Ponderosa Brewing has high spirits for the new year

A set of tasting flights are ready to go out at Ponderosa Brewing. (All photos courtesy of Antonio Fernandez)

While the pandemic shuttered many businesses across the state, one of Albuquerque’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods, The Sawmill District, has experienced rapid growth even in the past year. At the heart of it is Ponderosa Brewing, which just completed its sixth year in business this September, and remains a steadfast presence in the local brewery scene. However, in a year full of uncertainty, it hasn’t always been easy, as we found out for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.

Just before the holidays, we caught up with head brewer Antonio Fernandez to find out how the year’s events have treated Ponderosa, and learned about a couple new surprises they have up their sleeves for 2021.

Like many of the other smaller breweries throughout the state, Ponderosa relies mostly on onsite sales, which has made this year difficult. One of the main reasons Antonio believes they “weathered the storm” is due to the fact that they have a kitchen, allowing them to maintain takeout business and remain open, and at one point open earlier than many of the other breweries were allowed. Under the current setup, which allows Ponderosa to seat 17 customers on the patio at a time, they continue to have a reduced and varying food menu for pairing with their draft beer selection.

The patio is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., which is the same as their takeout hours. Takeout may be ordered in-person at the brewery, or called in to be prepared ahead of time.

Tents and heaters have been set up on the patio to help offset the cold somewhat, but customers are still encouraged to dress warmly.

For Antonio, the worst part of the pandemic was that they were forced to lay off most of their staff, and have been operating with a skeleton crew since March. Even he was furloughed for three months, and only recently came back to work on a part-time basis.

“But, changes had to be implemented to make sure that there is a brewery to operate after the pandemic is over,” Antonio said. “You have to have a long-term plan that can be painful in the present.”

With even the head brewer working at a limited capacity, the question remains as to what this meant for the beer.

“Beer-wise this was a very sad year for me, as I was not able to do the amount of new beers I had planned,” Antonio said. “With the reduced business and most to-go growler fills trending toward core beers, special and seasonal beers were just not a big part of 2020.”

Nevertheless, Antonio was still able to brew a few “fun ones” this year. In particular, the Contender DIPA, brewed for the New Mexico Brewers Guild IPA Challenge, received a huge response from customers. An Italian Pilsner, Antonio’s favorite, and in his opinion, possibly the best beer he has ever brewed, first went on tap this spring, and will be making a comeback sometime in the future. Currently on tap is a Baltic Porter, which he says is “just outstanding!”

At the same time, they continue to fill growlers of all beers on tap, while trying to keep up with the supply of six-packs of Blood Orange Double Wit, for which sales have at least doubled since the start of the pandemic.

Ponderosa’s head brewer, Antonio Fernandez, in happier times, tapping a cask for Oktoberfest 2019.

Like everyone else, Antonio and the rest of the remaining Ponderosa staff are looking forward to the end of the pandemic and things returning to normal.

“I miss brewing and being crazy busy!” he said. “There are beers I wrote recipes for, but not sure when they will be brewed yet.”

He is especially looking forward to what he has planned as his 500th beer brewed, a Black India Pale Lager.

Other plans for 2021 include the addition of a new taproom. They are currently looking at spaces either in the North Valley or the I-25/Central area.

“No timeline on that yet, but it will happen eventually,” Antonio said.

However, the news he was most excited to share is that Ponderosa has applied for a craft distilling license.

“I am excited to be spearheading a spirits and cocktail program for the company,” he said. “Licenses have been applied for, now it is the fun of navigating the state and federal bureaucracy.”

They are currently planning infrastructure and sourcing equipment for the new undertaking. When they have the go-ahead to get started, the plan is to begin with clear spirits and eventually move into malt whiskey and custom botanical gins with local ingredients.

“The sky is the limit on this one, and we can’t wait to get going,” Antonio said. “I think it will add another nice addition to our Sawmill neighborhood.”

Thanks so much to Antonio for taking the time to share some insights on Ponderosa’s experience during the pandemic and beyond. We look forward to sharing in the fruits of their upcoming endeavors very soon.

Cheers!

— Maureen

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