Turquoise Trail Brewing had been open a mere seven months before the now infamous shutdown of 2020, and owner Sean Lawson entered a time which he described as a “big ol’ shitshow.”
In the brewery’s short history, Sean leased the building space on Central and Elizabeth back in August 2018, and was carrying it month to month before the brewery finally opened for business in June 2019. In February 2020, he had almost made it to the break-even point when the pandemic hit. Attendance started to wane, and, “The rest is just … you know how it goes,” Sean said.
The brewery remained open for packaged to-go beers throughout 2020, and for much of that time, Sean was going it alone, doing everything from brewing to cleaning to taproom sales to bookkeeping, just to stay in business.
In January 2021, Sean said he ran out of cash. Not wanting to put his family at risk, both financially and from exposure to COVID, he made the decision to close the brewery, possibly for good. Then, some close friends offered to partner with him and provided a cash injection that allowed him to reopen in early March, about six weeks later.
When I caught up with Sean at the brewery in April, business seemed to be returning to normal, with socially distanced guests seated in the taproom, and six house brews, along with a couple of guest beers, on tap.
The first beer that caught my eye was Audrey’s Red, a red chile pale ale named after Sean’s daughter. With an ABV of 9 percent, I opted for a smaller pour, but its surprising balance of spicy chile kick and just the right amount of hop character left me wanting more. Sean said he considered several kinds of beer to pair with the red chile before settling on the pale ale base. He wanted something not too light that would be able to hold its own against the strong chile flavor.
The brewing process itself for the red chile beer is just that — a process. Sean spends several hours just prepping the chiles, pulling out the stems and seeds, blending in a food processor, and steam boil infusing them into the beer. It’s a bigger beer, he said, and he lets it set a little while longer for maturation.
“Kind of a lot of work, but it’s a really popular beer for us,” Sean said, noting that customers often come in hesitant to try it, but soon discover it’s not what they expected.
Other house beers include one of the first on tap for the brewery, Run off With a Blonde; Cedar Mountain, a classic West Coast IPA; Turn Me Loose, an American amber that is surprisingly smooth; and Thunder Chief, a stout named after an iconic train with a Zia symbol on the front that used to run for Santa Fe Rails. The stout itself has chocolate notes and a creamy finish that might make one think it has lactose added, though it does not.
The final two house beers currently on tap are collaborations with High and Dry Brewing. The first is a hazy IPA called The Tears Have Dried. The collaborators wanted something that had the initials of each brewery, and they finally landed on a name that now carries an ever deeper meaning.
“There’s definitely a melancholy note to it, but with some optimism,” Sean said.
The other High and Dry collab is called Skeletons vs. Unicorns, a name Sean came up with while playing with his five-year-old daughter. The beer itself is a Scottish Wee Heavy, infused with bourbon soaked oak, nutmeg and pomegranate, which Sean said did not contribute to the taste of the beer as much as it brightened the overall flavor.
As for future collaborations, Sean said he doesn’t want to close the door on the idea, but right now he is mainly focused on getting things back up and running, making improvements and looking toward the future of the brewery.
The funding from Sean’s friends also allowed him to purchase some new brewing equipment, including a 3-barrel and a 7-barrel tank, and a glycol chiller. He is also considering making some improvements to the back patio, and adding food options to the menu with a newly purchased sandwich station. He noted that this will require some movement within the small lobby area, and he would lose a couple tables, but is hoping to make that up by adding more bar stools when bar seating is allowed again.
The ultimate goal is to move the brewing facility to a larger location and keep the current location as an offsite taproom. Initially, Sean said he knew that going into the business while very thinly funded would force him to choose a location with cheaper rent, which he now admits comes with its own set of challenges. However, he also acknowledged that had he opened in a more expensive area, he would have been done three-to-four months into the pandemic. Instead, he is faced with a longer startup period than he had originally planned, but despite all those difficulties, was able to stay in business.
“We still have challenges ahead,” Sean said. “But, I’m very optimistic.”
Thanks so much to Sean for some great beer and conversation. Congratulations on getting over this hurdle of a year, and here’s hoping for many more great years to come.