Back at the start of the month, before things got a wee bit crazy in the old work schedule (not to mention lots of breaking beer news), Franz Solo and I went on a two-brewery trip east of Albuquerque for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series. We already chronicled our visit to Sierra Blanca, so it was high time I typed up our interview with brewer/owner Patrick Johnson of Ale Republic.
We visited on a quiet Thursday, which did give us a nice chance to take a tour of the property and not take Patrick away from his work for too long. The past year has been one of learning on the fly for Ale Republic, the lone brewery in the East Mountains. Specifically located in Cedar Crest on Highway 14, it is a craft beer oasis in a mostly rural area, one that lacked winter tourists with the scant snowfall. Its location also presents some unique challenges, as Patrick and the rest of the Ale Republic discovered.
“It’s a lot better than where we were (last year),” Patrick said. “I’m pretty happy with some of the beers we’re making. Some of them need some work, but that’s cool. The main issue we’re having right now is water. It’s so dry that wells are running dry and as soon as you drill a new well, the water is completely different. It’s absurd.”
There is no city water system to tap into for Ale Republic, and the recent drought has done the small brewery no favors, as Patrick mentioned. All of that has led to some significant variances in the beers.
“It’s just something that we need to sort out,” he said. “We just drilled a new well (and) the water is 100-percent perfect brewing water. … I looked up a dozen different water chemistries for IPAs, which is a standard ale, and averaged them all, and this water is that average. You don’t have to do any (special) filtration or any of that.”
Patrick said the previous well that the brewery used featured some extremely hard water.
“With the Belgians, it doesn’t matter too much, like the Dark Strong, for example,” he said. “For the non-Belgians, our IPA just tasted off/odd. It was a metallic flavor from the hard water. Which sucks, because people want to drink IPAs, and our IPA was just weird.
“The old water was super hard and the well was running dry. We had to drill a new one, which had perfect water chemistry, but then the new well went dry. We’re trying to find a nice medium. If we can’t figure that out, we’re going to have to truck water in, which sucks, but you have to do it.”
Water is not the only challenge that Ale Republic has faced.
“Customers, we don’t get as many people from Albuquerque as we thought (we would),” Patrick said. “Most are people who live up here and some people who are recreating. Snow has been terrible. Lots of mountain bikers, that’s probably our biggest external market.”
A bicycle product demonstration event held on the brewery property last year produced the largest single-day crowd. Otherwise, Ale Republic is learning how to adapt to the tastes of its primarily local customer base.
“It’s been interesting learning about this community,” Patrick said. “It’s kind of a smaller market here, so you have to cater. We always have (La Cumbre’s) Beer on tap. We always have the cider. Some folks, that’s all they want. I’m sure it’s personalities (similar to) what people in Albuquerque have to deal with, but it’s such a smaller market to deal with.”
The good news is that Ale Republic can now make more of its own beer thanks to the arrival of new equipment.
“We just finished installing all of our 3-barrel system,” Patrick said. “We have some new tanks, (and) we have some old tanks from Kellys, their 3-barrels. We got some old tanks from La Cumbre (too). We’re finally out of the beer bottleneck. Our bottleneck right now is storage. We’ve got tons of beer in the brewhouse, waiting to go somewhere, and nowhere to put it. That’s a good problem to have. We need to order probably a couple brights and then a bunch of kegs.”
Patrick said Ale Republic is working on getting its wholesaler license to start sending beer over the mountain to Albuquerque. He added that Hops Brewery has expressed interest in putting Ale Republic beers on tap in Nob Hill.
“Going forward, in-house we’ll have the standard American beers that people want, but to distribute I think we’re going to focus on probably three, maybe four Belgians,” Patrick said.
Ale Republic will take a careful approach to distributing its beers, making sure to stay mindful of how things change in the brewing world at large.
“We’ll see, the whole game it’s going to see how it’s going to play out in the next 10 years,” Patrick said. “I don’t know if we want to can or if we want to bottle. We did these (Snap Crackle Stout bottles) by hand. It was tedious, but it worked.”
As for the in-house audience, the food issue was a big one in 2017, but Ale Republic has a new plan going forward.
“The food thing, that’s another thing,” Patrick said. “We just wanted to do beer. I love cooking, but I don’t want to do it commercially. We opened and we thought food trucks would come up here. Food trucks don’t want to come up here. That’s too far, they said. It’s probably less hard on your vehicle because you don’t have to stop and start so much, but whatever. There was one food truck that started up here. They were here about two or three days a week, but the food was not very good. That reflected bad on us.”
The new plan fits with the creativity found in the brewery itself.
“We’re doing these little pop-up kitchens,” Patrick said. “Tomorrow, we’re just doing wings, that’s it. In the future it will be one menu item, and then we’ll try out some (different) recipes. We did one for fries. We’ll do paninis, simple but nice. We’ll do tacos.”
There are other plans afoot for 2018 and beyond that will require some heavier lifting.
“We are acquiring the back building,” Patrick said. “That’s going to be the brewhouse. It will be in a separate building. We can focus on things back there. We’ll have a kitchen, we’ll have all of our own beers, maybe one or two guest taps. We’ll be there within like three months. It will be more of a normal space.”
The current home of the brewhouse and associated tanks is fairly cramped, so moving into the taller back building will certainly help. It will require a fair amount of cleanup and re-purposing, but it is a hopeful development. While that is in the near future, Patrick said that Ale Republic has big plans for much of the remaining three acres of property.
“The next big point of focus is going to be outside,” he said. “We’re going to build a really sweet patio. We’re going to put in some games up on the hill. Eventually we’re going to build a really sweet walk-in beer garden. … We have three acres. We’re going to build a trail, have some fountains. We’re going to build a place where people from Albuquerque can come up, go for a hike, then come in and have a beer.”
For those of us who visit sporadically, the changes at Ale Republic are big and obvious. For the more frequent customers, it may seem like things are moving slowly, but Patrick assured us that is not the case.
“We’ve done a lot in the last year,” he said. “We didn’t have growlers for a long time. We have eight beers on tap right now. We have four or five more styles ready to go, we just don’t have kegs to put them in. But it’s 180 degrees from six months ago.”
Overall, things are looking up on the mountain, but Ale Republic still has a ways to go to cement its place in the New Mexico beer scene.
“To summarize everything, or put in an easy summary, we’re almost into a spot where we can really grow and really have a good life,” Patrick said. “We haven’t been able to grow too much yet except for buying the 3-barrel setup. But still, it’s small compared to the bigger breweries.”
A big thanks to Patrick for the time, the tour, and the beers. We also appreciate his patience when it came to waiting for this story to finally get typed up.