It has been a few years since a head brewer has moved from one Albuquerque area brewery to another. That relatively static era is over as Tractor Brewing looked locally to fill its vacant head brewer position, finding the right man for the job at Turtle Mountain Brewing.
Mick Hahn is jumping from one brewery celebrating its 20th anniversary this year to another, leaving the cozy brewpub confines in Rio Rancho for the bustling production facility in Wells Park. To catch up on how this all went down, I met up with Mick, Tractor co-owner/brewmaster David Hargis, TMBC owner Nico Ortiz, and his new head brewer, David Pacheco.
“It was pretty quick,” Mick said. “David Hargis called me two weeks ago Monday, when Nico was (on vacation) in Costa Rica, which is always good. I had seen the posting for the position on the (New Mexico Brewers) Guild newsletter. I definitely thought about what it would be like to be their head brewer. I didn’t think much of pursuing it until he called to tell me we had been looking for someone, and hadn’t gotten a whole lot of interest and are you interested, because we’re interested in getting you.
“I met with him the next day to just to talk it over a little bit more. I met with him towards the end of the week when Nico was coming back from Costa Rica. They got in Thursday at 5 o’clock and I told him Friday at lunch that this was all happening. I had less than a week to figure out if this was going to go forward.”
Nico said he knew Mick’s departure was almost an inevitability.
“As soon as he got the gold medal last year, it was a matter of time,” Nico said of Mick’s win at the Great American Beer Festival for Wooden Teeth. “Chama (River) had the same issue that Turtle does in it’s a single-unit brewery and there’s only so much that a brewmaster could do there. Restaurant breweries have the benefit of being able to sell their own beer in house, they don’t have to worry about packaging, but it limits the breadth of your brewing activities.”
It was somewhat of a similar situation as it was in 2016, when Tim Woodward left TMBC for Bosque Brewing.
“Mick reached the conclusion that our production has been flat for eight years now,” Nico said. “It’s not like you’re making more beer or selling more beer, you’re making the same beers and selling the same beers. With Tim it was the same thing, too. Bosque came a knocking and offered upward mobility. Turtle doesn’t have upward mobility. Mick was already the brewmaster, and there’s no supreme brewmaster. Pretty much, if you want to make brewing a career, a place like Turtle is not going to be your place. You need a place that has more breadth of activities, more resources.”
Across town, the need for a new head brewer at Tractor did come as a bit of a surprise to the staff there.
“Josh Campbell, who’s been with us for almost nine years, he was the first person I hired as an employee at Tractor in Los Lunas in 2010 as a part-time guy,” David Hargis said. “Over the years he took over the head brewer position. He had been doing most of the brewing for a number of years. He’s moving to Carlsbad. We needed to find a replacement. We wanted to stay local with that decision. There’s a lot of talent here, we think. We put a small list together and reached out. One of our very short-list candidates was Mick here.
“After a few talks, he agreed to take the position as head brewer here. We’re grateful and excited, too, because Josh and I had done all the brewing and all the recipe development over the last 10 years. It’s going to be great to bring somebody in who’s got a GABF medal, who’s been making great beer for Turtle Mountain, and can take a fresh look at our recipes and bring new recipes in. How that evolves is going to be exciting to see. I’m very excited about that.”
Tractor certainly needed some immediate help, since a year that was supposed to not see much physical growth will instead see the addition of a Los Lunas location.
“As we continue to grow, and as we talked earlier in the year, there wasn’t going to be a taproom this year, but now I’m downstairs building materials for the new taproom,” David said. “Which is getting close to being ready for us to start moving in. It’s good timing as well in that point. As soon as we get Mick here, I can run down there and do what we need to get that open.”
Mick will float between the two breweries for the remainder of the month, starting full-time at Tractor on September 3. It will be quite a different setup than what he has been working with the last three years.
“The production volume is about five times what we’re doing (at Turtle Mountain),” Mick said. “Obviously a lot of that is going into distribution, and a good portion of that is cider. I’m going to be expanding my repertoire of beverages, and spirits as well. I’ve got a lot of things to play around with, learn a little bit more, and try to make an impact on Burque beverages.”
A bigger brewery will present new challenges.
“It’s scheduling brews, making sure that … a lot of it is order-based,” Mick said. “In the pub, I’ve some pretty good trends that I’ve been following, get good patterns together, and know what I need to brew in three to six weeks from now, and have a decent schedule lined up. Tractor is not going to be that easy. A lot of it is determined by what Premier (Distributing) wants. I’ll have to do my best to think ahead of them and have it ready to go.
“I have four or five guys working underneath me on the team, so scheduling all of them to make sure we have people moving the right beer, brewing the right beer, brewing the right cider, someone on the packaging line, someone to make sure orders are ready to go for tomorrow, and then making sure it’s all staying clean.”
Mick will also have a much larger staff at his disposal, both in the brewery and in the front office. At Turtle Mountain, it was just him and David Pacheco inside the brewery.
“The good news is I don’t have to worry about distribution,” Mick said. “There’s a team to handle that once it’s in package, on a pallet, wrapped up and ready to go, that’s as far as my concern goes. I can make my peace with it then. I don’t have to run kegs to accounts, (and) I don’t have to clean lines. I don’t have to be responsible for going out and finding new tap handles, people that want to put our beer on, establishing those connections. I’m happy to get out into the community and meet with accounts and prospective accounts, and talk about the beer, but that’s not my whole responsibility. That excites me a lot.”
No is mad at Turtle Mountain after Tractor snatched up their head brewer.
“Obviously I was concerned when Mick told me he was leaving,” Nico said. “I got super lucky with Mick, because when Tim left I told him if you’re going to leave me high and dry, you need to find a replacement. He actually found me somebody who was better than he was, so I got lucky with that.
“But, with all the new breweries opening up, the brewing market is so competitive. Almost anybody worth their salt already has a job and it could be a pretty good job. Just like what David (Hargis) found out, he posted that job for Tractor and got virtually no applicants. Unfortunately, at that point, you have to do what is distasteful, but necessary, which is poaching. You have to make an offer to somebody who works for someone else. I bear no ill will or grudges. That’s what has to get done. At the end of the day, if you have to fill the position and they’re working for somebody else, you have to make them a better offer.”
Instead, Turtle Mountain will look to the future with David Pacheco, who has been assisting Mick for most of the past two years.
“I have so much confidence in David Pacheco,” Mick said. “I wouldn’t have won that gold medal with his help, I can guarantee that. He’s been doing more in this brewery in the past year that I really have. I’ve been mostly relegated to paperwork and scheduling. I want to get a little bit less of that and do a little bit more of the physical labor. I know Tractor is going to need me to do that. Hopefully this position for him means he can back off the physical labor for a little bit, because he’s been busting his ass for the past year-plus. I’m very confident. I’m excited for him to do it and see what he can turn out from this brewery.”
Nico is confident as well.
“David, he was always the first-choice candidate, which of course obviously was very nice because he’s also the easy-choice candidate,” Nico said. “He steps into some pretty big shoes. I told him he has to win a gold medal next year when he submits his first batch of his own beers into competition.”
David could only smile and nod at his boss, as he prepares for the next step in his brewing odyssey.
“I started with the CNM program and ended up as an intern here in the summer of 2017,” David said. “I didn’t know much, actually, comparatively (to now). I had only done a couple of homebrew batches. So the vast majority of what I understand of brewing has come from Turtle Mountain, in combination with the CNM beverage program.
“Eventually when life happened, things shifted, and I became the assistant brewer in October of 2017. Just under two years, we are here now, which is a little crazy to think. Most people spend way more time in such a position, but life happens, as they say.”
David said he is ready to step up to the top job.
“It’s been a long journey, but I think being an assistant here has certainly instilled a quality of responsibility,” he said. “It really made me realize my potential to actually create these beers. It makes me understand that if I had set my mind to anything, I could have done anything, really, but I decided to do brewing. So we’re here now.
“They are big shoes to fill, though. It’s going to be a steep learning curve, for sure, but I’ve never been one to not step up to an opportunity, you know? So it’s only natural, I think.”
Brewing has given David a purpose that he said he lacked in the past. It also gives him a chance to further connect to his hometown.
“I was just getting by, going to school,” he said. “I was going to CNM for at least three or four years before they even announced the bev program, so I was essentially wandering the halls of academia, waiting for a purpose. This one seems to fit the right psychological prerequisites that I myself had deemed worthy of filling in order to not become mentally unstable later on through other jobs. I wanted to at all costs avoid adult life. I think I’ve achieved that because I create something for my local community.
“I grew up in Rio Rancho. It really does mean something special to me to climb this particular pillar and then eventually master it and service the local Rio Rancho people. I think I get a lot of inner peace from knowing that people appreciate my products. I get to work generally alone, which is very nice. My product is my own and every single batch is individually unique. It’s not dehumanized or anything like that.”
Of course, with David moving up to head brewer, Turtle Mountain is on the lookout for a new assistant. Recent CNM graduates and others with brewery experience are encouraged to contact Nico, either in person on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., over the phone at (505) 238-3032, or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I would like (someone with) just general understanding of how beer essentially works, what’s good for beer, what’s not good for beer,” David said. “There’s a lot that can be filled in for training. But, I would ideally like someone from, say, a CNM program background, because then I can assume many things (have already been learned). That’s not to say I’m going to get that, or, alternatively, it would be nice to have someone already from the industry coming. I can only say I’m hopeful.”
While David is getting ready to fill those big shoes in Rio Rancho, Mick is compiling a to-do list for Tractor when he takes the reins next month. Co-owner/president Skye Devore already told him that she has one time-specific project on her mind.
“I have started looking through the recipes, and seeing what they’re at now, and seeing what are some of the characteristics that I don’t really agree with, things that I think are holding that beer back, seeing where it’s coming from and what we can do to right that,” Mick said. “Skye is already asking me about what we’re going to do for Beer Premiere, which is about seven weeks after I start. We need to have a plan in motion by the time I get there so we can get it in action.”
David Hargis said that there will be plenty of time to get Mick caught up to speed on what needs to get done right away, and what can be more long-term projects for the future.
“The goal, what we see him doing is bringing in a fresh look at what we’re doing, but really to take over the management of the brewery is what we think Mick has the skills to do,” David said. “Big picture, we haven’t really had a chance to sit down and look at that. He’s only going to be coming for a few hours each day. We’re going to sit down, look at recipes together. I’d like for him to make some suggestions, whether it’s water, whether it’s pH, whether it’s mild adjustments to flagship recipes, I’m going to be very open to having the discussion. We’re always trying to get better, no matter what, so I think this is a step in the right direction.”
Ultimately, Mick said he is happy to join another brewery with a long tradition in the New Mexico craft beer scene.
“I do see a lot of tradition with Tractor, but I also see them kind of innovating and making new traditions,” he said. “Just the fact that they’re very community focused, they love to work with an artist or a good cause, they love to help everyone else around them. That’s more of the tradition I want to go for. I do love a lot of the stuff going on at Turtle, but I do need to branch out, stick my neck out a little bit more and see what more is out there. Tractor has enough of an imprint on the community that it’s good prospects. I’m excited for it.”
Good luck to Mick and David Pacheco. We look forward to trying each of your first new beer recipes that will go on tap soon. Just probably not on the same day, since it is a long drive from Rio Rancho to Wells Park.
Thanks to all for the interviews, and the interview beers, of course.