has the facility to do it, so I’m going to do a lot of them. That’s one of my focuses, actually. I love lagers and they are fun, and so we will absolutely do it. We will also bring back a winter kettle sour. I’ve heard a lot of people asking and we just haven’t had time, because we were like mad men trying to keep up with the demand of our Draft Stations. And, with Kellys also pulling, it’s also another big account, so I want to take care of us before I start trying to push the envelope. But, after this week we are going to be so incredibly caught up and routine is solid that I’ll be able to do a kettle sour and sacrifice the two days to make sure that it is done right. I think there will definitely be a winter style göse, and then maybe some sort of winter warmer kind of thing.

Solo: Anything else for this year?

Andrew: You know, I’m not sure. We’ve done so much this past year, so I don’t know what we have planned for the future.

Solo: Kind of keeping on keeping on?

Andrew: I’d like to expand distribution. I’ve got new tap handles, not the old ones, brand new with a totally new design, (which is) something else I’ve been working on. So, when those come in is when I’ll start hitting more of the market, hoping to have Chama as a competitor, something people can see in bars, and I’d like that. So, I’ll definitely be focusing there. I think that’s really my big one for the future is increase in market, increase in distribution, and, uh, grab that double IPA.

The stouts at Chama were top-notch in 2015.

The more dark, heavy, winter beers, the merrier the Crew will be!

Solo: And then, we have our Stout Challenge again this year. (Chama River won the last one.)

Andrew: I love brewing stouts and it’s one of my favorites. And, the stout that’s on right now is just ridiculous. (Agreed, get Sleeping Dog either on nitro or standard, it is excellent all around. – Solo) So, that’s one of our dialed in recipes that I hit just after we came back from GABF. So, this is the brew right after I submitted and I went ah, I wish.

Solo: So, try it again next time.

Andrew: Yeah, no big deal.

Solo: Throw in some lagers that you have and ah.

Andrew: I did compete with a rye maibock, I sent that one in aged six months, went on to the final round, but there were better examples. Honestly, after drinking it because I kept a whole bunch of spares to taste it, I looked at the notes and across the board I know exactly where we fell short. So, I feel incredibly positive and confident about it for next year.

Solo: That’s awesome. If you can’t learn something from your batches, then you’re doing something wrong.

* * * * *

For Chama this was a year of overall improvement of house beers across the board, married to upgrades and improvements aimed at thrusting Chama River back into the current fray, so to speak. I urge you, my beer-drinking, blog-reading aficionados, to head out and give these brews a fresh tasting, which I hope will be as worth your while as it has been mine. I for one look forward to the coming year for Chama, from the forthcoming Baltic porter to the double IPA to the tequila cream ale, something surely for each and every discerning palate. I’m definitely a lover of all things lager when done right, and so far Andrew has hit the mark far more often than not. So, when you chance to head out to see the latest glorious entry into the Star Wars saga or by whatever winter wind may draw you Chama’s way, enjoy the fruits of a long and hard year’s work, for the proof is in the pint.

Prost!

— Franz Solo

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