Driving over to Ponderosa Brewing, it can be hard to miss the rapid growth of the entire Sawmill District in all directions. Old warehouses and empty lots are being transformed into modern commercial and residential properties. Amid it all, Ponderosa has continued to grow at its own pace, keeping up with what is quickly becoming a bustling community.
I caught up with head brewer Antonio Fernandez earlier this week to recap the year gone by and preview the year to come for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
“It was busy and it was good,” he said. “We had our fifth anniversary back in September, which was cool. That’s kind of a milestone for this young, small brewery. We kept on with our same rate of steady growth since I started, which is good. We’re making and selling more beer, which is never a bad thing. The good thing about that is I (still) get to experiment.”
Antonio kept those seasonal brews rolling, particularly during the peak summer months.
“I did a lot of different lagers this year, which was cool,” he said. “During the summer I was actually running about 40 percent of our taps (with lagers). One of my favorites, acdtually, was the good old German pils. I just saw the magazine the other day, and I guess we won best pilsner in Albuquerque the Magazine, which is kind of nice. I was happy about it, because that was one of my favorite beers I made this year, too. Usually the ones I like the public doesn’t care about at all.
“There were a couple of bocks that were nice. The one I did for my 400th brew this summer was a double IPA (that) I was really happy with. A lot of our customers were like it’s a good old-school IPA, not a double-dry-hopped hazy or something like that. As much as everyone loves those new beers, people miss all the classics, too. Those are definitely some of the highlights we brewed this year.”
This was also the first full year of the Ponderosa taproom over at El Vado Motel on Central, which also helped keep the beer flowing.
“It’s in the slow season now,” Antonio said. “It doesn’t have much indoor seating space. But, business was great during the summer, spring, and early fall, especially when the weather was really nice out. … We need to figure out something to get more heated seating over there. There’s more of a crowd during the lunch hour than during the evenings. A lot of neighborhood people are becoming the regular crowd these days. There’s a lot of people that live in the area who are happy to have a place with craft beer nearby.”
Another change in the year came with Ponderosa’s distribution of canned offerings.
“We’ve been doing some limited distribution with our cans,” Antonio said. “We’ve been working with Rio Bravo to have our Blood Orange Wit contract brewed for cans. I was trying to do that here for a while, but there were too many logistics. I don’t have enough room to be tying up my space and bringing in the mobile canner all the time. Plus, we had to clear out half our restaurant space to fit their equipment in. It was becoming a real drain, so in order to keep that project up we decided to make that partnership.
“Things are going pretty well. Ty (Levis) and Austin (Giorgetta) are good guys. I’ve been working with them for a while, doing some batches over there with them. I’ve been able to get the product really close to the same one I’m brewing here.”
A popular current seasonal offering will also be canned soon.
“I’m really digging this stout we just put on, our Ooey Gooey Stout,” Antonio said. “It’s a s’mores stout that’s brewed with Cinnamon Toast Crunch and toasted marshmallow. It’s been going over really big in the taproom here.
“We’re actually going to brew up a batch of this stout to put in cans by the end of the year, which should be pretty fun. We’re still working on artwork and label approvals, all of that stuff.”
In addition to getting more beers in cans with the new contract brewing agreement, Ponderosa has also been able to roll out more events at the brewery.
“We’re getting back into doing more events here on site finally,” Antonio said. “Some of the fundraisers we did for Agora Crisis Center, the Art for a Cause, we did those this year. We did one for the pitbull rescue. We did little markets outside and then we’d feature food and things like outside where people could walk up and purchase brats or snacks. It was nice to get the community thing going on around here again, which I like. It was something we did quite a lot when I first started, but then with the other growth and getting the taproom started, a lot of the events fell by the wayside for a while.”
Connecting to that growing community in the Sawmill District is important, even as a little competition opens just up the road on Bellamah.
“The Sawmill Market will, they said open in February,” Antonio said. “I was talking to the, I don’t if he’s the architect or (developer), not too long ago, so the building will be ready before that. Then they have to wait for occupancy (permits) and that kind of stuff. There’s going to be a big taproom in there, which is cool. (It) is going to bring more people to the area. Some people are asking are you worried to have more competition around. I find that it will help us, it will give more people a reason to come to this area that aren’t from this area. I think it will be a good thing. It hasn’t hurt La Cumbre and Canteen for being sandwiched together in the same area.”
Antonio said new places like the Sawmill Market will become a draw for people to come in from outside the neighborhood.
“We’re in that same situation, a lot of neighborhood, people that work around here, but otherwise you have to plan a special outing if you’re going to bring people over,” he said. “We definitely have our neighborhood pub kind of group, but it’s not much of a neighborhood yet. It’s getting there. We’re having a big rebirth in the area. All of this new stuff will help.”
Ponderosa is also looking to work more with its fellow breweries in 2020.
“I’d really like to,” Antonio said. “I don’t if it’s just something brewers say all the time, he let’s make a beer together, but I’ve only done one collab together the whole time I’ve been here so far. I’d definitely like to do some more. I’ve been talking with Will (Moorman) at Flix, with Ted (O’Hanlan) at Bow & Arrow, with Kaylynn (McKnight) at Toltec. We’ve talked quite a bit more about getting a collab seriously going. I hope to get one with the CNM brewing program soon. I host them a couple times a semester to help them learn about the process. I was talking to Nick Jones and he was ready to bring them here and we’ll do a beer.”
On a more personal note, Antonio is also studying for the advanced Cicerone exam, which would be an impressive accomplishment should he pass.
“I’ve been studying quite a bit for this one,” he said. “I’m going for the level three, advanced. There’s only one (Asa Stone) in our state currently and not a whole lot around all together. It seems like quite a big (challenge). I might have bit off more than I can chew. The first one went well. I think I became the 12th certified Cicerone a year-and-a-half ago when I got it. There’s a few more around now. I didn’t put in that much effort to that one, but I was able to pass. I’m hoping with all the studying I’ve done this time I’ll be able to do it.”
Antonio has been passing that desire for more beer knowledge on to the Ponderosa staff.
“I’ve been working with a lot of my staff this year on beer education,” he said. “We’ve gotten everyone beer server certified from the Cicerone program. We’ve done all the tastings. I want them to be able to know about the beer, explain the beer, and talk to our customers intelligently about the beer. It’s tough when you have a lot of staff turnover, but you have a lot of (front-of-house staff) going from brewery to brewery, so they tend to know more about the beer when they come here.
“Beer education is a big issue for me. It’s not as big of an issue with business owners and everyone else up top, but I make the beer and so it’s important to me. I’m trying to get them on board with it for sure.”
None of us in the Crew will ever dispute the desire to increase beer knowledge, that is for sure. A big thanks to Antonio for taking time to chat, and for the pint of Ooey Gooey Stout, a tasty alternative to all the mega-sized imperials floating around town these days.