Red River Brewing Company opens up a whole new frontier to beer

Posted: June 13, 2018 by Luke in New Brewery Preview
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If you’re gonna build a brewery in the mountains, go big.

A little back story: When I began learning about beer, real beer, all those years ago, it was because I had a dream of opening a brewery in a very specific location. This dream led to homebrewing, joining the local homebrew club, writing about beer for the Dark Side, and then working for a brewery for a minute or two. Long ago, I had wanted to open a brewery in Red River, one of my favorite mountain towns, a place I go every year for Oktoberfest. It’s been quite a few years after I had that initial dream, and since, I’ve found my place in the industry as a writer instead. And, though I no longer have any inclination to run a brewery, I still believed, wholeheartedly, that Red River wanted a brewery; no, it needed one.

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RRBC at Bacon & Brews prior to opening. From center to right, owner Michael Calhoun, son Chris Calhoun, and wife Sharon Calhoun. (I’m sorry I don’t know the other two nice ladies.)

Red River Brewing Company (RRBC) officially opened its doors to the public on Friday, May 25, right at the start of Memorial Day weekend. And, for one family, it’s been quite the ride from which they still have yet to come down.

I recently visited Red River with family from Norway. During that time, I was able to schedule an interview with the owner and his son, at some point between a hike and a chairlift ride. Though they wouldn’t be open for a couple of hours, owner Michael Calhoun let me in through the back with the grain. And, standing there next to the shiny brewhouse, I asked him how it all got started.

“The Calhoun family has always been into craft beer,” Michael said. “Sharon, my wife, and I grew up here. We were born and raised in Red River. And then, we were in Los Alamos for a while. When Bathtub Row (Brewing Co-op), opened up, we were having such a fantastic time at that place, that we realized that Red River could really benefit from having a brewery up there. And, my wife and I were looking for an excuse to get back up here to Red River. My dad, who’s involved in this business, had this awesome piece of land. This location, it’s phenomenal! My brother is an architect, and he was itching to do another project here in Red River. So, all these planets just lined up, and it just made sense. Everybody in the family was on board, so we just decided to do it.”

Getting started

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Back on September 30, 2017, there was just a foundation and a dream.

As with all brewery-related buildouts (ever), the construction took longer than anticipated. But, this comes as no surprise to any of us beer-folk who have ever waited for a brewery to open for several painfully-long months, only to see our rocket-ship dreams of exploring a new moon’s worth of beer territory never leave the runway. Maybe the permits were unable to be signed, or there was trouble with the fire codes, issues with copyright, or whatever the case may be to cause the much-anticipated spring opening of a brewery to now look more like a tentative opening in summer.

In the brewery business, we know that delays are the rule, not the exception. And yet, when it all works out, and the beer gets here precisely when it means to, just as a wizard might. And, let’s all admit it out loud together, beer takes time, and it’s better when it’s not rushed.

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Big deliveries meant big snows for Red River, like washing a car used to mean we’d get rain. (Photo courtesy of Red River Brewing Company.)

Delays and all, Red River Brewing Company plowed through, like a forklift in the snow, yet, much more literal than figurative. The Van Gieson and Company contractors and Calhoun teams worked relentlessly, building and crafting long hours into cold nights, and sometimes beneath a blanket of snow, as Red River may have been the only town in New Mexico to receive any this season.

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Assistant brewer Allen Withrow sands tables in the presence of fierce animals. He’s been with RRBC since nearly the beginning. (Photo courtesy of RRBC)

They built in the rain and in the presence of fierce animals, but at last, they opened their doors, ready for business just before Memorial Day weekend, during one of Red River’s largest events, the 36th Annual Red River Memorial Motorcycle Rally. Talk about brave as hell and tough as nails. They must have descended from hardy frontier folk. Think you had a rough soft opening? Ask the Calhouns how it went.

“Bonkers,” Michael Calhoun said. “I would have preferred to be open in February, but that’s just not how it happened. We had fantastic business! The beer was awesome and flowing freely, and the crowd up here for Memorial Day weekend was just here to have fun. It was bumpy, of course. I wouldn’t recommend a business opening that particular weekend, but the only thing worse than opening on Memorial Day weekend is not being open.”

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The Memorial Day opening was bonkers, indeed. (Photo courtesy of RRBC)

Fortunately, it was well-planned enough for all involved, that they survived their first blizzard of a weekend successfully, and amazingly enough, they had done it while remaining under budget. And, they did it together as a family.

As I mentioned, RRBC is very much a family business. To recap, Michael’s father is involved, his brother designed it, and he and his wife run it. Their sons are both involved, as well. Steven, a graphic designer, designed the logo and the menus, and then his brother, Chris, just so happens to be the head brewer.

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Head brewer Chris Calhoun sips his own creation with us.

I got to speak with Chris for a bit before he gave me the grand tour of the gorgeous space made of timber, steel, and thunder. I was excited to know what it was like to be a head brewer, just shy of being old enough to rent a car.

Chris studied biology and chemistry in college, and he was going to grad school for chemical engineering up at Montana State in Bozeman. That was around the time his family got started on the RRBC project.

“I was pretty excited about it,” he said. “I was trying to be involved and help them with the design of the brewery and the equipment. I was trying to do it remotely, but I soon realized that this was such a cool project, and I wasn’t enjoying grad school very much. (Laughs) So, my dad, half-jokingly, said I should come and be the brewer.”

At first, Chris was reluctant. He was in the middle of studying. It sounded fun, but he wasn’t yet convinced that it was a viable option.

“But, I realized what a cool thing they were doing here,” Chris said. “It was my parents, my uncle, my grandparents, my brother, and they built something amazing. I really wanted to be involved. And so we decided that if we’re going to do this, I’m going to need to learn how to brew.”

Chris had the science background, but he admitted, “There’s just so much you still have to learn, practical knowledge.”

But where would he get this knowledge from? To answer that, you’d have to know that RRBC’s brewing equipment came from Rocky Mountain Vessels in Montrose, Colorado. While Michael was up there, he wanted to see the equipment in action in a working brewery. Rocky Mountain Vessels pointed him in the direction of Ouray Brewery and co-founder and brewer, Erin Eddy.

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Snapped on my way passing through, one week before this interview.

Over time, Erin was really helpful via correspondence, answering questions, providing guidance here and there on brewhouse size, as well as whatever other equipment they might need to get the facility up and running. There was only one piece of the puzzle missing. And so, the Calhouns asked Eddy, nicely, I’m sure, if he needed some unpaid help in the brewhouse, perhaps an assistant or an apprentice.

Chris Calhoun arrived in Ouray on a Sunday night. He was brewing at 6 in the morning the next day. He spent four months at Ouray Brewery with Eddy and his girlfriend/partner/co-head brewer Pacie Merling. There, Chris learned brewing, cellaring, carbonating, and of course, cleaning. Eddy and Merling proved to be great teachers, giving Chris the tools he needed to lead his own brewhouse one day. It’s an amazing thing to give a kid a chance to learn. Funny enough, when Erin Eddy decided to open up Ouray Brewery just off the main drag of town all those years ago, he’d never brewed a day in his life.

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The RRBC pilot system has gotten plenty of use.

After four months of “brew school of hard knocks,” Chris returned to Red River to set up the brewhouse. With beer as the priority, the contractors finished the brewery part of the building first, so that RRBC could brew while the rest of the building was under construction. It gave Chris plenty of time to play around with recipes on their pilot system, and then work out the kinks on the production system. At the time of the interview (June 2), on their 7-barrel brewhouse, they’d already brewed 22 batches so far, producing close to 150 barrels. They began in March, and most of the recipes Chris brewed on the pilot system made their way into the taps today.

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RRBC’s 7-barrel brewhouse has been put through plenty of work so far.

Food

Before I get into the beer, I’ll quickly mention the food, as it’s just as important to this town as the beer now flowing in its veins. From what I know through my years of visiting this town, RRBC should absolutely be the exciting place to eat in Red River. Their menu is about what you would expect from a big-kitchen brewpub, yet reasonably-priced and with good-sized portions. The menu features surf and turf, soups and salads, burgers, sandwiches, baked potatoes, and desserts (and yes, Andrew, there is beer cheese) — all created with the Red River clientele in mind, by the Calhoun family in conjunction with Chef Steve Garrett, a man with 12 years of Red River experience. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to try anything, as they weren’t open for lunch, and that was my only time to sneak away from my family. But, at risk of beating a dead Terminator, “I’ll be back.”

Beers

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Fun fact: all of the large Ponderosa Pine bar tops and tables came from the same piece of destroyed tree rescued in the Jemez Mountains and cut in Santa Fe, put together by Michael Calhoun, tongue and groove, and sanded by Chris and Withrow, and possibly others.

When it came to choosing which styles to brew, they considered right away that they were in a tourist town, with many of their visitors coming from Oklahoma and Texas, and that many of them were light-beer drinkers.

“What we wanted to do was have a line-up with something for everyone, a line-up that was pretty approachable, but still have some depth with some unique beers for those people who want to branch out and try something new, and for those craft beer people who are just coming to visit the brewery,” Chris said.

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View of the indoor bar.

It came down to deciding on how many taps they wanted, and then filling them with a broad, but hand-picked team of beer styles. The magic number for the squad is 12, with two lead-off hitters being a Blonde and a Wheat, just aiming to get folks on base. Also on the roster (at the time) was their Pale Ale, Citra IPA, Amber, Oatmeal Stout, Brown, Porter, Farmhouse Ale, and their heavy hitter, the Honey Double IPA.

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View of the outdoor bar from the stairs. And that’s Tucker, the brewdog.

I’ve tried every beer at this point. Thankfully, I got a lead off the bag at Bacon & Brews only a couple weeks before. I can honestly tell you that from everything I’ve tasted, I’ve got big playoff-sized hopes for this first-year team, and I mean it. These guys came to play ball.

I asked Chris what he saw for Red River Brewing Company’s future, and he told me that they’re just getting started, but they’re really going to ramp up their beer production. They plan to start a barrel-aging program. He’s confirmed for us in the Dark Side that an Imperial Stout is certainly right up there in his mind for the bourbon and rye whiskey barrels they already have on the premises. He says it’ll be a while before they even start thinking about distribution beyond smaller local accounts, but with crowlers and growlers, you can definitely take their beer home with you, and you should.

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The Crew will be bringing some of these back to ABQ in the near future.

“I’m just getting started, but I’m really happy with the results. I just want to continue to improve and come up with new and interesting recipes,” Chris said. “And, what I think is neat — is out here, a lot of the visitors that come in — this might be their first craft brewery they’ve ever visited. And, if we can get them to try our Blonde, and like it, maybe we can get them to try our IPA. We get to introduce them to craft beer.”

Such is life on the frontier.

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RRBC will participate in the upcoming NM IPA Challenge.

As far as Chris’ personal tastes go, his go-to is a really good IPA. He loves Belgian beers, a good Saison in the summer, and in the winter he loves a nice, thick, Imperial Stout. I think we could be friends.

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Red River Brewing Company is located at 217 W. Main St.

* * * * *

Though this may be an unpopular opinion, I believe that though brewing can be an art form, it must be treated as a science as well. Good beer is not about guesswork. Sure, get creative with the recipes, but then do the math, dial it in. And, I think what Chris has done here, with his background in chemistry and chemical engineering, and his brief apprenticeship at Ouray, has proven my point. Everything he’s done has been deliberate, and well done at that. Maybe he didn’t brew an Albuquerque-style IPA, but his family knows their visiting clientele better than we do. And, besides, at the end of the day, he makes damn good beer, beyond the skill of many seasoned veterans I’ve experienced in my travels. Now, at long last, the beautiful frontier brewery of my dreams is open, and it fits so well, as if it’s always been there.

Ladies and gents, to new frontiers, and to damn good beers, raise up your glasses.

Cheers!

— Luke

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Luke’s been with the Dark Side Brew Crew for about four years. His beer territory is anything north of La Bajada hill (the big one between Albuquerque and Santa Fe). For more #craftbeernews or basically beer pictures, follow him on Twitter at @SantaFeCraftBro. Email complaints or compliments to SantaFeLuke@gmail.com. Maybe he’ll check it one of these days.

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