Our Look Back/Look Ahead Series continues today with Rowley Farmhouse Ales in Santa Fe. I wanted to find out how their first big year went, talk about their current brewer situation, and find out what direction RFA will take in 2018.
Directly after my interview with Blue Corn, I drove five minutes up the road to RFA, which was holding its Blackest Friday event, and I didn’t want to miss that. I had the day off, and I definitely had another interview in me.
Pulling up to RFA, just a ways down Maclovia Street, located somewhat behind Santa Fe’s best Indian restaurant (in my humble opinion), India House, I immediately noticed the parking lot was full, and cars were parked up and down the street. This didn’t make finding a spot difficult, however, and it certainly wasn’t a bad thing. I soon found owner John Rowley working with assistant brewer Tyler King, and friend and wife of Chef Jeffrey Kaplan, Elissa Ritt. Even on an event day, operations were underway.
It was a bustling scene. Folks were getting tours, while the brewhouse was firing on all pistons. Everyone was all smiles as it was a good day to be a craft beer fan and a good day to be a craft beer engineer. For the interview, Rowley led me away from the madness to the solitude of the barrel room down below. I felt like Maxwell Smart, and almost expected the cone of silence to descend from the ceiling. Instead, in true down-and-dirty brewery style, we grabbed a couple of crates and faced off between rows of barrels. It was hard not to feel at home.
Rowley Farmhouse Ales opened on Labor Day Weekend 2016. The staff just celebrated their one-year anniversary.
“It’s been good, pretty steady,” John said. “We had a great summer; summer is kind of the bread and butter of Santa Fe’s lifeblood.”
In Santa Fe, the breweries I’ve chatted with over the years talk of the sales downturn in winter, which sets in typically after the Labor Day mark. There’s a marked slowing of foot traffic and a general thinning of the out-and-about crowd. Perhaps it is because precious beer money is reserved for shopping, or maybe the cold keeps Santa Feans in their cozy homes and drives the tourists away, but whatever it is, it’s pervasive of the scene, and business generally won’t pick up again until after the thaw.
To combat this sort of hibernation period, RFA has continued to have fun events like the Blackest Friday barrel-aged rare beer event, but also keeping the taps fresh with plenty of hard-to-get beers. The thinking here is, John said, beer geeks don’t stop wanting good beer just because it’s cold outside.
“We’ve focused on that as part of our gastropub side of the business,” John said. “We wanted to bring in, not just our own beer, but beer that’s really fucking cool.”
Beer they want to drink, in other words.
“And that’s the bottom line,” John said. “If I wanted to drink it, I would bring it in.”
But, it’s a group effort at RFA, as it always has been. Both Kaplan and Ritt have been integral in curating the tap list to create a haven for true beer geeks in all forms of weather. The outdoor patio, which is actually where the bulk of the seating lies, has evolved to be a good, warm place to get a cold one on a winter’s eve.
Part of the issue Santa Fe breweries have is awareness. For most of them, being established as a go-to place to get a brew has taken time. The locals know about the older guys like Blue Corn and Second Street, and as a result make them their choice Friday-night-with-the-family destination. The new guys, including Second Street’s Rufina location, have the tough task of just getting their name out there, making sure people know implicitly that we can go grab a beer there.
This year, Rowley Farmhouse Ales really got its name out there, being part of some great festivals, including two really big fests held out of state. The annual Midwest Belgian Beer festival in St. Louis, put on by Perennial Artisan Ales, included more than 60 top-tier breweries, and RFA was one of them. There, the staff poured Meier, a Meyer Lemon Gose, named after a fella, Troy Meier, who runs one of the homebrew clubs in St. Louis, in homage to his “Meierlemonparty.org” and clearly his sour sense of humor.
“We poured that beer at Side Project Brewing. For us it was a huge honor to pour at such a cool place,” John said.
The more recent big pouring for RFA was at the Pints for Prostates Denver Rare Beer Tasting 9.
“That was a huge hit for us,” John said, as RFA poured an Oud Bruin, which had 80 pounds of raspberries in the barrel, and was one of the first beers to pour out at that event. “For us, as a new brewery, that means a lot.”
Pouring locally, RFA started off at WinterBrew, which, for the staff, is one of their favorite events in Santa Fe or anywhere. They also did Skiesta up at Pajarito Mountain this year, as well as Pajarito’s Summerfest, which John likened to pouring on the moon.
“At Summerfest, you’re pouring in the dirt and there’s a fine dust that gets allover everything,” John said. “Your legs get all dirty, it’s just everywhere. But, Skiesta is great because we’re on the deck.”
RFA also did BearFest in Albuquerque; they just happened to be pouring right next to the speakers and the brewery got blasted.
“I love Kevin (Davis), and I love Boxing Bear,” John said. “Those guys are great. Hey Kevin, if you’re (reading), don’t leave it at 11. Turn it down to nine or eight.”
RFA’s IPA was also a big hit at Hopfest this year.
At home base, RFA has its own special events and brewery features. The staff is continuing to support the local animals with their Pulls for Pups, where they choose a new animal shelter every quarter and donate a $1 per pour of the designated tap. The beer may change, but the support hasn’t. They typically raise around $1,200 for the shelters and charities, per quarter from your generosity, so cheers to that!
The staff has also continued with a slew of tap-takeovers from big names like Great Divide, Firestone Walker, New Belgium, and the list goes on. Tap takeovers are truly a beautiful thing.
This year, RFA has worked hard at increasing its beer production. But, the kind of beers RFA is making aren’t the kind that have a quick turnaround. Naturally, it’s taken a bit of time getting a real pipeline going. Beers that needed time to age and condition are becoming more available, as the staff didn’t want to rush anything.
“Next year we’ll have more wood down here,” John said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer. We want to fill this place up and have more beer aging at all times.”
In the last year, the set of core beers has become a steady set, worthy of the good chalk and the big wall. Agent Scully, RFA’s flagship IPA, has a farmhouse grain bill with flaked oats and malted wheat, with a little ginger marmalade added to keep their Scully a true ginger, as well it should be. The hops have rotated from season to season, but in any event, it’ll turn the largest skeptics into believers.
Another beer kept in the pipeline is the Fields of Rye Saison. This beer has remained pretty consistent in flavor from my first tasting at Santa Fe Brewing’s Oktoberfiesta about a year ago. It’s subtle changes come mostly in ABV, to be a bit more crushable in the summer, John said.
Rowley’s Germophile, a clean Berliner Weisse, has enjoyed great feedback from the local crowd. It’s a refreshing staple at the brewery with malted wheat and pilsner malt, soured with lactobacillus, and finished with a saison yeast.
Ab Initio is a Brett Berliner Weisse, which is one of Rowley’s favorites to play around with. From the dry-hopping to the fruiting, RFA is keeping the promise of changing and evolving beers to keep their tastes fresh and interesting to the crowd and to the staff.
Saison Du Sarlacc is a Citra-Mosaic hopped-up Brett Saison that’s worthy of several more Untappd check-ins itself.
But for Rowley, it’s what’s in the barrels that are ‘The Cat’s Ass.’
“If I could only brew this beer, I would. But we can’t,” John said. “You can’t just live off mixed-fermentation saison, and think that everyone’s going to want to drink it. We’ve got to keep the lights on.”
Rowley’s is not the place to go if you want the same old beer, every time. There are places for that.
“This isn’t cheers,” John said. “I’m not Norm. You come here when it’s time for something fun. Go to a place you can get something fun and new. That’s our philosophy.”
At the time of the interview, RFA was hosting an event with nine heavy-hitting barrel-aged stouts — impressive, interesting, and some much harder to get a hold of than others, from the likes of Deschutes, Great Divide, Dogfish Head, Odell, Marble, La Cumbre, North Coast, Firestone Walker, and Oskar Blues. It was a must-attend event, and there were a ton of people who got that message.
“It’s the most I’ve seen in a long time,” John said of their first (and hopefully annual) Black-est Friday event. “There were people waiting here when we opened.”
Knowing Santa Fe’s beer scene, I count that as a huge win, and a good start. Rowley was reminded of the Postcards from Hell release at La Cumbre.
“There were a lot of people,” he recalled, “and there was a sell-out in 90 minutes. We’re not California, but we’re getting there. Congratulations to La Cumbre and Modern Times; they did a great job. Loved that beer, and it’s setting up something new here in New Mexico.”
Before we started looking torward to the future of RFA, we had to address the present situation. Recently RFA lost their head brewer, Jami Nordby, who is heading off to start up a new brewery.
“Jami has been a fantastic brewer for me,” John said. “He’s a standalone guy, he can just work without any guidance. He’s been with us from the beginning, and he’s leaving at the end of (November). I’m sad to see him go, but at the same time, I really want him to be successful. I’ve known him for a really long time. He’s a good friend. He’s the guy that can run the business and not need any help or hand-holding. He can be the guy, and he will be the guy at his new place.”
Without too many early details, Jami will be opening up a place of his own with friend Rich Headley off of Highway 14. (Editor’s note: Franz Solo will have more on this soon. — S) There he’ll be doing what he does so well, brewing.
“Jami has always been a part of the beer community, and he always will be. It was blow to us, of course, but we have to move on. The beer must flow on,” John said.
Changes await in 2018
Starting off the new year, RFA is currently (casually) looking for a qualified, hard-working, friendly individual with a background in mixed-fermentation and sours. But, until then, John said he is confident that he and the very capable assistant brewer, Tyler King, will tow the line. As a reminder, King has been there from the start as well, and he, too, has been one of their hardest working, intelligent assets. And, they’ve got a good amount of inventory to keep the lines full for a while.
New hires aside, Rowley said 2018 will be another year of steady growth, filled with events, festivals, and finding more ways to get the brewery name out there. In 2018, RFA plans to represent New Mexico at the Midwest Belgian Beer Fest again, and it is already slated to be the featured beer at the Rare Beer Tasting X up in Denver, brewing a special beer for the Rare Beer Club. The staff has already been working on an unusual recipe for a smoked juniper Gotlandsdricka, akin to Jester King’s beer, of which Rowley said he found inspiration. They will aim to brew at least 200 cases of bottles for that particular event. It’s a very limited event, so buy your tickets … yesterday.
Speaking of bottles, RFA will continue its current bottling program, selling 750-ml bottles to select local shops and out of the brewery on a smaller scale for now, but that could change as it grows.
As far as expansion plans, it’s more about barrels than square feet. RFA plans to buy a couple of 30-barrel oak foeders.
“We’re going to treat them like a solera,” John said, “where we’re going to pull seven barrels out, put seven barrels in, because we have a 7-barrel brewhouse. We’ll have to brew a lot, at first, to fill them. Over time we’ll have a lot more beer that way, because we’ll have a golden sour base beer to work from, and we’ll have a mixed-fermentation saison to work from.”
Rowley Farmhouse Ales isn’t going to shy away from any beer style in 2018. Rowley told me that he currently has an imperial stout in the tank that he plans to barrel age. And, the staff will also be brewing an award-winning barleywine recipe from homebrew club friends, Jim Steinbach and Kent Steinhaus, appropriately called Steinwine (at the moment). I would personally Google the name, depending on the size of their batch, just to be cease-and-desist safe. (Yeah, Tractor might have something to say about that. — S)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the delicious-sounding collaboration RFA did with Iconic Coffee Roasters.
“A Kaffeeklatsch is a social ‘coming together’ over coffee,” John said. “We collaborated with our good friends Chase and Dylan over at Iconik Coffee Roasters for this beer, and we went down a lesser traveled, but super fun path. Most coffee beers are stouts or porters, but we went to the opposite end of the spectrum for this beer. We started with our Germophile base, and hopped it lightly to 5 IBU in the boil with German Hersbrucker hops. We then whirlpooled this beer with a healthy charge of Lake Toba Sumatra, and then co-fermented with a blend of B. Brux var Drei, L. Delbrueckii, and German ale yeast. After a long rest, we dry-hopped the beer with more Lake Toba Sumatra. ABV is a bit high for the style, but we figured since it is coming into winter, this would be a good bonus. Special thanks to Chase and Dylan for helping us brew this beer, and to Iconik Coffee Roasters for the fun collaboration!”
Another collaboration RFA just did was with 12 West Brewing Co. in Gilbert, Ariz., on December 6.
“Sarah Ritchie is kind of the force behind them,” John said. (Big shout out to our favorite Craft Beer Betty!) “They also have a really good sour guy, named Jay Mead down there.”
Rowley said they are looking at putting something into the coolship that 12 West just built, and sometime after Christmas they’ll be brewing something interesting with Wren House Brewing Co. in Phoenix. It seems that RFA is really bearing down on Arizona at the moment, but that’s where Rowley’s folks live, and where he spent his college days, so it just makes sense all around, and, rumor has it they plan to be sending some beer down to Arizona pretty soon.
Next year, Rowley said he does plan to get more beer out closer to home in Santa Fe or Albuquerque. More beer capacity at the brewery means more opportunities to do just that.
With three spare tanks, look for new beers to hit Untappd lists soon, such as a French almost witbier called Petit Blanche. RFA will also be bringing back its mixed-fermentation saison brewed with Earl Grey Frances tea, from Artful Tea, called Tea for Two. And, RFA will also go through its list of successful small batches and see what else the staff wants to put in the tank. The public will taste new beers, and get another chance at beers folks may have missed in 2017. It appears that 2018 is going to be funky, and fresh, or funky fresh, if you will.
“If you’re in town, come and try our kick-ass beer,” John said. “Welcome! Our doors are always open, we’re open seven days a week. We always try to give a great experience. If we don’t, call us out, we’ll fix it. Because, that’s what it’s all about — growing, learning, and doing better. We’ve got great food, and we’ll always have some cool new beers for you to try.”
* * * * *
Growing from special small releases of their own beers, to keeping them regularly on the menu, Rowley Farmhouse Ales has become the kind of brewery the staff first envisioned when they were beneath their first rose banner. Of course, RFA is always growing in barrelage and in seating options, and the beers are constantly evolving, so it’s a brewery that you should never make up your mind about in one sitting. You’ll have to come back, again and again, before you decide who and what Rowley Farmhouse Ales is. If not just to see what new fun beers are on rotation, or what exciting dish Chef Kaplan has just added to the menu, or if you’re simply interested in which fruits they’ve added to Ab Initio, there are plenty of reasons to return.
There’s a saying in New Mexico. If you don’t like the weather, just wait 10 minutes. Well, if there’s not a beer you like yet on the menu (seems impossible), give it a week. And, speaking of which, every Wednesday they tap something special. So, during the winter lull, it really falls on us, my fellow beer drinkers, to patronize these establishments that are working so hard to stay interesting, stay fun, stay fresh, and stay open. Today, we raise ’em up to better beer options for folks searching for something different in the City Different!
Buy me a beer; I’ll buy you two. And subsequently, I’ll probably pay for our Uber. Approach beer-writers responsibly.