Plenty of people make reference to “pandemic limbo” these days, the long stretch of inactivity as the result of furloughed jobs, everything being closed, and generally not being able to figure out what’s next in life.
Though he certainly would not ask to be the poster child for pandemic limbo, local brewer George Gonzales might just be the perfect example of someone who saw his career frozen in place for more than a year. Thankfully, he is back doing what he loves, now handling the small-batch brewing and distilling at Moonwalk Bev, the bar inside the 505 Central Food Hall downtown.
“It was a rough year,” he said. “Two weeks turned into a year, and I was at home. Luckily, I had my daughter to take care of. I did all the home schooling with her until they reopened the schools. I heard about this job opening up towards the end of February. I still hadn’t heard anything from Cantero, but I had heard quite a few rumors. Those rumors turned out to be true.”
Gonzales was formerly the head brewer at Cantero, which closed its doors at the start of the pandemic last March and never reopened, at least under its original ownership. The owners kept Gonzales in the dark, he said, about a pending sale.
Meanwhile, 505 Central owner Mark Baker had parted ways with brewer Peter Moore, and needed someone to take over the nascent brewing operation at Moonwalk.
“He posted something on Facebook that they were looking for a brewer,” Gonzales said of Baker. “I had never actually been to this space. I heard about it right when the pandemic happened, and I thought the concept had great potential. … I figured it would take a little bit of luck to keep it running. And, I guess they had enough luck to keep it running.
“I met with Mark to talk about the job. They offered it to me, but I still didn’t know about Cantero. Then, strangely enough on Facebook, I think James Estes posted something about (Lizard Tail buying) Cantero, and that’s all I needed to know. I called up my old boss and asked him if there was anything he needed. I still had the company card. I actually still have the keys to Cantero, I should give them to those guys.”
With Lizard Tail bringing its own brewing team to reopen Cantero, which is tentatively set for June 1, Gonzales was happy to take the job he was offered by Baker. Gonzales got to work right away on the small brewing system, formerly of High and Dry, that was set up in the basement of the food hall building.
“It’s a 1-barrel system I’m working on here,” Gonzales said. “We’re trying to keep two (of our own) taps. The only recipe I have on tap right now is a pale ale. I’m also distilling. I made a white rye whiskey that we have. I’m working on a rum right now. I’ve never distilled before in my life, so it’s kind of a trial by fire of sorts. It turned out to be easy. If I knew distilling was this easy, I probably would have gone in that direction.”
Fear not, distillers of New Mexico, he was joking. Please do not get up in arms and storm the food hall.
Gonzales is currently limited in what he can brew, since he has both a small system and just two fermenters. Still, he has a list of beers to work on once his current two are finished fermenting.
“We had a coffee stout that they want me to redo that they did in collaboration with Humble,” he said. “That will take time. I’ve got a lager that I’m working on down there, and a seltzer that’s taking way too long to finish. The seltzer has been a work in progress since before I was brought in. … I’ve had to babysit it. You have to feed it nutrients every day.”
The world’s most problematic seltzer is currently the bane of Gonzales’ existence.
“I’ve got a hefeweizen on deck, I’ve got a kolsch I want to do,” he said. “But, I can’t do anything until that seltzer finishes. Right now, the lager that I did looks like it will be done before the seltzer.”
While Gonzales practices patience, he has been able to take stock of what sells at Moonwalk among the guest taps, though he noted that beer is not the top seller overall.
“Our number one seller, the main seller here is drinks, people mostly do cocktails here,” he said. “It’s kind of easier for them, I guess. Other than that, our top-selling beer is, strangely enough, Marble Cerveza. La Cumbre Beer sells really well, and then my pale ale is number three.
“It’s a good way to see how approachable your beer is. It’s a small system and a lot of barrels to produce on that system. Right now, I’m trying to concentrate on quicker turnaround beers. The only reason I’m doing a lager is we had one before, and it was a fast seller, so they wanted me to do it again. I told them it’s not a quick turnaround.”
In the end, Gonzales said he is just happy to be working again. He also started work on a graduate degree at the University of New Mexico, so his plate is currently full.
“I’m going for my MBA at Anderson (School of Business) at UNM,” Gonzales said. “It’s a pretty broad degree, but my focus is on entrepreneurship. Stuff like this scratches my itch, like Cantero, starting things. I also like to finish them if they don’t sell the brewery out from under me. I’m curious to see what happens now that it’s (owned by) Lizard Tail.”
We are all a little curious about that, but only time will tell. In the meantime, we are happy to see Gonzales back at work, and it is nice to see one of our new food halls embracing local by making some of its own craft beer and spirits.
A big thanks to George for the interview and some of that pale ale. It is a tasty, sessionable little brew. And, of course, we wish him luck with that darn seltzer.
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