COVID catch-up with 2019’s Small Brewpub/Brewer of the Year — Rowley Farmhouse Ales

From left: Assistant Brewer Marcus DiFilippo, Mayhem Coordinator Elissa Ritt, Master Bartender Ebbie Edmonston, Head brewer Mike Donovan, Assistant Brewer Tyler King, Brewmaster John Rowley

As we near the pandemic version of the Great American Beer Festival awards ceremony, which will stream online this Friday at 5 p.m., I thought it was a good time to check in with last year’s Small Brew Pub/Brewer of the Year winner, Rowley Farmhouse Ales (RFA).

This past long weekend, I met with brewmaster and co-owner John Rowley and new head brewer Mike Donovan to see how Rowley Farmhouse Ales is faring these days, what they’ve been working on, and what beers will be coming out of the wood soon.

“Things are good. We’re trying to keep up, stay afloat,” Rowley said.

But, RFA isn’t sure what’s going to happen in the winter. That’s a different story. It’s no secret that Rowley Farmhouse Ales isn’t #blessed with a whole lot of indoor dining space. And, with the current health orders in effect, they still aren’t getting any play from their big, beautiful bar, either. They have been taking full (50%) advantage of their pretty outdoor beer garden space, and it’s been good for them, Rowley said.

But, even as fall takes the slow scenic route through New Mexico, with weather not yet fit for hoodies, the question of what the “patio situation” will look like in winter is already on everyone’s minds.

This biggest question is whether RFA will be able to fully enclose their patio to keep in the heat whenever we get our first blast of winter.

“We have some ideas,” Rowley said. “Jeffrey (Kaplan) and I are mulling it over. We have to do something. We can’t just leave it open.”  

Last year RFA was able to seal up one of the major sides, making the space leave-the-coat-in-the-car-warm. RFA and many others, I’m sure, are still hoping for a mild winter. What does the ol’ Farmer’s Almanac say?

In the meantime, RFA is chugging along. You may or may not have seen the BIL videos. I’ll leave that alone for now. For RFA, chugging along also means making enough beer to fill the distribution orders they have with Favorite Brands.

As part of adapting to the new terrain, I mentioned in a story earlier this year that RFA had leaned heavily into the canning business, having luckily received their shiny new canning line sometime around the end of last year, and getting it up and running sometime before everything went to shit. And now, the majority of their beer is put into cans.

IPA ready to hit the market.

“The draft business is still kind of dried up due to COVID. A lot of bars aren’t really open yet in Albuquerque and here,” Rowley said. “We can’t really buy the same amount of kegs we used to buy. So it’s really difficult to do draft right now.”

Speaking of cans, it’s hard not to also wonder how the looming can shortage will affect a brewery relying heavily on the format. But, RFA isn’t too worried about that at the moment.

“We are kind of in a good spot with that,” Rowley said. “When we bought our canning line, it came with an option on can size, so we’ve been exercising that option. We haven’t really had much in the way of can shortages. We anticipate that might be a problem down the road, but we’re fighting to fix that already.”

A quick scroll over to RFA’s Instagram pages shows a little welding being done, and some shiny new additions. That’s because they, like many others, have found a little time for installing upgrades. They’re modest upgrades, as they’ll tell you, but still plenty to be excited about. During the early days of COVID, they bought three stainless steel totes (two 275 gallon and one 550 gallon) that they’re making permanent fixtures in the brewhouse.

Donovan and DiFillippo readying the tanks.

More tanks mean more beer. Specifically, more fruited variants for the Germophile coming from one of their foeders.

And, speaking of more beer, COVID may have slowed the amount of collaborations these former Kings of Collab have been able to coordinate with other breweries for obvious reasons, but the spirit hasn’t dwindled at all.

RFA very recently did one of their first in-medias-COVID collabs with Free Will Brewing and Santa Fe Spirits, where they, safely and socially distanced, got together to brew a mesquite-smoked mixed fermentation blue corn saison that will end up in Atapino barrels from Santa Fe Spirits. I always appreciate beers that are a mouthful even before they’re ready to drink.

Pictured with John Rowley, Nate Walter of Free Will Brewing

Nate Walter of Free Will Brewing Company also hung around for a tap takeover this past Sunday, where several of his barrel-aged creations, including Carmen Bieranda, the 2019 collab between RFA and Free Will, were poured to aid the puppies of the Greyhound Adoption League of Texas (New Mexico Chapter).

I think my favorite part was Chef Kaplan’s prime rib Philly Cheesesteak to go with the all-Pennsylvania beer lineup.

It’s weird to host non-event-events. But, what do you do? Puppies still need your support, and people still want to help while drinking great beer. Pandemic or not, good beer for a good cause should always be on the menu. But, this event was different. They didn’t try to pack the people in. They couldn’t. The COVID rules remained in effect. And, there was never more than a two-person line out the door that I happily waited in to be seated, six feet apart.

“Hopefully we can get through this safely,” Rowley said. “That’s the primary concern. That’s important. But, besides that, for the brewery, I want everyone to be healthy, and I want us to keep going, and I want to make more barrel-aged stuff. We’ve kind of gone away from that in the COVID era a little bit, just because we’ve had to fight for it. We’ve had to scrap for sales with cans. And, we’re doing good with that. But, you know, the passion is in the basement. I want to continue to do that. And, we will.”

Rowley is referring to all the barrels and barrel-aged projects aging beneath the building, just waiting for, uh, sweet release.

“I think John and I agree, that the passion’s in the basement,” Donovan said. “I worked at two breweries now where stuff is in barrels, and we’re excited about it, but trying to figure out when it makes sense to package it, what market is it going to (receive), what’s the proper price point. John and I were talking with Nate yesterday, and we were saying you can’t charge what that beer is worth. The market doesn’t support it. So, where do you find the balance? And, I’m looking forward to finding that balance here.

“We’re just going to keep working hard, and keep brewing, and continuing to maintain the quality of the upstairs stuff so that we can keep making the good stuff downstairs.”

I asked Rowley what the biggest lesson he’s learned in the last six months. He replied, “I think, really, when it comes down to it, you have to adapt to the changing market, and we’ve been able to do that, more or less. There’s also a line that you have to draw for yourself — what you’re willing to do, and what you’re not willing to do.”

On the beer front, coming soon to RFA is a tribute to dear friend and former bartender Kaley, who moved back east a couple years ago. It’s a Blood Orange Berliner Weisse called Full-Blood Florida, and it should be high up on your to-drink list. That will be in cans and available on draft very soon.

They also have a cherry vanilla variant of Germophile coming out soon.

A Belgian Dubbel, true to style with Trappist yeast, is waiting in the tanks as well.

RFA brewed another batch of Meier for all of you Lemonheads. This one’s called Meier Redemption. And, it’s just the name that pops, for this iteration.

RFA is already in the development stages of their Imperial Stout for a projected Thanksgiving release.

And, RFA just released their Cucumber Gose called Spa Day.

I want to thank John Rowley and Mike Donovan for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer a few questions for me. My 20 questions with the new head brewer will be out next week. I’d also like to wish all of our New Mexico brewers good luck with the GABF results. To good beer, and to your health, my friends, cheers!

Luke

For more NM Craft Beer news and unfiltered Untappd reviews, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro. For all things NM Craft Beer, follow us all @NMDarkSideBC.

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