Casa Vieja, located on Corrales Road in the heart of Corrales, is just what the name says — a very old house. Established in 1770, it has been many different things over the centuries, including a church and a small hospital. It is best known for its long tradition as a popular fine dining restaurant. It was a bit of a surprise, then, when we learned they started brewing beer and became a taproom.
As part of our Look Back/Look Ahead Series, I met with Gary Socha, owner and brewer at this new iteration of Casa Vieja, although his business card says his title is “Beer Whisperer.” It is this bit of whimsy that makes you want to root for him out of the gate. All throughout the interview, it was clear to see Gary has an impish way about him, and his passion for this project is evident. But, there is also a calmness that has helped him weather both the usual and unusual types of issues that have come up along the way.
Gary was a homebrewer and a member of the Dukes of Ale Homebrew Club, and won a gold medal in the 2015 New Mexico Pro-Am in the German Wheat category. The word Duke was soon to gain a whole new importance for Gary. But, we will get to that. First, I wanted to know the history of how Gary obtained ownership of the place, and how it came to be the newest brewery (until Ex Novo opens) in the area.
In 2011, Casa Vieja fell victim to the area’s economic hard times and repair issues. The long-time restaurant, a one-time home to some notable Albuquerque chefs such as Jim White and Jean-Pierre Gozard, closed its doors. Casa Vieja always held a special place in the hearts of Gary and his wife of over 40 years. In fact, they went there on their honeymoon.
In 2016, Gary’s family purchased the property, restored it, and turned it into an event space. They spent a great deal of money on renovation, and did not want to have to spend much more on a liquor license. Well, Gary was already a brewer, right? So a small brewer license made much more sense. Plus, the addition of a taproom meant the locals could have a relaxed and charming space in which to grab a craft beer.
The commercial kitchen was removed during the renovation, and now Casa Vieja has only a catering kitchen (for the events, mainly). Gary figured that many breweries rely on food trucks, so that should not be a big deal. Unfortunately, it proved difficult to book any trucks due to the location, amount of patrons, and being the last guy in line to request a truck. The only way to get them was to supplement them with a guaranteed amount. Luckily, another chef alumnus from Casa Vieja, Jon Young of ABQ BBQ, came to the rescue to provide catering. Eventually, they plan to park Jon’s bus that has seating as well as a kitchen in it right in the catering driveway attached to the catering kitchen. It is a win for everyone involved.
One of the more unusual hurdles that Gary faced had to do with the brewing equipment. Old houses tend to have smaller entrances and challenges with preservation. Therefore, Gary special ordered brewing equipment to meet the specs of the house’s brew space. Unfortunately, a long battle ensued with the manufacturer regarding delivery of the equipment, and when it finally arrived many months late, it was two to three times the size it was supposed to be. The boil kettle was supposed to be 800 pounds, and it is 2,000 pounds. To sum up, they had to drop it in through the roof using a crane. The upside to this, I suppose, is that he has a larger brewing capacity (3-to-4 barrels) if he needs it. In July 2018, the taproom somewhat quietly opened to the public with limited hours.
Gary faced another annoying (to say the least) challenge over the Thanksgiving holiday. There is an “out building” behind the main house that was built as a walk-in cooler for the restaurant. This would serve as Gary’s keg storage area. Over the holiday, the control decided to fail. The building turned from a walk-in cooler to a freezer. All the kegs froze. He came back to find exploding kegs. He was also storing his yeast in there, so all the yeast died.
You never know what you might run in to in and around older properties. That said, not all of the surprises were troublesome ones. Prior to Gary’s purchase of the property, Casa Vieja developed a roof leak that needed repair. Like something out of a novel, the contractors found an old portrait painting in the wall. It was in pretty bad shape. The age and subject of the painting were unknown at the time. The previous owner stated the painting had to stay with the building and Gary agreed. The painting was evaluated in Santa Fe and carefully restored. The evaluation determined that the painting was likely done in Spain in the 1600s. It is an oil portrait of Jean Louis de Nogaret de la Valette, a French nobleman who held the title of Duke d’Epernon. And thus, the reference to Duke literally resurfaces! The painting is now prominently displayed near the entrance. In tribute to this French duke, Duke (of Ale) Gary brewed a house beer known as “Duke’s Red Ale.”
Gary said his plan for the rest of the year is to continue brewing and have around six of his own taps online, as well as a few guest taps. At the time of my visit, there were three Casa Vieja brews available — a hefeweisen, a lager, and Duke’s Red. Guest taps that day included a cider from Steel Bender, Steel Bender’s Blue Bullet Stout on nitro, and La Cumbre’s Elevated IPA. Current taproom hours are 5 to 8 p.m. every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
If any of our readers would like to visit the Duke (either of them, really) and try the beer, this Sunday is Arts Alive! in Corrales. Gary will be performing Art of Brewing demonstrations at 2 and 4 p.m. at Casa Vieja. The brewery will also feature art by Dave Sabo and Wanda Blake.
As the Duke d’Epernon himself might say …
À votre santé,