There are still faint echoes of the brewpub that was at Chama River. The booths are still there, the copper-top bar is still present, and much of the kitchen equipment remains. It has all gathered some dust since Chama closed its doors in August 2017, but one thing remains operational — the brewhouse.
Yes, there are still beers being made at Chama, even with the rest of the business shut down. That is where Andrew Krosche, the director of brewing operations for Santa Fe Dining, spends most of his time. With a year to reflect on what happened, I sat down with Andrew at that copper-top bar recently over pints of his crisp and clean American Pilsner.
“So when we took Kellys over and Chama was still open, plus Blue Corn, we had three breweries working independently under one umbrella,” Andrew said. “Once Chama was closed, we continued working out of Chama, that’s (assistant brewer) Cordell (Rincon) and I at the time, brewing for inter-company distribution under the Chama name cause there was a few beers throughout the restaurants that were staples.”
With the Chama brewhouse still at his disposal, Andrew soon decided how it would best be used.
“Somewhere around that time, when you’re only brewing enough to keep a few restaurants going, it’s hard to make sure the product is fresh,” he said. “So in response to that, also knowing that Kellys with pretty slow with lots of drama that happened right before we bought it, I decided to bring all the brewers together under one roof and work out of Chama’s system, that being the best system in the company. I spent a lot of time rebuilding this facility in the two years that Chama was still open. Also, it kind of gave everyone a chance to work on the same level, to understand my terminology and what was expected. Everyone was on the same page.”
Andrew, along with Blue Corn head brewer Paul Mallory and Kellys head brewer Dan Cavan, have been able to stay on that same page since.
“Fast forwarding to now, we’ve got the eight house beers at Kellys, (plus) a few inter-company accounts up in Santa Fe,” Andrew said. “It works out very nicely to continue working out of here (because), one, we can brew smaller batches, keeping everything fresh, keeping the quality up. Everything is served out of kegs over at Kellys, so it’s easy enough to have them to place an order for the week and then we can just use the delivery van. In that case, it’s really nice.”
It also helps in one other area for Kellys.
“Kellys, obviously, doesn’t have a barrier between the brewery and the restaurant,” Andrew added. “It is kind of nice brewing here and not worrying about say guests wandering into the brew space. Not that it’s their fault, you would have no idea you couldn’t come back there. For me, it’s just a huge liability because if we’re CIPing and some caustic sprays onto some innocent bystander, it’s not the best of things.
“That’s kind of where we are with this facility. We’ve definitely been enjoying it with this little retreat.”
On occasion, the Kellys brewhouse does get fired up to make a beer or two.
“We have been brewing, or had been brewing, occasionally over there, keeping the machinery still going,” Andrew said. “It’s like an old car, you don’t want to let it sit too long or more problems start. That, and obviously we have to keep our small brewing license and we have to have a minimum of barrelage. So we do that to supplement, usually with some of our top sellers or brews that work really well on that system, as opposed to the ones here.”
Certain styles of beer actually tend to turn out better on Kellys’ system, as opposed to the Chama brewhouse.
“The water in this city is great for stouts, and they’ve got minor filter system and no softener,” Andrew said. “Brewing over there for something like the stout or apricot (wheat) is fine with the city water. Whereas over here, I would never brew the lager there. Here I’ve got a water treatment facility to ensure it’s the best I can make it for the water.”
Andrew has managed to turn the bar area into his own office. His laptop and a pile of paperwork sit atop the bar. He keeps a few clean glasses behind the bar as well, for quality control and that sort of thing. Those couches that were over by the entrance have been moved to where the tables used to sit by the bar. There is one TV still running, with the laptop hooked up to it. A pile of beer books sits on one of the remaining tables below it.
As for how long this setup will continue for Andrew, Chama River, Kellys, and all the rest, it is a bit of an ongoing mystery.
“Honestly, I don’t even know,” he said. “I know we own it and (Santa Fe Dining president) Gerald Peters likes that he owns it. As far as I know, selling is not something that is an option. I’ve definitely written game plans for any scenario, mainly because if and when something happens, I want to make sure that my crew is ready, that we can handle it. Just a little preemptive planning, but you never know. This isn’t like moving some kitchen equipment, this is going to require weeks of moving. ”
The craft beer world around the old-timers like Kellys and Blue Corn continues to evolve, but for the most part, the brewpubs have seen neither a sharp rise in business, nor a sudden decline.
“Looking at numbers, if we’re just going to go barrelage-wise, nothing has really changed, at least since I’ve been running things,” Andrew said. “Blue Corn’s barrelage has been the same for the last four years or so. Chama’s was for the two years I was here with it. Kellys is about the same. We’re not getting massive growth. I think a lot of reasons for that is there’s a lot more places to go. There’s a lot more neighborhood pubs. The traffic of going to the places nearest to you is not ours nowadays.
“But, being steady and consistent, that’s a plus. I’m confident that with Paul already (winning) the IPA Challenge, I’m sure that his numbers are growing right now, which is great. With the changes that Dan and myself have kind of put (into) Kellys, working on recipe development and really trying to show the public that it’s different, I feel that we can start seeing a rise soon. Maybe not through this winter, but by next spring I feel like things will change for the better.”
With so many other craft beer options out there, Andrew said it has been tough convincing folks to give Kellys another chance.
“Unfortunately, yes, (but) then our marketing team is doing their best to let the public know that things are different,” he said. “I think the challenges that we run into is a lot of times Kellys is obviously one of the oldest breweries in Albuquerque and they had gained a (bad) reputation over so many years, that a lot of times people I feel when they hear Kellys they just kind of zone out.
“They’re not even paying attention that it is a new ownership, a new brewing team, a lot of it is word of mouth. I’ve been pushing a lot of festivals for Kellys. If we can’t get the public to hear us, let’s get some samples in their hands so we can prove to them right there, real time, that this product is superior to what it used to be.”
One of the ways to do that was to move some of the Chama recipes to Kellys.
“We did cross a few beers over to Kellys,” Andrew said. “The Sleeping Dog Stout is now a Kellys beer. We didn’t change it at all, it’s a strong, solid stout that’s been around forever. The Kellys IPA, for lack of a better word, is practically the Jackalope.”
After a brief chat about the many late summer/early fall festivals, Andrew explained one of his other strategies with Kellys that differs from many of the other breweries around town.
“The way I’ve focused Kellys right now is, cause you were asking about what we’re taking to festivals and if we’ve changed it or not, we have eight house beers as opposed to your typical six and four specials,” he said. “What brings in regulars is your house beers, not your specials. We wanted a good, broad menu that caters to everyone’s tastes and really focus on those to make sure those are the best that we can give, and not worry about specials as much.
“When we build a menu for a festival, we typically don’t change it and we are very rarely going to take a special, because we want the house beers to be the focus. We want people to know they can come into the restaurant at any time and that beer will be there just as the way that they remembered it.”
Of course, just like any mad scientist brewer, Andrew is still cooking up some innovative seasonal/specialty beers from time to time.
“Speaking of specials, it’s very rare that we do one so when we do one we get pretty pumped about it, not sure when this is going to be released because we have to taste it over the next few weeks, but I just transferred an American pale ale into the server onto cocoa nibs and coconut extract,” he said. “So we’re making like a chocolate coconut pale ale, and it’s very hop forward. It drinks almost like an IPA, but the alcohol is like a pale ale. We’re pretty excited about it. It smells great. We picked the hop bill to match the coconut.”
We definitely look forward to trying that rather offbeat-sounding beer whenever it is ready. I will highly recommend the American Pilsner, as well, and Canteen head brewer Zach Guilmette swung by later to hang out for a bit, whereupon he declared it to be one of his favorite lagers in town.
For the most part, it is just good to see a great brewer like Andrew still getting to showcase his talent, even if the current setup between Chama and Kellys is a bit unusual. We encourage everyone to head back to Kellys and give the beers there another shot. We will certainly be stopping by after we get back from the Great American Beer Festival later this week.
Thanks to Andrew for the interview, the beers, and the tour through the ghostly little building he still inhabits.