A relatively normal Thursday afternoon turned chaotic after a single text from a friend in the business: “Apparently Chama (River) is closing, as in right now. They just called last call and are done. Heard anything?”
This happened shortly after 4 p.m., and suddenly, while still standing in the Albuquerque Isotopes dugout as batting practice was winding down, I was quickly texting anyone and everyone who might be in the know. Confirmation from a source, who shall remain unnamed for now, followed, letting me know that the third oldest brewery in Albuquerque was indeed closing its doors for good. It was, to put it mildly, stunning.
The Albuquerque Journal was able to get the president of Santa Fe Dining, Chama’s parent company, to go on the record (sort of): “Unfortunately, we had to shutter the doors after 12 really wonderful years with our Albuquerque guests,” Randy Ropek told Journal reporter Jessica Dyer. That, and a comment about Kellys Brew Pub being in fine shape and in no danger of also closing, was about all the Journal got for the time being.
While the Crew and the rest of the media wait for a more official announcement, which we were told is coming next week, about all we can do for the moment is reflect back on Chama’s place in our local beer history. (A much more detailed version of this history can be found in a certain book which you can purchase online here or at local retailers.)
Chama got its start in August 1999 as Blue Corn Albuquerque, a spinoff of the popular Santa Fe brewpub. Within about six months of opening, there was a change of brewers. Ted Rice took over at Chama and helped put it on the map, at least as far as the beers went. He won three medals at the Great American Beer Festival — silver for Get Off My Bock in 2002, gold for Atomic Blonde in 2003, and gold for Rye On in 2004. He also snagged three silvers and a bronze at the World Beer Cup.
The name change to Chama River came in 2005 after the restaurant’s food sales continued to lag even as the beer sales increased. The New Mexican-style menu was replaced with more of an upscale pub selection of American dishes.
After that big change, the next was when Rice left in 2007 to start up Marble Brewery the following year. That left his assistant brewer, Jeff Erway, to take the reins. Erway picked up two silver medals at the 2008 World Beer Cup for Sleeping Dog Stout and 3 Dog Night (Baltic Porter). By 2010, Erway moved on to start La Cumbre Brewing.
Next up on the brewer docket was Justin Hamilton, assisted by Tim Woodward. Those two would also eventually leave to run their own brewhouses in 2014, Justin to Boxing Bear and Woodward to Turtle Mountain (and since moving on to Bosque, where he now works alongside John Bullard, also a former assistant brewer at Chama before moving up to his first top job at Blue Corn).
Zach Guilmette came over from Canteen to run the show in 2014, bringing David Facey along with him. David would eventually depart to join the ownership at Quarter Celtic with longtime Canteen/Il Vicino brewer Brady McKeown, which in turn prompted Zach to return to Canteen as head brewer. Before he left, Zach added to the Chama medal total with a gold at the 2014 GABF for Class VI Golden Lager.
Andrew Krosche, formerly of Ponderosa and Marble before that, then came over to run the show. He was still in charge Thursday when Chama was closed. We can only hope the future is bright for Andrew, but we have confidence things will turn out OK for him, considering his talent and ambition.
As for this beer writer, Chama River was the first local brewery I ever visited in Albuquerque. I was living in the Los Angeles area when the name change happened; before that, my dad does not ever recall visiting it as Blue Corn. That summer in 2005, while making a quick stop in town, my dad took me over to the brewpub next to what was then the best movie theater in town. I enjoyed a Rio Chama Amber before getting a pint of Sleeping Dog Stout, proudly declaring to our server that I would be drinking that stout on every subsequent visit. By the time I moved back in late 2008, the only local craft breweries I even knew about were Chama, Il Vicino, Kellys, and Turtle Mountain. I had seen Santa Fe, Sierra Blanca, and Rio Grande bottles in stores (not knowing the latter two now had the same owner), but otherwise it was a barren scene. (I would later have my first pint of Marble Red at the old Burt’s Tiki Lounge on Gold, but that is a story for another time.)
Chama ended up being instrumental in my willingness to embrace local craft beer in New Mexico. It was the place that told me that, hey, they could make beer here that would stack up to the heavyweights from Colorado, Oregon, and California. By the time we all came up with the idea of the Dark Side Brew Crew, Chama had long been a hangout, sometimes for a full meal, other times for a pint and maybe an appetizer before or after a movie. Even as nicer theaters were built and a slew of bigger breweries opened, Chama always kept a special place in our hearts. For many of us, it was the original local brewpub, the first place we ever had a local stout or IPA or just about any style.
The brewers may have changed, but the beer quality remained. As Andrew told us when he was hired, “I’ve been in here many, many times. I’ve been friends with the brewers in here for the last four or five years. As far as walking in here, expectations, I already knew what I was coming into, the history here. One of the things that was kind of exciting is the best way I can describe my first day was like coming into an archaeological dig. You just look at layers, you can see elements of each brewer here. Everyone has been putting it on top and on top. It’s like excavating an old, abandoned building and realizing, oh, there was another building here and they just piled on top of it. There’s really cool elements, just layers you can find.”
Yeah, we are gonna miss Chama River. Before anyone asks, no, we do not think this is the beginning of a sudden series of brewery closings. Until we get the official word from Santa Fe Dining (assuming we get one at all) about why it closed Chama, anything at this point is just pure speculation.
To the staff at Chama, we wish you all luck finding new jobs. Thank you for your service over the years.
All we have now are our memories of Chama River. Its place in our local craft beer history is secure. It is just unfortunate its place in our present and future was so insecure. We hope to have more information to share next week.
Until then, never take your favorite brewery for granted. Pay it a visit this weekend. After all, you never know what can happen these days.