It was right before Thanksgiving when I was sitting down to talk to the owners of Rowley Farmhouse Ales about their annual Blackest Friday event when I realized there’s a whole lot more to the story. A lot happened and I had more people to talk to. And so, in true Dark Side form, I caught up with the owners, brewmaster John Rowley and chef Jeffrey Kaplan on one occasion, and then brewers Wes Burbank and Tyler King a week later for the full story for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
Both sets were still reeling from a whirlwind few months that began some time in August and still have not fully dissipated by November. There was (is) a lot going on at The Farm. The small brewpub had just experienced their biggest year yet. 2019 was definitely the year of the #RowleyFarmDog.
“A lot of stuff happened,” Rowley recalled.
The feeling had been mutual among all staff that I had spoken to in that time. And who could blame them?
“The crazy thing is, I know how I’m supposed to feel, but I don’t,” Burbank said.
Rowley Farmhouse Ales had a big year! More collaborations, more barrel releases, and their beer received some well-deserved national recognition from the entire industry at GABF, and then almost immediately after, RFA garnered some major recognition on the food side of things, by one of the most-viewed television programs on cable. They were just riding the wave of extra attention, and it felt good.
“The Diners Drive-ins and Dives premier couldn’t have come at a better time,” Kaplan said. “It was a week after GABF. We also got ranked in the Santa Fe Reporter’s Dining Guide as one of the top-10 restaurants in Santa Fe, so all three of those things happened at the same time, and they were all great things for us to have. It felt really nice.”
Denver was also fairly kind to the now seasoned Santa Fe brewery. Aside from celebrating Rowley’s 50th birthday up there, they won an award or two at GABF this year.
“I think cock-ton is the proper word for that,” Kaplan joked.
But, RFA’s winnings were certainly nothing to sneer at.
If you recall, this year RFA grabbed gold in “German-Style Sour Ale” with Meier, a fruited gose. They slipped away with a silver medal in the “Wood and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer” category with Agent Orange – Apple Brandy, a Flanders Red Ale, and also brought home a bronze in “Mixed-Culture Brett Beer” for their Cote D’Or Double Cerise.
The three beers entered into the competition were certainly not everyday core beers. A couple of them, you may not ever get to taste again, but they represent the styles (and caliber) of beers that continually rotate on and off the menu every season. In truth, you may never have a chance to grow accustomed to some of the best creations at RFA, but because the saison, the fruited, and the barrel-aged make up part of the whole philosophy of what RFA does, you can trust now that there will be another solid and fun version of their saison, gose, or Berliner weisse, maybe aged on cherries, raspberries, or possibly passionfruit just around the corner.
Three medals wasn’t all RFA came away with at GABF. The points from those three medals earned them the title of Small Brewpub of the Year, something only two other New Mexico Breweries have done (Marble won Small Brewery of the Year in 2014, Boxing Bear won Midsize Brewpub of the Year in 2016).
“I think it’s great,” Rowley said. “It shows that people respect what we’re doing. And, we’re not doing what everyone else is doing. Maybe some people are doing stuff similar to what we do, but here in New Mexico, there’s not a lot of that. There’s a little bit. To win these awards shows that people respect what we’re doing, and they respect our beer, which means a lot to me. We put our hearts into this. This isn’t a bullshit thing for us. This is the fucking real deal. Our hearts go into every bottle we make.”
Kaplan said, “For me, I see what his team does to make these beers, how much energy they put into making these beers, because they’re using old-world techniques. Everything’s made by hand. And, we use very little to no machinery to make this beer. It comes from a love of the craft that they all have, and that award kind of validates that love and all that hard work.”
Burbank recalled, “By the time we were at Falling Rock after the awards ceremony, getting our beer and lunch before we drove back home (to New Mexico), so I could go back to work, I’m already thinking like, OK, how do I do this again?”
The visit from the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives also indicated that RFA is (and has been) doing something right, but this time in the kitchen. But, it’s not solely because RFA is now and forever located just off a main road in Flavor Town, USA. They’ve been doing it all along. They’ve already won Local Hero awards from local magazines; they’ve already been voted for and top-ranked as a food joint in the Santa Fe Reporter and other local mags and online sites, and it’s because of that, that word of mouth has reached the ears of those with a national voice (and hair).
“These people from New Jersey were here the other night, ‘Oh you guys were on Diners Drive-ins and Dives,’” Rowley said in his best old-lady New Jersey voice. “People that normally wouldn’t show up are showing up. Which is crazy. And, because they’re not beer people.”
Rowley continued in his best trilling, elderly female Garden State accent (with more than a hint of Bostonian), “We’re not he-ah for the bee-ah, we’re he-ah, for the clam chowdah!”
“It’s been great. It’s been opening us up to new people, and it’s really cool,” Kaplan said, trying not to crack up over Rowley’s New Jersey lady accent.
Another major highlight for Rowley Farmhouse Ales was celebrating their third anniversary. Slowly and steadily, they’ve been improving every year, but most of the work that really needed to be done was construction on the patio space, as it makes up the bulk of their drinking and dining space.
“We tried to make our place more guest friendly, which is not an easy thing to do, with the sun in our face. We’ve had some limitations in terms of the city, and what we could do,” Rowley said.
The evolution of the patio has been a huge undertaking for RFA. With taking down the fence and enclosing the whole outdoor area in a more permanent structure, it’s something RFA has always been working on since opening. This year, the patio is a space you can enjoy in any temperature, any weather.
“We were in here last night, the coldest night of the year, and it was comfortable,” Rowley said.
There were some big victories for RFA in 2019, but this year didn’t come without some challenges and struggles.
This year, Rowley Farmhouse Ales attempted a move from 750 ml to 375 ml bottles.
“We’ve always had 750’s from the start. That’s kind of our favorite style. It’s good for sharing. It’s a more-classy bottle. It’s for two people, not just one,” Rowley said.
The only problem with the 750 is that the price point isn’t the best, especially for a price sensitive state.
“People aren’t going to buy beer that’s $36 a bottle,” Rowley added.
In theory, the 375 ml bottles will help RFA remain competitive on the shelves at the local beer and liquor stores. This puts them in an interesting spot. The beer they make at RFA sometimes takes a full year in the barrel.
“We pay rent on that beer,” Rowley said.
But, they also don’t want their beer sitting on shelves because it’s above what the average beer drinker pays for their weekend haul.
“We are making higher-end stuff, but at the same time, we want people to be able to buy it. The 375 experiment taught us a lot,” Rowley said.
But, they’ll definitely be returning to 750 champagne style bottles for all of their aged sour beers. There just won’t be on many shelves. They’ll be onsite and available for pick up from their club, which they’re reformatting to be more affordable to craft beer enthusiasts.
Cans, however, have a great price point.
“I think the price points will be great,” Rowley said. “Everyone will like those a lot more. In general, people want cans. I’m not going to can the barrel-aged sour beers. That’s not a good fit. But the things, like the Germophile, Fields of Rye, Agent Scully (IPA), those are perfect candidates to be canned.”
In 2020, you should expect to see RFA cans of their core beers and more-regular seasonals in stores, but availability will be limited as with all first-time canning runs.
Another challenge that faced the Rowley team this year as a couple really core people have moved on, one in the front of the house, and one in the back. It may not seem like a big deal, as there is turnover at every brewery, but it’s different at RFA.
“They were part of our team for a long time,” Kaplan said. “And, they were good people, and finding replacements for them was challenging. But, we’ve got some good people in their positions now. Still, you can teach anyone to do a job, but you can’t teach them to be part of our team, part of our family, and that’s really important for us.”
For Burbank, the challenges were just ‘small brewery struggles.’
“I worked my butt off this summer, like every day,” he said. “We’re a small brewery. We do all the things. It’s physically exhausting doing this job, but we put our hearts and souls into this beer.”
As for favorite beers brewed in 2019, Burbank said he is most proud of Thrace, his own hazy IPA.
“We’ve done two batches of Thrace,” he said. “And, we did a Hazy IPA the way we wanted to. I spent a lot of time, before we ever brewed the first batch, and we had all our ducks in a row before we did it”
“Biotransformation and not adjunct,” Rowley added.
Through water chemistry, they figured out how to keep the haziness stable up to three months and beyond, and Burbank couldn’t be more proud of his hazy kid.
It’s hard to talk about the favorite beers RFA made in 2019 due to the aging process. Some beers that were released in 2019 were actually brewed one to two years ago, and some beers brewed this year may not be released for another one to two years.
King said his favorite beer that came out this year was Agent Orange.
“It wasn’t brewed this year,” he said, as it was brewed in mid-2018. “I think it was when Phil was here from Perennial in April. We rotationed though barrels and all the different variants of Agent Orange were fire, but all dramatically different, and when we were doing the tasting for GABF, we were like, well, why don’t we do one of those? And now, with a medal behind it to back it up that it’s a world-class beer, we knew we chose right. It’s a very fun thing.”
Just to give you more of an idea of how the timing game works, another beer King said he is excited to make this year came from a family cocktail recipe for a Peach Fizzy; the beer base is basically ready, but they can’t exactly act on it until the peaches become seasonal again, next summer.
In 2019, Collaborations were still the golden standard at Rowley Farmhouse Ales. The team continued to do as many as they could swing (pun definitely intended) every year, whether it’s Rowley heading out of town to brew something in Missouri, Wes headed out to Arizona to brew a beer and catch a hockey game, or other brewers paying a visit to the Farm. This year, RFA did collaborations with industry friends such as Perennial Artisan Ales, Second Shift Brewery, Superstition Meadery, and Horus Aged Ales, just to name a few, and of course they’ve also enjoyed collaborating with locals like Ex Novo, and with Marble on beers like “Number of the Bock,” of which the Dark Side abides.
“We’re going to keep doing them,” Rowley said. “The beer business is about brotherhood, camaraderie, learning from other people. We want people to learn from us. We want to learn from other people, and we want to have a good time, making good beer with good people.
“Beer brings people together. It’s a common thread. You could have a whole group of people who are all different, and do all different things, they all come to one place, they all have beer, they have a good time, they talk, they put down their phones, they harken back to better days. Beer brings us together. And, we’re going to keep promoting that.”
In 2020, RFA aims to continue to do their collaborations because, as previously mentioned, it’s about brotherhood, and learning (or teaching) new techniques, or even old-world ones.
Speaking of collaborations, RFA already has a collaboration planned with Taos Mesa. They plan to brew some wort up there, and take it in a tote down to SFBC’s hop farm in Rinconada, and let it spontaneously ferment in the their mobile coolship, which will be arriving soon, making some of the first Terroir beer in New Mexico. Beer geek boners abound.
Honor Society: The subscription beer club at Rowley Farmhouse Ales is also being revamped for 2020. In past years, their beer club was a $300 subscription, where you received 10 bottles, two of each of the five different styles. In the first year the subscription included glasses, a “Yopener,” a bottle opener made of a wine-barrel stave, and a wine bottle bag, and an invite to a VIP RFA Bottleshare.
Going forward, the subscription is $75 and will include some swag and two glasses as well as the exclusive party, and you’ll get first rights to every bottle RFA makes. In total, there are 125 slots available. Sign up online here.
On the beer front, you can expect more great sours and mixed fermentation beers. Rowley said the two foeders are producing a ton a great beer, and a lot of the barrels are certainly “coming of age.” He mentioned an apricot sour (they just bottled) will be ready soon. One of my favorites, Tea for Two, a mixed fermentation saison, dry-hopped with local Earl Grey tea, will also be available soon.
Rowley said that a variation of Grandissant, one of their higher-end fruited sours, this time aged on Port Wine yeast, is tasting pretty nice, and will also be good for the glass in no time. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that they still plan to utilize the 375 ml format for imperial stouts and barleywines. Rowley said he is most excited about a gin-barrel (from Santa Fe Spirits) aged, mixed fermentation saison that’s almost ready to tank and drank.
“There’s a lot of stuff, man. There’s a lot of bottles for us to fill,” Rowley said with a grin.
To one hell of a year for one of our younger breweries, cheers!
For more beer shenanigans follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro. Untappd: SantaFeLuke