To stick with tradition, we begin our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series with La Cumbre Brewing for 2019-20. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive review of each brewery’s 2019, while also previewing 2020, all from the viewpoint of the brewers, owners, and other key staff members.
On a blustery afternoon, I sat down with La Cumbre owner/master brewer Jeff Erway in his swanky new office in the building next door to the brewery.
“It went really well,” he said of 2019. “We didn’t open any new taprooms, we didn’t push into any new states, we simply relied on some very organic growth in our current footprint. We’re on track to hit 14-percent growth, which is far better than a lot of regional breweries that I know of. I’m pretty stoked about that.”
That growth came via the beer itself.
“More than anything as a company we did a lot better job of identifying those seasonals that were going to do well in the market and we did a good job of keeping them in the market longer, which did a lot for our growth, volume-wise,” Jeff said. “We did a good job of sticking to our guns and not following every trend that comes along. We did stick to brewing the best beer we possibly can.”
La Cumbre collaborated with several notable breweries — Beachwood, Cannonball Creek, Cigar City — on specialty releases this year, all of which proved to be quite popular. Jeff also said that some of the new popular hop strains, like Strata and Calypso, featured prominently in some of their top beers. Of course, hops always sell in New Mexico, but the malt-forward beers were on the rise as well.
“I feel like we successfully made some absolutely amazing lagers that I’m completely in love with, and got some really good reception for those,” Jeff said. “I think a lot of people have started to recognize that La Cumbre doesn’t just brew IPAs.”
In fact, the Westside taproom saw Slice of Hefen outsell Elevated IPA.
“Things have grown really nicely over at the Westside,” Jeff said. “We have a really great reception there.”
The top seller among all the seasonal/specialty offerings ended up a medal winner.
“By far our best performing seasonal of the year was Acclimated, which I think possibly shows a cool new trend where drinkers are much more receptive to the lower ABV, a little bit less intensity of a beer, but still wanting something beautifully hoppy and really high quality,” Jeff said. “It was kind of reaffirmed for us with a nice silver medal at GABF for that beer. We’re going to be releasing that out in the market for a total of six months next year. Which I’m excited about, because that may be my favorite beer that we’ve brewed in the last few years.”
Being a former music teacher, Jeff found a good comparison for this new trend.
“If we liken it to music for a second, louder doesn’t mean better,” he said. “I think, and I might be partially guilty of this as well, for a lot of people for a while it was louder is better. If you’re playing an acoustic guitar that’s not hooked up to a microphone, sure, louder is better. But, if you’re plugging into to a PA system, it doesn’t mean better, it just means louder.”
Jeff added that he has seen a surge of brewers and beer geeks traveling to Germany, and showing a greater appreciation for less complicated styles.
“Brewers, but also consumers, seem to be getting it that sheer variety for variety’s sake doesn’t equal quality,” he said.
It is a trend that Jeff said he hopes continues.
“It’s really promising,” he said. “It really makes me feel good. As bad as certain trends in the industry make me feel, that makes me feel really good. I feel like an old curmudgeon saying that there’s trends in the industry that I’m not really too excited about, but there’s a lot of trends in the industry I’m not too excited about. That is not one of them. Just seeing people get really excited about simple things, simple, easy beers.”
Another trend among the public that shifted this year was towards a particular style of beer, which saw its packaged sales drop significantly.
“To be a little more reflective, we did four kettle-soured beers this year that just … in the past we needed to brew more and more and more,” Jeff said. “This was the first year we saw a pretty big decline in the demand for those beers. So, sometimes you’ve just got to scrap an idea. We’ll still be brewing some of them, but it seems like the market’s thirst for some of these kettle-soured beers has been satiated. Fair enough.”
Rolling into 2020, La Cumbre will mainly be sticking to its guns on the beer front, though with a few changes and new additions on the horizon.
“I’m excited about continuing to pursue a lot of these new and improved lagers that we’re brewing,” Jeff said. “We’ll definitely be releasing one or two of them into the marketplace. We have a couple of new beers that we’re adding to our hazy series alongside Sun Fade. El Jugo, I think, ran its course, so we’re going to do two new ones that will be throughout the year. We’ll have three different ones for four months each. We’re releasing a kolsch-style ale in the summertime. We’re really excited to see how that’s going to perform.”
One seasonal that will return every year will see its production increase again in 2020.
“Oktoberfest, we keep on brewing a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more every year, (but) it’s never enough,” Jeff said. “This next year we’re hopefully going to be able to keep it on the market at least through the end of September. I absolutely adore how that beer came out this year. We’re really happy with that.”
Other beers on deck will include another wet-hop offering, at least three planned collaborations, and returning favorites like Acclimated and Altimeter IPA.
“The one I’m most interested in is Acclimated,” Jeff said. “When that beer was on, it was our second-best seller. I hope it repeats that. I hope that the demand is that we’ll have to consider producing it year-round.”
Before anyone else asks about a future third La Cumbre location, we asked Jeff.
“I’m not actively looking,” he said. “I’ve long said that where my passions lie, and I’m not going to open up a taproom just to open up a taproom. Ask Kyla (Stoker), I’m sure she’s gotten sick of showing me places. I wait until something really calls to me. The one on the westside checked all the boxes. My preference is going to be to find a spot to build a 5- to 10-barrel pilot brewery. That would be my preference.”
So really? No taprooms even outside of Albuquerque?
“I’ve had several people out in Gallup trying to (tell me) come on, come home, come to your home,” Jeff said of his former New Mexico residence. “That pulls at my heartstrings and really appeals to me.
“I’ve been shown several locations up in Santa Fe, and that has its appeal, for sure. There’s a lot of locations around Albuquerque. I haven’t seen anything that checks enough of the boxes to do it.”
All right, that is not a definitive no, so we will just have to keep an eye out and an ear to the ground.
A big thanks to Jeff for the interview. We will have another 40-plus stories in this series over the next few months.