Starr Brothers Brewing has just passed its two-year anniversary last weekend, and is no longer the new kid on the brewing block. The brewery has established itself with a welcoming Northeast Heights taproom and a solid lineup of house beers. To catch up on all that went down in the past year and what is to come in 2018, I sat down with John and Heather Starr, founders of Starr Brothers Brewing, along with head brewer Rob Whitlock, for our Look Back/Look Ahead series.
Creating a space for all types of beer drinkers
“I always wanted to own a bar,” John said. “But, as we discovered craft breweries in our travels, I shifted focus and decided to go this route. I knew the craft beer scene was blowing up in New Mexico, and figured the time was right to go for it.”
John said he wanted to create a public house-style place, similar to the Deschutes Brewery Public House in Portland, Oregon. He wanted a very approachable space where people felt comfortable whether or not they were craft beer aficionados. The taproom is situated within my daily orbit in Albuquerque, and I drop in regularly for lunch with colleagues and clients. I can confirm that this place is, indeed, an accessible space for everyone, no matter where they might be on the spectrum as a beer lover.
Heather is the president of the company, and many people may be unaware that Starr Brothers Brewing is actually a woman-owned business. It’s a small, family operation with Heather and John at the center running the operations, Rob as head brewer, and Derek Minero as general manager. (Editor’s note: The Starr Brothers are actually John and Heather’s sons, whom John once said he hopes to leave the business to someday. — S)
Last year proved to be a big one for their small team. They opened up their back room to expand their fermentation capacity, growing from 36 to 96 barrels. The expansion spanned a three-month buildout and allowed Starr Brothers to increase its tap handles around the city. Even without a dedicated salesperson, they are now self-distributing to locations such as Blue Grasshopper, B2B, Matanza, Route 66 Casino, Silva Lanes Bowling Alley, The Pit, and a range of other places. The tap handles stay in place once established, a fact that makes John proud.
The taproom is also popular for its food. Even without a head chef, the kitchen staff offers up consistent pub fare (including delicious tacos) that has a loyal following. John said they had professional help creating the menu, and points to the competency of his staff as the cornerstone of the kitchen’s success in dishing out a high-quality product.
Crafting a solid lineup
Rob pointed to their house blonde ale as the “gateway” beer best to induct people new to craft brews into his world. Currently, house offerings include the blonde (L.A. Woman, 5.4% ABV; 16 IBU), Starrstruck IPA (7.2% ABV; 82 IBU), Lampshade Porter (7.6% ABV; 27 IBU), Red Zeppelin (7.6% ABV; 28 IBU), and Brown Chicken Brown Cow (6.4% ABV; 24 IBU). All of these staple brews are balanced, drinkable, and don’t venture too far out of bounds from classic styles, matching the taproom’s approachability with what’s served up there.
When asked how John and Rob got connected, John said they were introduced through a mutual friend when he was planning the brewery.
“I wanted someone different, from outside the scene who could bring something new to it,” John said. “What got me so excited about Rob was that he was so passionate about what he did as a home brewer, and I respected the way he approached his brewing as if he were already a professional.”
Rob brought his own recipes with him to Starr Brothers, establishing the stable of house beers and laying the foundation for the seasonal and experimental brews he’s created since. When the taproom opened on January 18, 2016, they launched with guest taps from local breweries until their permits were approved. On April 8, 2016, they started pouring Rob’s brews from their tap handles.
“We really have two anniversaries,” Rob said. “It’ll be two years in April since we started pouring our own beer, and so we get to have another celebration.”
In rotation with the house beers are seasonal fruity wheat beers for summer, an experimental pumpkin yam ale for fall (Jack Tooth Grin, 6.1% ABV; 25 IBU), and rich, dark brews for winter. The Anniversary Stout, just released for their opening date anniversary, is slightly sweet with chocolate notes and incredibly drinkable with just a hint of smokiness. It’s a twist on Rob’s popular Zombies in the Manger stout (6.5% ABV; 20 IBU).
On the specialty hop-forward side of things, the Starrgazm New England IPA (7.5% ABV; 75 IBU) took fifth in last year’s IPA Challenge.
Full disclosure — I might have bullied Rob into putting my favorite seasonal (I wish it was a staple beer) on to brew. The Phantom Limb (7.2% ABV; 58 IBU) is a black rye IPA that nails it, in my opinion. I spent years in Northern Vermont where black IPAs were standard, and in the six years I’ve lived in New Mexico, I’ve been on the lookout for a replacement for the ones I left behind. This is it. Its hoppiness is accentuated by the dryness of the rye, and the dark Cascadian base makes it smooth and sessionable. Rob said it should hit the taps in a couple of weeks. You can bet that you’ll find me there when it does.
“It’s all about balance for me,” Rob said. “The biggest part about a beer to me is the finish.”
With an increased capacity, Starr Brothers is going to be pumping out a wider variety of beers. Rob said he’s been going back through his original recipes and making small tweaks to his staple brews. He’s also planning a greater range of seasonals and is looking to experiment with barrel-aging this year.
The pilsner that’s been on in the taproom is excellent, and a great representation of a dry, German-style lager. The Blackfriday dark American lager (5.9% ABV; 13 IBU) is a balanced lager that’s not too malty with rich undertones. Last year, Starr Brothers collaborated with the now-defunct Chama River and produced the popular Oakey Smokey. The staff is looking forward to more collaborations in the year ahead.
“Rob is making a great, quality product, and he has a natural mind and palate for brewing great beer,” John said. “He gets the way everything works chemically. We’ve been able to accomplish a lot, and 2018 is going to be another year of growth for us.”
In 2017, Starr Brothers produced 765 barrels (about 23,000 gallons). This year, it will exceed 1,000 barrels thanks to the expansion. Rob brewed seven barrels of Oktoberfest in 2016 and it was gone in eight days. Last year, he brewed 15 barrels of it and it kicked in about 20 days. This year, with their expanded capacity, watch for more.
This year, outside the taproom and the tap handles around town, you will be able to find Starr Brothers at BearFest, Bacon & Brews, the Celtic Festival at Balloon Fiesta Park, and other events yet to be announced. And, if you haven’t been to their taproom at 5700 San Antonio Drive NE, head in for what’s sure to be a good time with their friendly service, approachable atmosphere, and excellent craft brews. Veterans, firefighters, law enforcement and public service workers all receive discounts on site.
We’ll see you there on April 8 to celebrate the second anniversary of serving up great craft beer to Albuquerque. And, we’ll be watching to see what Heather, John, Rob, Derek and crew cook up in the meantime.