At some point, all of us have probably that moment where we think it would be a good idea to quit the job, sell the house, move to a quiet little town and start anew.
Most of us then sigh, shake our heads, and get back to work. For longtime Austin-area teachers Dan and Jennifer Carey, however, that crazy idea just kept popping up, until they decided to move to the southern mountains of New Mexico, and open a craft brewery, of all things.
As part of our journey through the south two weekends ago, the Crew met up with Dan and Jennifer at the midtown taproom of their labor of love, Lost Hiker Brewing. We ended up spending two-plus hours there, laughing and talking over pints of delicious beer, and eventually I was able to transcribe the entire thing for this story.
“We were both teachers in Austin, and we bought this little property in Cloudcroft,” Jennifer said. “We would spend the summers up there, kind of living off the land. Every time we would go home, we would talk about how we love the mountains, it’s so pretty.”
“We didn’t want to go back (to Austin),” Dan added.
“It was summertime, so Austin is just disgusting,” Jennifer continued. “There was a day we were hanging out at the park with our son, and I said, ‘We should move to the mountains and brew beer.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, that sounds great.’ How do we do this? ‘I’ll brew the beer if you can run the business.’ I don’t know how to run a business, I’m an elementary school teacher. We kind of like started researching how, what do you do, how do you get a license, all the things, and doors just kind of kept opening, and opening, and opening for us. We were like, holy shit, this can happen.”
“The path revealed itself,” Dan added.
The first plan was to open a brewery in Cloudcroft, and the Careys actually looked at the very property that has become Cloudcroft Brewing, but at that time they didn’t feel it was quite the right fit. Instead, they looked a little to the north.
“We started developing this business plan, and it was all about Cloudcroft,” Jennifer said. “We started doing some market research about Ruidoso, and there was this guy, Jasper (Riddle), who owns Hidden Tap. And, he was like, yes, craft beer, I have my own winery (Noisy Water), this a scene we really want to develop here in Ruidoso. What are you guys thinking about? We started talking about when, where, how, what. It kind of evolved into this thing where he already had this space out by the Downs, and so we just kind of went for it.”
Then Dan and Jennifer got to experience the joys of New Mexico’s many rules and regulations.
“It takes a long time to get licensed, and (to purchase) all that equipment,” Jennifer said. “You can’t get licensed without equipment, which is so ass-backwards. So I’m supposed to sell my house to get this equipment to see if it works? No, that’s how it is, it’s crazy.”
“It’s a hell of a bet,” Dan said. “Put your chips on the table.”
Once all the boxes were checked off, Dan got to work at the brewery at 26394 US-70 in Ruidoso Downs. Later, they added their taproom at 2536 Sudderth in midtown Ruidoso.
“We sold our house in Austin, and had the funding to buy the equipment, bought the equipment, cashed in, moved out here, and here we are,” Dan said. “It’s been a ride, it’s been fun. The last year, we could live without that, but, you know.”
The brewery location has been limited to being open every other weekend, with most of the foot traffic at the taproom, which is where we all met.
“This spot saved us,” Dan said.
The customer base is a mix of locals, people visiting from elsewhere in New Mexico, and of course plenty of tourists from Texas. That can be seen clearly in the sales numbers for the different styles of beer on tap.
“It’s funny, because the things that work in Albuquerque still work here,” Dan said. “You still have your craft beer lovers that are current and now what’s going on in craft beer. But, also, the blonde, our Ruidoso Blonde outsells everything else three to one.”
Dan said he knew that he had to have something for the macro beer drinkers from Texas, and it proved to be the right choice among the styles he considered.
“That’s funny, because as a (former) home brewer, I had to really research that style,” he said. “I went back and forth between kolsch and blonde and pilsner, maybe doing a lager, for something to appease the domestic beer drinkers. I settled in on blonde and came up with this recipe. I drink it way more than I ever thought I would. I love it. It’s a satisfying beer. So that appeases the folks coming up from West Texas. There’s also the sophisticated palate here that loves craft beer.”
Our favorite beer on tap was probably the Midnight Squirrel, a delicious full-bodied stout that was named for the squirrels the family dog barks at in the trees above their home. Other beers have managed to find an audience, as well.
“The Rye Knot is a Belgian pale ale,” Jennifer said. “It doesn’t fit a category, but it’s one of these home-brew mistakes where he was brewing it and he didn’t pick up the right yeast. He had the Belgian yeast at home, and threw it into this rye pale ale, and it was amazing. We entered it in this home-brew contest when we were back in Austin. They were like it’s not to style. We’re going to brew what we love and love what we brew.
“It’s super fun, because it’s super complex, it’s a weird beer. I’m not kidding, there’s a cult following here. If the rye is not on, where’s the rye? The other one that’s so crazy is the Shandy Dan, where we take the Coyote Call, which is an American wheat, and infused with apricot. People go bananas for this beer. We named it Shandy Dan because we were joking around. It’s not really a shandy, it’s not a radler. That beer hasn’t been on the scene for a couple years, but it’s coming back.”
Like most breweries, Lost Hiker had to buckle down in 2020 and so far in 2021. Both Dan and Jennifer have started teaching again, leaning on their staff to handle much of the day-to-day operations at the brewery and taproom. Dan even had the misfortune, before the pandemic, of falling and injuring his hand at the brewery. Assistant brewer Chris Miles was able to pick up much of the brewing slack while Dan recovered.
Even with all those unexpected challenges, Lost Hiker has managed to not only survive, but thrive. While there are no big plans afoot, they are already starting to make some changes, particularly to the brewery location.
“Right now we’re just playing it by ear,” Jennifer said. “We’re super excited because we did this soft launch last weekend of this pizza kitchen. So we have some friends that we’ve partnered with, they built a portable wood-fired pizza oven. We’re trying to work that when we have events, when we’re trying to bring back music. We’re trying to bring it back the second and fourth (weekends). Let’s go slow, we don’t want to burn people out, it’s a small town.”
They are also installing some old-school arcade games at the brewery, with Dan noting that one in particular was the key game in his eyes.
“I don’t care what other games, as long as Galaga will be there,” he said.
The Careys also made another unique purchase.
“We’re really excited about that, and then before Covid happened we bought this old airport shuttle bus,” Jennifer said. “We did a soft run last weekend, too, where we’re trying to pick people up from their cabins or here. Everybody met here, had a beer, and then we drove them out to the Downs where the brewery is. We had pizza for everyone.”
Future plans will include using the shuttle bus to take customers to Cloudcroft Brewing, and out to Bonito Valley Brewing in Lincoln.
“It’s not just to take people out to our location, we thought how much fun it would be to go out to Cloudcroft, or Bonito Valley,” Jennifer said. “Tim (Roberts) is super into the history. I think they do ghost tours out there. How much fun would it be to take them out there to have a flight, or a beer, and then take them to the ghost tour?”
All in all, we were quite impressed by Lost Hiker. The beers were quite good, the folks working there are wonderful, and the midtown taproom space was charming. We were very glad to hear that Jennifer and the staff were able to take advantage of the numerous business loans made available to help keep the brewery running.
“We’re a little mom-and-pop operation here, we have less than 10 employees,” she said. “Some of those new funds that have been released, those fit our model. Let’s go for it. My theory or philosophy is let’s sit on it, let’s use it as conservatively as we can. I hate the feeling of not knowing what’s around the corner.”
That thought is echoed throughout not just the craft beer industry in New Mexico, but nationwide. Hopefully it includes more positive growth and success for breweries in big cities and small towns alike.
“Dream big, but start small,” was the motto out at Lost Hiker, and so far, so good. And, we are not just saying that because Dan told us he put some Midnight Squirrel in barrels for aging that we will have to come try when it’s ready.
We truly appreciate Dan and Jennifer being patient with our late arrival, and the hospitality that they provided us. We will definitely be back at Lost Hiker the next time we head south, and we highly encourage everyone else to add it to the top of your list of in-state beercation destinations for 2021 and beyond.
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