Turtle Mountain Brewing looks to expand in 2021 and beyond

Turtle Mountain has managed to survive the pandemic restrictions and is aiming to have some big projects come to fruition in 2021 and beyond. (All photos courtesy of Turtle Mountain)

Well the year is finally upon us in which we will see a Turtle Mountain Brewing taproom come to fruition! I was lucky enough to be able to talk to head brewer David Pacheco about all things beer and owner Nico Ortiz about the forthcoming taproom and future plans to boot for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.

Solo: So, how are things?

David: Well, we’re not dead yet. I guess this time around for this quarantine we are a little bit more prepared. I kind of had an inkling that I knew that the numbers weren’t going to be good going into the holiday season. It just wasn’t portending very well for how beer movement was going to be, so I just kept some space in my cold room and I’m glad I did. I was just barely able to get everything from fermentation side to the server room with just managing lagers here and there. But, we are in good hunker-down mode.

The last one (shutdown) was just awful. I was dancing between fermenters just trying to find a place for my beer when the numbers weren’t there. They each come with different challenges. We were seeing way more beer movement in the first quarantine rather than this one, where we are probably selling a little over half as much beer. We are only a couple of weeks into the second one.

Solo: Here’s hoping it doesn’t last too long.

David: I suppose this is kind of the narrative for most of the breweries you will end up talking to. It’s certainly much harder for those who don’t own their own building. Thankfully for Turtle, our biggest expense is labor. When the brewery is able to get into hunker-down mode, we can have very little impact on that, and generally then the kitchen is the biggest portion of that. We were working quite a bit during the initial quarantining, but this time around it’s way different in that sense. I’m pretty much limiting my assistant’s hours, as much as I hate to do it.

Solo: Yeah, you have to do it, unfortunately. That’s just the case across the brewing industry and restaurants across the board right now. It’s heartbreaking, but survival is the imperative here, hunker down as you said, and get through. Hope to get some sort of semblance of business back in a couple of months. On the beer front, what sorts of things did you do recipe wise?

David: This was like my first year, really, being a head brewer and the guy in charge. I found that I was mainly a session guy. I really like sippers, something that I can constantly drink. Especially during the quarantine, there were weeks where I didn’t have really all that much to do, so I wanted a nice session beer at my desk at home to do whatever I did need to do, and then enjoy what I wanted to do afterwards. So I wanted to provide something like that, not too heavy. I did a lot of session IPAs. I came out with kind of my take on the Shiner Bock, which I’ve heard described as a Texas bock, which is a nice term for it, but the official category would be an international dark lager.

Solo: Kind of a paler, less hearty version of a traditional bock.

A wide variety of beers at Turtle Mountain will continue this year, but the hope is they will move more quickly.

David: Not so alcohol heavy. I was still wanting to imbue lots of strong good flavors in there and keep it as “craft” as we all would like to do. I came out with one of these and it was a hit. It’s kind of nice having such a good beer over a quarantine, it might be a little selfish of me since I get to have it to myself for all this time, but on the other hand, I don’t have the demand so it’s not moving and it’s messing up with the flow overall. I’ve got to try and look at the bright side of things.

Solo: Oh, definitely.

David: So I tried to do a lot of session beers, light lagers, and to varying degrees they were hit and miss. Now I think certainly revisiting certain ones and making them better, adjusting them is what I will be doing. Though I can’t really have a brown during the summer, you know, so marking the progress over time as the seasons change and enter new seasonalities is something I’ll be looking at.

Solo: It’s one of the most fun parts about brewing in general is that cyclical nature of styles and such. It can be a little constraining at times for a professional brewer, but you can’t really have a Russian imperial stout in June, alas.

David: There is certainly a following for the heavy stouts among my friends, and there will be drinkers for that style. There are certain styles that I would really like to brew for myself, but I’m not quite sure they would sell. For instance, like a dunkelweizen, we have an English mild on right now called AgriCola, and it’s a very delicious beer, but it is just that. It’s a mild and I don’t think it really excites people or gets their interest, but in its own right it is a very good beer. So I’ve been trying to do a British or English stint. I did a British gold, which was popular. We did our mild and a bitter; the bitter went a lot better than the mild and I think that’s literally just in the nomenclature. We all know not to label things as mild because it’s not appealing, for whatever reason.

Solo: To the American palate, anyway.

David: It’s easy to forget that a lot of these original styles of the craft brewing movement came from all of these English ales, for instance. The bitter ended up turning into a pale ale. You’ve got to know your roots. It’s kind of my own journey, too. I want to see how I can produce these with any extent of ease. I want to test my mettle. There are certain styles that I still haven’t been able to produce to my own standards. We’ve been trying to do a hazy for a while, but we just still haven’t been able to get that haze suspension to work out properly. After a while in cold temperatures it just tended to drop out. We’ve only tried it once, but we feel the pressure, man, we know what’s in. It’s a lot of time and attention. You have to be there during your initial fermentation, throwing hops in there.

Head brewer David Pacheco, right, and assistant brewer Randy Stevens kept the beers flowing all year.

A lengthy discussion then followed about the challenges of brewing hazy IPAs before we got back on track.

David: This is certainly a style that lends itself to the explosion of interest in beer in the last 20-30 years. But yeah, we’ve been trying to brew that and I’d say we’re close. It’s just a matter of getting more unprocessed proteins in there, even more hops. That style was pretty much all of my troubles on the brewing side of things.

As for the troubles of this year, I feel like I was mainly a reactionary brewer. It was hard to dictate what the demand was going to be next month, and if I was going to have room to move that beer into the cold room, and so on and so forth. It was really hard for me to plan things. I do hope that I can get some more consistency towards the latter end of next year, to where I can have a more fluid plan rather than just being highly adaptive. That is a trait and a necessary skill for a lot of breweries out there. It’s not an environment that I want to be in, or a trait that I want to have constantly because then I’m always on edge and super tense.

Solo: And, nobody wants that. The great Charlie Papazian’s “relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew” or a brew in general, that’s the ethos that we want. But, times such as these dictate dealing with a lot of challenges we didn’t expect to face. Any other thoughts on going forward this next year, apart from more of the same process you have been describing?

David: The beers and their further enhancements, tiny nitpicking and adjustments to just make it a better pint of beer is of course always going to be my objective for the forthcoming year. Really, my whole other objective here has been trying to bring this brewery into this modern age. Tim (Woodward), who is now at Bosque, did the groundwork here, standardizing a lot of fittings and making sure it all fluidly went smooth here. Mick (Hahn) added on to that with various installations and whatnot. Now, I’m faced with various tasks like getting a keg washer installed, which certainly has not been an easy feat, getting power routed properly and getting my air compressor in. Making sure everything is the right size, these are things I never imagined doing a little over a year ago.

I’ve found my strengths in the stagnant times. We’ve been able to do a lot of things physically to the brewery (that) would’ve, to be quite frank, been really hard if we had the same kind of demand that we did last year before all of this happened. Sometimes things break and you have damages to deal with. You almost thank your lucky stars that, oh wait, you’re in quarantine now so it’s not a big deal. You can take your time with all of these installation projects, getting things back up and running. I think I dodged some land mines, which (while) I condemn the pandemic every day, but there have been some benefits to the lull in demand in terms of being able to get a lot of things done.

Solo: Certainly having time to focus on getting the brewery in the best shape as possible and doing some of those other things that have probably been on the back burner, or in the back of your head done, that’s a very good point. When things somewhat do normalize we ought to see even smoother sailing then.

David: We’ll be able to do it. We will be able to hit the ground running.

Solo: Hopefully you will be able to focus on even more fun beers and the act of creation.

David: As a head brewer, the beer is obviously your show, for sure, but you have a whole consort of other things and worries that you have to keep in check. You’ve got to make sure all of your equipment is running as efficiently as possible, and I still have a long way to go in that regard. You’re only limited to your own capital, really. If we’re not bringing any money in, it’s going to be really hard to justify some really big installations. It’s hard to be in that grey area.

Solo: Yeah, you’re kind of, well, we can do some things with what we have on hand, but certainly not a time to be buying a bunch of new tanks and brew kettles and all of that.

David: It’s been interesting seeing my own personal courage in attacking these projects and through that I’ve become a better brewer. I have a better swath of experience under my belt, and I can then take that forward into perhaps even crazier times.

Solo: Owning your equipment rather than looking at it and thinking, well, is this going to do what I want it to do or not. Having that change in relationship is incredibly important.

David: It was a really interesting ascendency from assistant to head brewer, where I have all of these worries about the mechanics of my brewery, rather than just getting in there and getting my job done transferring beer, etc.

Solo: It’s an awful lot more responsibility.

David: Times are good until your glycol pump goes out, which definitely did happen to us in the summer. But, we were in quarantine during that time, so it wasn’t the worst or as bad as it could have been, but it definitely gave me some lessons on yeast-keeping skills and yeast management. It became all the more apparent to me that yeast is a very delicate ingredient.

Hey, you two, get back to work.

We then got a little nerdy about yeast, so let us skip ahead as I turned my ear to Turtle’s owner Nico for his reflections on 2020 and all things 2021.

Solo: Quite a year, huh? Not what any of us expected at all.

Nico: I echo the saying that I’m sure a lot of other people have told you that January and February were record numbers. We were up like 15 percent, the numbers were just huge. We have not seen that ever. We were going into March with our 21st anniversary already planned, and I was thinking this might be the year that we finally break sales records and everything. Of course, March came and went and I should’ve known better. I was not a pessimist, but I always get concerned when things are going so well, far above normally well.

Overall, things weren’t bad. Our sales for the year thus far were probably down about 15 percent, so instead of being up 15 percent like they were in the first two months of the year, they’re down 15 percent. So we swung 30 percent, which is pretty dramatic. Things could certainly be a whole lot worse. We could be on the closed list. So I’ve taken full advantage of every grant and loan program that’s been put out there. I’ve applied for and received everything, I’m not shameful about that. I’ve put enough money into the tax system that I might as well get some back out again.

Solo: Absolutely. Thoughts on what you’ll be doing this next year? Is a taproom still in the works?

Nico: Yeah, 2021 I will say that I’m guardedly optimistic, which is what I say to make sure and not jinx myself. I am guardedly optimistic that 2021 will be the 2020 that we did not have. We signed a lease on a taproom. We’ve done this twice before in the east mountains from ’03 to ’05, and then we did it up in Mariposa ’13 to ’14. Anyway, we’ve tried this twice before and it has not worked out for a variety of reasons. I’ve learned from my mistakes on those two previous efforts to, A. not go off the beaten path, and B. if you’ve got to go all in, you’ve got to go all in.

So I signed a lease on a 7,400-square-foot inside and 4,200-square-foot outside patio, full-on restaurant out in Enchanted Hills, which is right in the middle of tens of thousands of people, right on the main drag (Highway 528). So we’re in the process of getting the liquor license submitted. We’ve finalized the design for the interior of the place, so we’re working on plans for a building permit. Depending upon how long it will take to get the liquor license approved, I was thinking six months, so best case scenario we will probably open up in May. That’s as long as I can get the applications in and they don’t take longer than five or six months. So late May/June time we should be open.

The future home of the first Turtle Mountain Brewing offsite taproom since 2014.

Solo: Fantastic! That is great news. It’s been a long time coming for you, too, so I’m very happy to hear that.

Nico: Yeah, well, we can’t let Bosque have all the fun over there, can we? Obviously in our previous Look Back/Look Ahead we didn’t have a whole lot of look ahead; things were kind of in lock down for a while. We’re taking advantage of all of the cheap and or free money available through all of these programs to squirrel away some, and be able to hopefully largely fund this expansion through either grants or low-interest loans. So we’re going to do the government one better, instead of preserving jobs we’re actually going to create more jobs, and I figured that that is certainly the better part of the intent of a lot of this money of not just preserving, but actually creating.

We will be sure to keep you all informed with any updates on the forthcoming Turtle Mountain taproom!

Solo: That’s such great news. People can certainly use some good jobs going forward. Any other thoughts on what you might be up to this next year with everything kind of in limbo?

Nico: Well, I’m not sure what David had said about his plans, but I know he as been frustrated with every closure comes our lack of ability to sell that much more beer, so he just kind of has beer hanging out in the back. 2020 has been brutal on his ability to actually do any kind of like specialties, just because our throughput is so minimal. A 10-barrel batch of beer will last months.

He and I are both looking forward to having a new big outlet for being able to sell a bunch of beer. That way he can get them off serving tanks and we can transfer them to the new cooler, and it’ll lead to significantly more throughput of beers through the system because (of how) the brewhouse is set up in a location in this building. We have six fermenters (and) we’ve got 15 serving tanks, but that’s it. We can’t put any more fermenters, we can’t put any more anything in there. I know David’s kind of champing at the bit to get some new beers through the pipeline. His directive from me (in) 2021 is to get a hazy, figure out that hazy because he did one and it dropped out. It was a good IPA, but it turned out juicy, not hazy. We need to get a hazy because we are the only damn brewery around that doesn’t have a hazy IPA. But, they’re not the easiest beers to make.

Solo: Yeah, we talked a bit at length about the hazies and the difficulties and the popularity and all of that sort of thing.

Nico: So we are definitely game on getting a wider variety of beers through the pipeline. I’d like to get a place where we can stick some barrels (in there) and we can do some, not bourbon barrel aged, but maybe some rum or other kind of barrel-aged beers. Our little brewery here, the space that did have two barrels now has a keg washer, which is a significantly more important thing to do than have barrels back there. We’ve got one last barrel-aged beer that we transferred into a couple of kegs. It’s a black currant Baltic porter which is about two years old. It’s a mixed legacy, a robust Baltic porter with sort of a dark fruit that I tasted and I thought it was pretty good. So we transferred it into some stainless, and we’re going to let it sit and carbonate and then we’ll actually hove an honest-to-god beer release for it, like we should be doing.

Baltic porter certainly piques our interest (we’ve only maybe done a few collaborations in that style) and our tastebuds eagerly anticipate this release when it happens!

Nico: We do want to do some more beers, but right now for a lack of throughput I’m just kind of hunkered down on lagers since you’ve got plenty of time to lager beer.

Solo: And, they tend to just get better with age.

Nico: Yup. As far as what 2021 is going to bring, we’re going to toast 2020 being gone and focus on putting it behind us. But, the big focus is going to be opening up a monster facility like we are going to is going to take a lot of money and a lot of time, so the first six months of 2021 is going to be spent getting this new place online, and make sure that this, the original place, keeps on going. So 2021, knock on wood that we don’t have any big resurgence of the pandemic or anything like that, we’re going to run with two places, and I’d like to look at the possibility of getting a production brewery of sorts out here in Rio Rancho where we can actually put in a canning line. The canned product on store shelves is kind of glut at this point, but all of these can releases with Ex Novo and La Cumbre especially, damn they make money with these can releases. You don’t even really need to put this beer on store shelves, you can mostly just have a can release and people will come out and buy it.

Solo: That cuts your costs, too, not paying a distributor to put it out there. You build the hype and the people will come.

The taproom coming in 2021 may just be the beginning of a Turtle Mountain expansion.

Nico: 2021, once we get this new place opened and stabilized, then maybe in 2022 for next year’s Look Back/Look Ahead we’ll be talking about putting up a steel structure. Bosque’s on the north side of Rio Rancho, but my longevity and name recognition is still strong, and I’ve got to try to capitalize on that like Second Street did up in Santa Fe.

Solo: Absolutely. They’ve been coming up with great can releases, too, up in Santa Fe, so it’s nice to see that, for sure.

Nico: Turtle’s kind of like that old brewery, we don’t make the news too often as far as having all kinds of crazy barrel-aged or hazy releases or any of that kind of stuff, and I’m OK with it. We’ve really depended on the restaurant side of things to keep us afloat during this pandemic. Beer and food is great, but a lot of people just come in for food, not for beer. So we’ve had to lean on the food service not at the expense of the beer, but David is doing what he is doing without having a lot of throughput. So we’ve been in kind of stasis a little bit. He’s certainly looking forward to hopefully getting out of red and yellow into the green not too far into 2021 so we can have some throughput, because a tank of beer lasting for months is just frustrating for him and for me.

Solo: It certainly is.

Nico: But, we’re still trucking along. I’m happy to be in a position where I’m doing an awful lot better than a lot of other breweries. We’re still here, we’re still going to be here in 2021 and do the best we can and put out the best product that we can, just fight the good fight as much as we can. The new place is being designed with full COVID experience as far as the placement of the tables, the distance, a monster outdoor patio. You name it, anything that we’ve learned from the restrictions in 2020 have been incorporated into the design of this place. So if and when the next time it hits, we’re going to be ready. We’re not going to have to modify all that much. We are just looking forward to more good beers in 2021, and hopefully a return to business as usual as can be.

Solo: I think the asterisk, as usual as can be, is pretty much our whole lives right now.

Nico: Turtle has been very fortunate. We still have 40 of our 60 employees employed, so we’ve managed to keep an enormous amount of people employed. We’re doing the best we can.

* * * * *

Here’s hoping the cautious optimism bears fruit as we move into 2021 from an incredibly difficult 2020 on so very many fronts. The future does seem bright for the Rio Rancho institution that is Turtle Mountain, with the forthcoming taproom expansion and future plans for a production facility, to boot. On the beer front, let us hope that the pandemic will allow us some measure of normalcy so that the creativity of David can be brought to bear in full. If our conversation hinted at anything, he’s got quite a few cards to play in the deck, so to speak.

So until then, stay safe, stay thirsty, order some takeout, grab a growler or two, and enjoy everything Turtle Mountain has to offer.

Prost!

— Franz Solo

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