Long before he ever brewed a beer in New Mexico, a young Dave Chichura visited Albuquerque on a two-month brewery tour of America in 1995. He visited the Rio Bravo Restaurant Brewery downtown and Assets Grille in the Northeast Heights. Those two breweries passed into history in 1998 and 2005, respectively, while the young beer lover who visited both would go on to embark upon a brewing journey of his own that would ultimately bring him back to this state 24 years later.
I sat down with Dave over some pints at the Ex Novo taproom in Corrales last week to learn the story of the man behind the beers that so many of us have enjoyed since the brewery opened in May.
“I got into beer when I was in college, strangely enough,” Dave said. “I think it was late in my freshman year in college (in 1989-90), I was in a co-op house at Rutgers University … at that point my favorite beer was Molson Golden. I was a Canadian lager guy, I decided that was sophisticated, I guess. There was a kid down the hall who bought a six-pack of Guinness Extra Stout in the bottle. He didn’t like it, and he offered me one and I said sure. That was my gateway. It blew my mind. I had no idea that beer could taste like that.”
Dave said he then went on a quest to try as many beers as possible, ranging from imports to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Eventually that took him from buying bottles to seeking out actual small breweries in different parts of the country.
“Fast forward a few years and I went to my first brewpub in Indiana, Broad Ripple Brewpub in Indianapolis,” Dave said. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. They were actually brewing (on site), it’s the first brewpub I’ve been to. That heightened the interest.
“I was bugging the hell out of the (brewer) eventually to get in to help him. Hey, man, I’ll help you out for free. I started homebrewing a couple years later. I started in 1994, just very, very basic stuff. I enjoyed it, had varying degrees of success. I spent the ’94 spring semester in college doing more homebrewing than anything else. That’s where my college career ended.”
Dave eventually took a job with a moving company. The then-24-year-old traveled up and down both coasts, and at all points in between. He was moving computer equipment from one spot to the next, and during that two-month solo tour of America was when he hit up as many brewpubs as he could find from the guides available at the time. That included his stop in Albuquerque to visit Rio Bravo and Assets, as well as visiting other classic breweries like Sierra Nevada, Portland Brewing, and Bridgeport.
“After two months of that and driving back from that, that’s when I thought that would be kind of cool,” Dave said. “I like homebrewing. I like seeing these people brewing. I like beer. It might be kind of cool to brew beer maybe for a job. Being the self doubter that I was back then, I said nah, I’d probably have to go to school for that, and school wasn’t really my thing. But then, a year-and-a-half later, I found myself in my first brewing job, which was with Rock Bottom Brewery in Indianapolis.”
The brewer at Broad Ripple had helped Dave get the job at Rock Bottom.
“I remember one day, it was a Saturday, and I was working there in the kitchen, and he said hey, I’ve got some news for you,” Dave recalled. “The guy who’s at Rock Bottom is going to be brewing down there and he’s looking for an assistant. He was wondering if I could recommend anybody and I thought of you. Do you want his number? Of course I did. I bugged the hell out of him until I got the job and that’s where I started.
“I started at Rock Bottom in May of 1996. That’s where I learned the basics. I had a little 10-barrel brewhouse there. I learned the basics of doing it on a larger scale. Very basics of recipe formulation. I mostly learned how to run equipment, clean things, sanitize things. I wasn’t a very good brewer, per se, other than I could make clean beer, but recipe formulation was not highest bit of skill that I had.”
Dave got to run his own Rock Bottom brewhouse as head brewer in the Chicago suburbs after that, but he was not really a fan of suburban life.
“I wasn’t so much into the demographic of where I was, it was just not my thing,” he said. “I was a young guy, a single guy, and I was living in a place that was named the number one place to raise a family that year.”
The next job took Dave to a powerhouse brewery in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“I ended up moving on, as they say, and a few months later on I ended up getting a job at Bell’s in Kalamazoo in February of 2001,” he said. “I was a shift brewer there, which was cool. I was working on bigger equipment. There were two brewhouses there, a 15- and a 30-(barrel). As a shift brewer I made a batch-and-half of wort every shift, pretty much. I knocked out, didn’t really do much else. That was my job, it was kind of really compartmentalized there.”
A desire for something more turned Dave’s attention to the booming beer scene in Colorado.
“By the fall of 2001 I was in conversation with a brewpub that was advertising, looking for a brewer, an experienced brewer, in Boulder, Colorado,” he said. “I ended up getting the job months later. In January (2002) they had me come out for a visit. Things went well, they offered me the job, and I gave a month’s notice at Bell’s and left. I ended up at Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery in Boulder, Colorado.
“They were expanding at the time. That’s when they were building the Southern Sun. The Southern Sun is in South Boulder. It was an existing space that they turned into a brewpub (with a) lager brewing system. The head brewer there was in charge of that, and I was in charge of the brewing system at the original location.”
Dave eventually took over as head brewer for both locations, but he noted that “I didn’t have the managerial finesse that I have now, and even now that can be improved upon.”
After parting ways with Mountain Sun in 2004, Dave said he took eight months off from brewing. He worked for a piano mover in Colorado, but ultimately the pull of brewing, and a well-timed phone call, brought him back into the fold.
“That was an interesting time until I got word from a friend of mine who worked at the Brewers Association, which I think was the Association of Brewers at the time, she called me and said hey, Dave, they just put an ad out looking for a brewer at Oskar Blues,” Dave said. “I said thank you very much and I went up and called them. I pretty much got the job, put in the notice at the piano mover, and started working weekends.”
Dave would spent almost nine years at Oskar Blues, seeing the company grow from a 5,000-barrels-per-year operation to a 90,000-per-year with three breweries in two states. From there, he moved on to Eddyline Brewing in Buena Vista for about a year.
“It wasn’t the best situation for me or for them,” he said. “I think we made some good beers, but it wasn’t a good fit.”
After parting ways with Eddyline, another rapidly growing brewery put in a phone call to Dave.
“I ended up getting a call from one of the principals at Melvin in the fall of 2014,” he said. “We had met before. He had my number. We had met a couple years prior at the Alpha King Challenge during GABF.”
The Melvin owners offered to fly Dave up to Jackson, Wyoming, but he elected to drive instead in order to get a good read on the area and just how remote it all was from the hustle and bustle of the Front Range in Colorado.
“I moved up to Alpine, Wyoming in March of 2015,” he said. “They were still … there was nothing much happening up there at the time. There was a barren ground with a stem wall poured, no steel up or anything like that. It was far behind schedule. Eventually through all of the hard work and stuff we got the place up and running by December of 2015 and it was full throttle from there.”
The surging growth at Melvin was similar to what Dave had already experienced at Oskar Blues, and that combined with the remoteness of the location eventually left him feeling a bit ragged, he said.
“After already doing Oskar Blues for that whole extended period of really rapid growth, I think I might have given a lot of that effort already, and I was probably not the best person to keep moving with it,” Dave said. “I was talking with one of the other principals with the company in November of last year and told him how I was feeling. I kind of considered that my notice.”
Dave would not be out of work for long.
“I was already talking with the folks at Ex Novo a little bit,” he said. “This seemed like a really good opportunity for me to get back into a smaller situation, but growing, and to be in another place that I could see myself living. I still like high elevation living, I like the high desert, I’m an avid mountain biker. The fact that it’s in this Village of Corrales situation was really appealing. I was trying to figure out what the hell it was. I didn’t come down here before I moved here. I was trying to piece it all together from Google maps and the internet.”
Ex Novo owner Joel Gregory said Dave was the right choice for the job.
“We had an established lineup of core beers we wanted to launch with, so our core focus on the brewer search was someone with loads of production experience — someone who could put consistency and quality as the highest priority,” Joel said. “Dave’s that guy. He’s also more experienced than just about anyone, and I think a great asset to round out our team.”
Sight unseen, Dave drove back to New Mexico for the first time in more than two decades.
“I put my notice in up there, got my stuff together, came down here with very minimal things, and got down here on the 31st of December last year and started working here on the 2nd of January,” he said. “It was immediately a great fit, not only for the people I work for and with, and that kind of thing, but just the community here. Really friendly people and the brewing community welcomed us, which was very nice.”
That community aspect was something that Dave said he had hoped to find, but even he was surprised by the collective of brewers that he met.
“I’m happy to be back in a brewing community, because it was really sparse where I was the last several years between Melvin and Eddyline,” he said. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere. I was used to being on the Front Range. You couldn’t swing a bag of dead cats without hitting a brewer, right? It’s a lot easier to borrow a cup of sugar if you need to.
“It’s really cool. It was really great to see how many brewers came out for our soft opening here, and people that I continue to see come in, and that I get to visit, too. There’s really good beer being brewed here. It’s just incredible to see (the growth) in the 24 intervening years since the last time I was here. It’s crazy.”
Dave has fit right into the Ex Novo team and the brewing community at large.
“He’s able to jump in anywhere in the brewery to lend a hand, works really hard, and runs a tight (clean) ship,” Joel said. “It hasn’t been an easy road, the last six months since we started brewing here, but he’s been through this before and has the right, long-term perspective. Very happy to have him on the team, and there to lead by example for the other guys on the team!”
For all of us that have been enjoying all of Dave’s beers, from house standards like Mass Ascension IPA and Perle Haggard German Pilsner, to standout one-offs like Hello My Name is Indigo Montoya and many, many more, I think we can agree that we are quite glad that his long and winding road as a brewer has brought him back to New Mexico.
A big thanks to Dave for the interview and the Sons of Scotland Scotch Ale.