Bathtub Row has yet another new head brewer, the third in its brief history. Stepping into the role is Brandon Venaglia, who was previously at Cazuela’s in Rio Rancho. (For some historical perspective, Stoutmeister did a DSBC interview with him in 2014 when he was with Back Alley Draft House.) We stopped by the Tub on a quiet weekday afternoon to get to know him. It was an interesting, if somewhat digressive conversation.
(Note that we will be doing a second post soon covering Bathtub Row for the Look Back/Look Ahead Series, so this post focuses mainly on Brandon personally.)
Brandon got into brewing as most people do, as a hobby. He wasn’t even 21, so brewing and distilling were a means to an end back then. We wondered whether such activity at that age is even legal; in a way it seems like of course it should be, but the law sometimes frowns on such endeavors. He grew up in Corrales and bought his supplies from Victor’s Grape Arbor homebrew supply shop. Brandon became friends with Victor and his daughter, and even came to acquire some of Victor’s brewing recipes. One in particular Brandon said was a “cocoa puff stout,” which is likely just as you would imagine it. He would only speculate that he might brew that and others as part of his new job.
Corrales was and still is a small town, despite being so close to Albuquerque. Businesses, and in particular breweries, have always had a difficult time operating there because, of all things, sewage is a problem. That problem was apparently recently solved, and Brandon hinted that he had heard that a new brewery would be opening there. (Editor’s note: More on that is on the way, I promise. — S) This led to a discussion of a few sad brewery closures — Stumbling Steer, which was not far away, and Chama River, which we all knew and loved. Well, most of us, because Brandon had never actually been to Chama River’s main location, preferring the downtown taproom. We mused that maybe the upscale food ambitions of both places had been their downfall.
Brandon’s first paid job was at the Back Alley Draft House in downtown Albuquerque. Things were fine there, and he said out that they did well at the State Fair competition. As often happens in this business, he moved on to a job at Cazuela’s in Rio Rancho. Brandon spent two-and-a-half years there before his current gig at Bathtub Row, which he officially started on December 1. Cazuela’s had been brewing their own beer around five years before Brandon arrived; the previous brewer, Mike Campbell moved on to open Drafty Kilt. I mentioned that we enjoyed Cazuela’s beer and Mexican food menu those times that we remembered to get up to Rio Rancho. In particular, my wife loves the Cojones Azules, a strong malt liquor made with blue corn, and I like the Papacabra, a nearly 10-percent ABV DIPA. (Maybe it says something about us that we liked two of the strongest entries on the menu … nah.) Brandon said he thought the Papacabra and Chupacabra (the regular IPA) were too similar.
“(The previous brewer) was taking Chupacabra and just adding more grain and hops,” Brandon said. “I wanted Papacabra and Chupacabra to be two different beers. The malts [I used] were different and the hops were different. The Papacabra was just 100-percent one type of malt, Maris Otter.”
This example of creative drive is something that came through during the entire interview.
History is something that Brandon clearly has a keen appreciation for. As he pointed out, brewing and distilling are processes that humans have been doing for thousands of years. He said that he wants to try various styles from different historical periods, including an 1800s British-style ale, a traditional British IPA, and a 1700s era porter. Brandon mentioned that Ballantine had an IPA before Prohibition, and that Pabst now owns that brand. Not too long ago, they released a limited edition IPA that was supposed to be like the original, but really, it wasn’t. The hops they used didn’t even exist at the time of the original, Brandon explained. For various reasons, duplicating a historical recipe is difficult.
“Malting has all changed,” Brandon said. “There are ways to be in the spirit. Brown malt today isn’t what brown malt was 200 years ago. It was actually diacetic and had enzymes in it. As a result, porter back then isn’t the same as porter today.”
Such historical perspective is often lost on brewers today.
“I think modern brewers see a history that just starts at essentially a few years ago,” Brandon said. “And it makes sense given the growth of the industry, but there’s thousands of years of history in fermenting beverages. I don’t want us to just do beer. (Bathtub Row is) getting our wine/mead/cider license so we can do pretty much anything we want. We’ll brew a cider. We have a customer base here that will at least try anything. They’re enthusiastic and curious.”
Brandon was lured to Los Alamos by a combination of a raise and the prospect of living in a great little community. The seed for this change was planted a few years ago when he came up to do a collaboration with Hector, Bathtub Row’s first brewer. Since Brandon has a family, Los Alamos’ excellent school system also strongly appealed to him, as well as the nearby outdoor activities. He said he also has a great appreciation for the co-op business model that Bathtub Row operates under, and the people that work there, such as Doug Osborn, the general manager. Brandon said he is planning to stick around for many years.
As one can imagine, the menu at Bathtub Row will stay interesting and varied, as it was under the previous brewers. Brandon said he appreciates all beers in general, but he loves lagers and plans to always have a light lager available.
“I plan on a lot of lagers,” he said. “I like the challenge of light lagers; it’s left-brained brewing, analytical. It’s all about process. We have a great process here.”
Brandon has made minor modifications to the always-popular Hoppenheimer IPA, with an implied, but mysterious, goal in mind. On tap at the time of the interview was Hoppen Mother, a mix of Hoppenheimer and the bourbon barrel-aged Crazy Mother.
“I dry hopped it with Mosaic, Chinook, and Citra or Cascade,” Brandon said. “We had a bunch of Mosaic that wasn’t being used, so let’s throw it in there. Post-barrel dry-hopped it for about four-to-five days and then kegged it off. Once that’s done, we’ll be going back to what was supposed to be a bourbon barrel brown, but it was so dark and so big that we called it an imperial stout.”
Speaking of stouts, coming up next will be Brandon’s own take on a stout for the third annual Stout Invitational being held at Bathtub Row on Saturday, February 17. It will likely be something modest, such as an oatmeal stout. Tickets for the event, which will be a treat for any stout lover, can be purchased at Bathtub Row or online.
If you haven’t been to Los Alamos yet, come visit and see how Brandon has been honing his craft.