Toltec Brewing picks up steam with an all-female command staff

Posted: March 11, 2019 by cjax33 in Look Back/Look Ahead Series 2018-19
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Toltec head brewer Kaylynn McKnight and general manager Keri Fleming are all smiles at the busy brewery.

Toltec Brewing is taking female empowerment to a new level for a local brewery in New Mexico. The promotion of Emma Gibson to executive chef this past week puts women in charge of almost every key position, as she joins head brewer Kaylynn McKnight, general manager Keri Fleming, and owner Diana Navarrette.

“I think we kind of bank on the fact that we’re an all-female team now,” Keri said. “Our chef is female, brewer, GM, the owner. It’s pretty empowering.”

It is just the latest positive development for the still relatively new brewpub tucked away on the west side of Albuquerque at 10250 Cottonwood Park NW, near the intersection of Old Airport Road and Cottonwood Drive. Keri and Kaylynn volunteered for the interview for Toltec’s entry in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series last Friday, so we grabbed a table on the patio and recapped the first 10 months of Toltec, while also discussing what the future has in store.

“I think (it’s) been going really good,” Kaylynn said. “We were busy at first and then we kind of slowed down for a minute, and then it’s been really picking back up with a fury in the last couple months. It’s nice because it kind of gave me a chance, from selling out of my first batches really quick, it kind of gave me a chance when we got a little slower to refine things a little bit more, and make everything a little better. Now that it’s busy again, I’m getting used to keeping up with the pace of sales. I’m ready to keep brewing more beer.”

Even before 4 p.m. on a Friday, Toltec was already starting to fill up with customers.

The first two months of the year are usually the slowest, but that has not been the case at Toltec in 2019.

“I’ve been in this business for a decent amount of time and I usually see the dip in January and February, and that never happened here, and all of us are surprised about it,” said Keri, who was previously the taproom manager at Marble Westside. “Which is such a good problem to have, especially for our location being a bit interesting. But, I think we’ve gotten ourselves established.”

The interesting aspect of Toltec’s location is how it is hidden from any major streets in the area, such as Coors or Ellison, but Keri said people are still finding their way to the front door. A few people are still surprised to find it, however.

“Sometimes we do, but for the most part, and I try to ask people how they heard about us, and they said word of mouth,” Keri said. “We’re always just trying to keep on top of it between the beer and the food. I feel our food stands up really well, and our beer pairs really nicely with it. It’s not over-complex, but it’s super flavorful and good quality.”

The delicious Baltic Porter has gone fast, almost too fast for those of us who want to enjoy its glorious flavor for a while longer.

After cutting her teeth as an assistant brewer at La Cumbre before moving on to the top job at Nexus, Kaylynn has now gotten to know the slightly different tastes of Westside residents.

“The IPA and the Agave Wheat are the fastest sellers,” Kaylynn said. “They fly out of here, almost faster than I can make them sometimes. The IPA is definitely our number one. People love wheat beers, too, I think especially for this side of town’s demographic, it’s a really easy introduction beer. The Altbier is a really good seller. Aside from the people who are hardcore hopheads, people are focused on the Altbier, the maltier (styles), and the stronger beers.”

“I thought that (Baltic) Porter sold pretty fast,” Keri added. “Compared to a lot of the other seasonals, that porter has gone really fast.”

On a personal note, there is a reason the Baltic Porter has been consumed at such a rapid rate — it is really, really good.

The brewery rarely ever has an empty tank, thanks to customer demand.

Another popular feature for Toltec, one that was planned from early on, was to have weekly beer-and-food pairing events.

“The Craft Course Wednesdays are a really fun thing, too,” Kaylynn said. “I think people are digging it. We’ve sold out almost every time. It’s just a cool opportunity to do pairing dinners every week.”

“It’s a super reasonable price, too,” Keri added. “Twenty bucks for three courses. It’s awesome.”

At the request of customers, the kitchen has done a vegan/vegetarian Craft Course Wednesday, something that the staff hopes to have at least once a month.

“We will end up changing our menu here pretty soon, and there will be more vegan and vegetarian options on that as well,” Keri said.

While the menu evolves with Emma in charge of the kitchen, Kaylynn will also be working to keep the beers fresh and original.

“I’d like to keep the kettle sours going, because people love them,” she said. “I’m trying to figure out new ways to make them fun.”

“You’ve been doing a lot of casks, too,” Keri added.

“Yeah, that’s fun,” Kaylynn said. “It’s easy to experiment with different flavor combinations, because I don’t want to commit to doing a 7-barrel batch of bacon maple. It gives me a really good opportunity to experiment with some crazy flavors.”

Red Devils Helles gets the horns.

A somewhat surprising development of late for Toltec was how the brewpub was basically adopted by a particular sports fanbase, the ABQ Red Devils. For those who do not follow English soccer, those are rabid Manchester United fans.

“Honestly, I kind of thought because of the fact that we have so many TV screens, and I understand that soccer has a huge following (it could happen),” Keri said. “So when it was presented to us to become the home bar for Manchester United, there was no way we could say no to that.

“It’s friendly competition, but it is serious. They bring some energy. We’ll have an early game and it’s 7 a.m. and we’re full in here. It’s rowdy, and it’s even on Sundays where we don’t have beer sales (before noon), but they’re just flooding in, and they’ll come back for beer later. It’s a really nice community to be a part of, and you get to meet a lot of nice people.”

Kaylynn even brewed up a special beer for the fan group, Red Devils Helles, though she admitted that the devils/hell part of the name did not even occur to her at first.

“They were very happy and very grateful,” Keri said. “We’ve got the soccer jerseys for them with their logo. We’ll see what else the year has for us.”

The six beers on the left are on year-round, while the seasonals are on the right.

The Toltec certainly has plenty of ideas for the rest of 2019, including the first-anniversary party in May.

“Our anniversary party is coming up, it will kind of be an anniversary party weekend,” Kaylynn said.

Keri said there will also be a special beer dinner for ABQ Beer Week, which should keep everyone busy throughout the month of May.

Prior to that, Kaylynn said she hopes to work on more collaboration beers, like she did recently with Sippin’ on the Bock of the Day with Turtle Mountain’s Mick Hahn.

“I did the collaboration with Mick and I’d like to get out there and do a couple more collabs,” Kaylynn said. “I do want to do the Toltec and Cumbre collab, like the railroad. I talked to Alan (Skinner) about it. I texted him about it and he said late January, but it’s (March).”

La Cumbre tends to be a busy brewery, so hopefully that beer will happen sooner than later. Toltec is looking to follow in its footsteps, at least in one respect.

“We’re also trying to work on getting into distribution, get that license going and get our beer out there in local places around town,” Keri said. “I want to spread Toltec everywhere.”

“We’re already thinking about that — storage space, cooler space,” Kaylynn added. “Breweries never have enough room.”

Getting the Toltec name out to customers beyond the doors of the brewery will be a big part of the rest of 2019 and beyond.

Kaylynn also said she wants to get out to more festivals this year. The Westside Summerfest was a hit for the brewery, and since Toltec is still less than a year old, it qualifies for the new brewery slots for New Mexico Brewers Guild festivals whenever the Guild has to use its lottery system.

Overall, the Toltec staff is still figuring things out as new developments occur.

“There’s always the hiccups, but it’s all a learning lesson,” Keri said. “I think all of us have been in this industry for a decent amount of time that we kind of anticipate those hiccups. I think as long as we stay together working as a team it’ll work really well.”

“It’s like a puzzle, we’ll figure it out,” Kaylynn said. “Just make the right moves.”

With the right amount of energy, experience, talent, and ambition, Toltec should get that puzzle put together sooner than later.

A big thank you to Kaylynn and Keri for taking the time to chat, and for the pour of Baltic Porter and a sample of Red Devils Helles. We wish them luck for the rest of the year, particularly if Man U stumbles again like it did against Arsenal on Sunday morning.

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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