Turtle Mountain looks to crawl out of its comfort zone in 2020

Former Turtle Mountain head brewer Mick Hahn, left, celebrates the ascension of David Pacheco to the top spot.

As we look back on 2019 and look ahead into 2020 for Turtle Mountain, it was a year of transition to be sure with a changing of the guard in some key positions and a drive to solidify in the wake of the those changes before jumping into the new year. I (Franz Solo) was able to chat with owner Nico Ortiz and new head brewer David Pacheco not long ago, so read on for all things Turtle Mountain!

Solo: We are in Year 21 for Turtle. Looking back on your banner 20th year and looking ahead to next year, what challenges — clearly the continuing construction on Southern Boulevard being one — what successes stood out to you last year, and how does that springboard you for next year?

Nico: Well, 2018 was a very challenging year. Obviously the road construction started in September of 2018, so we were prepared for a year of construction, (but) as it turns out it’s not going to be done until Christmas, so it’s going to be a 15-month project instead of the 12 that we were expecting. At the end of 2018, I lost my long time kitchen manager and my long time bookkeeper who happened to be married, so I assumed full accounting responsibilities for Turtle where I’d had a bookkeeper for 12 years. Aside from double checking and fully keeping tabs on things, I go from 12 years of not having to worry about it to doing it starting in 2019. So this whole year was me just kind of getting myself familiar with all of the books and the forms and the taxes and the this and the that, so it added between 20 to 25 hours to my work week just taking that over. 

Solo: Yeah no kidding, that’s a lot.

Nico: And then, we had some transition in the kitchen, my bookkeeper’s husband who had been with Turtle since 1999 in the beginning, rose up through the ranks to become kitchen manager, he also left at the end of 2018. So we were adjusting to the management end of things and cleaning up the mess, so to speak, so the first chunk of 2019 was us kind of re-adjusting to the new staffing, and on the restaurant side of things the new kitchen manager. So yeah, 2019, the only progress we made was to get rid of weakness in the organization, and actually promote strength, and so the staff at the end of 2019 at least on the restaurant side of things is probably the strongest it’s ever been. Obviously in the brewing side of things, Mick (Hahn) took off right in the middle of the year and so that was not unexpected, but I didn’t want to have to hear the day that he was putting in his notice. 

Trying to find brewers in this market is brutal. There are so many breweries opening that literally — and this is what Tractor did — the only way to find a good solid, competent, professional brewer is to make an offer to somebody currently employed somewhere. I knew it was going to happen, as soon as Mick got that gold medal for Wooden Teeth. I knew his days were numbered. It’s the mindset of “Turtle is a great place to brew, but there’s a very low ceiling.” We do our 900 barrels a year, and as of right now we don’t have any offsite taprooms, so that there’s little in the way of advancement. I thought to myself that finding a brewer is going to be kind of hard. We obviously looked at David first and foremost, who was Mick’s assistant for a couple of years, and Mick (said he) felt confident that David could do it. David felt confident that he could do it, (and) I did not want to have to deal with finding a new brewer, so this is the easier choice right now, and David’s been really good. He appreciates being first chair — learning curve is very high — as far as dealing with having to order grain and hops, and doing any of the excise tax reporting. But, Mick pretty much showed him everything on his way out, and David has been on his own for the past three months, and he’s done a good job thus far. He has two or three beers on tap that are completely his own recipes and they’re good, so I’m happy with that. 

2019 looking back, certainly it was a year of transition. Mick leaving, David coming on, a brand new kitchen manager, and me transitioning into being the full-time accountant/bookkeeper position. On the taproom front, we started looking at taproom spaces a year ago. We were looking all over on the west side, east side across the river, Paseo corridor. We’ve been looking for over a year now. I think we might have found a place, a potential taproom — no lease has been found, we are still snooping around — but as far as looking ahead to 2020, I think you should definitely expect to see a Turtle Mountain taproom. 

We in the crew definitely look forward to finding out where that might end up. — Solo 

Which is good, because I have three taproom licenses and I have no taprooms. It would be nice to get; I mean our barrelage has been capped at 800-to-900 barrels with no increase in nearly a decade. It’s time to actually spread our wings a little bit. Plus, I want to get in on the gravy train, there’s taprooms everywhere and hopefully people making money. So I want to get in on that. 

Solo: Totally. So taproom finally expected this next year, awesome. A year of transition in terms of staffing, which sounds like is ending on a higher note. Any plans for your 21st anniversary?

The 20th anniversary bash was one for the ages.

Nico: Oh yeah, for the 20th anniversary we had a super high end, reservations only buffet that was difficult to arrange. We are looking for the 21st to tie in with the 21st amendment, and the fact that you are legal to drink at 21. So we are kind of looking to do a 21-themed event. The event we did on September 21 for the Oktoberfest, where we licensed the entire patio, and had the event in the back, we are planning on doing something along those lines. We don’t want to do anything in the restaurant that is going to tax the kitchen particularly, so we were thinking about doing some kind of invitational beer fest and maybe food truck kind of event. Maybe we roll out the smoker and do some BBQ of our own, we get a stage and do some live music. Basically along the lines of what Marble does for their (Marblefest). I’m hopeful that soon after our 21st anniversary on March 22, to have a taproom open in the summer of 2020 to take advantage of the nice weather and everything else. Finally, after I don’t know how many times you and I have sat down talking about this, between the parking lot, staffing changes, and everything Turtle has been in kind of stasis since 2015. For four years, we’ve been in stasis and now it’s time to finally start making some forward progress. I’m hopeful that 2020 will finally be the year that I can say good-bye to four years of bobbing in the same place, so to speak, that we will actually start paddling back forward again. 

Solo: Yeah, seriously, here’s hoping. It’s been rough for you guys. Anything else you’d like to add?

Nico: We did a business of beer panel/discussion down at Canteen a few weeks back, and for the dinosaurs like me, it’s definitely such a different business now than it was back then. Coming on our 21st birthday, it definitely makes me feel old just how different things are and everything. The big thing is that after four years of treading water we are finally going to be making forward progress, and I’m happy to finally, knock on wood. I’m hoping that we’ve put a lot of these major issues behind us, and that we are ready to actually stop looking over our shoulder, and actually start looking forward. 

The day after my conversation with Nico, I had a chance to talk to head brewer David Pacheco for his take on the beer side of things at Turtle Mountain.

Keeping all the beers flowing is now the job of head brewer David Pacheco.

Solo: So how are things going?

David: Pretty good. When I first took this position it was a little intimidating trying to make everything happen, but it’s come easily, actually. It all makes sense once you realize that there are plenty of people that are paid to answer your phone call for your needs. So there are plenty of people willing to work for you. No bumps or anything particularly, it’s been a steady ride. I guess the biggest problem is just trying to get more space in my cold room. But, that’s been the lamentations of every brewer, you know. 

Solo: Yeah, no kidding, unless you’ve got a giant warehouse or something which almost nobody does.

Nico had mentioned you have done a couple of your own batches, would you mind running me through those and your thought process behind brewing?

David: Really, when I started out (in September of this year), I was tasked with reanalyzing the house beers just because some of them weren’t really selling much, and the time placement in which some of them were on tap year round wasn’t really matching seasonality. So we had a porter on all year, which I mean I loved the porter, but it didn’t have really as much name recognition as say a stout. So I decided to actually replace that one with an American stout, seeing that we have a really hop-based community here. I figured that would probably do better, and kind of set (it) aside from a lot of other standard oatmeal stouts, where you just have one early addition hop. I wanted to make things a little bit interesting. So I did that American-style stout, it is on tap right now and is called Strategos Stout (Hopped with Columbus and Equinox, the latter of which is one of my personal favorites. — Solo), and it is being received quite well. 

The other one I did was an experimental IPA. We have this whole TM series where the name could be anything that starts with a T and an M. Mainly it was started to just get rid of hops and blow through some hop contracts that we were falling behind on, (and) we found a lot of worth in that. Finding which hops kind of go together is not always apparent. There are some that just work and some that just clash together. I added some honey malts in this current one, it’s called Transitional Madness IPA, which was rightfully so (named). It was not an easy transition. 

Solo: No, it never is. 

David: Yeah, I was doing the Cicerone course and being an assistant, (all) while trying to fill the shoes of Mick. So there was nothing about it that was at all easy. 

Solo: Sounds like you just had full immersion in beer, what with doing Cicerone tasting and all of that, while trying to make sure all of your equipment was running and so forth and so on. As we know, brewing is a rabbit hole that you can just keep on digging, and you’ll never find the bottom.

David: No, and that’s to our benefit, too, because otherwise we’d just run out of ideas. So just to tell you a little bit about that (Transitional Madness) beer, the classic Hopshell lovers are really into it, so I might revisit that recipe a little bit. We used Summit, Mosaic, and Centennial for that beer. 

Solo: I haven’t played much with Summit, so I’m not too familiar with it.

David: Yeah, I’ve gotten various responses with Summit. It’s a pretty high alpha acid hop, and one that you either love it or you hate it, I guess. I tend to really like it. (For the grist) it’s a standard Two-Row, some C-60, honey malt, and golden naked oats. It’s a pretty easy malt combination, but it’s done really well.

Solo: Sounds like a good base to play on. 

David: Yeah. Once that one kicks we actually have a honey lager that I’ve had in the cold room since just a couple days before Halloween. I know this is generally a springtime kind of beer, but this is one of my first ideas as my own beer. So I decided to just pull the trigger and I think it’s really tasty. It just needed some time to mellow out in that cold room. It was a little sulphuric from that Bavarian lager strain.

Solo: Oh yeah, that’ll do it for sure. 

David: They (Bavarian yeast strains) tend to be pretty sulphuric so they take just a little bit more time to let that volatilize out and it’s tasting really nice. It’s essentially a pilsner base and I believe I did nothing but Lemondrop on that. 

Solo: Cool, that does sound really neat and crisp. That gives me some ideas, too, but anyway. 

David: Lemondrop is really becoming one of my favorite hops. It just has so much aromatic capacity and there are very few people who will deny a nice lemon flavor.

Solo: It’s definitely rather ubiquitous as a flavor compound. I’d be curious to look at the terpene content in there as well. Any plans this coming year for your anniversary, competitions, anything like that for this next year?

David: I’m kind of trying to step away from the higher-gravity anniversary beers. I want to do something interesting and maybe a style that’s not necessarily been done often here. It’s hard to remake the wheel; there’s so many anniversary beers that have been done here. I want to do something that’s more sessionable, which (also) has some character. I don’t have anything solidly pinned down for that yet. It’ll come to me. 

As for competitions, we’ve already registered for WBC (World Beer Cup), which is like a necessary thing if you are a brewer, and it’s always nice to get good intercontinental feedback into how your beer is tasting to everybody else. A medal is great, but I do appreciate a BJCP-certified response to my beer that I’m sending out.

Solo: Yeah, to see if it was actually the style that you thought it was, or how it might deviate, or whatever else they might have to say. 

David: And I know, it’s not anybody blowing hot air up my skirt, so to speak. We’re certainly considering doing the Beer Wars competition. They are hosting that in North Carolina this year. I’m looking forward to putting a shoe into that one as well. I’m a little iffy on getting beers shipped, because I can’t guarantee that it stays cold all the time. That’s why it’s nice for GABF to be able to just take it there yourself. 

Solo: Anything else you want to add?

David: Well, I’m just keeping things moving here. So far it’s been a fluid transition, and so I’m glad for that, at least. It tells me I’m doing some things right. 

* * * * *

So a year of fluidity and change for Turtle Mountain, to hopefully be followed by progress on the taproom front, which will be great for both the brewery and the beers alike. Rest assured, we will keep you all up to date on taproom news and any further updates on the 21st anniversary celebrations. In the meantime, stop on by for some delightful cuisine, good company, and brews alike. I bid you all good eating and,

Prost!

— Franz Solo

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