Turtle Mountain powers into its 19th year as new challenges await

Posted: January 18, 2018 by Franz Solo in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2017-18
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One big beer year at Turtle Mountain will blend into another in 2018.

Franz Solo here, recapping when I headed up the hill to Rio Rancho for Turtle Mountain’s entry in our Look Back/Look Ahead Series on an unsuspecting Wednesday, and was greeted with a splendid variety of seasonal beers ranging from the tartest pink cranberry sours to the maltiest of burly smooth barleywines. My first interview was with head brewer Mick Hahn.

Solo: So, another year has passed and here we are looking back and looking ahead. You’ve been through a year, what have you learned? What are your successes? What would you like to do better, and what goals do you have for the coming year?

Mick: I’ve definitely learned a lot. I would say I take each batch with the notion of what can I learn from this. We just brewed a new batch of Hopshell IPA yesterday that I completely renovated the hop bill on it based on how we brewed Capspackler DIPA. Capspackler was a very adventurous imperial IPA for us to brew, it got close to 10 pounds of hops per barrel.

Solo: So you’re shooting the upper echelon of what other breweries are doing with their IPAs here in town.

Mick: With Hopshell we’re definitely not pushing up to that, but the way that we allocated those hops in the brew of Capspackler, that had more of an effect on what I’m doing with Hopshell now. How can we make it a little more balanced, a little more flavorful without losing a whole lot? It had a first-wort hop addition, a 90-minute hop addition, and then a 15 and a whirlpool. I don’t understand why we had it so split on the two ends of the boil. It was at 100 IBUs and about 60 IBUs were (lost) in the very beginning of the boil. That seems just wasteful to me; it gives it us real strong bitter punch that lingers as bitterness, but it really doesn’t fill out the flavor of that beer. And then, the hops on the back end gave it a bit of a ‘poof’ of flavor, but it subsides really quickly. So we kind of drew it out and dropped down on the early additions. We dropped the 90-minute addition and brought in a 60-minute addition, brought in a 30-minute addition and built up those hops towards the end instead of just having them on two sides of the brew. I think it will be much more appealing, much more of a consistent beer.

Solo: I’m doing somewhat of the same thing on the homebrewing front where I’m learning that there is a definite rhyme and reason to having a hop addition at one time versus another time, and what different variations in timing and quantity can really do to craft a particular flavor profile in different styles of beer. Especially these days in IPAs where you are likely going for that super juicy and fruit or floral flavor. Now it’s additions at 60 minutes or later and split, so that most additions are made closer to the end of your boil time so you aren’t losing that resin, that passionfruit or mango, and so forth in the face of too much bitterness.

Mick: Yesterday, we got our first round of the new hop bill of Hopshell done and it’s just a 10-barrel batch. Usually the Hopshell is being done in double batches and so we are going to brew another batch next week, (and then) do a double batch and kind of swing the hop bill back to where it was previously, but try to find a good middle ground between the two practices.

Solo: (After taking a sip of Capspackler DIPA) Good lord! What did you have in mind making this one?

Mick: So I did that one as a collaboration with Andrew Krosche (currently at Kellys, formerly of Chama River and Marble), and really we just did it kind of as a way to play around with hops and use a massive quantity of them and see what we could do. So each of us contributed two varieties of hops and we split the allocation, so it was even amounts of each of the four hops throughout. We did a first wort, a 60, a 30, a 15, and a whirlpool addition, and increased the amount of them each time. We started with half a pound of each of them at first wort, a pound of them at 60, two pounds at 30, and then just kept escalating until it was 10 pounds of each for the dry hop, so a 40-pound dry hop in a 10-barrel batch.

Solo: Craziness.

Mick: We yielded a little over seven barrels from it. Ten pounds per barrel is what it ended up being. It is my favorite IPA that I’ve made yet, and it excites me to make more experimental IPAs and really play with hop combinations and see what can evoke. Because for that one we did Summit, Mosaic, Amarillo, and Sorachi Ace, four of the stinkiest hops you can get. And then, they come together to make this insanely juicy fruity beer with resiny pine as an undertone. Capspackler is fantastic and it hides 9.5-percent ABV really well. I’ve heard a few of the servers in here fall in love with it who hate IPAs saying, yeah, this is pretty good. I was the same way, I never liked IPAs until I started drinking double IPAs or imperial IPAs. I think they are a much better balanced beer that showcase the hops in a much better way than most IPAs out there. Really, with Hopshell I’m trying to get it to the point where it’s as balanced and delicious as most of the double IPAs out there. Keeping it at 7-to-7.2-percent ABV, which is still a high-end IPA.

Solo: (After taking a deep quaff of Capspackler) That’s an interesting combination with the Sorachi Ace especially. The other three kind of make sense together, and then you throw that in there and it’s something really unique.

Mick: The Summit and the Amarillo are the two that I threw in, and Andrew had the Sorachi Ace and the Mosaic. We said alright, let’s go!

Solo: Let’s make an interesting tapestry of things that probably hasn’t been done very often if at all.

Mick: I get a little bit of grassiness from the Sorachi Ace and probably from the Summit, too. But, I don’t think it’s like taking a bag of grass clippings and adding them, I think it’s more like your neighbor just mowed their lawn and you can still catch a hint of that aroma and flavor.

Solo: It’s kind of like you went to an orchard and picked a little bit of every type of fruit that they had, and took a bite of each with each sip that you are taking. Pretty cool. It’s like the everlasting gobstopper of IPAs.

Mick: So what else did I learn and enjoy this year? Really, I have had so much fun brewing all of the beers this year. We’ve had a really diverse set of stuff coming out from the three different Yum Yums (kettle sours) we did over the summer, finishing with the Cosmic Yum Yum. We did two beers earlier this year playing around with toasted coconut, those were both a lot of fun, especially the Yum-Yum Colada. I thought that was a fantastic play on kettle sours and fruited beers, that was one of my favorites that I’ve ever brewed. I’m excited to brew that one again this year. We have some ideas for more kettle sours to try and keep expanding with what we’ve got going on. Tying into how we can best utilize our kitchen with the brewhouse, that’s one of my favorite advantages I think we have over a lot of other breweries is having a full-functioning kitchen that is adventurous and knowledgeable and is willing to help us. They get excited about pairing different beers with different food ideas. I want to get their help on more cask ideas and cask preparation, so that we can do some really good combinations of flavors.

Solo: Set up a good meal to go with a good cask.

Mick: Or to say, I picked up different clove, nutmeg, and ginger and oranges this morning, so that I can dose a cask. I think it would be great to have the kitchen on board to either give me those ideas or help in the preparation of the ingredients for the cask. A lot of what I’ve learned this year is the organization of the brewery, things coming in and things going out, timelines. How to maximize the efficiency of the brewery and keep everything looking great and tasting delicious.

Solo: Last year, there wasn’t particularly much in the way of maintenance on the brewery. You had it pretty well dialed in for what you were wanting.

Mick: There was a little bit of stuff where we got our steam piping renovated, because that was around a decade old. We got a new condenser, as well, and I think it has definitely improved the performance of our boiler and our steam jackets.

Head brewer Mick Hahn has had fun playing around with hops in the past year.

We then looked at what beers were being sent to this year’s World Beer Cup.

Solo: So, you’ve got two lagers (Wooden Teeth and Can’t Catch Me), a porter, and a barleywine.

Mick: We’ll do another batch of the porter before we send that one in. We’ve got a couple of tweaks on that one, but I’m pretty happy with how that came out this time.

Solo: Yeah, you’ve got a good solid base on this one. It’s very porter-y, it is not stoutish, it’s a porter for sure. You get that strong first half on your palate, and then the rest just washes back very nicely and cleanly as a good porter should.

Mick: It gives you a lot of fruit, a good amount of chocolate, and a little bit of coffee without getting too roasted.

Solo: In which case this would be a stout. (After a sip of Depravity Barleywine) I remember having this one just before it came out last year and then at this year’s New Mexico Brewfest, it has definitely changed in character over the course of a year.

Mick: I think I’m going to take be taking a keg of it to WinterBrew as well. I love that beer. (Editor’s note: He did take some. It was glorious. — S)

After trying a few other samples and discussing the merits of different types of red or amber lagers, which we both thoroughly enjoy (check out Can’t Catch Me if you haven’t!), we forged ahead looking at Turtle’s successes this past year.

Mick: Probably our biggest success this past year was the acquisition of our distribution license. We finally got that in, it took, coming up on 19 years now. We finally got some kegs that say Turtle Mountain on them. I think we’ve already doubled our total keg count since getting them initially. So we do have our beer pouring at Indigo Crow, that’s so far the only real expansion we’ve done with the distribution license, but little by little we are starting to pour beer elsewhere than the pub itself, and hopefully we will get some more tap handles out and get Turtle Mountain a little more recognized. It is amazing how often at festivals and whatnot (that) we still get people that say, “I’ve never even heard of you.” We’ve been in the same place for almost 20 years, or at least within a quarter mile of the same exact location.

Here be the kegs for TMBC’s first run at distribution.

Solo: People in this town, being that there is so much sprawl and not much mass transit, that is one of the biggest problems for getting out to new places. You’re on one side of town (and) if you don’t have a presence on the other side of town, then often people aren’t going to know about you. It’s just kind of the name of the game for business in this town, which is unfortunate because we have so many gems that get hidden on the hill.

Mick: But, I do enjoy us being a fairly, like you said, a hidden gem. It’s nice to not be overcrowded and be able to actually stand at the pub and have a beer without having to recluse myself to the brewery to escape everyone and too many things going on.

Solo: Yeah, the nice thing about here is that it has maintained that comfortable pub vibe in spite of the onset of changing times.

Mick: Even when we are 20 tickets deep, it is still a comfortable environment and I don’t feel overwhelmed here. Another big success was being able to nix pumpkin beer from our lineup this year and not have to brew that. That made me happy. Really, that just came down to the timeline, we were already backed up on specials coming into September and so that was the easiest thing to swap out.

Solo: We’re going to do a proper Oktoberfest instead.

Mick: Exactly! I would much rather do an Oktoberfest, and then we had the porter coming out and I think Cosmic Yum Yum is a really fantastic take on kind of a holiday beer. It goes great with cranberry sauce. You could sit down and have a turkey leg and a glass of the Yum Yum and be pretty content. We had a lot of fun brewing the Rise of Fall last year and doing a bunch of butternut squash in the oven, but I had a few things we wanted to tweak on that and didn’t really solidify any of them in time to do it. So now, I have a whole other year to make sure our pumpkin beer is great and we will do our best to schedule with some of the farmers so we can get butternut squash (at) the beginning of August. That will be fantastic, so that we can get that beer out by September and not have it sell out before Thanksgiving. That would make me quite happy.

Another big success, I would say, is the updating of the (food) menu. They got that out a couple of weeks ago with some fantastic dishes on there. The ribs are quite tender, you can just pull the bone straight out of the meat, it makes you happy. The fish tacos are fantastic, (and) the pork skewers with the pineapple habanero glaze that they’ve got whipped up is also available on the wings now. They’ve got a couple of other new wing sauces on there. We’ve got our charcuterie board on there, called turtle tidbits, with a variety of cheeses including house-made mozzarella which we are making daily. They’ve also been featuring that fresh cheese on one of the pizzas as well with the pomodoro sauce. We’ve also added the pomodoro sauce and an alfredo sauce both added to the pizza menu, so you can use those sauces as a base and build your own pizza in addition to the couple of new pizzas that have those featured. So we’ve got a handful of new options.

As for the year ahead, our biggest challenge is going to be construction on Southern Boulevard. They’ll be working on it pretty much all year starting in February and going through December. They will tear up on half of the road for six months, and then it will be one lane in each direction for the better part of 2018. Which is not going to make it easy to get in and out of here, so we are working on what we can to make sure that business stays steady through it and it doesn’t affect us too much. I believe Turtle has a loyal enough following that it won’t deter that many people. Hopefully we can win some medals at World Beer Cup and inspire some people to want to come in.

As far as the beer lineup is concerned, I’m really happy with the diversity of it. We’ve got lots of options in beers ranging from 4-percent up to 10-percent ABV, and from 18 IBUs up to 125 or more. We’ve got some stops all throughout it, a bunch of different colors, even pink.

Solo: There’s nothing wrong with pink. This last year was at least here in town an explosion of the kettle sour and it was just everywhere all year round.

Mick: I’ve been doing my best with the Yum Yum variants to keep the kettle sours exciting and not just, well, it’s a fruited gose. I want something with a little more depth, and so I’ve definitely tried with the Yum Yums to push the boundaries of what I can make a beer to be. I love hearing people say, “Whoa, this is beer?” and I say, “Hell yeah, this is beer.”

* * * * *

Shortly after speaking with Mick, I was able to sit down with owner Nico Ortiz and get his take on 2017-2018 for Turtle Mountain.

Solo: So, another year, another look back, look ahead for Turtle Mountain.

Nico: 2017 was a good year. We had Mick for his first full year so the beers are solid. Production remains flat with us being a one-unit place; we don’t have any offsite taprooms to bolster production. We got a new menu out, a revised menu which is good. (In) 2017 we didn’t open any new taprooms, no new much of anything, but I guess with Chama’s closure we now remain the oldest brewpub/restaurant brewery in the (metro area). We have somewhat of a source of pride for that. In 2018, we are finally going to sink some roots in for our taproom. We are still looking just like everybody else is saying, we are still looking at a place. I’d like to keep it on the west side, but the west side from our experience, looking at available spaces is tough. You either have the issue of churches or schools (nearby), and you’ve also got the issue of flat out, there’s just not a lot of available commercial space that is suitable for taprooms. There are issues of zoning; Rio Rancho is pretty uncomplicated with zoning, but we looked at one place that had three different zoning classes in one strip mall.

Solo: Which does happen here.

Nico: One of them allowed the sale of alcohol, but one of them required a restaurant license, no taproom licenses. It was crazy and I said this is the same center, but there were three different sets of rules. It is definitely complicated, but the big thing for 2018 is that the City of Rio Rancho is going to be completely rebuilding Southern Boulevard starting in March and going through March of 2019. That’s going to seriously restrict traffic here. I don’t think it is going to be as bad as the ART project, but 36th Place (where the brewpub is located) only has one way in and one way out, that’s the problem.

The rest of Southern Boulevard, the reconstruction zone you can get at from side streets from the north or south, and so we are busy working with the city to try to get access to the parking lot by the library that we used to have. The timeliness of the taproom is key because as revenue goes down here, we need to bring in the revenue from somewhere else, because a place this big cannot simply cut revenues and expect it to still function. So it is very very important for us to get a portion of that lost revenue back from a taproom because just the mortgage on this place is big. So that’s our big thing for the year. Also Mick, just like Tim (Woodward), is frustrated because we only have one place. The throughput on the beer is really regulated by how much beer we can sell here, whereas if we could kick beer off and sell it to a taproom then that’s good, because he can actually get more beer through the pipeline and have more specials and things like that.

We have our wholesaler license in place. We’re slowly establishing some accounts locally in Corrales and a few in Rio Rancho. We got an order of kegs in so we have some stuff going on, but along with the kegs you have to have a delivery vehicle, you have to have a person cleaning lines, and then you have to have the accounting set up. So it’s not just as easy as simply filling kegs and selling them. The license was the easy part.

Solo: It is setting up the infrastructure as we’ve discussed.

Feast upon the new food items on the TMBC menu.

Nico: Exactly, so 2018 that will definitely happen and we will be peddling more of our wares around the area. In March, we will turn 19, so we are not quite at the 20-year club, but 19 years is still pretty solid. I should have probably been a little farther ahead than where I am right now, but we had a couple of issues. We had a taproom in the East Mountains from ’03 to ’05 that was silly, but I was young at that point. We had a restaurant taproom out in the Mariposa subdivision which was a little too far afield, and then we ran into the 2008 recession. So that was kind of bad timing. The next taproom is going to be well thought out, it is not going to be a calculated risk or an educated guess. We are going to put it someplace where it is going to work. I figure after 19 years I should know what the hell is going on. It took Rod up at Second Street Brewing awhile to get a taproom as well. They are (21) years old and they just finally got their Rufina Street facility.

Solo: Any plans for the anniversary as of yet?

Nico: Yeah, Mick and I are still working on the anniversary, but I think we are going to go back to our very first anniversary beer which was called Amnesia. It was a recipe actually built for us by one of our assistant brewers, kind of an Arrogant Bastard-inspired beer, so it was 8-percent ABV, 80 IBUs (that) used exclusively German Northern Brewer, and it had the unique quality of you have two or three pints of it and you would just forget the evening. It was weird in that I don’t know why it did it only being an 8-percent beer, not like 10- or 13-percent. Mick and I were going through the old recipe book and trying to figure it out. Everyone likes to do IPAs, double IPAs for their anniversary to the point that it’s kind of passé to do an IPA for an anniversary beer. I thought, let’s try something different, so Turtle having 19 years of brewing history, we have a lot of old recipes we can go through. The Amnesia is one of those beers where the last time we made it was years back, and we’ve kind of been integrating some throwback beers into our lineup.

Solo: Arsenal Porter for one.

Nico: Yeah, Arsenal Porter and the (Mr. Hoover’s) Steam, (plus) the Red Rye was an original beer. So it is kind of fun and it takes a little pressure off of Mick to dream up something interesting. The Amnesia is a solid beer and it does hearken back to the people that have been coming into Turtle Mountain all of these years. They will recognize it and it will be good. Then, in 2019 we have our 20th anniversary, so at that point we will have something much bigger. But, for this year we will have a brewer’s dinner, we will have the usual celebration. Not kind of like a week-long celebration that other breweries can get away with, but we will definitely have something good out here.

* * * * *

Good things are definitely in the works for the coming year, with great brews in the pipeline, an updated (and delicious) menu, a taproom hopefully nailed down by summertime, and the 19th anniversary coming in just a few short weeks. Cheers to another successful year on the hill, Turtle!

Skål!

— Franz Solo

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