Monastic brewing tradition finds new home at the Corner

Thomas Baxter, an actual monk from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, is often serving beers at Monks' Corner downtown.
Thomas Baxter, an actual monk from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, is often serving beers at Monks’ Corner downtown.

I recently visited Monks’ Corner Taproom for my final contribution to this year’s Look Back/Look Ahead Series. It seemed fitting to finish at the new taproom location for Abbey Brewing, which likely is tied more closely to centuries old brewing traditions than any other New Mexico brewery. General manager Chris Pacheco was kind enough to sit down with me on a late Friday afternoon and do two of my favorite things — talk about beer and drink beer.

“We did a soft opening on September 29, and then our first day of business was October 5,” Chris said. “So it was kind of a lot just trying to put everything together and make sure that everything was in order. But, it was fun.

“I came on about a month before. I gave my month notice at Chama River, and in the interim time I was kinda spending time both at Chama doing my shifts, and coming (here) trying to hire staff, order cleaning supplies, organize glassware, as well as making sure all of the permits were in hand. It wasn’t just me, though. Thomas Baxter was on a little bit before me. He’s a monk from the Monastery (of Christ in the Desert), actually. He took a year sabbatical to come work with us.”

Wait, what? Is there really a monk working at the taproom?

“A lot of first timers will come in and one of their first question’s is, ‘Are their real monks?’ and a lot of the time Tom is here and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m one of the monks from the monastery,’ and that kinda throws them off,” Chris said. “So, there are real monks. Even on the packaging of the beer they are all real monks. If you look at the box it will say the monk’s (actual) name. It brings the story back up front. We get a lot of questions about that. It’s kind of cool. It’s definitely very different … a different kind of model to work with. It makes it interesting and fun but that was also part of the reason why it was easy to buy into it … because of the story.”

It was only a few minutes into our discussion that I sensed Chris’ genuine respect for the tradition that is the foundation of Abbey Brewing. It runs deeper than the name and the brand, and it doesn’t just represent something, it is something. It’s not something that can be described in writing, but rather something that is felt, experienced, lived. Chris described visiting the monastery, near Abiquiu, as a part of employee training.

“It’s definitely an eye-opening thing for a lot of us,” he said. “You have a preconceived notion of what a monastery is going to be. You have some great people with great senses of humor. It’s definitely a reverent place, but they are normal people. We did a day trip. It’s really, really cool. Everyone seemed to kind of get a better sense of what the business is about. It’s not just a taproom. There was something behind it … that was bigger. It went back to a tradition of monastic brewing, and European-style monastic brewing. Not necessarily location-wise here, but with our beer and what we are doing. It definitely taps into that culture of your tradition.”

The Monks’ touch extends beyond the monastery and directly into the taproom, but in more ways than just the beer. It’s part of the expectations for the staff.

“Some of our employee handbook goes back and forth with the Benedictine traditions,” Chris said. “Hospitality is one of the most important things to them and we try to bring that into our environment. Hospitality, quality, and treating everybody fairly is one of the biggest things. We are as accommodating as we can be with everyone until it becomes an issue of safety.”

There was also an effort to incorporate the visible features of the Abiquiu area into the taproom.

“The design of the taproom really has that in mind in terms of the color scheme,” Chris said. “It’s all based on one of the photographs that’s in the back, which is the Chama River Canyon, and it was a nice thing to learn that the color scheme was built around a photo that was taken on the way to the monastery. It’s all trying to tie in to going back to the monastery where it started from.”

Chris reminded me that some of the beer uses hops from the monastery.

“They grow their own hops … and we’re working on a Tripel Reserve right now,” Chris said. “And, if we do any brew that has a reserve title that means they use our local hops. We have to go to the open market like everyone else for most of the other hops.”

There will be a special release party today (Tuesday) at the taproom for the Tripel Reserve. It will run from 6 to 10 p.m. and also feature live art, music, and food specials.

Well, that looks just heavenly. Hello, Monks' Corner, welcome to the party.
Monks’ Corner has found its niche downtown.

Beyond the long history of monastic brewing, it’s also important to point out that Abbey Brewing is a relatively long-established brewery in New Mexico.

“We have been distributing since 2005,” Chris said. “It hasn’t been at a huge scale, but it’s been out-of-state, too, so we have some sort of a reach. It was kinda interesting that they did it that way. That they did the distribution first and then this is the first taproom.”

One of the biggest challenges of new breweries/taprooms seems to be filling taps with enough beer, though Monks’ clearly had a distinct advantage in that aspect. However, opening is never an easy task.

“We had our final inspection on the day of our soft opening,” Chris said. “After that it was almost like a restaurant impossible episode where we had, for the next three hours, all hands on deck to make sure that it looked presentable for opening. We got it done for the soft opening.”

One aspect of Monks’ Corner Taproom that is truly unique is its partnership with the business right next door.

“This is one of the coolest partnerships, just having a restaurant attached within walking distance and you can bring your beer in here,” Chris said. “It’s two different companies, two different staffs, two different owners.”

That’s correct. You can walk about 15 feet from the bar at Monks’ Corner to the ordering counter at Maya, which offers great New Mexican cuisine, salads, and sandwiches. The fish tacos I had were top notch.

“One of the coolest things is that you can, if you felt like you just wanted to have lunch or dinner outside of the taproom, you could come into this side and have a meal away from the taproom ambience, and you can still bring your beer in here,” Chris said. “For me that was one of the most interesting things that I’ve seen from us so far.”

You can order your food from Maya and have it delivered to your table at Monks' Corner.
You can order your food from Maya and have it delivered to your table at Monks’ Corner.

It has been just over four months since opening and Chris still has his game face on.

“Even to this day it still feels like we’re opening,” he said. “It’s a work-in-process. I was really surprised with the neighborhood. With the new building and the neighborhood and all the breweries around here … this community really supports its local breweries. A lot of our business … the bulk of our business comes from people in this neighborhood. You never know what to expect, but this neighborhood has been really good to us so far. I didn’t know what to expect with downtown Albuquerque, honestly, but it’s nice. You see bartenders and such from some of the other breweries that come in and talk.

“One of the cool things that I have noticed is that all these taprooms in this area are extremely different, like aesthetically, (and) like beer style-wise, too. It’s like we all have something to offer the neighborhood and the residents of the neighborhood, which I think is great because it gives us, as consumers, a better choice. It gives you more of an option and it creates a real scene in downtown Albuquerque.”

Looking forward, Chris said he hopes to further embrace the neighborhood by planning some events.

“We really want to do a lot more events, and give the customer something to do along with have a beer, events that make sense for the brand as well as make sense for the neighborhood,” he said. “We want to do live music and incorporate more live music. We are flirting with the ideas of things like Geeks Who Drink or some other sort of trivia, maybe live art installations. Almost, at this point, throw things at the wall and see what sticks.

“I know that at some point we’d like to do a firkin release when it makes sense, and do some releases around some of the reserve beers that are going to be coming shortly. The first one that we will have out is the Tripel Reserve, which will be made with the local hops. So, we want to build an event around that, but it’s still kind of in the planning process.”

Even a brewery rooted in monastic tradition looks to mix things up a bit every now and again.

“There’s been talks of an American style pale ale that kind of leans towards an IPA, which is very unusual for a Belgian brewery to do, but it’s not 100 percent,” Chris said. “There might be a (sort) of a pale ale from us. We are also looking at starting working on some ciders, a sweet and a dry cider. Hopefully we can start expanding our selection. When we opened the doors I think we started with five beers and now we have seven on tap of our own. They’re working on other ones to bring in too.

“One thing I do like, also that I keep on forgetting because it’s almost like an afterthought to me, but we do have 20 taps. We typically have 10 to 15 guest taps on at a time. It’s going to be ever-changing. We have some favorites that will probably not leave the tap, but for the most part it’s an experiment and what we’re going to bring in seasonally will change.”

In addition to the food next door, Chris said he was also enthusiastic about having some smaller, snackier options available in the taproom, options that would pair well with the beer.

“We’re planning on bringing cheese and charcuterie plates also and pairing that with some of the beers that we have,” Chris said. “That’s a project that we are currently working on right now. We always want to have a couple of snack options — some chocolate options that will pair well with some of our dark beers, (or) nuts, almonds, things of that nature. We want it to be something you can eat while you are sitting down, but also want to go in with the thought that it will compliment the beer and vice versa … as well as some of the wine, too.”

Considering the progress made by Monks’ Corner so far this year, and the plans for next year, there is no reason not to be believe that the location is destined to become a staple of the community.

“All and all, I think our beer scene statewide is fantastic,” Chris said. “It’s exciting because as a state we’re still young at making beer, but we’re doing so well. We’re fortunate to be where we’re at after three months of business, but still you always kind of want to look forward and thrive in a thriving community. So, there’s opportunity for all of us and I think the good things is that there is a niche for everyone. There’s room for everybody in this environment as long as the quality is there.”

Be sure and get over to Monks’ Corner next time you are in downtown ABQ to check on the progress and drink some delicious beer. Don’t forget the tasty food options. The Brew Crew wishes Monks’ Corner and Abbey Brewing the best of luck in 2017.


— Deezbeers

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