The Look Back/Look Ahead series continues to roll with a look at Santa Fe’s newest brewery, Rowley Farmhouse Ales (RFA). Though the brewery is new to the industry, the owners and partners certainly are not, and that’s why their first year went as well as it did, and why this year, and subsequent years, will be better yet.
As if I needed another excuse to stop in at one of my favorite local craft beer spots, I recently made the easy turn off of the newly construction-free Cerrillos Road (Really? Finally?! THANK GOD! — S), onto the quiet Maclovia St., to sit down with John Rowley and Jeffrey Kaplan to find out how Rowley Farmhouse Ales’ first year fared, and take glimpse into what they’ve got brewing for 2017. We grabbed some of Rowley’s creations, and made our way out to their patio, which is their main dining real estate. It was unseasonably warm, for a winter evening, but that was more thanks to RFA’s efforts to winterize their patio, than Mother Nature’s mercy.
DSBC: How long have you guys officially been open?
Rowley: We’ve only been open for about four months.
DSBC: How has it been so far?
Rowley: It’s been a good four months. We made a lot of beer. Business is good. I think the weather’s been fairly cooperative. It hasn’t been a ‘Minnesota winter.’ (Laughs)
DSBC: No, it hasn’t. But, actually, it’s really nice out here. What have you guys done to make your customers more comfortable out here during the winter?
Rowley: Well, we got rid of the sail-shades. We’ve covered the space as best we can (with large tents), and added the heaters. And, it’s fairly comfortable, right now.
DSBC: You don’t even need a hoodie out here.
Rowley: Yeah, you could get by with a T-shirt out here, as long as the weather stays mild.
DSBC: That’s quite an accomplishment. Speaking of which, what were some of the big moments for you guys, in 2016? Opening had to be a big one.
Rowley: Getting open was a big push for us. It took a long time. We’ve been working on this project for a year-and-a-half. Not to mention, the time I spent before that with Solar Steve, working on it. It’s been a while. This has been a long time coming.
DSBC: Starting as a homebrewer, how has it been to open up a brewery?
Rowley: Personally, I know there’s a lot of hesitancy for homebrewers going pro, because it’s a big step up. (As a homebrewer) you might not feel like brewing on a day you have to brew, just to keep the pipeline full. But, that’s been a lot of fun for us. We’ve been experimenting a lot with our 1-barrel set-up, trying to get beers out that are exciting, beers we want to brew, that we think people are going to like. I know what I want to brew in the barrels; I’ve had a good feeling for that. I’ve had good ideas there, and I think that’s fine. It hasn’t always been an easy transition, but we have to do it. It’s an expensive process. I have to source barrels. I have to brew barrels. I’ve got to get a lot of barrels. I only have a handful of barrels right now. We actually have a fair amount.
Kaplan: About 20ish?
Rowley: In (the cellar) there are 13 barrels that are filled. We have six more that are not, that we will fill soon, and then we have four more that are coming. And, there’s that Oud Bruin barrel, too. So, yeah, we probably have about 20ish. A little over 20, but our goal is to have a lot more than that.
DSBC: It’s a process getting something like this going. Not an easy thing to do.
Rowley: Yeah, it wasn’t easy, but we trudged through it. We had a lot of help from our friends, and from our family.
DSBC: I’m sure it was a very rewarding process as well. What was it like when the (7-barrel) brewhouse showed up?
Rowley: It felt really good. We got it from Canteen, bought it from them, and we’ve been working since then, to get everything worked out. Of course, there’s been a lot of little bugs here and there. They basically took all of the stuff we needed off of it. They took the burner away. They took the platform. There have been a lot of little things we’ve had to sort out. But, right now, we’re in really good shape. We’ve done three batches on it, and we’re pretty comfortable with how it’s working and what we need to do. We’ve made a little tiny mistake here, and a little tiny mistake there, but nothing that’s going to hurt the beer. If it did, we’d just dump it.
DSBC: What was it like getting all of those machines finally running?
Rowley: It was a pain in the ass. (Laughs) There was a lot of work. It was more of a nuisance than trouble. It’s just jumping through these hoops. It takes a long time. You’ve got to fix this thing, and then you’ve got to fix that thing. It’s just not something you can do in a day. It took us months to get that done.
DSBC: Must have been a bit of a learning curve on the new system. There always is.
Rowley: There is still a learning curve, but we’re getting it.
DSBC: And, on the new system, you’ll be making more beer.
Rowley: We were doing 1-barrel batches on the smaller system, so we were getting about two half-barrels at a time. That system was a lot more work. You don’t have the ‘clean-in-place.’ You have pumps and stuff, but it’s still manual labor to set it up and clean it and do all the things you have to do, whereas, the big system is kind of a treat, actually. The new system is not as much work, well, you’re basically doing the same amount of work, but you’re getting seven times more beer out of it.
Kaplan: From what I’ve seen, just from the three batches that you’ve done, from the first batch through the third batch, you’re 25- (to) 30-percent faster. They’ve shaved hours off the brew time, just from the first batch to the last batch.
DSBC: And, I’ll bet it’ll get better with time. How will things change for brewing this year?
Rowley: We’re going to focus more on the big system, less on the little system. The little system will stick around. We’re still going to do some stuff on it, you know, those one-off batches that’ll be like a Saturday beer, something we’ll release in a smaller volume. Or, if we have a new recipe that we want to suss out a little bit, we’ll do it on that.
DSBC: Speaking of recipes, Jeff, I’d like to talk to you a little bit about what’s going on in the kitchen. You started out as a silent partner of John’s, how was the transition into head chef at the brewery?
Kaplan: It’s been a lot of fun. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I was mostly silent, because, as a small town, I had to keep my (other) job. I probably would have been fired the moment they heard I was going to leave in six months to be at a brewery. We’re still working a lot to get to that point from when we incorporated a year and a half, two years ago now, but it’s been a lot of fun, a lot of hard work. I’m here close to 14 hours a day, six days a week, so there’s a lot going on. I drink a lot of coffee, but it’s been great.
DSBC: Probably a lot more beer too, right?
Kaplan: It’s not a lot more beer. I’m drinking beer earlier in the day, as our house policy for cleaning our system is we clean our draft lines after every single keg blows. I do that in the morning. So, every time a keg goes during a shift, we don’t put on a new beer, until the next day. So, the next morning, before any staff or guests show up, I clean all the lines that have been blown from the night before. I don’t want to break out caustic and chemicals with all these people around. Well, when you put a new beer on, you have to test it to make sure it’s okay.
DSBC: Have to keep up the quality control.
There hasn’t been a shortage of new beers to try. For the past four months, they’ve kept their promise of keeping the taps fresh and interesting.
Rowley: We haven’t really put on the same beer, much, and we definitely haven’t had the same beer back-to-back.
Kaplan: We’ve had a few beers repeat, but never back-to-back.
Rowley: It’s part of our philosophy. We want to keep it mixed up. We want to keep bringing in the best beer we can get. And, that doesn’t always mean New Mexico beer, though we do try to keep a good selection of New Mexico beer on, but we do have the restaurant license, so that we can pour out-of-state beer, and that’s important to us.
DSBC: And, without the restaurant license, you couldn’t do that.
DSBC: So, this year, one of your highlights, then, was being able to pick and choose your rotating taps at will. What have you guys done, for the fella stopping in who just wants a cheap cold one?
Rowley: We’ve tried to keep it balanced. We’re kind of a boutique place. We’re kind of shooting for a little higher-end, but we don’t want to ignore the lower-end, too.
Kaplan: Stylistically, there are a lot of people in New Mexico that like pilsners, that like their light American lagers, so we keep a dedicated pilsner handle on. Now, that’s not going to be PBR or Bud Light, but Marble makes a nice pilsner; Bosque makes a nice lager. And, we get good stuff in the state, beyond what’s produced here, and we rotate through those items.
DSBC: Briefly, I want to talk about your beers and who’s brewing them. John, I know you can’t always be here. You’re up at the labs still.
Rowley: We have Jami (Nordby) working here, full-time. He’s been fantastic.
Formerly, Nordby was the owner and operator of the Homebrew Supply here in Santa Fe, a huge resource to the local homebrew club. He recently sold the shop for a bit of a change of pace, friends said.
Rowley: He’s such a solid (guy). We saw the opportunity to hire him, so we did. He’s done so much good work for us.
Kaplan: Beyond that, just working and doing stuff, when the wind picks up and we have trouble with these tents, he’s out here helping break them down. He’s like a jackal; he’s MacGyver! He’s a great guy, and a great resource.
Rowley: He’s been a big help for us. He’s our head brewer.
DSBC: How about Tyler King? I know he does a lot for you guys.
Rowley: He’s been here every weekend, painting, building this stuff, unwrapping this shit. Tyler’s been with us from the beginning. I offered him a job as an assistant brewer, a long time ago. It was kind of something he wanted to do. He’s a good homebrewer. I think he’s going to be a great brewer. His skills are moving up.
DSBC: And, so he’ll be someone who makes decisions here in the future about what sort of beers are going to be brewed.
Rowley: Yeah, he’s part of the team.
Kaplan: Core team. Absolutely!
Rowley: I told Tyler, if he’s got some ideas to spit them out. I don’t want him to bottle them up. So, yeah!
DSBC: A long time ago we mentioned that the beers brewed here at Rowley Farmhouse Ales were not going to be the usual lineup of familiar mugs. You were going to do your own take. Let’s talk about the beers you made last year, and where you’re going from there.
Rowley: We’ve done about 20 different beers on the smaller system, and three now, on the big system. We’re going to experiment with four or so, core beers. We’re going to be brewing those in stainless steel, and they won’t be barrel-aged. They’ll just be draft beer we can turn around. We’re going to try to push some of that out into the marketplace.
We’re working with a distributor to set that up. But, I won’t talk about all that just yet. We have two of the four batches fermenting. The following week we’ll be doing the next two beers. In between those, Tyler and I will be brewing beers on the small batch on Saturdays. And, we’ll squeeze in some bigger beers for barrel aging, because we definitely need to have more beer in the basement.
In 2017, their beers will include a Rye Saison, named “Fields of Rye,” an East Coast IPA called “Agent Scully,” because it has a bit of ginger in it. There will be a straight-to-the-point Berliner Weisse, as of yet unnamed, and another Berliner Weisse with Brett and unmalted organic Sonoran white wheat currently named “Ab Initio.” They’ll also have a dry-hopped, Brett-spelt Saison, which will be more hoppy than one might expect, while still remaining a Brett Saison. Their list of beers certainly won’t be limited to a set of cores and seasonals, as John mentioned, they’ll continue to push out smaller one-offs as they get brewed.
DSBC: Jeff, really quickly, over the past four months, I’ve seen your menu evolve, keeping some items, and losing others. Will the menu rotate like the tap list?
Kaplan: We had a menu change about two weeks ago. We kept some core items, and kind of ‘winterized’ the menu. I took off some cold dishes, put on some warm dishes. My plan is to change 25 to 35 percent of the menu per season, and keep it evolving all the time. The food that we get, fresh, from the farmer’s market, is cyclical, so what we make is based on what’s fresh and available at the time. The vegetables in our dishes will change based on what we get every Saturday from the farmer’s market.
DSBC: Rowley Farmhouse Ales has become a great place for dinner, as a result. This past year, you guys have done some pretty cool beer dinners, one recently with the Cheesemongers of Santa Fe. How was that?
Rowley: That was great! That was a good time. I think that was a well-received event. Everyone had a good time. I didn’t really know what to expect going into it.
Kaplan: There were 33 people here.
Rowley: We packed it in (the brewhouse). I don’t know how we’re going to do that again, unless we tear all the shit out.
DSBC: In 2017, will you guys be doing more beer dinners like that? Will you host more events like special tap takeovers with Ballast Point, such as you had last year?
Rowley: We’ll definitely be doing more fun stuff like that. We’re all for that.
One thing they’ve done regularly at Rowley Farmhouse Ales in 2016, which will continue through 2017 and beyond, is their Pulls for Puppies program. This program donates $1 of each glass of the designated tap to a new non-profit organization which switches quarterly. In their first quarter, they raised almost $2,500 for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society. This quarter, they’re benefiting NMDog, an all-volunteer rescue service, working to end chaining up dogs outside.
DSBC: Sounds like you’re definitely giving us plenty of reasons to keep coming back. What would you guys like to say to the folks out there, anyone who maybe hasn’t been in yet to hang out at this unique spot?
Rowley: I would say, come on out, and we’ll show you a good time. We’ve got a great selection of beer, and we work hard to bring the best beer to the state. We want everyone to enjoy it as much as we do.
Kaplan: I really want to thank everybody that’s been supporting us so far, all the guests that have come in, from the local neighborhood in Santa Fe, and the people from Albuquerque who have come up to check us out. We’ve had a lot of community support, and it’s been great! We couldn’t do it without all the customers, friends, and family. And, beer-wise, we have some special stuff coming for you guys, so check us out if you haven’t yet.
Rowley Farmhouse Ales may be Santa Fe’s youngest brewery, but that by no means makes them a green beer, too young to gauge its quality. Not at all. They may have only been on the scene since September, but it’s already evident that they bring years of beer and food experience to the table. Actually they bring it to their table, nightly, and that’s reason to go back, again and again.
In fact, they have a calendar they fill up with special beers they’re saving just for the right day. Every Wednesday they tap a new beer at 4 p.m., making it feel like a weekly rare bottle share with friends who know their beer, and as an added bonus, those friends bring the fresh food to go with the brews. From those I’ve spoken to about this space, Rowley has already locked themselves into the hearts and minds of craft beer enthusiasts for miles around (as evidenced by their huge line at WinterBrew), and with little luck needed, they’ll continue to be that rare gastropub experience Santa Fe has been looking for, filling that too-often, just-missed niche.
RFA is a brewer’s brewery, a hangout for true beer geeks, created and carefully curated by beer geeks. As Kaplan said, “We wanted a place that we’d want to go to.” And, since they couldn’t find one locally, they made one. To making it, and making it count.
For more @nmdarksidebc info and #CraftBeer news, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro