Las Cruces craft brewing scene keeps it local even as it rapidly expands

Welcome to Icebox Brewing, the newest addition to the Las Cruces craft beer scene.

Las Cruces is the second largest city in New Mexico, but for years, its craft beer scene was far behind Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and even some smaller towns.

There was High Desert Brewing, which had followed in the footsteps of O’Ryan’s Tavern (closed in 2000), and the Pecan Grill was contract brewing with Sierra Blanca, and that was about it. Then along came Spotted Dog Brewing, Picacho Peak Brewing, and most recently Icebox Brewing.

The north came south when Bosque Brewing opened a taproom across the street from New Mexico State, the alma mater of its owners. Bosque has since expanded to two locations in the same complex, with rumors of a third location now in the works. Silver City’s Little Toad Creek Brewing and Distilling saw an opportunity and pounced, putting a taproom on Main Street. Truth or Consequences Brewing now has plans to open a taproom in town, and Icebox is already eyeing its first offsite taproom.

Craft beer real estate is filling up fast in the city with a metro area population of 200,000 (and counting). Prior to ABQ Beer Week, when I was already in town for the Blazin’ Brewfest, I stopped to chat with representatives of High Desert, Icebox, and Spotted Dog about how their scene is evolving, how a sense of local camaraderie has already taken hold, and what the future portends.

“We’re getting there, we’re catching up,” Icebox head brewer Garrett Denmark said.

“There’s seven different venues to go to now,” Icebox general manager Brian Weidauer added. “The days of High Desert only are over. It’s neat to see. There’s a buzz about some of the bigger boys coming down (from Albuquerque and Santa Fe) and opening some taprooms, too.”

The old-school interior of High Desert has not changed much over the years, much to the delight of its local clientele.

In many ways, it feels like Albuquerque did 10 years ago, as the brewers are a fairly tight-knit group, viewing things as friendly competition.

“Oh, definitely, and in this town, that’s exactly what it is,” High Desert head brewer Dave White said. “We all push each other to do better. We want to do new things, new techniques, and at the end of the day we help each other out, too. It’s a great community. We all call each, hey, you got this grain? It’s definitely awesome, because you see them doing a new beer, and I want to do that one, too.”

High Desert has been around since 1997, still in the same spot at 1201 W. Hadley Ave. The building itself still feels more like a renovated house than a brewpub, but that cozy, down-home vibe seems to fit with its patrons.

“We’ve been around for 22 years, so things are going well outside of the (road) construction,” Dave said, and he is not kidding about how bad that construction on Hadley is right now, with the road west of the brewery toward Valley Drive completely closed off. “We’re (still) doing new and exciting things, keeping it fresh, as well as doing all of our original house favorites.”

The neighborhood pub vibe is strong at Spotted Dog.

Spotted Dog also claims veteran status, having opened in the fall of 2014 at 2920 Avenida de Mesilla. It has already expanded into part of the building next door, with its brewing operations now concentrated away from the taproom.

Owner Jerry Grandle said the influx of other breweries and taprooms around town has only marginally affected his bottom line, and that overall it has been more of a positive than anything.

“It’s affected us about five percent,” Jerry said. “But, really, to me what’s happening with the new breweries, not so much the taprooms in town, they’re upping the game. If you talked to David over at High Desert, he just did a kettle sour, (and) it’s good.”

Those new styles, at least to Las Cruces, are making an impact alongside the more established styles.

“We just came out with our first kettle sour, a mango gose,” Dave said. “We did our first barrel-aged beer, so we’re getting into that, so to speak. IPAs are still hot down here, and lagers.”

Of course, heat is a big factor with the scene in Las Cruces. Its calendar is actually closer to that of Phoenix and Tucson than Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Beer sales are low in the summer, as much of the population seemingly heads elsewhere in search of cooler temperatures. Beer sales are much higher in the fall and winter, when New Mexico State is back in session.

The newly remodeled interior of Picacho Peak should be as big of a draw as the huge outdoor space.

There is also the El Paso factor. All the brewers noted that the tourists from nearby Texas still come into the breweries asking for the closest style to their favorite macro brand. (This phenomenon also exists in some of the breweries in Northern New Mexico, which likewise have a lot of tourists coming in seasonally who drive sales of beers that may not be as popular in Albuquerque/Santa Fe.)

Still, things are changing in Las Cruces, particularly with the younger generation attending NMSU.

“The thing about Las Cruces/Mesilla, my clientele, we don’t get as many of the college students as say Bosque does,” Jerry said. “They’re not as hop-centric. They like bigger flavor, stuff that’s complicated, not necessarily trendy. The one thing that I see that’s popular now, it’s kind of a sad thing, everyone is going back to cerveza.”

Jerry may rue the day he has to go back to lower-gravity beers, but Garrett said that all the breweries in Las Cruces have to reflect their customers and a scene that has not yet evolved along the lines of Albuquerque and its 30-plus breweries.

“It’s really all kind of geared toward what we think our clientele down here in Las Cruces is, and we want to create an environment where it’s approachable,” Garrett said. “I still feel like Cruces people are still learning about craft beer and learning what that means. We want to create a beer list that’s really approachable and sessionable, that’s kind of been our focus. A little bit lower ABV, just really easy-drinking, smooth beers. That kind of has a lot to do with the yeast strain that I chose for our house strain. It’s very mellow, very approachable, and a lot of our beers are going to be on that spectrum.”

In the end, anyone traveling south on I-25 to Las Cruces should try to remember that if you want something along the lines of Project Dank, head to the liquor store and pick up a four-pack. If you want something that is truly out there on the fringe, brave the college crowds at Bosque. We think, however, that every brewery scene must be cherished for what it is.

Whether heading into town or heading out, Pecan Grill & Brewery always makes for a good stop for a meal and a beer.

There are still plenty of flavorful beers in Las Cruces, and each brewery offers something unique in its own way. Try one of the classic ales in the cozy confines of High Desert. Enjoy a Shivering Scotsman in the wide-open seating of Icebox. Feel like a local with an Aggie Amber Ale and some hefty dishes at Pecan Grill. Chill out in the massive outdoor space at Picacho Peak with a Munich Helles. Slide up to the bar where everyone knows your name with a Vienna Lager at Spotted Dog.

All the breweries, and the Bosque and LTC taprooms, just participated in the first Las Cruces Brewery Week, which concluded with the Blazin’ Brewfest back on May 17. It was a fun, collective celebration for the scene and its growing number of fans.

Las Cruces has come a long way in the last five years, and yes, it still has a ways to go to catch its fellow New Mexico cities to the north, but it is no longer just a stop on the highway. There is good beer there, brewed by good people, and everyone should check it out.

Look for a couple separate features on Icebox and Spotted Dog this week.

A big thanks to Dave, Jerry, Garrett, and Brian for taking the time to chat on the same day as the biggest beer festival in town.

Cheers!

— Stoutmeister

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