It’s 1 p.m. on an unseasonably warm Saturday at Rowley Farmhouse Ales (RFA). Before I could even ask my first interview question, a couple variants of Perennial Sump Imperial Coffee Stout are popped, poured into mini snifter glasses, and shared around the table.
Just about the whole RFA crew is in attendance. Sitting around the long outdoor picnic-style table out on the patio are assistant brewer Tyler King, co-owner Elissa Ritt, chef Jeffrey Kaplan, head brewer Wes Burbank, brewmaster John Rowley, and of course, what would their gatherings be without friends? It’s a familiar scene with this crowd, a bottle share amongst buddies, furnished with beers just like Sump Coffee Stout, one of the many fruits of RFA’s keen networking labors with breweries from all over America. As it is, it’s quite unlikely to find another brewery that does more out-of-state collaborations in New Mexico, and that’s not going to stop any time soon.
The day before, I let the RFA crew know I wanted to do the Look Back/Look Ahead story for 2018-19, and asked, “Who’s in?” Thankfully, everyone was obliged to join me for a chat.
2018 has been another successful year at the small gastro-brewpub tucked away just off of Cerrillos Road. One of the major highlights was the silver medal win at GABF (Great American Beer Festival) for their Berliner Weisse, Germophile.
“For me, it just means we’re on the right track,” Burbank says.
King then adds, “It legitimized all of our long days, 24-hour weekends, and all the hard work getting this place up and running.”
“And, it’s nice to be recognized for all of our hard work,” Rowley finishes.
Bringing on Burbank as head brewer was a strong push for Team Rowley last year.
“He’s a fantastic brewer, brings a lot of talent to the table,” Rowley says.
Another major highlight was the sheer number of collaborations they did.
“I think what’s important to note about that is we’re being recognized by our peers,” Ritt says. “These are nationally acclaimed breweries, and they want to work with us, and that means so, so much.”
In 2018, RFA collaborated with a number of breweries, including the likes of Superstition Meadery, Moksa Brewing, Wrenhouse Brewing Co., Dry Dock Brewing Co., Pipeworks Brewery — from which came the infamous unicorn picture — and the Farmhouse As F$&k giant collaboration with Bob Sylvester of Saint Somewhere Brewing Co.
Also, I made a pretty serious promise that I’d mention the fact that during a trip to Illinois, RFA helped start the sour program at Solemn Oath. How about that for a collab? They even shared their bugs.
“And along the same lines of being recognized by our peers for collaborations is being invited to their invitationals,” Ritt says. “Being invited to (Denver) Rare Beer Tasting, during GABF, and being the only New Mexico representation at Rare Beer, that’s a huge deal to us.”
2018 wasn’t all Miley Cyrus and unicorns, however. A lack of space in the brewery and in the tanks were certainly the two biggest struggles Team Rowley experienced during the year.
“We want to be brewing beer. We want to be packaging beer, and there’s only so much you can do with the space we have,” Rowley says.
To overcome some of this, RFA pulled a huge semi-trailer into the parking lot back in June, filling it with grain bags and various other supplies, as well as pushing all of their stainless steel fermenters out into their yard, which created a lot more space for brewing and bottle conditioning in the brewhouse area. They also added another fermenter to the lineup.
Another challenge of 2018 was distribution, but switching distributors turned a challenge into an open-door’s worth of opportunity.
“We switched to a distributor who has a better feel for selling and representing a boutique brand,” Ritt says. “We’re not for everybody, and we know that, but we need to be represented by people who know what we are, and how to represent that well.”
RFA moved to Favorite Brands, and as a result, was able to move into the Arizona market. It should be noted that they’re also being sold in Colorado, through other various channels.
Santa Fe is a very fickle place. As I lead with this to begin a question, everyone at the table laughs, knowingly. I know I’m on the right track. To survive in this town, breweries have to be well-established restaurants, and music venues, and production facilities with taprooms for days. They can’t survive on beer alone. Not like us, friends. There just isn’t enough of a beer-loving crowd in town to support that. And, if there is? I dare you to prove me wrong. I double-dog dare you.
At any rate, it was mentioned in a Facebook post that 2018 was the first real year that RFA made a profit in this tough-crowd-town. When co-owner and chef Kaplan returns from the kitchen, I ask him what they’d meant by that.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Kaplan replied. “We reinvested that money into capital stuff. We built this (outdoor patio) cover this summer.
The two foeders that are coming were actually paid for last year. The new 15-barrel fermenter (purchased) from Marble. We reinvested our profits this year into the business, so we could do more next year.”
In 2018, Rowley Farmhouse made a few major preparations for producing more beer and more interesting beer styles in 2019. While there won’t be any major space expansion — sad face — there certainly will be a few new developments that will mean more beer for all.
In the next couple weeks, as mentioned, a pair of 40-barrel foeders will be arriving at the dock. These will give RFA a lot of base beer to work with for wood-aging beer on a massive scale.
RFA will also be receiving a custom-made coolship. Rowley explains for those who don’t know what a coolship entails: “A coolship is vessel you put your hot wort into. And, it cools down naturally. It looks like a big bathtub. But, whatever’s in the air around it will settle in the wort and spontaneously inoculate the beer, and you’ll get a wild fermentation based on what’s around you at the time.”
We can’t talk about what distribution will make its way to RFA’s taps this year, because right now the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) is closed for reviewing and approvals, as part of this fun government shut down we’re experiencing. RFA’s deal with Perennial to sell their beers out of their taproom will persist, regardless of what happens in Washington, so we can all raise a glass to that. And, I’m pretty sure Blackest Friday will happen again, oh, yes.
RFA also hired a sales manager who’s building their base as you read this.
As for collabs, they’ll be doing part two of their collaboration with Pipe Works. They have a pending collaboration with Off Color Brewing to benefit local rescue animals in New Mexico and Chicago. They have a collab with Perennial scheduled for April, and then again in July. While they’ll be up at the Belgian Beer Festival in St. Louis, where they have at least one collab, they’re already invited back to Farmhouse as F$&k, but their registration may not be approved if the TTB isn’t back open for business.
There are also upcoming collabs scheduled with Second Shift, and locally there are talks about Boxing Bear and a second collab with Blue Corn Brewery here in Santa Fe. One of the more interesting collaborations coming up very soon for RFA is somewhat of an Arizona four-way.
This collaboration will see our protagonists Rowley and Burbank driving out to Camp Verde, Arizona, to pick up some Arizona malt from a local maltster. They’ll then make the trip down to Tucson to grab some Sonoran White Wheat. The next day, they’ll be headed further south to Tombstone Brewery in, you’ve guessed it, Tombstone. There, they’ll brew a 15-barrel batch and hit the road again. With wort in tow, the intrepid duo will find themselves at the Sand-Reckoner Vineyard in Wilcox. There, they’ll camp beneath the starry dessert sky with a few open barrels of their traveling beer, in hopes that all shall be spontaneously inoculated, much like in a coolship. Half the batch will go to Santa Fe, the other half to Tombstone.
In 2019, Rowley says he plans to keep their sours and Saisons flowing along the same lines. The focus, however, will be the two different beers coming out of the foeders. With the foeders, they’ll be able to churn out sour beers much faster. One will be their Petite Blanche base, a sour both light in color and ABV, which takes very well to dry-hopping and fruiting, and the other will likely be their Ab Initio Berliner Weisse, which can also handle many of the Rowley flourshed treatments.
“We want to be able to do whatever we want with them,” Rowley says. “Say we have a bunch of boysenberries, (then) let’s make a batch.”
As for all the beer in the barrels found below the brewery in the cellar, they’re currently working on how best to release them, so stay tuned for that info.
I ask Burbank, as head brewer, what he wants to do this year in terms of beer, knowing that his rebellious nature makes for some of the more creative releases that have poured forth from the taps this year, like Tropical Storm Daniels, a dazzling and delicious glitter beer.
Without taking a breath, however, he says, “I want to keep doing what we’re already doing, obviously. Distro (distribution) is a big push and priority for me this year. I want us to expand rapidly into distro as much as possible. My big personal thing is, when that coolship gets in, to start making spon(taneously fermented) beer, like Lambics and Geuzes. That’s my big passion project, and I can’t wait to dive in. I want to make the first Lambic in New Mexico, even though we can’t call it a Lambic. We’ll call it ‘Definitely Not Lambic Beer.’ ”
In 2019, based on what they did last year, RFA plans to really have a focus on supporting local farmers by purchasing local produce and local products in terms of what goes in the beer as well as the food.
Speaking of food, Kaplan assures me that their menu will get the usual seasonal facelift, as they change about 25-to-30-percent of their menu every season to keep things fresh, adding new items, and dropping items as they see fit. But, the big news there is that their menu will be increasing by quite a few items permanently, now that they have more cold storage space.
I ask everyone what they’re looking forward to most in 2019 for RFA, and it’s almost a resounding, “More Saison.”
King said he is excited most for getting some of those really fun beers they’ve been aging in the barrels out into the world. Because, after all, he has put a couple years into them at least.
“The coolship, and maybe introducing a new IPA. Maybe,” Burbank says.
“Continuing to serve our community, bringing them the best new beer, and to give back to our partner and animal charities,” Ritt says.
I ask them what they’re most looking forward to in the New Mexico craft beer industry on the whole.
“I want to see brewers tighten up their quality control practices,” Burbank says. “End the Hazy IPAs. Let’s focus on good, solid brewing.”
“Stop with the kettle sours,” Ritt says.
At this point in the interview, I go off on a tangent about how much I hate Brut IPAs. I’m sorry. Fight me.
For WinterBrew this Friday, Rowley Farmhouse Ales is bringing their fun two-handled jockey box, from which they’ll pour NoBU, their zero IBU IPA.
“We’re really happy with it,” Rowley says. “This batch is probably better than the first batch. Tyler (King) brewed it. Killed it. Fantastic beer.”
Their rotating tap will be Apricot Petite Blanche, plus the final keg of Double Cherry Cerisse.
“We’re bringing a raspberry version of our Sin Barreras,” Rowley says of their cinnamon, molé, barrel-aged imperial stout.
And, in true Rowley fashion, they plan to bring bottles, as well, to pop and pour, and will definitely be releasing specials beers on the hour as they have done in the past.
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For Rowley Farmhouse Ales, they’ve definitely had a successful year, with every sign showing them that they’re traveling in the right direction. 2019 will be a big landmark year for the brewery, as the staff continues to push the space and skills they have. I can most assuredly say there will be more Rowley beer to go around, and the quality of their offerings will continue to grow just as their operations do. To another successful for Team Rowley, raise up your glasses!
For more @NMDarkSideBC news and #CraftBeer info, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro. And to see what I’m drinking in the City Different and beyond, follow me on Untappd at SantaFeLuke.