Saturday will mark the final day of operation for Twisted Chile Brewing in Socorro. It will mark the end of a two-and-a-half-year journey for owners K.C. and Stephanie McFadden, who did their best to bring quality craft beer back to the small town 70 miles south of Albuquerque.
Twisted Chile is just the latest of many breweries to pop up in small towns in New Mexico, burn bright, and then fade away. The reasons they fail are as varied as the reasons others continue to live on. If there was a clear answer to what it takes to work it all out, certainly there would not be so many casualties.
For each of them, the ongoing survivors and the dearly departed, there was or still is a certain charm, a bit of an underdog mentality, that permeates all of these breweries. Even as more and more packaged beers arrive from the big boys in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, they keep rolling along, or they fade away.
The first small-town/rural brewery was not located in a town at all. Embudo Station Brewing was located in a former railroad stop along the road between Taos and Espanola. It opened in 1989, just the third brewing operation to open in the state since the 1930s, following Santa Fe Brewing and Albuquerque Brewing (take one). It finally closed in 2008, but will probably be best remembered as the place that gave a home brewer named Steve Eskeback his start. Eskeback would go on to open Eske’s in Taos in 1992, which is now the second oldest brewery in the state after SFBC.
Eske’s success has been attributed in large part to its location, right in the heart of Taos, a small town that happens to also be a major tourist attraction. With hotels and art galleries within easy walking distance, Eske’s has survived throughout the years even as other breweries opened nearby, such as Taos Ale House and Taos Mesa, whose new taproom is about a block away from the old brewpub.
Other small-town breweries were not as lucky as Embudo Station or Eske’s. Elephant Butte Pizzeria and Brewery (1995-97), Alamogordo Brewing (1996-99), Pinon Brewing (2005-07) in Los Alamos, Silver City Brewing (2007-10), Mimbres Valley Brewing (2010-14) in Deming, and New Mexico Craft Brewing (2012-15) in Las Vegas all came and went in less than five years. The first two predated the current craft boom, while the others found themselves unable to capitalize on their town’s tourist-friendly status, or location along a major interstate.
Still, others have found their local niche, relying on a combination of just enough customers from the surrounding area, plus maybe the tourists and travelers passing through. Three Rivers has been going strong since 1997 in Farmington. The Wellhead has been serving up pints and food in Artesia since 2000. More recent additions with a few years of operation under their belts include Blue Heron (2010) in Rinconada, near old Embudo Station and now operating a taproom in Espanola, plus Comanche Creek (2010) near Eagle Nest, Roosevelt (2012) in Portales, and Little Toad Creek (2013) near Silver City.
More keep coming, with Enchanted Circle (Angel Fire), Desert Water (Artesia), 550 Brewing (Aztec), Hub City (Belen), Milton’s (Carlsbad), The Brew House (Chama), Route 66 Junkyard Brewery (Grants), and Bathtub Row (Los Alamos) all opening in the last couple years. Forthcoming breweries include Switchback (Cloudcroft), Drylands (Lovington), Colfax Ale Cellars (Raton), Glencoe Distillery and Brewery (Ruidoso), and Truth or Consequences Brewing, all of which hope to open sometime this year. If nothing else, the ones that closed have not scared off everyone else.
Still, there quite a few notable towns in New Mexico that lack a local brewery. Of the 10 largest municipalities in the state, four are still without a place to call their own — Roswell (5th, 48,544 people), Clovis (7th, 39,480), Hobbs (8th, 38,416), Alamogordo (9th, 30,753). There are various reasons some of these places do not have their own breweries, be it local liquor laws, or a general lack of anyone wanting to open one up (or at least having the funds to do so).
Looking at most of the success stories, though, and one can begin to discern a few keys to finding that success. First off, location is huge. Twisted Chile was on Abeyta Street, near Socorro’s central plaza, but far enough from California Street, the main drag through town that runs parallel to I-25. Tourists and travelers found it hard to, well, find TC. While places like Little Toad and Roosevelt have benefited from having small colleges nearby (WNMU and ENMU, respectively), TC never seemed to capture much of the New Mexico Tech crowd, be it students over 21 or the staff. (Then again, talking to a few NMT grads, they said it is far from a normal beer-loving college campus.) The presence of a more lively college, or having enough locals period, is as much a key as location in a highly visible area.
Twisted Chile offered up quality beer, good food, and a friendly atmosphere in a historic building. It was still not enough to keep the operation going. The owner of the building still owns the brewing equipment, and the McFaddens have put the brewery’s trademark and recipes up for sale. The hope is that someone will step up and take over the operation, but so far there is no word of anyone looking to take the reins.
The Crew does not consider Twisted Chile a cautionary tale or anything like that. We enjoyed our couple of visits and wish things had been more successful. We respected what they tried to do and hope someone else gives Socorro a chance. Breweries, in towns big or small, can become the positive central hub of those communities’ social scenes. They discourage the over-consumption found at most local bars, instead promoting a sense of camaraderie and fellowship. Frankly, our state needs more of that.
To all the small-town breweries of New Mexico, past and present, we raise our glasses to you this weekend! Look for more stories from us on many of these fun and unique little places in the coming months.