Turtle Mountain is turning 20 years old in just a few weeks, which is quite the milestone for a brewery, let alone a restaurant. I was able to sit down and chat with both head brewer Mick Hahn and owner Nico Ortiz regarding their stellar 2018, and what 2019 has in store for them.
Solo: The big thing with our look back would probably be that gold medal you snagged at GABF (Great American Beer Festival)?
Mick: Yeah, that definitely is the biggest thing for 2018. We are beyond thrilled to have that thing hanging behind the bar. It feels really good to have something that Turtle has deserved for a long time, and to get that recognition. So my favorite part of GABF all together was seeing Stan Heironymous tweet out that his favorite thing of GABF was Turtle Mountain getting a medal.
Solo: That’s beautiful.
Mick: To get those words coming out of Stan’s mouth means a whole lot. He was one of the first people to sit at our bar and taste our beer 20 years ago, and Albuquerque owes a lot to him and his writing, so to hear him say that felt great. It just backed up everything I believe about Turtle being, oh, just shy of world class. We are very happy about it and hopefully we can try to have some sort of repeat this next year. Wooden Teeth will definitely get submitted again, for sure, and we will look at what else is going to be our entries for 2019 medals.
Solo: Since lagers are kind of your thing, might we see some more of those?
Mick: Yeah, for sure, and I think they are overlooked by a lot of people who don’t see them to be as exciting, so they don’t get as much attention as a lot of the styles out there.
Solo: So beyond more lagers, defending your title if possible and so forth, what else is on the horizon for 2019?
Mick: We had a lot of fun brewing experimental IPAs this year. We did our TM series and I have our 11th in that series in the fermenter right now, an IPL called Tiempo Mañana. (Editor’s note: it has been released since this interview took place — S) We’ve had a lot of fun with that as we have tried to spread out and grow on our concept of what an IPA is and what it can be. We are going to continue with that (this) year, probably not the 11 that we put out in 2018, closer to maybe eight, with some recipes making an encore appearance, but overall trying to keep these fresh and new. A Brut is going to be in there, at least one more hazy because that is what people seem to want, so why not give them a little bit of what they want? I’m also trying to get as many collaborations in as possible, aiming for six-to-eight collab’s (this) year, reach out to people throughout the state really, and get some going. I’d like to get some going in Santa Fe. Three Rivers would also be a fun one to work with, or maybe Red River or Cloudcroft.
Solo: What plans might you have for the impending 20th anniversary?
Mick: With it coming up in March, I know that we are planning a big celebration for that. Right now the talk is to shut down regular service in the restaurant because it will fall on a Friday night, and we will do a large buffet with some of the stuff that we don’t make as often, but we put together for some of our brewer’s dinners. Prime rib, and some other exciting things to try to get as many people in here that night as we can. Right now the anniversary beer that we are working on should be a lot of fun, we are going to do a bock for that pushing it up to 9.9-percent ABV for 1999 when we first opened, and plan on making it a Stein Bock. We are going to find some lava rocks and heat them up and get them in the kettle, that should be a lot of fun.
After meeting quickly with Mick, who was in the midst of brewing his collaboration Sippin’ on the Bock of the Day with Kaylynn McKnight and her staff from Toltec Brewing, I was able to snag Nico as well for his take on 2018-2019 for Turtle Mountain.
Solo: Pretty awesome getting your first medal last year.
Nico: Yeah, after 19 years of trying, well, we didn’t compete every year, but certainly we started really trying when Tim (Woodward) came on board five years ago. But, of course, great timing to start competing when the number of breweries started growing exponentially. The competitions are getting harder instead of like 15 years ago when there were not that many breweries. We did put beers in, but it wasn’t a main focus. Being one of the few long-established breweries in New Mexico that did not have any hardware from any major competition kind of started to wear on me. It was a monster monkey on the back for many years, so I didn’t really care what color the medal was, but obviously a gold would be good. So thanks to Mick for getting that monkey, that ginormous gorilla off of Turtle Mountain’s back.
So now it’s like, if we don’t win another medal, it does not matter because we got one on the wall and I’m fine with that. In terms of Mick’s pride of brewing, he’s going to continue to strive and make things better. I was also happy for him because it kind of brought him into that, you can be a great actor or a great quarterback, but if you never win an Academy Award or get a Super Bowl ring, you will not be considered to be that great. It’s the same thing with winning medals. You can brew for many years, but if you actively enter and you don’t win a medal you’re not in that upper echelon or club with the (Jeff) Erway’s and the Ted Rice’s and the (Daniel) Jaramillo’s and the brewers that have won these medals. It kind of keeps you caché.
Solo: Anything else from last year that stood out to you?
Nico: Turtle kind of hunkered down. It was kind of the same thing we talked about when we did this last year. (In) 2015, I had a bunch of big personal and business stuff, transitions so to speak, that cost a ton of money which now three years later are finally concluding. So it has taken me three years to dig out of this hole, so while everyone else was opening taprooms and stuff like that, I had to get the financial ship sailing in the right direction. So finally at the end of ’18 I just closed on a refinance of this building that has taken me three years to get. I’ve finally got everything set for ’19.
Looking back, we just kind of stayed the course. Mick was focusing on the beers. The biggest thing we got was the medal, but the construction out on Southern Boulevard started so it’s one of those, if it’s not one thing it’s another category. We are three months into that and have nine more months of 2019. I started earnestly looking for a taproom space probably in the summer, on the west side until it became abundantly clear that there is simply no space on the west side. Ideally, I would really like to go out to Ventana Ranch, but there isn’t anything out there. I didn’t want to go any farther south than Montaño, but from there north, either there’s parking issues, the spot faces the wrong way, there’s no spot for a patio, there’s a church in there, or any number of other issues. I got a hard education on taproom lease space. It was quick and painless on the west side, because it became abundantly clear that there was nothing. I’m not looking for a turnkey, but I was looking for something that wasn’t going to require a significant amount of time and money to convert from what it is into what it could be. I’m looking, I guess, for a unicorn.
There are only three major landlords around town and so invariably if you are looking for space you are dealing with one of them. As far as looking back, I’m still looking for a space and it’s a shame to have three taproom licenses and no taproom. Taprooms are significantly more profitable than the main hub. We have the capacity and we have the wholesaler license to be able to do some distribution. We have all of the pieces in place, we are just looking for an outlet. But, obviously I’m not going to be rushing into something that I’m not at least 80-percent sure is what I want. The cautionary tales of the Red Door and Abbey taprooms which closed, I don’t want to expend effort and money to have it bite me in the ass and cost me money, as opposed to making me money. I can afford to wait. It took Jeff how many years before he finally got his first taproom? I mean, granted, we are going in on 20 years, but I think he was looking for two to two-and-a-half years for a spot. I’m only six months in looking for a spot. I’m banking on the fact that we have a handful of breweries that may not be around here for much longer. I’m kind of waiting in the wings, because as always with business one person’s misfortune is another person’s opportunity.
2019 is huge for us. So the looking forward is much more interesting than the looking back. Our 20th anniversary is on March 22. It’s a Friday night. I would never consider doing an anniversary gathering on a Friday night because the restaurant is at its busiest that night, but because this is 20 and this is a milestone. Twenty is more of a milestone in the restaurant business than the brewing business. The brewing business doesn’t have the mortality rate that the restaurant business does. The restaurant business mortality rate is huge. So we are closing down the restaurant that night, Mick is doing a 20th anniversary ale, and we are doing a multi-station, high-end buffet not unlike a miniature version of what you would see in Vegas. Smoked prime rib, cedar plank salmon, things like that. You are going to have to buy tickets for it. We are going to have two or three dining windows where you can kind of come in. Mick will also have whatever archived beers he chooses available.
All of this sounds amazing to us in the Crew. We certainly suggest availing yourself of Lyft or Uber for transportation to and from this most prestigious of anniversaries, as parking will be at a premium, not to mention the road construction in the area as well.
Nico: We are going to be milking the gold medal through to next year; CBC (Craft Brewers Conference) and GABF are both in Denver. Mick is fine-tuning his beers and things like that. So we are going to continue to look for taproom space, but after six months of frustration, Albuquerque is a big city with a lot of commercial space, but I didn’t know it was going to be this difficult.
Solo: Well, there are tons of strip malls all around town, but the right sort of brewery space with the right sort of traffic, infrastructure, parking, pricing, that’s very difficult to find.
Nico: So big thing looking forward is our 20th anniversary, we will have a big old party. We are going to try to recreate the magic of Mick’s gold, but certainly we are going to bask in the glory of it for the time being. Being the only New Mexico brewery to get a gold medal in 2018 is obviously a feather in our cap. I don’t mind crowing about that. You have all of these breweries around you making really really good beers, so there is significant competition which makes winning even more difficult.
With the trouble of 2015 finally behind us, my hibernation is coming to an end. So now the ship is upright, we have a clear sail, and we are ready. So in 2019, we will have a renewed search for a taproom. Mick is trucking along; lagers have been a focus for him, which has been great especially as it was part of bringing us that gold medal.
Solo: Looking at kind of the undercurrent of craft beer drinkers, there’s the hazy crowd, there’s the old school IPA crowd, and then there’s this wash of everyone else, perhaps. What I see is a lot of them sort of gravitating towards these really good, nuanced, awesome lagers.
Nico: To take that on a sort of personal note, when I turned 50 I started to gravitate towards those lagers instead of big IPAs and other big beers after work. I go to a 5-percent (ABV) lager simply because that is what my taste is now. I drink a lot more lagers and a lot more sessionable beers. I still appreciate high gravity beers, but they’re just not practical. So I’m pleased as punch that Mick is crafting world-class sessionable lagers, because that is what I drink and I can drink a lot of them. From a responsibility standpoint, it is nice to have a lot more 5-percent beers on tap, because people can come in and have close to that three-beer limit, and still be perfectly responsible.
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Well, that’s all for this edition. Do head over to to the Turtle Mountain website for details and tickets on their awesome 20th anniversary party (Doppel Equis Steinundenator is what they are calling that anniversary ale), or just stop in for some of their excellent pizza and food while enjoying a pint of the outstanding gold-medal-winning lager Wooden Teeth, and try some of Mick’s other outstanding offerings while you are at it. From all of us in the Crew, we wish our friends at Turtle Mountain a glorious 20th birthday, and cheers too many more years of success.
— Franz Solo