20 questions with Rowley Farmhouse Ales’ new head brewer

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Meet new head brewer Mike Donovan.

Rowley Farmhouse Ales has a new head brewer. When former head brewer Wes Burbank accepted a new position at Ex Novo Brewing in Corrales this summer, he left some pretty big barrels to fill back in Santa Fe.

It was a good thing Rowley and crew have built up such a wide network of friends and collaborators over the years, as well as maintaining a pretty good reputation wherever they go. It also didn’t hurt that RFA had just won Small Brewpub/Brewer of the Year in 2019 at the Great American Beer Festival.

Thankfully, when they put out the call, they were able to find someone ready to take on the big role of head brewer fairly quickly, and more importantly, they found someone who came with plenty of experience at filling those big barrels.

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Donovan. He and John Rowley met me at the Farm one sunny Saturday, and over the course of a couple beers, I played 20 questions with the new head brewer.

DSBC: Full name?

Donovan: Mike Donovan

DSBC: Where are you from?

Donovan: New York originally, but I came here by way of Virginia.

DSBC: What is your prior brewing experience?

Donovan: I started off at a brewery in D.C. called 3 Stars Brewing Company. Started off washing kegs and mopping floors there and then worked my way up, started the sour program there, did some recipe development and trained on (the) canning line and stuff like that. Then I got hired as the head brewer at Oozlefinch Craft Brewery in Hampton, Virginia. They had more of a brewpub portfolio. He hired me to do more of a sour program, do some more experimental brewing.  

DSBC: What did you work on most at Oozlefinch?

Donovan: When I went in, he had six core styles. We held on to the Heffeweisen. It was our best seller. So I brewed a lot of Heffe there. But, I also started an East Coast IPA program for him. So we were doing hazy IPAs. We started the barrel-aged sour program with an imperial saison base that I came up with. I was getting to do some saisons on the sour side as far as the barrel program went. I did a lot of Berliners and goses, but I think last year, before I left, we probably released a hundred different beers. When I started there he wanted me to come up with a new recipe every week, so we brewed everything from Helles and schwarzbier to weizenbock to, I mean, everything, pick a style. We brewed a Lichtenhainer; you name it, we probably brewed it.

DSBC: Was that small batch?

Donovan: We were actually a 15-barrel system. And, one of the things we did to increase our ability to experiment was — when I went in, they had originally thought they were going to be a packaging heavy brewery, so they had a 15-barrel system, with four 30-barrel fermenters. Obviously, when you’re trying to experiment you don’t necessarily want to throw 30 barrels in the tank, so we leased a couple of 8-barrel tanks. So a lot of the sour program began to be built off of brewing a sour base, splitting that into two fermenters, and conditioning that in the two fermenters.

DSBC: How did you first hear about Rowley Farmhouse Ales? Or, when did you first meet John?

Donovan: Actually I bumped into the crew of Rowley Farmhouse Ales at a tap takeover event at Crooked Stave at GABF. Chad had brought out some of our beer, and I had met Tyler and Elissa and Wes that night.

Rowley: I went to the hotel that night to get my ID because I left it there from the night before. They wouldn’t let me in the bar. The lady was like, nope. No ID, no entry. So I didn’t get to meet them. But, Tyler was all geeked on meeting Mike. He was like, oh, you gotta meet Mike. I was like, OK, cool. But, they came down after GABF, so I did get to meet them then. We spent the day here, just chillin’ over at that table. We had some beers. I met him and his wife. We hung out for a while. I got his card. And, I was always impressed with Mike, right from the day I met him. I had kept his card, so when we transitioned, I gave him a call.

Donovan: It was fortuitous. I went up to Tyler because I saw on the back of his shirt, it said, Rowley Farmhouse Ales, Santa Fe, New Mexico. And, my wife and I had been talking about moving to New Mexico. And, I went up and said, hey, you’re from Santa Fe, and that’s how the conversation started.

DSBC: Those shirts, man. My question was going to be, so what made you decide to move across the country for the job? But, you were already headed here?

Donovan: My wife and I had already been talking about moving west for a while now. We were both lifetime East Coasters. She lived in Virginia her whole life. And, we had taken a vacation to the Pacific Northwest. We both like Portland and Seattle. We looked there for a little bit. Sarah, my wife got really into ceramic art. She’s been an artist for a long time. She was getting into ceramics, and we were looking at, well, where some of the places were where you might be able to flourish and have a good community. And, of course one was in North Carolina, but moving from Virginia to North Carolina didn’t feel like too much of a change, and Santa Fe and Albuquerque were the two other places that came up. So that was why, when I met John in person, we were already in New Mexico because neither of us had ever been to the state. So we were just kind of checking out Santa Fe and Albuquerque to see if we might want to live here, and we fell in love with Santa Fe.

DSBC: So when did you officially first sign on with Team RFA?

Donovan: My official first day was September 1.

DSBC: When did you get settled in at the brewery?

Donovan: I spent my first week or so trying to learn what had been going on, learn the systems. Obviously Rowley’s got some great base beers to start with, so the focus was getting as much institutional knowledge from John and Marcus, and then we spent a week getting organized, reorganizing the back so that we had a workflow for what I thought needed to happen because we got these new tanks. It was probably around week three where we started brewing in earnest and getting caught up back to the point where we had a distributor order to fill, start packaging, and I think the wheels are really turning now.

DSBC: And so how do you feel about your decision now?

Donovan: I feel great! (Laughs)

DSBC: What was your first order of business at Rowleys?

Donovan: It’s funny, if you asked me that at my first head brewer job, I would have said recipes and coming up with creative beers and stuff like that. But really, now that I’ve sort of been around the block on that stuff, my biggest focus was setting up a good culture for the guys who were already here. You know, during a leadership transition, we were very fortunate that John and Jeffrey (Kaplan) are consistent and they’re here, and Tyler is such a good resource as well. But, I wanted to let Marcus and Niels know that I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I wanted to spend some time watching them, see what they were doing, and if anything looked red-flaggy, those would be some things that we would discuss. Setting the culture and then also working with Jeffrey on what needs to happen with distribution. It’s all fun and games talking about the next cool beer that you want to brew, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to get the cans to the distributor. We had an order that needed to be filled, so it was about setting up a tank schedule and brew schedule and about making sure we could fill that order. So it was down to business right away. 

DSBC: RFA has been doing a lot of canning this year. Was that a big part of your previous packaging at Oozlefinch?

Donovan: We started out draft only when I got there. We were doing some mobile canning, and then we sourced our own canner from American Beer Equipment. We actually had separate heads on the canner for sour and clean beer. I was fortunate enough at the time that my assistant, who is now the new head brewer at Oozlefinch, Rachel Edwards, has a chemistry degree. She was running our lab. So, between the two of us, we instituted some really strict protocols for the canning line. When I came over to Rowley, and we were doing the can conditioning, we just inserted a little more math, a little more pre-quality assurance, things that we could do to make sure the cans were filled properly and sugared properly, trying to assure that when that can hits the customer, we want it to be right.

DSBC: How’s it been working with Marcus and Tyler so far?

Donovan: Marcus has a ton of enthusiasm. He’s been really open to learning some of the math that I’ve pushed at him. John’s been incredibly supportive, and always responds whenever I have questions. Like, hey we’re out of Isopropanol. And, John takes care of any need that we have there. And, Tyler is so steady and even keel, has institutional knowledge. We were joking today, like, he was the adult. In the room, he was the adult. He just is.

Rowley: And you look at Tyler, and think, I didn’t expect that. But, he definitely is. Tyler’s awesome. He’s been our rock. He’s been here since day one. He’s a fantastic brewer. He has a great brain. He remembers everything. He has one of the best palates in the world. He’s fantastic when it comes to that. He can pick out any fault in any beer. He’s a fantastic guy to have around and we’re blessed to have him.

Beers at Rowley’s are worth capturing

DSBC: How has Santa Fe treated you so far?

Donovan: Santa Fe’s been very good. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get out as much as I’d like. I was staying up in Pojoaque when I first got here. I love the scenery up there. The people here are just nice. I’m from New York. I’m not use to going to rent a U-Haul truck and the guy being super kind to me and sincerely asking me how I’m doing. And, the weather, I’ve lived in humid environments my whole life, and it’s hard to argue with Santa Fe. 

DSBC: What’s your favorite style to brew? What’s your muse?

Donovan: Saison.

DSBC: Oh. You should meet the Rowley guys.

Donovan: There’s a reason when I started the program at Oozlefinch, I knew that from the moment he hired me the barrel-aged program was going to be built on saison.

DSBC: What was it like packing up and moving?

Donovan: Very odd. Because my wife hasn’t joined me yet. We didn’t know what our permanent living situation would be like, and I came out here looking for a house. We just closed on a house yesterday and I have an air mattress. I was like, well, what if I move into the house and you’re not here yet. But yeah, I drove straight west across Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, I-40 West through the pandemic.

DSBC: What was the first beer you ever brewed as a brewer (or) homebrewer?

Donovan: Oh gosh, I’m sure as a homebrewer I made some god-awful IPA. I’m sure I made a very caramely, overly sweet, under-attenuated, poorly dry-hopped, oxidized IPA.

Rowley: 90 minute IPA. (Everyone laughs)

Donovan: Professionally, one of the core beers I brewed at 3 Stars was a saison that we would condition on green, pink, and white peppercorn. Peppercorn saison is probably one of the top-sellers for 3 Stars. So yeah, I got intimate with the saison at an early age.

DSBC: First beer you ever drank?

Donovan: Legally? (Laughs) Bud Light, probably. I’m sure I was at my friend’s party.

DSBC: What about first craft beer you ever drank?

Donovan: The first craft beer that I remember really liking was … I was at dinner with my college girlfriend’s parents and whenever we were, they had a Troegs Rugged Trail Brown Ale. And, I’ve always been secretly a malt nerd. Hoppy beers are great. I love yeastful beers, but beer is about malt, man.

DSBC: What’s your favorite shift-beer?

Donovan: Fields (of Rye).

*****

Special thank you to Mike Donovan and John Rowley for hanging around the brewery long enough for me to ask a few questions. To the continued success of Rowley Farmhouse Ales, to the next wave of great beers coming out of the brewery, and to your health, readers and friends, cheers!

— Luke

For more New Mexico #CraftBeer news follow us on Twitter @NMDarkSideBC and my personal page for Untappd shenanigans @SantaFeCraftBro.

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