Back in June, even we were feeling the sweltering heat all the way up here in Santa Fe, it was hard to escape the slow simmer of city life even in the Sangres. And, when it gets too hot in the city, us Santa Feans just gotta get out of town. Well, one Wednesday, I did just that. I headed down Highway 14, passing Tumbleroot’s new brewing/distilling/taproom on my left, and Santa Fe Brewing Company’s main complex on my right.
And, vowing not to pick up any hitchhikers, as requested by the signs preceding the state pen, that is, unless they showed the right amount of leg — with my windows rolled down, Iron Maiden screaming across the Bluetooth, I breezed down the two-lane road with a cool sense of freedom. I was getting out of town, and loving the gorgeous, greenish landscape that sprawled out before me.
Before I knew it, and I truly mean that, I was there, missing the turn. It was exactly across the road from the Shell Station and Lone Butte General Store. How had I gotten here in 17 minutes from the middle of town? When I’d lived in Albuquerque, last year, it was 30 minutes to anywhere from my corner of the grid. But, here I was at 3810 State Highway 14 N, the exact location of Beer Creek Brewing Company. (For the reader who keeps calling me out on not giving exact addresses. You are not forgotten, ma’am.)
I parked around back in their employee lot, directed by an old friend who’d arrived just as I had. It was Beer Creek’s new chef, the incredible baker, formerly of the well-known Dr. Field Goods, Heather Maxwell. She had a huge grin on her face, the grin of someone who was about to show me their newly restored Cadillac. And, perhaps she was.
She led me through the back gate into a giant patio, the sort of wide-open, flag-stoned zone you only find at beach resorts, filled with hilly vistas, an endless sky, umbrellas, and the drinks that love them. There were already tons of folks sitting at the tables in the shade, chatting away, sipping on cold sudsy stuff from pint glasses, not one of them matching, yet all with singular purpose. Had this place already opened and no one told the Dark Side?
Well, this was back in June, so, no. They hadn’t as of yet. I was soon introduced to everyone there. It would have been a tremendous feat to recall each and every name. Though, amongst the large crowd, were owners and founders Rich Headley, Kelly McGuire, Ryan McArdle, Matt Oler (not Olev). (Wink.) As well as a familiar face, Jami Nordby.
They were not customers after all; they were many, yet they were only a few of the folks who had a hand in creating this big, beautiful beer-and-bites retreat between Madrid and the City Different.
Rich Headley walked right up to me and gave me a bear hug in the form of a handshake. He was just the man I was here to see about a story. A story about beer.
Immediately after sitting down, a beer was brought out for me, and there amidst the bosses and their husbands, (I kid), we began the journey across Beer Creek. Disclaimer: No oxen or wagon tongues were lost in the writing of this piece.
The Birth of Beer Creek and the Long Story IPA
The story of Beer Creek is like a lot of beer stories in Santa Fe, with a craving for “better beer,” hop-growing fascination, and the eventual walking into a humble homebrew supply shop. And, the right spark, from the right lighter.
One day, Rich Headley walked into the Santa Fe Homebrew Supply. He told the supply shop owner, “I wanna brew beer.” The owner looked at him, and asked, “Have you ever brewed beer?” Headley said, “No.” The supply shop owner said, “Why don’t we look at some of the extracts?” Headley replied, “No, I want to brew beer.” Headley wasn’t messing around. He was going to brew all-grain or nothing at all.
So, the owner sent them home with supplies, hops, and grains, and soon after that, Headley and McArdle became some of the best customers the homebrew shop ever had. “It’s as if they had a radar for the good hops,” the shop owner had said. As soon as they were in stock, Headley and McArdle would be there to buy, not a couple ounces of hops, but ALL of them.
By the way, the supply shop owner at the time happened to be one Jami Nordby, who would later become the head brewer of Beer Creek Brewing Co. But, we’ll get to his story a bit later.
As their brewing got better, and their hobby became more of a craft, their interests in beer only grew higher and higher like the hops on their 4 acres of bines. Headley and McArdle, soon joined by McGuire and Oler, were now growing hops under the name Crossed Sabers Hop Company.
What was once making beer for friends at a half-barrel brewery for an in-home bar, grew into the idea of producing and selling hops, and very soon would become the crazy fantasy of making beer for friends, family, neighbors, and all those living in the surrounding areas of Santa Fe, Madrid, Los Cerrillos, La Cienega, etc.
Once a contractor/co-owner/co-founder of Amenergy Inc. a sustainable energy building company, Headley had done work for several breweries. During that time, he made a lot of contacts and garnered a lot of inspiration. It was only a matter of time, and a little bit of opportunity, before something had to give.
Long Story IPA
Headley and his friends always wanted a pizza joint out there in the area. There had been a barbecue restaurant, into which a lot of money had been put, but the previous owner just couldn’t do anything with it, according to Headley. And, so it sat, empty, waiting.
From that first Cascade plant they grew that bore hops, to the homebrew shop, a broken carboy (how the hell does that happen?), to the half-barrel conical system sitting at Headley’s house from Bru-Gear, Headley and his brew crew had become dangerously serious about making beer. They were making four 5-gallon batches each and every time they brewed, and people were taking notice. The hop plants had really taken off as well. The question of “what are we going to do with them?” was on the table.
Headley and his merry band of misfits had reached a point where they had to start making some decisions about the hop farm. So, they invited a sort of a “brews who” of the Santa Fe craft beer industry — Rod Tweet (Second Street), Brian Lock (Santa Fe Brewing Co.), Alana (SFBC) and Nick Jones (CNM Brewing Program), and Jason Kirkman (Tumbleroot), to name a few. Headley and company wined (beered?) and dined the beer folk and asked if anyone was interested in buying hops from them. They got resounding support, making the evening a huge success.
But, it was towards the end of the night that made the difference. It was a comment from Tweet that ignited a spark. “Rich,” Tweet said. “You need to get into this business. You really need to get into this business.” And, just like that, a flame was lit.
It was no longer a question of will. It was a question of when.
So the hops were now growing in the right direction. Everything was pointing towards beer. Only one month after the brewers bash, it just so happened that the old BBQ joint, Raven’s Rock Café, went on the market. It was a huge space with unlimited potential just about halfway between Madrid and Santa Fe. It was almost too perfect to pass up. The guys saw their opportunity and struck. Almost immediately, they got to work on a business plan, as they had done many times before. “We locked this place under contract back in April of (2017). We didn’t get the keys until Thanksgiving. December 1 was the first day that we set foot in here and started cleaning the place and doing anything,” Headley said.
From then on it was just construction, and to them, it was nothing. They’d done this sort of work, daily. They didn’t have to subcontract anything. They pulled all their own permits, took care of all the bureaucratic business, and did all the work themselves.
They just needed to start building their dream team and getting the right equipment.
Beer Creek’s head brewer, Jami Nordby seemed a perfect fit. He’d already known the guys well from the homebrew supply shop, he knows from experience how to set up brewery equipment from Rowley’s, and it doesn’t hurt that he had 20 some odd years with Upper Crust Pizza. They did, after all, still want that pizza place.
Jami was a long-time homebrewer. He started back in 1994 in Madison, Wisconsin, with a roommate of his, who is now a professor of philosophy in Michigan. After finding his way to the Southwest, Jami opened up the Santa Fe Homebrew Supply Shop in 2007, which he ran for about nine years. Come to think of it, he sold me my first kit, and helped me with my first three recipes.
After that, Jami moved on to Rowley Farmhouse Ales, where he was the head brewer for a little over a year. There, he helped them get their 7-barrel system up and running, and, during his time there, learned a lot about sour brewing, which was not exactly one of his fortes.
Jami said he prefers making the dark and malty stuff. He came into beer loving the stouts and the porters, and grew to like the reds and the ambers. I asked if that would influence the styles of beer that will eventually flow from tanks to the taps at the Creek, and he said, “Well, I have to put up with the other partners here.” (Laughs)
The other guys lean towards the pilsners and IPAs, but they’re coming around to the rest of the spectrum.
Beer Creek is still months away from brewing its own beer, and so food has been a huge part of the equation right from the start. Food was never an afterthought. I told you they wanted that pizza place. They also wanted it done right. They wanted quality food they would be proud to serve, food that would keep people coming back again and again. Enter, Heather Maxwell.
“We basically hired the best baker in Santa Fe,” Headley said. “She wanted everything made from scratch, so everything’s made from scratch.”
Once she was in, she made them a pizza at Headley’s house. From first taste, they knew they could do the rest of it. But, they needed a pizza oven. The right pizza oven. Headley wanted a Blodgett oven and so the search began. Luckily, they didn’t have to look far. Based on a local tip, they found what they were looking for. It may not have been in working order, but it was THE oven, and it was right across the street. After making a deal with its owner, the only task for them was to get it home. So, Frogger style, Oler and Headley pushed the monster oven (now separated in two pieces) across the street on carts. All between traffic. Yeah, that happened. And, there’s probably video if you ask nicely. They had the oven completely refurbished and hooked up in less than 24 hours.
Soon, they would be ready to serve.
As far as the menu goes, Beer Creek has enough to satisfy anyone making the drive out. They have baked wings for starters, pub sandwiches, even the option to build your own. There are pastas, salads, and even a kid’s menu, often overlooked at many breweries. And, for dessert, you could nibble on some fresh house-made cookies, or grab a scoop of ice cream if you like.
“We have affordable food. We’re not going to charge you $18 for a lemon. It’s a quality meal for a great price,” Headley said.
The star of the show is the pizza.
“Our Pizza is West Coast style pizza, hand-tossed, cornmeal based, baked in stone ovens,” said Nordby, who, as a reminder, had long ago worked with BCBC’s latest addition, front-of-house manager Colleen Sager, at Upper Crust. They both know a little sumpthin’ sumpthin’ about pizza and the service industry in Santa Fe.
Beer Creek’s taps are flowing, just not with their own beer yet. We’ll have a follow up with them, as soon as that process begins. On a typical day, they have local beers from Santa Fe Brewing, Second Street, and Tumbleroot, Bosque, Red Door, as well as beer from out of town like Firestone Walker, Sierra Nevada, Upslope, and they’ll always have Pabst Blue Ribbon for the super fans. They’re currently working with Admiral, Premier, National, Fiasco, and Southern to keep your glasses full of the good stuff.
And, if you’re not into beer, they have wine. And boy, do they.
“We have one of the best wine lists outside of Santa Fe,” Nordby added. “And for about 15-percent cheaper.”
Also, their sodas are all-natural, Headley informed me.
“They don’t’ have any high fructose corn sugar in them,” he said. “But, you’re not here for sodas.”
That’s true, I’m not. I’m here for the beer.
As for their own beer, because this is a tale about beer: “We’re going to grow a pair, and brew you some of the best traditional beers you’ve ever had,” Headley informed me. “Reds, IPAs, pale ales, pilsners, lagers, browns, stouts. Right now, everyone’s playing the game. And, I respect that. But, you know what Rod’s (Tweet) always done? He’s just brewed good beer. And so, I’m going to take a little page out of his book. We want to make our own take on a very traditional brewpub, because it’s kind of gone. And, you know why? Because, to do that, it takes guts. So, real traditional. So once we’ve filled our quotas, and we’ve got our distribution set, and our taproom and other restaurants are taken care of, then Jami has all the luxury to play.”
Because I’m Dark Side Brew Crew, I asked about barrel-aging. Headley replied with the quote of the day: “If we’re going to be barrel-aging anything, it’s going to be a goddamned imperial stout.”
And the Traditional Beer Maker
Bru-Gear will be the suppliers of Beer Creek’s equipment when the time comes to set up the brewery.
“We’re doing a 5-barrel system with 10-barrel fermenters and brite tanks. We’ll be double-batching. There’ll be electric fires, because we’re solar guys,” Headley explained.
McArdle and Headley left the solar industry to start the brewery. At the time of the visit, they were putting the solar on a place you might have heard of, Marble Brewery.
Beer Creek is making the house a destination for entertainment as well. The staff currently has music four nights a week on their patio, Thursday through Sunday. You can check the Facebook page for updates. And, they’re hoping to create a comedy scene on a Wednesday night, with open-mic followed by a headliner to close it out once they’re in their groove.
* * * * *
With an endless sky as the backdrop, a space with unlimited potential, there are no bounds to Beer Creek’s aspirations. There are several phases the owners hope to complete within the year. First is a new dishwashing station. Second and third is an indoor bar, which will be built simultaneously as the brewing equipment goes into the brewhouse. They do plan on distribution. Brian Lock of Santa Fe Brewing has already agreed to contract brew for Beer Creek, and can for Beer Creek, as well as let them in with their distribution lines. And, there’s talk of a future taproom/homebrew shop inside the city proper. I couldn’t be more excited to see how far the Crossed Sabers Hop Farm has come from our last visit out there. And, I can’t wait to head back down the road for pizza and a good beer at a truly unique spot that fits right there at the end of Ale Alley. To Beer Creek’s hard work and future success, cheers!
For more @nmdarksidebc info and #craftbeer news, follow me on Twitter at @SantaFeCraftBro. Untappd: SantaFeLuke.