Turtle Mountain gets back in the game at long last

Posted: January 26, 2017 by Franz Solo in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2016-17
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After being stuck in place for the last three years, Turtle Mountain has big plans for 2017.

After being stuck in place for the last three years, Turtle Mountain has big plans for 2017.

Franz Solo here. At long last, I’ve had a chance to actually get to my remaining Look Back/Look Ahead Series articles. Life sometimes has other plans for you than you desire and that’s definitely a good bit of what kept these on the backburner. Without further ado, I was able to hang out with both head brewer Mick Hahn and owner Nico Ortiz for Turtle Mountain’s entry in the series for 2016-17. This is a bit of a tale of purgatorio and, with a bit of luck, the first steps towards a bit of paradiso in the year to come. I ended up doing this in two sessions, so first we will have my conversation with Mick and thereafter my time with Nico.

We began over a tray of most of the brews on tap, as I had not had many of them in a while. I wanted to get my feet wet with some of the possible differences in the beers stemming from the 2016 change in brewers at Turtle, when Mick came over from Marble to replace Tim Woodward, who is now with Bosque.

(Editor’s note: This interview was trimmed due to its length and because much of it relates to events in December. — S)

Solo: So, look back, look ahead, you were here for half of this past year?

Mick: Yeah, I was here for about half the year.

Solo: Are you making any big changes?

Mick: I don’t know if I’m making any big changes. There’s a couple beer lineup changes that are happening. We did get rid of the Oku Amber as a regular, and we’re bringing in the Red Rye Redux as a throwback nod to a classic style that was a staple of our house for a long time, and it was good to bring it back. We had one batch that sold out way too quickly, so I’ve got a double batch that I brewed last week and hopefully it stays on tap for a month or so. Since the Oku was our only gluten-reduced beer, the Red Rye is taking place of that. We’ve also stepped that up and have our cream ale, which is (now) gluten reduced. Right now we have two gluten-reduced beers and we’re looking to have at least three of them on at any given time.

Solo: Yeah, I can’t say that gluten-free beers have been my favorite in the past, but these are quite palatable and taste spot-on to the style.

Mick: So, really with the White Labs enzyme it doesn’t do much to the flavor of the beer, it just makes it palatable for those people who can’t handle the gluten. It’s worthwhile especially for a couple of beers or so.

Solo: So, I don’t actually know much about your brewing background at this point.

Mick: I worked at Marble for about three years prior to getting pulled up here. I started on the packaging line sorting bottles, and I was on the brewhouse for the last year and a half there. The one beer I got out while I was there under my own volition was the (Mick’s Mack), and so I brought that up here and have the McSmack as a nice secondary take on it.

Solo: Any particular stylistic things you want to do or are kind of your forte?

Mick: I’d say I haven’t been brewing long enough to have a forte. So, I’m really just going for everything that I do know how to brew, and have a few things that I’ve wanted to brew and haven’t yet had a chance to. I’m going to do a double-batch barleywine (He means Depravity, which is still on tap.) so that’ll be pretty good.

Since somebody forgot to take a picture with the interview, Mick was kind enough to send us a brewery selfie, which is really the only acceptable kind of selfie.

Head brewer Mick Hahn has not had too much of a hair-raising experience at TMBC.

After discussing other beers that are now available at TMBC, including the two red ales, we spoke about the Cocomilia Robur, the first brett beer that Mick has brewed.

Mick: Right now we’ve got a bit of a backup on specials. We’re not going to have anything go offline for four weeks, so this will be what we have for awhile. The first that will probably go out is the Cocomilia Robur, which is our brettanomyces plum cream ale that was aged nine months in our barrels, with the second generation of brett that those barrels have had. We then filled up those barrels each with something different, so they’re running two different projects right now. Hopefully this summer we will have two different beers that turn out and have some more funky brett.

Solo: (after a taste of the plum brett) I like that it’s actually a little milder than other sours I’ve had.

Mick: Yeah, it’s got a good bit of brett on the nose, but it’s not overly tart, it’s soft, it’s fruity, and you get a little bit of honey (and) a little bit of vanilla from wood. It’s a good beer. I’m really happy with how that turned out, even though I didn’t have a damn thing to do with the production of it. All I said was all right, it’s time to come out.

Another seasonal no longer on tap that I tried was the Rise of Fall, which was made with butternut squash instead of traditional pumpkin. If Mick goes through with some tweaks to the recipe this fall, he may enter it at the Great American Beer Festival.

Mick: Yeah, actually we did 50 pounds of butternut squash and roasted it in the wood-fired oven, and then threw that in the mash, and then did one pound of pumpkin spice. I’m pretty happy with that, but next year I want to up the butternut squash, and try and cut out the spice and see if we can get away with just a nice squash beer.

Solo: Sounds good to me.

Mick: They had the squash and yam beer category at GABF and they had just 10 entries into it.

Solo: So, is that something you’re aiming for?

Mick: If it’s that small of a category, why not? Especially given that they didn’t award a gold or a silver, they only awarded the bronze for it because other people put pumpkin spice in it. If we can get away with just doing butternut squash and have a solid beer that has a little creamy field flavor to it, I’d be happy with that. I’m happy with how that beer turned out. I was reluctant to do a pumpkin beer, but for an autumnal seasonal I think it’s a good one.

Solo: I like the change-up with the squash instead of pumpkin.

Mick: Yeah a lot of people use butternut squash in their pumpkin pies as a filler, which is good because pumpkin is a very overwhelming flavor. How many breweries have a wood fired oven so we have that opportunity to do it and why the hell would we not? The last two (samples) on the tray are our Hopshell (IPA) and our Cargill IPA. We tried some malt from a new distributor in Denver called Cargill, so that’s where that comes from. We gave an entirely different hop build to it. I’m really happy with where the Hopshell is at right now.

Solo: Agreed, this honestly has come a ways in the past couple of years. I know you pulled some better hop contracts in the past year so that is definitely paying off.

Mick: Tim left me with a lot of good hops. Hopshell has been selling out the past two batches, and I’ve gone from like three or four days from having it on tap between batches and they just keep selling faster and faster, which is an excellent problem to have.

Solo: What hops are you using in that one?

Mick: So, that one has got Columbus, Summit, Mosaic, Southern Cross, Comet, and Simcoe. And then, the dry hop is Simcoe, Mosaic, Comet.

Solo: Yeah definitely got that wonderful Simcoe/Mosaic balance going on there.

Mick: Most of the time I really feel that those two, especially Mosaic needs Simcoe (to) balance it. I think Simcoe can stand alone by itself pretty well, but Mosaic is such an intense hop and it leaves so much behind. And then this one (Cargill) has got Azacca, Mosaic, Equinox, Simcoe, and Citra. And then, dry hopped with Azacca, Simcoe, Citra.

Solo: “Kang” (yes that was my reaction, typical of a cornucopia of hops assaulting my pallet), good stuff man.

The winter beer lineup at Turtle Mountain has been strong. (Photo courtesy of TMBC)

The winter beer lineup at Turtle Mountain has been strong. (Photo courtesy of TMBC)

Mick: Yeah, I like it a lot, it just came out Friday. That’ll probably be the first one to go offline.

Solo: Yeah, I would say so. Spicy, piney, grapefruit, pineapple …

Mick: That one’s good. I think Cargill is really tasty. 7.3 percent on that one and 7.1 percent on our house IPA.

Solo: Which is right where you want to be.

Mick: Yeah I don’t want to have a house IPA that’s lower than 6.7 percent. Seven percent is a great place to keep it at.

Solo: Especially since you want to have a base that will hold up to massive amounts of hopping. Are you guys still looking to do more distribution?

Mick: We are still looking into it. It’s been a fun transition since me coming in here, but one of my plans is hopefully at the first of the year to get our beer pouring at at least half-a-dozen other places in town. I know there was a lot in the past that held that up, but I don’t see any reason for that to be the truth now.

Solo: Yeah, I kind of figured this would be a little bit of a slower year, just recovering from the fiasco that was the parking lot and the fire suppression system.

Mick: Yeah, so I’m ready to start pushing my beer. One of the things I wanted was to wait to get a solid lineup so that I know I can take this beer to a bar and say, hey this is what we have, this is what we’re going to be having, this is what you can expect from us without having to worry about having a significant change down the road. I wanted to make sure that the beers were something that I was proud of and would be happy taking door to door.

Solo: Did a bit of tweaking, I’m sure.

Mick: Yeah, for most of them. I really think the cream ale I haven’t really done anything with except for making it gluten free. The Helles I haven’t done anything with, but it’s actually leaving our lineup, this is its last batch for a while. I’ll probably do something next spring with it. We are bringing the Wooden Teeth up into a full time position. Yeah, I like the Wooden Teeth, it’s a good lager.

Solo: Yeah, it’s interesting seeing the shift now that craft lager is a thing.

Mick: I’m going to have an amber lager, a copper lager coming out in about a month. (Can’t Catch Me is now available.) I’ll be brewing that one this week, too. That’s the Cargill malt as well. That one got a fun all-German hopping, I got some Taurus off the spot market, so that was the base and then Hallertau Blanc and then Mittelfruh.

Solo: Do you think you are going to do anything a la the bottling you did a couple of years back at some point?

Mick: Absolutely, the (only) question is when. So, I would like to get to the point where we are bottling like twice, or three times a year, and doing some 22-(ounce bottles). Really the hard thing is we don’t have the space in here to do that most of the time. So, yeah, I’d really like to get some bottles out there, the question is what style as well. We need to make sure that we have something that’s worth putting into bottles. I mean, we also still have a case or case and a half left of the Wilde Jagd. Nico keeps talking about starting up canning as well, which we currently do not have a space for. But, that would take some changes to the set-up, but I have some ideas about how we might make that work. If we want to start pushing more beer outside these walls we need to step up our game.

Solo: So, about the same place we were last year around this time, we’re just one removed and aimed for the same goals?

Mick: Yeah, thankfully the switch over didn’t include too many steps backwards. I got to work with Tim for three weeks before he went to Bosque, so it was a good transition. I’m happy with it and I’m pretty sure he’s happy with it.

Now that this is done, it's time to move on to bigger and better things! (Photo courtesy of TMBC)

The parking lot was a drain on time and resources, but now the brewery can move forward. (Photo courtesy of TMBC)

With that we ended our conversation and I returned the following week to talk with Nico.

Solo: All righty, another Look Back/Look Ahead, here we are.

Nico: Look back, man, 2016 was a good year in some respects, not as good as Boxing Bear’s year, but the good year had nothing to do with the brewery, so to speak. We didn’t win any awards, we did a lot of major upgrades to the brewery that were sort of delayed maintenance projects that will enable Nick and Evan to more easily make better beer. So, that was positive. It’s not glamorous, it didn’t win any medals, there’s no accolades for that, and it’s going to cost money instead of make money. The big thing for 2016 was our parking lot. That was just a ridiculously large project. It was $350,000 that I could have spent any number of ways that would have made me happier and would have actually generated money. I did not have a choice in this matter so that’s sort of, while everyone else here was opening taprooms, that hobbled me and did not allow me to open up a taproom.

So, looking back, I’m glad it got done, but I’m also pretty upset that Turtle has not had the ability to utilize any of its taproom licenses thus far. But, in 2017, we’re hoping that’s going to change. So, looking back is not so important as the looking forwards. Looking forwards to 2017, I’m going to put in for our wholesaler’s license. We fought so hard two years ago to get that distributor’s license for restaurant breweries, you know for Rod (Tweet of Second Street), for me, for anybody that has that beer and wine license attached to their business. And, we got that through and I had thought about putting in for the license right away, but then Tim told me, well, it’s not just the license, it’s the cooperage, it’s a delivery vehicle, it’s another staffed person. If you want to actually, honestly distribute beer, it’s expensive, and so that obviously got back-burnered while we had that parking lot issue.

I want to at least be able to take our beer in draft form to local accounts. I’m not talking about citywide distribution or anything, well, maybe Rio Rancho citywide, but not metro city wide. At least be able to have the license, that way I get it and all I have to do is renew it, because everybody and their brother is distributing now, so I need to be able to stay on even par. It’s going to mean some minimal cooperage. I don’t know if we’re going to justify a delivery vehicle, but that’s definitely on the plans for 2017 as well as a taproom, utilizing one of our taproom licenses. We haven’t figured out where, we have a few ideas in mind, but we have three of them (licenses), and for restaurant breweries that’s the way you generate money.

Beer is the highest margin product that we sell. (In) the restaurant business, the food service is only getting more expensive and more complicated. The beer business continues to be actually more fun to be a part of, so that’s kind of where we’re looking is none of this restaurant stuff small footprint, probably going to have a pizza oven because Turtle, just like Nexus, is tied to its food. So, the curse of having been a restaurant brewery for 18 years is that everybody associates the pizza and the beer. They don’t look at either without the other. I actually don’t have a problem with putting in a pizza oven, but we’re not going to be doing any kind of a massive footprint place like this. I’ve been to most of the taprooms, the little Canteen taproom up in the heights, I like something like that — small, maybe (room for) 50 or 60 people, 70 people, something modest. It isn’t a big deal to stick a pizza oven in the back, something modest, and just do that. It’s where you start talking about massive coolers and hoods and things like that. Probably most of the prep work for this will be the first half of 2017, sometime in the second half of 2017 we may start to see a lot of this stuff come to fruition.

Solo: Amen to all of the above. If anyone deserves to have a streak of success and good luck it is assuredly Turtle. I, for one, am stoked at the prospect of a Turtle taproom/pizza oven combination, combined with distribution and the delicious results of good hop contracts and good house beer changes and creations.

Nico: I hated to be on the sidelines for the last three years. The whole parking lot started in 2014 and now we’re at the end of 2016. So, for all of 2014, 15 and 16 I’ve had to be on the sidelines. And, that has not made me happy. However, it certainly has enabled me to take a closer look at the market and everything that has been going on, and seeing where people are looking, and seeing what quality of beer is out there. It’s enabled me to gather a lot of intel, I’d rather benefit from other people’s successes and or failures than actually the first one who’s out the gate. For that reason, we’re somewhat happy. Things haven’t changed that much.

Getting Turtle Mountain tap handles at other locations is a priority for 2017. (Photo courtesy of TMBC)

Getting Turtle Mountain tap handles at other locations is a priority for 2017. (Photo courtesy of TMBC)

Solo: Overall, the market has not changed much and this is about what I had figured, considering what you have gone through in the last several years.

Nico: If you look at Second Street, too, Second Street turned 20 (in December) and Rod, they opened up the taproom downtown, which was four or five years ago. But, it took them, they’re 20 years old and they’re now just getting ready to expand. Whereas if you look at somebody like Marble and La Cumbre, six years old they’re already where Rod is 20 years down the road. So, the first 10 years of our life was spent in a market that was not like it is now. The last 10 years, well, probably since Marble came around really (in 2008), that right there is probably the resurgence and the point zero of the current beer market. When Marble opened up, that was point zero, so you have to look at everything since that time.

The fact that we’re still open after 18 years come March is great, but we need to leverage that and we need to make sure that people come out here. There’s still a lot of people here in Albuquerque, I saw there’s a trolley doing a tour of breweries downtown, there’s a lot of breweries downtown, but no trolley is ever going to come out to Rio Rancho. Even Justin (Hamilton of Boxing Bear) down the hill, he’s in Albuquerque so you could hit Alameda and do Boxing Bear and Bosque, but you don’t just come bend up the hill to come to Rio Rancho. So, we’re still after 18 years kind of the hinterlands, the outpost. Which is fine, we do well out here and if you want to come out here, you’ll find a way. We’re not that far away from Albuquerque.

Solo: Not a far drive at all given what we Burqueñas and Burqueños are used to, and well worth it, in my humble opinion. Turtle is a great joint for a pint, a pint and a pizza, hockey (only if the Pens are playing, ha!), soccer, and all the other good sports. The addition of the parking lot has made a world of a difference. Gone are the days of worrying about backing up into that blasted circular wall or finding that cherished striped spot. In the lap of luxury we house our steeled steeds, and drink we will of Mick’s fine brews.

Nico: I’m happy to see Flix Brewhouse opening up. The west side has always been sort of dry. I mean there’s 250,000 people that live on this side of town and there’s precious few breweries on this side of the river, so that’s where we’re looking. So, we’re not looking on the other side of the river for expansion just yet. I mean, we still have a few people from the (northeast) heights coming over here, but just as much as I don’t like crossing the river to their side, they don’t like crossing over here to my side. It’s that psychological barrier. So, we’re going to stick to our side of town. We have a few ideas as far as where we’re going to go. Definitely look for Turtle Mountain to do something in the second half of 2017.

Mick and Evan have been having fun with the beers in the back. Our minimal barrel aging program still (continues); we have our brett plum ale on now. We will be continuing on with that. He’s crafting new recipes and I kind of give him wide latitude to do what he wants back there. The other impetus for some minimal distribution and a taproom is that it gets frustrating with having 13 serving tanks in the back, but we only have one place to sell the beer.

Look for more new and innovative seasonals this year. (Photo courtesy of TMBC)

Look for more new and innovative seasonals this year. (Photo courtesy of TMBC)

Solo: Yeah, and he (Mick) was explaining the same thing — I might have all this stuff ready to go, but until something kicks, I have no space to put it.

Nico: We have 13 taps and if a beer is really really good, but doesn’t sell all that quickly, it sits back there and takes up a tank from a beer that would otherwise be able to sell really quickly. If we can keg it down and take it offsite, then we could actually put it on tap either at an offsite account or at a taproom. It would enable more throughput of the beer and more throughput generates more money, which enables us to add more infrastructure into the brewery, and anybody that has taprooms understands that. The brewery itself is a lot of fun in terms of Mick gets to order grain and hops, Tim got them (hop contracts) in place, and now Mick is benefiting from it.

Solo: Definitely, and I remember exactly talking to Tim and saying, OK, so you’ve got this on line, this on line, this on line, and then that’s going into your Hopshell, your other specialties, and it’s fantastic.

Nico: We got the Mosaic, we got the Citra, we got some of the hard-to-find hops and the contracts are solid. So, Mick now actually has … you know the tough thing about tweaking recipes is that well Tim was constantly having to modify recipes based on the hops we had available. It’s a little hard though once you find a sweet spot, if your hop contract runs out, and you don’t have that kind of hop, well then, you’ve got to modify the recipe. In a brewpub environment it’s not that bad because certain minimal changes to recipes are expected, but if you’re going to can it and put it out on the market you need to have that consistency. We’ve definitely benefited from consistency as a restaurant-brewery. We never really had house beers before Tim came on, so we’ve modified them a little bit, but five of the six beers that Tim developed are still here. We are still tweaking and we will continue to have those. At some point in the future I would consider canning, but it is getting awfully crowded out there, and New Mexico still does not have that many people, and the shelves are getting crowded with beers.

Solo: Left and right, you know, people are coming in every day. We’ve got Great Divide coming down, we’ve got everything else coming in. Shelf space is at a premium and getting filled with lots of really good offerings and a fair number of equally subpar offerings.

Nico: Oh, yeah, there’s going to be some sort of shakeout where you have a whole bunch of beer vying for the same spaces. I’d rather do taprooms, max out my taprooms, and get the $5 pint type of a thing than I would invest in a $100,000 canning line and a big ol’ facility. It is nice, but a lot of it is glory and ego. There is a lot of marketing to it, but I also don’t have a 30-barrel brewhouse.

You get that catch-22 of you need to have the money to invest in the infrastructure in order to make the beer, but the sale of the beer is the stuff that generates the money to invest in the infrastructure, but you can’t sell the beer unless you have the infrastructure you need to make the beer to sell the beer. And, you start chasing your tail like this. That’s the curse of this business is you have to have a ready source of capital and if you have to wait until it comes from operations it takes you time.

As far as 2017 goes we got a lot of the burden off of our shoulders (already). We’re busy paying off some stuff, capital will free up during the year, so that we can finally actually make some strides. We are looking forward to it. Finally, after what amounted to being in orbit without doing anything for three years, we’re finally going to leave orbit and take off and continue our 18-year mission to explore strange new business adventures and such. We were in orbit for three years and it broke my heart to see all of these people doing all of this expansion, and all of this stuff, and my hands were tied and it was frustrating. But, it also meant that I couldn’t make any mistakes or rash decisions.

This has been well thought out over three years. I think we certainly have all of the raw materials we need. We have the excess capacity in the system. We (still) have to get some new cooperage. We have to do a little more work in the brewery, but we have the ability to easily service one taproom, probably two, with the given system that we’ve got. I know Mick would love to have more throughput on the beer so he can make more beer. We’re bottlenecked by how quickly the beer sells, and if we weren’t necessarily bottlenecked by that we could have more styles on tap. Mick could go in new and different directions. It’s finally just exciting to not be stuck and not have to worry about watching from the sidelines, to be able to be back in the game.

* * * * *

With that we end another edition of Look Back/Look Ahead for Turtle Mountain. Here’s to a successful mission to explore new potential taprooms, and hopefully the subsequent advent of even more delightful brews by extension. May the coming months ring true for these well thought out plans as we west-side beer aficionados would love to see more successful ventures in our neck of the woods.

Prost!

— Franz Solo

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