I made my way through a weeknight happy hour crowd in the expanded bar seating area at Palmer Brewery/Left Turn Distillery to interview Chris Medina, assistant distiller and sales manager. Chris started on the distilling side at Left Turn about two and a half years ago. When the brewery opened in November, he began helping out there as well.
Prior to his employment with Left Turn/Palmer, Chris worked at a profit management firm for bars. He would calculate pour costs and help with the accounting and inventory, as well as loss prevention and marketing strategies for local establishments. He said this really helps him with the sales side of this job. I have to say that Chris does not seem like a typical sales person. In fact, when I asked him why he thought Rob Palmer nominated him, he said, “Because he knows I’m shy.”
I jokingly asked him if Rob was trying to get him more exposure or just yanking his chain. Chris said probably a little of both. We indulged in a couple of pints of Cockness Monster, a superb new Palmer seasonal Scottish ale brewed in collaboration with CockFight Skateboards. And then, magically, shy guy Chris began to open up. Ah, the mighty power of beer!
In the back-of-the-house production side, it is really just three of them for the most part — owners Brian Langwell (head distiller) and Rob (head brewer), with Chris working between the two of them. They are swamped (hey, business is good!), so his nomination might have something to do with all the hard work that comes with this unique type of setup. Between the festivals they attend, the increased demand on site in the expanded bar, and distribution, this small staff has a lot on their plate; or is it in their bottle?
Speaking of Brian, he is a very hands-on kind of guy. With his experience as a machinist in his “former life,” he builds all his own equipment himself. If something breaks or they want to change how it works, they don’t have to wait because they can take care of it in house. In a true example of build it and they will come, they expanded what was originally an extremely intimate (read: tiny) tasting area into a wholly inviting full bar with much more ample seating. Since then, their customer base seems to have grown exponentially.
Chris said it was hard building it out because they did everything themselves by hand. Although Chris attended Eastern New Mexico University on a baseball scholarship, he was also a welding program student at CNM, so it all sort of fell into place. Because he said he has more of a passion for the bar industry than welding work, this makes for a good mix.
As I have in previous stories in this series, I asked Chris who (besides the owners) at Left Turn/Palmer he would nominate if he was asked to do so. Chris said it would be the head bartender, Ray. He is personable, makes awesome cocktails, and he goes the extra mile all the time, Chris said. Ray has been working there about a year and a half.
I have been trying to ask the “hero” a different question each time as well. I asked Chris to tell me about his best day and worst day. He said his best day is coming up with new spirits like the limoncello that he just made. He gave me a sample. He did an outstanding job (and peeled each and every lemon by hand himself!). It was not too thick or syrupy, or too bitter from pith. It was light and lemony and perfect on a hot day. Chris also helps with infusions, and said there is free run on ideas. Eventually, they would like to make all the mixers and liqueurs, and market their ginger beer. Chris makes the ginger beer for Left Turn/Palmer, but said he does not aspire to become a head brewer.
As for his bad day, it was about two months after he started working there. They were making rum and left a big barrel drum of molasses out in the sun to get it softened up to make it much easier to work with. Chris tilted it to open the lid, but it had expanded under pressure and it exploded like an oil gusher — as tall as the ceiling. It was everywhere. It took five hours to clean that day and when he left it was finally spotless. Then, when he came back the next day, molasses was crawling up the walls and coming out of the ceiling. It took a week for that to stop happening. To this day, he can occasionally see a spot. It makes me wonder if he has nightmares about it. It’s not the Cockness Monster, it’s the Molasses Monster you need to worry about!
Since he grew up in a small town in northwest New Mexico, I asked Chris what his favorite part about living here is. He said it’s the locals. I would not have expected that answer, but his explanation makes sense. He said the sense of community here in Albuquerque was unexpected. Yet, it’s a big enough place that people don’t stay in your business. It’s a good balance, he said.
I asked Chris to tell me his current favorite beers from other breweries around town. He lives downtown, so in his rare time off work, this is where he spends most of his time. Right now he is into Boese’s lager. He said that he likes all beer styles, but usually leans toward clean, crisp beers.
“The staff members go to La Cumbre a lot because it’s close by,” Chris said. “And Quarter Celtic is awesome. The community is so great — you walk in anywhere and they recognize you.”
I asked if that’s hard for a “shy guy” and he replied, “Those guys aren’t strangers anymore, and, well, there’s beer to loosen you up!” There’s that magic again.
I wanted to know if Chris had to leave this bar industry and could do anything else, what would that be. He said he loves the outdoors and would like to be a fishing and/or rafting guide. However, Chris told me he is building a pizza oven that is similar to a horno. He likes making bread and might someday have a food truck, if not a brick and mortar establishment. I joked about going from one yeast to another.
Following the interview, I pinned down Rob and asked him his actual reason for nominating Chris.
“Chris wears all the hats in the brewery/distillery,” Rob said. “There is nothing that he doesn’t do or won’t do. I am the one making the beer. Brian is the one making the sprits. And Chris is the one helping us do everything. Without Chris, we couldn’t do it. And everywhere he goes, he’s fighting for us.”
Rob also let me know that coming up in the fermenters is an imperial pale ale. Also, they may soon have a barrel-aged MWA (malt liquor). Seriously, if that happens, where else in the world could you get that?
I would like to thank Chris for letting me interview him, even though it was well outside of his comfort zone. Also, thanks to Rob and Ray for being so welcoming and gracious. It is no wonder the people have come to Palmer/Left Turn, and even more importantly have stayed. Congratulations, and we wish you continued success.