It was not the splashiest of years for La Cumbre Brewing, but it was another strong and successful one in 2017. Sticking with tradition for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series, I sat down with owner/master brewer Jeff Erway first to kick things off. We hit up all that went down in 2017 and what to expect in 2018.
“Good, I can’t complain,” Jeff said of 2017. “We continue to grow at a similar pace as 2016. We finished a couple of major business projects, nothing too sexy, but things that were definitely necessary for us to continue growing as a business.”
One of those necessary moves was to take over the building just north of the brewery.
“We were able to not only enter into a lease purchase agreement but just last month we were able to actually close on that property,” Jeff said. “We (also) built a 2,500-square-foot cold room out back and all the fun permitted types of projects that go along with building that cold room. We added a few new tanks to keep up with demand and production. We added a whole bunch of different, fun beers.”
One of those different, fun beers will debut this Friday. Postcards From Hell is a new IPA brewed in collaboration with San Diego’s Modern Times Beer. The collaboration grew out of Jeff’s admiration for Jacob McKean, the owner of Modern Times.
“I had read some of Jacob’s posts on blogs and online a couple times,” Jeff said. “I always prided myself on being a eloquent writer, but not just eloquent like I pride myself on being good on organizing my thoughts and such. He is just so clearly better than I am. I would read these things that he had written and I was just (blown away).”
It was a move by AB InBev, and Jacob’s response, that triggered the decision to work together.
“It came down to a post that he had made about the South African hops that would not be available to American craft brewers this next year,” Jeff said. “Basically, he said it in two or three short paragraphs what would have probably taken me two or three pages. I finally reached out to him and I said I’ve got a whole bunch of those hops left and what would you think about getting together and brewing a beer together.”
It all came down to mutual respect, which in turn led to the new beer that will be available on tap and in a limited canning run.
“As much as anything, though, we have a mutual respect for each other,” Jeff said. “I can’t speak for their respect for us, but obviously they think we’re worthwhile to do a collaboration with us. But just speaking for myself, there is not a brewery in the country that really impresses me more, not just from a beer quality standpoint, but also just from a total business ethics (standpoint) and the way they’re kind of a total package. They represent their brand incredibly well. Their graphic designers, I truly think they’re the best in the industry.
“The creativity that comes out of that place is really admirable. Getting to spend a few days with Andrew (Schwartz), one of their head brewers, is pretty incredible. He’s 10 years younger than me and has every bit of the knowledge I have and a zest for creativity that I find really admirable. I’ve had a bit of a fascination with the newer style of IPA and I feel like they do it more consistently than anybody else. So when they said that’s what they wanted to do, I was completely on board.”
Another big move for La Cumbre in 2017 was the decision to expand distribution into Arizona. Jeff said things have been going great so far.
“They’re clearly going to be our second biggest market already,” he said. “We knew they would. We signed on with a pretty incredible distributor and we knew they were incredible before we signed with them. The proof’s in what your current distributees say about you and I didn’t hear a negative thing from just about any of them. They all like working with Hensley. It’s been good.
“Jason Metzger, our brand rep out there is doing a really good job getting our beer into as many places as he can. We’re really looking forward to 2018. It was a really big investment of not just money but time as well getting into Arizona. We’re hoping that that investment pays off for us.”
Jeff talked last year about how great of job head brewer Alan Skinner had done for La Cumbre. Alan continued to impress his boss in 2017.
“Inside of our company, I think probably one of the biggest surprises to all of us is how well Alan has come into his position in this company and he’s seen what Daniel (Jaramillo) is good at and what Daniel is the best that and done such a damn good job of complementing those skills,” Jeff said. “(Alan) leans on me when he needs to, but for the most part he’s grabbed the bull by the horns and taken over the brewery. I’m truly in awe. The way that he’s been able to get our new quality control lab technician, Andrea, up to speed on everything we need done, where she’s grabbed a hold of that job (and) just the way that everything has gotten dialed in has been pretty awesome.”
That confidence in Alan has led to an even greater willingness to push the envelope on the beers.
“I don’t think in the past we haven’t released too many beers I wasn’t truly proud of, but that being said, there wasn’t anything where I wasn’t like that was great,” Jeff said. “There wasn’t anything I wasn’t pleased with in every way. All the beers were really well done.”
The entire La Cumbre command staff has gelled together to keep the company pointed in the right direction.
“I feel like as a cohesive team — Corey (Campbell), Paul (Cornett), Daniel, Scot (Nelson), Jenn, myself — have really hit a flow that’s working out well for us,” Jeff said. “Hopefully the greater craft community sees the projects we’re taking on, sees the beers we’re taking on and are pleased with them. It seems they are.”
That cohesion has helped La Cumbre adapt to the changes in the craft beer market as a whole.
“If there’s anything that really stood out to me this year, it’s just the new world order in craft brewing now,” Jeff said. “It’s not an internal thing, it’s just a fact of life in the way that this business is running nowadays. The level of competition, the level of money that’s coming into the industry, both positive and negative, there’s a lot of both.
“Some of the types of people that are getting into it are very new and have some really, really incredible ideas on what they want to do. I think Jacob from Modern Times is a really great example of that. I’ve met several people that have gotten in the last couple years it’s incredible the amount that they’re accomplishing in such a short period of time. I’m just thinking to myself you must not have children or a wife or a husband, because jesus that’s a lot of work that you’re taking on.
“For others, I feel like it’s a sign of the times right now that they’re getting into it and they have very little interest (in quality), they want to make a quick buck.”
More experimentation on deck for 2018
The focus for 2018 will be keeping the beers fun and fresh, rather than any major capital projects, Jeff said.
“What has become abundantly clear is that there are going to be (changes), everybody that’s successful is going to have their own pathway forward,” he said. “That’s been kind of obvious for several years now. There is no one right way. There are many wrong ways. We are going to really double down on trying to push the envelope with interesting beer releases and trying to do our best to grab the proverbial attention of the true craft beer aficionado, which is what we’ve always tried to accomplish. It’s just gotten harder. It’s not just making the greatest IPA in the state, it’s not just making the greatest lineup of beers available, it’s also like what did you do for me in the last week.”
A small but important addition to the La Cumbre team in 2017 will continue to go a long ways to helping keep the brewery relevant.
“That’s part of the reason why I finally got that 3-barrel brewhouse put together is so we can do things like the beer you’re drinking right now, beers that we wouldn’t necessarily brew 15 or 30 barrels or even 60 barrels of,” Jeff said, pointing to the pint of Mochavation that I had purchased. “We can brew a 3-barrel batch of something like that. But, it’s also for beers we can (later) be releasing 30-barrel batches of and things that we know, one, that we can knock out of the park, and two, that are really going to grab attention.
“As hard as it might be to stick out in our own town, and I think we do a pretty good job of that, it’s far, far harder to grab the attention outside of the state of New Mexico with anything than a steady flow of new releases, a steady flow of new beers that excite people. I feel like that’s become so much a part of my job nowadays is simply to know what is going to excite people and trying to identify that and perfect it.”
That can be both fun and challenging at the same time.
“I feel like this year I’ve actually pushed my creative juices probably farther than I ever have before,” Jeff said. “If someone had told me five years ago that I was going to do a sour saison aged in tequila barrels with hibiscus added, I doubt I would have believed it. … I feel like my place has never excelled at completely pushing new boundaries and coming up with completely off the wall, adjunct ideas. But, what I feel like I’ve always excelled at and what Alan and Daniel and I have truly excelled as a team at is finding that one cool thing or just any kind of style, whatever that style is, and slowly but surely making it our own and doing it better than the vast majority can do it.”
The core lineup of packaged beers — Elevated IPA, Slice of Hefen, Red Ryeot, BEER, Malpais Stout, Project Dank — will not change, Jeff said.
“No, absolutely not,” he said. “The year-round releases are going to stay right where they’re at. We’ll definitely be doing more series, I would say. Yes, I’ll brew more Oktoberfest this year, I’ll guarantee that.
“As far as what (else) we’re thinking, yeah, there will be a lot of new and interesting can releases. Several of them will be these kind of series of beers that we haven’t necessarily brewed before. I’m very confident they’re going to be well received.”
As for the possibility of doing La Cumbre’s first off-site taproom, Jeff remained non-committal, though he did not rule it out completely.
“It’s possible,” he said. “I don’t have any solid plans of doing it. As that market fills up, it becomes a little less enticing to go after one. The number of taprooms in this town that are fighting really hard to sell $5,000 a week of beer is just growing and growing every day. I have zero interest in working my tail off to open a taproom that’s not gonna be profitable for our company.”
Our conversation drifted toward talk of how the craft beer scene is evolving around the country, and how they could eventually trickle down to Albuquerque. Both of us have been impressed by how breweries are adapting to the constantly changing market in Denver, particularly in the rise of specialization breweries like Bierstadt Lagerhaus. While it is true that New Mexico already has some breweries focusing on certain styles (Duel, Rowley Farmhouse Ales, Dialogue), Jeff said our state is not ready for a German-styles-only type of brewery.
“You’ll know when we are (ready) when I do it,” he said. “I love those styles and I’d love to brew them. I don’t know how hungry I am to take on another project right now. I would not open up another brewery right now. I think we’re probably four years away from just the dust has cleared and it might be time to look at other projects. … It’s not nearly crowded here as elsewhere. I was in Chicago and there were some straight-up good breweries that were just dead, dead as doornails.”
Jeff said he remains optimistic that the Albuquerque craft beer scene is still capable of positive growth.
“I still totally believe there is room for really high-quality breweries in this town,” he said. “If you’ve got a really high-quality head brewer and a vision of doing something truly unique and interesting, great, go for it.”
He just will not gamble with everything La Cumbre has built on a whim or a trend.
“We’re finally at the point as a company where we’re offering pretty good benefits to our key employees,” Jeff said. “Anybody that’s been here for any period of time is making good money. Scot and I are comfortable, so why are we going to go jump at any opportunity that comes our way just to risk it all?
“We’re just going to keep on focusing on making the most killer beer we can and hopefully the people that have always been our big supporters keep on being our big supporters.”
The Crew certainly looks forward to more fun beers from La Cumbre in 2018. More Oktoberfest is always a good thing, too.
We will continue our Look Back/Look Ahead Series with even more Albuquerque and Santa Fe area breweries in the weeks ahead. Keep an eye out for all the entries!