The founding father of the modern New Mexico craft brewing scene, Mike Levis, died two weeks ago in Amarillo, Texas. He started the Santa Fe Brewing Company out of a barn on his horse ranch in Galisteo in 1988, ending a stretch of 49 years without any commercial brewing in New Mexico.
Levis, 80, is survived by his children, including his son, Rio Bravo head brewer Ty Levis, who sat down with us to talk about how his father started SFBC back in an era where craft was not king. Ty said he is also hoping to honor his father in conjunction with the New Mexico Brewers Guild and its member breweries.
“The idea I have is to set up this toast on December 2 at 4 p.m. or so, and just raise a craft beer to honor my dad who happened to be the first brewer in the state in the modern era,” Ty said.
“In general, I felt like a toast would be the best way to have everybody just pause from work with whatever beer you’re drinking, hopefully New Mexican craft, and raise a pint and sort of just say, hey, thank you.”
Craft beer has come a long way since Mike Levis got the idea to start a microbrewery on his property long before most of us could even legally drink. Craft breweries were starting to pop up around the country in the 1980s, but New Mexico was still without anything since the first Rio Grande Brewing closed in 1939.
Brewing would find an unlikely founder in Mike. His main business was tied into the horse ranch he lived on with his family, and he also dabbled in other entrepreneurial endeavors.
“I actually remember a lot of the stories of the early days because I was still in high school at that point,” Ty said. “There was a lot of commotion in building, and he had to keep going to the state and county to ask permission to install this old equipment from Boulder (Beer) Company. The reason he got into it was he was originally trying to sell glass and bottles to local New Mexico wineries. He was starting a little glass sales business.
“He would go to all these wineries and what’s the first thing a winemaker wants to do? Sit down with me and let’s drink some wine. He didn’t have a taste for wine at that point in his life. He just couldn’t get his head around why there wasn’t a small brewery with 20 wineries (in the state).
“He kept seeing the same equipment for sale in one of the trade publications which was the original Boulder equipment. It was located in a goat shed in Longmont, Colorado. They had sort of built this in a square fashion to be able to fit it in and out of a regular-sized door. A little bit wide door, but not a double door. He just decided he was going to do it.”
Mike was not a young man when he jumped into this labor-intensive business.
“He was actually about my age when he started Santa Fe Brewing Company,” Ty said. “I’m not quite 49 yet, and that’s about where he was at when he started it 31 years ago.”
It was actually Mrs. Levis would probably put it best.
“My mom always referred to it as his little midlife crisis,” Ty said. “As much as she would complain about being the first mistress of brewing, it was better than a blonde, she would always say. His midlife crisis consisted of dumping a bunch of money and on a whim trying to start this thing.
“(Then) just because no one had ever done it before, they didn’t know how to license him. They didn’t know anything about the process. He got a lot of help. Some people randomly left about 10 brewing books in his mailbox some day. This was all about my junior year of high school. It was really kind of interesting to see how all that started.”
Mike did get help from the folks at Boulder Beer Company to start up the brewhouse and to brew his signature beer, Santa Fe Pale Ale.
“He had help from the brewer, the head brewer at Boulder came down and sort of coached him in how to set up that little system using gravity feed and small pumps,” Ty said. “They also kind of handed him off the original recipe for Santa Fe Pale Ale.
“My dad was totally into Santa Fe Pale Ale for the longest time. However, when they were looking at an opportunity to possibly get into a brewpub situation in about 1991, that’s when (brewer) Brad Kraus was working for him, they decided to start branching out and trying different flavors. They started with Nut Brown Ale, then they did State Pen Porter, which used to be called Old Pojoaque Porter, and Chicken Killer Barleywine. They started doing varieties that were a lot more fun.”
There were no shiny stainless steel fermenters or brite tanks around in those days.
“At that level of brewing, (it was) very rudimentary, very homebrew-like, bottle conditioning everything,” Ty said. “They were still able to put out a pretty decent product. It would be considered to be low-tech now, but at the time it was really a 7-barrel homebrew system.”
Not every beer survived.
“Of course, with the bottle conditioning and low-tech brewing we had some exploding bottles when I was younger,” Ty said. “(But) that can happen to anyone.”
Mike would eventually sell the brewery to a group that included Ty and current owner Brian Lock in 1996. They would eventually move it to its current location off Interstate 25 and oversee the beginnings of its expansion into the largest brewery in the state.
“He ran it for seven years,” Ty said. “He learned how to brew, but his niche was in sales and trying to talk to people about the beer. We had some really great and talented people come through the business over the years, people like Laurie and Brad and others that have contributed so much to the knowledge base and moved onto other places where it’s grown and grown and grown. You have to think back in those days there was no (Brewers Association) forum, there was no internet. If you had a problem, there might be somebody that might have seen it before, but they weren’t in the state.
“The whole history of him diving off this cliff’s edge to try to do something else, it was kind of a last-ditch effort. He really did enjoy it, but brewing is super hard work. Sales and delivery are super hard work. It’s not for the light of heart, especially if you’re almost 50 years old. Not that it can’t be done at that age, because it most certainly can, it’s just a lot harder. You might not be as spry (tightening) triclamps under (the brewhouse).”
Ty followed his father into the business, eventually serving as director of brewing operations at SFBC before moving to Rio Bravo in 2014.
“It’s kind of one of those things for me and him, I got a career out of it,” Ty said. “Many people who have worked not only at Santa Fe Brewing Company, but other companies, have gone on to have good careers because of his sort of crazy whim to get something going. To think 31 years ago, now that there would be so many more breweries and so many more people enjoying craft beer, not only in New Mexico but all over the world, it’s one of those early pioneer (stories). It’s quite amazing. I’m really excited to still be a part of this industry.”
Things have certainly come a long way not just since Mike founded his brewery, but since he sold it.
“The days in Galisteo, he worked it for about eight years, ’88 to (’96) or so,” Ty said. “That was a pretty good long run. It was incredibly hard to do. Craft beer was not nearly as enticing as it is today. Of course, he got into other things, and that would have put him right there at 56, 57, and you don’t need to schlep kegs downtown and do all that staff when you’re 57 years old. At least I don’t hope you have to (do that).”
Mike’s legacy at Santa Fe Brewing is secure.
“Santa Fe Brewing Company is saddened by the loss of Mike Levis, founder of Santa Fe Brewing Co.,” Brian Lock said. “Mike was a pioneer of beer in New Mexico, starting the first microbrewery back in 1988. His infamous photo of him riding a circus bike with a beer in one hand will always live on the walls of Santa Fe Brewing Company. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ty and the rest of the Levis family.”
Mike was with his family attending the wedding of one of Ty’s cousins in northeastern New Mexico when he fell and struck his head. Ty and his sisters rushed Mike to the hospital in Clayton, where the full severity of his injury forced the staff to have him flown by helicopter to Amarillo. Mike died surrounded by his family and friends, the end of a great life that impacted not just those he knew and loved, but in a way all of us who work in and around this ever-growing craft beer industry in New Mexico.
“The place where we were at, the family ranch, was one of the most memorable places we always used to go when I was a kid,” Ty said. “It was where my mom grew up. He wouldn’t have wanted to be any place but there.”
Thank you, Mike Levis. We will raise a pint of one of our state’s finest beers in your honor on December 2. Stay tuned for further details.
Our condolences to Ty, the entire Levis family, and all who knew Mike.