Ten degrees cooler than Albuquerque, hummingbirds darting about, a flight of beer, and a fresh carne pizza pretty much summed up my visit to Ale Republic in Cedar Crest this week. A little mountain getaway 30 minutes from home, it almost seemed like another world, far removed from the typical chaos of the city beyond.
I had been meaning to visit Ale Republic back in late February/early March for their entry in our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series. Between snowstorms, a family funeral, and then the arrival of a certain pandemic, I was not able to meet up with owners Patrick Johnson and Zachary Gould, but I kept meaning to make it up to them and reschedule. Finally, at their request, with mask in hand I trekked up Highway 14 for a quick interview (and some tasty lunch).
Back in March, Johnson and Gould had just installed a new pizza oven to give customers a permanent on-site food option. It proved to be fortuitous timing.
“We were really busy right away, people couldn’t go to restaurants, they don’t cook at home,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of (Sandia) Labs people who live up here. They didn’t want to worry about cooking, they just wanted to eat something quick. We were making pizzas. I was out of town and Zach was like, ‘Oh, shit.’”
“I didn’t know whether to cut people, reduce hours, what to do,” Gould said. “Fortunately, we didn’t have to let go of anybody the whole time period. We did reduce some hours and I was working the front for a month or something. We figured it out. We just pivoted right into the pizza.
“Not only was it pizza to go, it was pretty successful right away, but as the restrictions got loosened, we’ve got a huge patio. Everything is outside, it’s nice and airy, we’ve got coverings from the sun. We don’t have to deal with the same issues that people have to deal with in town. We’re in this unique position where … it’s just a very different scene. We don’t have the same struggles that people in town have. We have different ones. Fortunately, this whole thing has matched up pretty well for us.”
Located next to the Cedar Crest Post Office and just north of the Triangle Grocery, Ale Republic had already found its niche with the locals. Now the staff is seeing more new faces.
“It’s actually worked out pretty well for us,” Johnson said. “There’s not much else up here. With all the restrictions in Albuquerque, people just want to get out of town. It’s pretty close. There’s been so many people who have been saying I’ve been meaning to come out here for four years, and this is what it took.”
The aforementioned cooler temperatures and access to plenty of mountain trails for hiking and mountain biking are certainly a draw for city residents looking to escape without going too far from home.
“We have so many trails and mountain space that’s not far away from our place,” Gould said. “They drank beer and ate pizza. That is the nice thing that there are so many trails right here. When we couldn’t do patio service they could take it to go down the road and enjoy it.”
Ale Republic has a fairly convenient setup for service on its expansive patio.
“Now we have this to-go window that Pat set up,” Gould said. “We’ve never opened the indoor space. We allow people to use the bathrooms, but it’s really been a nice barriers. We’re keeping our staff safe. We’re not a full-service restaurant and we never have been. A lot of people are struggling with this and we made a lot of really quick pivots. We’re pretty safe and our numbers have been pretty decent, fortunately.”
We were then briefly interrupted by the flying friends of the brewery.
“And we have a thriving hummingbird population,” Johnson said.
“This is light, sometimes they get crazy,” Gould added. “They start dive-bombing your head if you get too close to the feeders.”
Luckily for us, the hummingbirds were kind that day. They just added to the mountain charm of the brewery.
As for the brewery, there have been some changes afoot, some brought on by the pandemic, and some that were in the works before COVID-19 arrived.
“We have some degree of canning right now, but we don’t have enough beer to put in cans at the moment,” Johnson said. “We essentially pre-sold a bunch of four-packs to our loyalists. We were able to get enough up-front money to get the seamer machine and buy the cans. It was pretty expensive. We were able to do that, and then as soon as we got all the stuff we were allowed to have dine-in again and patio service.
“Then we were selling a bunch of beer on draft and didn’t have enough to put in cans. Once we do get under our feet with beer, we should be able to do limited can releases, which should be fun.”
Working on ways to keep improving the beer has also kept Gould and Johnson busy.
“The other kind of cool thing in all of this is that it gave us some time to work on some projects,” Gould said. “We redid the water system. We were using only well water. Now we have a filtered water source that has definitely really helped with our hoppier beers and light beers. The recipes had changed to accommodate the well water, and that’s something you just can’t do.
“We have different challenges that people in the city don’t have. In some ways it’s great. We’ve got more space, we can spread out this crazy patio. I think this is one of the bigger brewery patios besides Sierra Blanca.”
Johnson said improving the walk-in cooler was also a major project that needed to get done, and now it is working better than ever.
“We took the opportunity during the full lockdown when we weren’t selling much beer, to do some quality control stuff we’d been meaning to do,” he said. “It’s pretty easy, it’s just some infrastructure you need to dedicate.”
The beers did taste better than my last visit. The French Connection Pale Ale, Hillbilly Willy Trappist Ale, and Granny’s (Apple) Tart were the three out of the five on my flight that stood out. The River Rat IPA was a throwback to the IPAs of 10 years ago. The Fade to Black Stout had good flavor, but a light mouthfeel more akin to a dark ale/lager.
“Brewing is so complicated that it takes a long time to fine-tune stuff and really figure out what the issues are,” Gould said. “That’s another thing, there’s a pretty big difference between having pretty good beer that you’re happy with and then having excellent beer. The first couple years we were open we went from having just OK beer to having pretty good beer. Now we’re in the process of trying to go from pretty good beer to excellent beer.
“It’s still a pretty hit-and-miss process. There are so many variables. We’ve made some structural (changes) to help us, especially with the crowd favorites. When we first opened we didn’t think we’d ever do traditional beers. Our original plan wasn’t to have an IPA or a stout. After we were open for a little while we realized there was such a demand you have to.”
The evolution of Ale Republic is an ongoing process, but between the improved beers, delicious pizza (and they threw in a Chocolate Pecan Bourbon Cupcake for dessert), spacious patio, and those wild little hummingbirds, it all adds up to a great spot to escape from ABQ without draining your gas tank.
A big thanks to Patrick and Zachary for inviting me out there and making sure I had everything to properly review. It is truly appreciated, gentlemen.
Keep supporting local!