At last, we have clarity regarding the future of Kellys Brew Pub and the former Chama River Brewing. After receiving some mixed messages from some of the staff at parent company Santa Fe Dining, I was invited to sit down with SFD vice president Justin Svetnicka late last week to clear up the entire matter.
“As of (March) 8 all brewing operations were suspended at Chama River,” he said. “Kellys is staying open. The idea was with the Chama building on the market for lease, we did not want to keep the brewery running when we have some interest. We want it to be ready for an occupant to move in quickly.”
As we detailed last year, even though the restaurant part of Chama River had shut down, most of the beer brewed for Kellys was made with the Chama brewhouse by SFD director of brewing operations Andrew Krosche.
“Kellys was a brewing institution in Albuquerque, one of the first local craft establishments,” Justin said. “Unfortunately, it did not keep up with the trends and technology.”
Kellys was originally founded by Dennis Bonfontaine and Paul Perna just down the street in 1997, occupying the building that was most recently the Korean BBQ House. It moved into its current location in April 2000 on the southwest corner of Central and Wellesley. Bonfontaine would continue to own the brewpub, popular for its large patio, up until 2016.
“When (Santa Fe Dining) took over in 2016, we tried to get the craft brew at Kellys on par with this market,” Justin said. “With Andrew at the helm, and Dan (Cavin) helping him out here, we felt the beer got much better. Unfortunately, the public didn’t seem to take notice.”
Kellys was imperiled by the combination of years of bad reviews and word of mouth, coupled with an ineffective push by Santa Fe Dining on social media and other outlets to simply explain that ownership had changed. Even to this day in 2019, many people tell members of the Crew that they had no idea Kellys had ever been sold and/or upgraded its beers, using many of the classic Chama recipes such as Sleeping Dog Stout.
“Kellys for many years wasn’t up to the standards of the other breweries in Albuquerque,” Justin said. “We fought that reputation for years, but it got to the point where the craft beer market surpassed it and we couldn’t catch up.”
At this point, the decision was made to cease brewing operations, as the house beers just were not selling. As an example, when I went to fill a growler of Sleeping Dog for the Crew’s annual Stout Challenge on Super Bowl weekend, the bartender said it was the first growler she had filled in several months of working at Kellys, and that customers rarely ordered one of the house beers.
Among Albuquerque breweries, Kellys was the second oldest behind Canteen/Il Vicino, which opened up the street in 1994. Chama River had actually been the third oldest, opening in 1999 as Blue Corn Albuquerque before taking on the Chama moniker in 2005. Overall, there are now just a handful of breweries that opened in New Mexico before 2000 that are still operational — Santa Fe Brewing (1988), Eske’s Brew Pub (1992), Canteen/Il Vicino, High Desert (1996), Second Street (1996), Sierra Blanca (1996), Blue Corn (1997), Tractor (1999), and Turtle Mountain (1999).
Kellys will remain open, now rebranded slightly as Kellys Pub, thanks to the fact it does have a full liquor license. Justin said that Santa Fe Dining will be making a renewed push to highlight all of the changes, including some that are still to come.
“We still want to try to embrace the craft beer culture,” he said. “We have been able to bring in other breweries’ beer in here, but now we want to take it a step further. We feel we have a great cross section of of beer styles and brands, and coupling that with a strong food menu. We have two brand-new chefs who will revamp the food program.”
On the beer side of things, Kellys will de-emphasize draft beer and instead focus on carrying a wide variety of craft beers in cans. There will be around 36 to 44 different cans available at most times.
“We think that works well for our layout here,” Justin said.
Justin also said that Kellys will be promoted more heavily online; at the start of March, the most recent Facebook post on the Kellys page was from early December. That has changed quickly with a more aggressive social media campaign, something that Justin agreed should have been done back in 2016.
“That’s absolutely a big part of it,” he said. “We’re going to make a big push, especially with social media.”
As for Blue Corn Brewery in Santa Fe, the lone SFD brewery left, there is no need to worry.
“We believe in Paul (Mallory),” Justin said of Blue Corn’s head brewer. “We really want to focus our brewing resources on Blue Corn.”
There will still be a handful of beer taps at Kellys, and some of those will be Blue Corn beers, such as the Road Runner IPA.
As for the brewing equipment from Kellys and Chama River, Justin said there are no current plans to sell any of it. A few pieces will head to Blue Corn, such as a “fermenter or two,” Justin said, but the rest will be placed into storage.
In conclusion, it is both a sad ending and (hopefully) a bright new beginning for Kellys. It was a brewing institution once upon a time, a great place to hang out on weekend night, doing as much people watching as drinking and eating on the patio. For many of us, it was the first local beer we ever had in Albuquerque; it was for me, drinking an imperial stout there after the UNM-Arizona basketball game in January 1999. If we could, we would raise one final pint of Sleeping Dog, our 2016 Stout Challenge winner, and pay final homage to Kellys, Chama River, and all the memories we had at both brewpubs.
Thank you to Justin for the interview, and Nicole Tipton for setting it up.