If you’ve been following along with our Look Back/Look Ahead Series, you may have gathered by now that 2020 has been a rough year for the brewing industry. For the last 10 months, I’ve been following closely with the Santa Fe craft beer industry, doing my best to keep up with how our guys have handled capacity changes and closures, and how they’ve kept the lights on, and the doors open (when they could), during this rough year.
Back in October, I sat down with the John Rowley and then brand-new head brewer Mike Donovan to find out how they’ve been doing, and what they did to get through the hardest year for, well, everyone’s business.
Well, it’s been a long time since October. A lot has happened. A lot has changed. No doubt, a lot will be changing next year. I recently sat down with owner and co-founder John Rowley and also founding brewer Tyler King to see where we are now, and where they hope to be headed in 2021.
Rowley Farmhouse Ales, known for their in-house curated tap offerings, made the tough decision to focus more on the package side of their business.
“We’re still leaning heavily into package,” Rowley said. “We’re going to send beer to Arizona soon. The guys at Favorite (Brands) are buying beer. New Mexico’s going to have the bulk of the beer. We’ve got a thing going; we’re going to send some beer to Austria early next year. We’re working on a kit to Virginia. We’re not dead, but we’ve definitely changed the way we do business right now, and I think that’s the only way to get through it.”
In 2019, RFA had just brought their canning line humming to life. And, for the brewery that (at the time) considered canning only a secondary outlet, it proved to be great timing as 2020 became a race to get cans in customers’ hands. After a few stumbles and false starts, they soon found their stride putting out packaged products worthy of the Rowley name.
“Our cans have improved quite a bit. We’ve dialed in the numbers. The beers are getting better and better. The carbonation is becoming more consistent. We struggled a lot in the beginning, but we’ve learned a lot,” Rowley said.
2020 also saw a major decline in brewery collaborations for obvious reasons. And now, still sitting in our current red state of the COVID re-opening plan, RFA is holding onto more than a few rain-checks for the time being. But, that is not to say that they aren’t in the works.
In the last article, we saw the new head brewer Mike Donovan and new assistant brewer Marcus DiFilippo helping to install a few new tanks in the brewery. I’m told that both the new brewers and the tanks are working out great, and all four are filling and fulfilling their respective roles.
To get to know the new head brewer a little better, I did a 20 questions interview with him, also in October.
This time, I caught up with the new assistant brewer/cellerman Marcus DiFilippo, and asked him how it’s been going, having just started a whole new career in 2020, brewing for the first time in his life.
“It’s been great,” DiFilippo said. “I’ve never been happier at a job, honestly. Good group. Good people. It’s hard work. It’s really good to work a job where you see the final result. You watch it from the baby stage all the way to the final. Brewing a beer, canning a beer, reading the reviews, seeing people enjoying it. It’s pretty rewarding.”
Having been a musician since he was 16, he’s been no stranger to hard work and plenty of feedback. And now, as he’s beginning to start thinking about settling down, having a family, and all that, brewer has proved to be a perfect pivot job for DiFilippo.
In the previous article, I also mentioned that they had been taking advantage of their 50-percent patio capacity at the time, and even at that percentage, they wondered what business would look like in winter.
With the Governor’s restricting reset in November, they have since had to rein in the operation even more, unfortunately, moving to a to-go only model, for a brief period, and then back to outdoor capacity of 25 percent.
But, it hasn’t just been closing doors and moving tables. A lot of work, time, and energy have been focused on the patio, even when its official use has seemed, well, up in the air.
To keep patrons comfortable in their outdoor space, Team RFA had really made an effort to enclose their patio with all sides sealed up to keep the cold wind out and the warmth of our hearts (and heat lamps) in.
Last Friday marked the first day that the RFA patio was open (and I mean truly open) since the last restriction, which also specified that outdoor dining spaces couldn’t be completely enclosed.
“Right now sucks,” Rowley said. “We put up this barrier for the winter, just like we did last winter. With this space closed, and the heaters on, it’s actually pretty comfortable.”
That was the plan. Actually, that was the new plan, after the first plan fell through with COVID. This winter was supposed to be the winter Rowley Farmhouse Ales debuted a brand new convertible garage door system for their outdoor space, but as King informed us, “When COVID happened, all of that capital got … rearranged.”
As I looked around, in one glance I could see how much work had gone into hoisting up and tying down the ‘sides’ that enclosed the patio to make it warm, or, at least without the heat lamps on, reasonable. But, I knew the crew would happily tear down the tenting if it meant that, at the end of this craziness, the rest of Rowley Farmhouse Ales would still be standing.
I’ve been back since the interview for lunch. The barrier isn’t there to keep the cold out, but I’m happy to report that the cold wasn’t enough to keep the people out, either.
I asked Rowley what he’s learned, through all of this, he said, “Well, we’ve learned that people like cans.” Everyone laughed. “We’re not putting everything in cans, but we’re moving towards beers that I think are reasonably OK in cans.”
“We think we have a good price-point on cans,” King said. And, they do.
“We’re definitely priced competitively compared to other breweries. That’s part of our math that we’ve worked out,” Rowley added.
2020 hasn’t only meant changes for the brewery, it has also meant changes for the people that make the brewery what it is.
It’s fair to say that most folks at Rowley Farmhouse Ales have experienced some pretty major life changes this year, but Rowley said 2020 has only made them a better brewery, a tougher team, and stronger as individuals.
“Last year I was kinda running a little ragged,” Rowley said. “Now I’m not. I kind of like it. I get to spend more time with my dogs now that I’m not running around as much. Some inward reflection has kind of changed my mindset this year. And I think it’s good. I think there’s a lot of positives here.”
What Rowley has taken away from this whole experience, besides the fact that COVID sucks, is that it could have been a lot worse.
“Things could have been really bad,” he said. “And, I know things are bad for a lot of people. And, I don’t want to discount that in any way. But, for us, we’ve grown as a group. We’ve kind of realized that we have to work together in order to get through this. We can’t just maintain some kind of selfish status quo.”
They’ve definitely pulled together when they needed to, as they faced challenges like their can carbonation issues with the first Meier Lemon batch, or their former head brewer Wes Burbank moving on to Ex Novo, or moving a new head brewer from all the way across the country to Santa Fe.
For 2021, RFA isn’t alone in hoping that COVID numbers go down and restrictions lessen. In a “yellow state,” with restaurants being able to open at 25-percent indoor capacity, Rowley said they’ll at least have a better shot at keeping their business in better standing. For RFA, that may look like 20 or so people at once, with everyone spread out at safely distanced tables.
“We could still be OK. It wouldn’t be terrible. We’re not expecting our normal summertime business by any means, but we’re not expecting that til next year anyway,” he said.
For 2021, RFA is working on communication as a group.
“Once we get that down, we’ll be in even better shape than we are now,” Rowley said.
“And, if we get that communication down now, we’ll be a lot stronger when we can have four people (together) back on shift,” King added.
2021 will also be Rowley Farmhouse Ales’ fifth year in the business. They are certainly hoping to have a larger event than the fourth anniversary in 2020.
“With the state saying June/July, we’re hoping that by September, everything’s better,” King said.
Rowley agreed, “I think things will have improved quite a bit by then. Even at reduced capacity, if we have a party, if we open up the parking lot, we could have a fair amount of people here. We could have bands again. We could have an anniversary beer worth calling an anniversary beer.”
And, of course, they really want to host Blackest Friday, their annual celebration of rare and barrel-aged stouts, again, which at this point, the kegs are stacking up in the cellar, aging to perfection. *chef’s kiss*
In 2021, Rowley said he plans to release a slew of beers, each one of them anniversary-toast-worthy.
Rowley Farmhouse Ales also just bottled a new Belgian Dubbel called, “These aren’t the monks you’re looking for,” keeping with their geek chic theme.
They’re releasing a variant of their Buckwheat Saison, called ’82 Teal Camaro Batch 2. They’ve blended this version with cherries and the carbonation levels will be ready soon.
Coming soon is a Oaxacan green corn saison, a cyprus wood-aged Fields of Rye. They have a two-year blended spontaneously fermented beer, one untreated, and one aged on blood plumbs, which they’ve got from their parking lot fruit guy, from Palisades, Colorado.
On tap right now: Reverie De Peche, a delicious golden sour, mashed with lemons, aged in rum-barrels, refermented with lots of peaches, a tribute to Tyler’s Grandma Reve. They also have [Woman Singing Aria in Latin] on tap, which King said are two of the best beers they’ve made in four-plus years at the brewery.
And, if you haven’t already seen the beer selfies and shelfies across the interwebs, they’ve also brought out the heavies for Stout Season with two great new stouts. The first one is an adjunct-free, “adult-flavored” imperial oatmeal stout called Dark Hedges, which is so good, you might stop searching for a certain missing link up north. The other one is Maple Mornings, a breakfast stout made with Mostra coffee and maple syrup, deep in the black coffee flavor profile, rich and roasty, with enough maple presence to make you want pancakes, but not feel like you’ve just eaten through a stack. It’ll make you want to roll up the sleeves of your best red flannel, sip deep from your tin cup with long satisfying slurps, as you gaze, unconcerned, out the window of your Appalachian log cabin, at the wood you’ve neglected to chop.
For 2021, King said he’s also really excited at the prospect of the brewery reviving a dead Franconian lager yeast to brew a farmhouse-style lager, a style that will stand out a little bit from the sour, dark, and yeasties.
And, for the “Lifers” out there, they are in talks about a rye barleywine, so hold on to your butts.
Soon, Rowley and head brewer Donovan plan to head down into the basement and have a big conversation about which beers aging in barrels will be ready to surface for 2021. They couldn’t be more excited about this, because, as they said in my October article, that’s where the true passion of these brewers lie.
“I’m hoping things can go back to a little bit more normal,” Rowley said. “Where we can hang out again, with our friends. A little bit of that would be nice. I’m not talking a massive party on January 1. I want a little bit of the old, with a little bit of the new. We’ve had a good year in terms of reflection and growth to ourselves. And, I’d like to see us carry a little bit of that forward. So instead of being crazy barleywine drunk, let’s try to be lightly Saison buzzed.”
For Rowley Farmhouse Ales, the whole year of 2020 was almost like a hard reset to the system. It was a momentary stall, but in many ways it was beneficial to their process by force closing programs that weren’t working. In 2021, they plan to move forward, with more efficiency, a little leaner, a little cleaner, and a lot wiser than before.
To the entire Rowley Farmhouse Ales crew and their continued success and health, and to yours friends and readers, cheers!
For more @nmdarksidebc info and #CraftBeer news, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro! Merry Christmas!