Sierra Blanca Brewing put itself back on the map in 2017 and has no intention of disappearing again this year. The big/little brewery in Moriarty took home a number of medals and began to repackage and relabel many of its long-time beers.
To catch up on this buzz of activity east of the Sandias for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series, Franz Solo and I drove out to visit last week. We were greeted by general manager Tasha Isbell and Devin Myers, the new events and social media coordinator. Owner/brewer Rich Weber was busy in the brewery, making sure everything was running smoothly from the brewhouse to the bottling line.
“We’re still running a really tight ship as far as production (goes),” Tasha said. “Rich is honing in the recipes. He’s doing a lot more on quality control. We’re sinking our teeth into that more. We’re still doing it all with a really small group. We did 9,200 barrels and including our taproom we had 12 (full-time) employees.”
Devin noted that production was already double what it was in 2017 through the first two months of this year.
A lot of that has to do with the awards Sierra Blanca pulled in for last year. Cherry Wheat was the big winner, bringing the brewery just its second Great American Beer Festival gold medal in October, following what is now Bone Chiller Brown Ale winning gold back in 2012.
“We started bottling it in March of last year,” Tasha said. “We developed that recipe in 2016, we started it kegging it (that year). Once we figured out the secret with the cherries, we started bottling it. We won three gold medals with it last year.”
The other golds came at the World Beer Championship and CraftTastings.com awards. In addition to Cherry Wheat taking off, other beers shined at another fall competition.
“Then at the Best of Craft Beer Awards in Bend, Oregon, we won gold again with our Pancho (Green Chile Cerveza),” Tasha said. “In 2016 we won gold, in 2018 we won gold. Then we won silver for our Milk Stout.”
While the beers are racking up the medals, a major shift in how they look is taking place at Sierra Blanca. The old Rio Grande Brewing labels are being phased out, with Desert Pils now rebranded as Sierra Blanca Pilsner. Outlaw Lager and the aforementioned Pancho will follow later this year. The change in labels on the latter will come at a special festival that the brewery will host.
“We’re having a green chile festival this year (in August or September),” Tasha said. “We’re redoing the green chile packaging, getting rid of the old Rio Grande (label). We’ll do a big old festival and do a release party at that time when we have all the chile out here roasting for the next batch of beer.”
The old Rio Grande IPA is also being redone as the Alien IPA, taking advantage of one popular series of labels that are not going away.
“I do like the personality of taps,” Devin said. “Alien, that’s what people really like. That’s half the reason people drink the Alien beer. … We’re really pushing the Sierra Blanca brand. That’s what we’re narrowing it down to and all.”
Tasha said that the Whiskey Stout was another big hit this year. The brewery went from 240 cases and around 50 slims for sales and distribution, but now the slims are out and there were only four or five cases left at the brewery.
These days, of course, it is not just about the beer. Sierra Blanca in the past was largely just about packaging and distribution out of the brewery, but more recently an effort has been launched to turn it into a destination brewery. That included the completion of the spacious beer garden in 2016, and now with Devin on board, the goal is to get even more people to visit with more events and festivals.
“Everybody here has like five jobs,” Devin said. “To have (Tasha) and the owners be in charge of the food trucks, that’s too much of a headache. When I stepped in I kind of took over all of that stuff. We’re getting it a little more hopping here, just like all the other breweries.”
The first winter for the beer garden was pretty slow in 2016-17, so Devin made an effort to keep people visiting year round.
“It used to be people weren’t coming out here over the winter time,” he said. “I found that if you’ve got a food truck, people are going to come out. Heck, if you just have hot dogs for sale, they’ll come out. I’ve been really pushing that, keeping people coming out. I’ve taken over social media, just pushing, pushing, pushing that. We’ve got a pot luck dinner every couple weeks. We have so many people come out here for that one. It’s a fun night to come, every second Tuesday.”
There are also dollar-off pints on Mondays, and veterans and active duty military get a dollar off their pints year round, Devin added. All in all, Sierra Blanca is committed to having a set weekly schedule of events and specials. Trying something a little different, the brewery is switching from Taco Tuesday to Tamale Tuesday. There will be a DJ and possibly wine specials on Wednesdays this year, plus an open mic night on Thursdays that Devin will host. As a musician himself, Devin has quickly dialed in things in terms of getting live performers to drive out from Albuquerque and even points beyond.
“I pretty much have all the music booked out all the way to the fall, all the music and all the food trucks pretty much until it gets cold again,” he said.
To keep the beer geeks interested, Tasha said they have installed a 3-barrel brewing system that will be used to make specialty, seasonal, and experimental beers that will just be sold on site. Those should start appearing on tap quite soon. The newest seasonal available during our visit was Natalie Portman, a traditional porter.
To draw in some first-time visitors, Sierra Blanca is once again participating in the Brew Passport with Albuquerque The Magazine. Tasha noted that was a huge draw for people to come visit last year.
“They come out here and then they fall in love with (the brewery),” she said.
Tourists, both local and from out of state (even outside the country), still make up a big portion of the weekly visitors to Sierra Blanca.
“We get a lot of tourists, too,” Devin said. “Our Oktoberfest is a big thing, St. Patty’s Day is a big thing. We get a lot of people out here for events. We get a lot of I-40 travelers. I’d say we get at least 10 to 15 tourists in here a day.”
There will also be a horseshoe tournament taking place in the beer garden in June, Tasha said. Last year, about 20 teams showed up, but this year Sierra Blanca is expecting double that number.
“That will raise a lot of money and we’ll give it to a local veteran,” she said. “We’re really trying to increase our local outreach to people who need the help.”
Add it all up, and one of the oldest breweries in the state (founded in 1996) is doing plenty of hard work to stay relevant in the crowded New Mexico beer scene. We thank Devin and Tasha for taking the time to chat, and for a few small pours of beer, too.