2021 wasn’t exactly the year we hoped for in terms of miraculously expelling the virus sweeping the planet, but it was a year where we began to put on pants again, get outside, and begin to move forward with plans, and get back to the simple things like joining your buddy for a beer.
Recently, during a glorious late fall day, I did just that. I put on pants again, went outside, and sat down with the entire Rowley Farmhouse Ales brew crew during their first Blackest Friday since the whole thing began. Instead of rehashing the entirety of their pandemic woes, I focused more on how they began to shift out of pandemic mode, and start the healing process again through beer.
DSBC: 2021 wasn’t the magical year we were all hoping for, but how was 2021 different from 2020 for you guys?
Rowley: It wasn’t a whole lot different, really. I mean, we still had restrictions. Things were opened up for a while. But, then they would shut down again, not completely, but you know, indoor mask mandates, with the Delta Variant coming back strong, so it’s really kind of like a deja vu type of situation.
DSBC: How is it different in terms of brewing and packaging?
Donavan: As you know, we had to lean harder into the can production. On-site sales were better than expected. I think we’ve done really well, all things considered. But, just to be cautious and keep multiple revenue streams, we did a lot of canning and sent a lot more beer out to grocery stores and things like that. So because we can-condition everything, that led to some tweaks to the production schedule to make sure that we were keeping supply going.
DSBC: We already mostly covered supply chain issues in our pandemic issues, but what were some of the struggles this year that were more staffing related?
Rowley: We’ve been struggling with packaging assistance. Right now, we’ve got everyone here at the table. We’ve got the full brewery crew here. So things have turned the corner there. I think Mike can attest more to that than I can. But, you know, Charles Martel is now with us. He’s been here, what, three weeks now, Charles? He’s got a strong work ethic. He’s into it. He’s got brewing experience. Of course, Roger has been installed. He’s been with us for a while and just does a great job. I think we need one more person on the packaging team to kind of round it all out, then we’re going to go forward from there. But, we’re in a better spot now than we were the same time last year probably. We struggled this year with finding help.
King: Keeping help.
Rowley: Yeah, keeping help. We had some people who left, and that’s the way it goes. Rehiring people is not always easy.
DSBC: Charles, where did you come to us from?
Martel: I was living in Rhode Island. I was working at Canned Heat Craft Beer Brewery, which is a 30-barrel brewery out there. I did everything from small-batch brewing to production assistant, cellarman, even assistant brewing on some batches when the assistant left. I’ve got a good amount of experience. And, it’s been great working for this company, and I’m glad they hired me.
DSBC: So … the usual story.
DSBC: And Roger, we’ve known you for a while in the industry as the founder of Craft Beer Gangstas. But what got you interested in canning for Rowley?
Pacheco: When I moved back to New Mexico in 2017, I immediately became a big fan of Rowley, follow their stuff and it came time to where I needed a second job and gave John a holler. And, he put me in the right spot.
DSBC: How’s it been having the extra help with the packaging?
King: It’s been great for me, because my back doesn’t hurt as bad. It’s great because I’m not twisting and canning every weekend anymore.
DSBC: I’m sure it changes a lot.
King: Yeah, so now I can focus on helping with brewing. When we do bottle, I’m still the most experienced bottler here. So I can run it and get everything set up and going. So it’s been a nice, mental escape where I don’t have to worry about canning, and I can focus on the new process, and what we’re changing to make it better, and make sure I’m on the same page as everyone else that’s here daily.
DSBC: In 2020 RFA leaned heavily into canning. The process wasn’t without its issues, but no new canning line ever is. How did you address those issues in 2021?
Donovan: Essentially, it just came down to due diligence with the math and a little bit of new equipment to help us. I mean, essentially my process is no secret, it’s what a lot of people do, except with the can conditioning, we have an added step and algorithm there. But, essentially I put the beer in the bright tank. With a flow meter, we know how much volume we’re putting in. And then, I see how much CO2 is already in solution, because we always know that we have some captured CO2 from fermentation. And then, from there, it’s a pretty simple equation to figure out, based on where we want the beer to be carbonated, how much sugar to add, and make a simple syrup cycle for it, and then we’re used to dosing each individual can to help prevent any oxidation issues so that we know that any O2 that is getting in the can, is getting picked up and metabolized by the yeast for the most part. So yeah, I don’t know that we’ve really had carbonation issues for a while now.
Rowley: Yeah, we do bottle conditioning, we’ve been doing that for a long time. We’ve got that process well down. We don’t really have any problems with bottles. They give you that leeway of that extra headspace or not headspace itself, but headspace in terms of how far you can go up. Because, if you want to do a Meier, gose, Berliner weisse, or saison, they really come into their own with more carbonation, then you can do in a can. Those beers typically are three to four volumes. On CO2, you can’t do that in a can. The can won’t allow it. The can’s just not strong enough. So we’ve had to find the kind of the limit where we can go and then even back it off a little bit less. Because we don’t want to be at the limit all the time. So in a way, that kind of sucks. Because, Germophile, I really like it to be expressed as a three-volume beer. But, we can’t, and the marketplace demands cans, so we have to provide cans.
DSBC: And, the percentage of issues have gone way down.
Rowley: Yeah, absolutely! We’ve come a long way. We still have a little ways to go. In the next year, we’re gonna probably buy a better canning line. That’s on our list of things to do for 2022.
DSBC: For 2021, what were some of the better moments? What where the highlights that pulled us out of this craziness, even just a little?
Rowley: So 2021, not as huge an amount of highlights compared to past years. But, I think we had as much fun as we could, with the limitations we have. Festivals were kind of off the table.
DSBC: But, you guys had did celebrate a pretty big milestone this year.
Rowley: We did celebrate five years. That was a big deal. We got a big tent. We had a bunch of people. We had some barbecue. That was a lot of fun. I think for me personally, that was a great day. And, we made it through COVID, mostly. You know that’s probably the highlight of the year for sure.
King: The beginning of the year was rough with those shutdowns, and winter was hard. But, Santa Fe’s embraced us. The community really came out to show support. It’s been really great to see the community support local businesses these last couple of years.
DSBC: Highlights for you, Mike?
Donovan: I think just getting my feet under me a little bit. Feeling confident in some of the new procedures, knowing that John and Tyler supported that on the brewery side as far as production, and also being able to flex our muscles a little bit with some different styles that we hadn’t maybe done in the past, or weren’t done very often.
Rowley: Yeah, the lager game has been really good! “El Pastor,” I thought was amazing. That’s a big hit in my mind. The (Luminoso) Italian pilsner was really good, too.
Donovan: Yeah, really pleased with the lagers. And, I think around this time last year, we had done the imperial stout and a brown ale in honor of Tasty (Mike McDole). So some of the darker beers have been really successful as well, and they tend to sell out pretty quick. It’s nice to see that even folks who are coming to us as a farmhouse brewery will reach for those beers as well. And, we’ve been able to keep them keep them on brand, like doing a Baltic Porter that was 20-percent rye. And, even the El Pastor, we used our favorite local raw wheat. So I think we’ve done a good job of kind of threading that needle and I think that being able to expand into those categories and be creative was a highlight for me.
DSBC: Let’s talk more about the beers you were excited to release. Tyler?
King: Besides what Mike just mentioned, the Foeder Gose, that beer is really awesome. It’s really nice right now.
Rowley: Mountain of Light hasn’t really been released a whole lot yet. We have it here on draft as the plain variant. But, we have a lot of those coming out. We have a melon version. We have an apricot version that we made for Wandering Tortoise’s fifth anniversary. It’s probably right around now if they haven’t had it already. That was a really good version.
DSBC: What beers are coming out soon and in 2022? Let’s tap into that if we can.
Rowley: Galaxy Petite (Blanche), for one.
King: There’s a series of beers we were hoping to release this year, but with bottle and global supply chain shortages, we’ve had to wait. So it’s a Kriek series with different cherry mixes coming out from the Flor Sherry barrels we’ve had since we opened. Five years old, basically, at this point.
DSBC: What other beers should we be excited for?
Rowley: So one of the barrels we really wanted to get to this year for our anniversary was (this year’s) Grandissant, which is kind of the big brother of the Sanctuario. It’s more of a winter saison, a little higher ABV, but not, not like a huge 10-percent beer. It’s not like that. I think it’s in the in the high sixes, low sevens, ballpark-ish, if I remember.
Donovan: This is really more like the traditional standard saison style. But, for us it’s a higher ABV offering.
Rowley: It’s a little more than we would normally do. But, I think it fits with the timing. We wanted to release it some time when it’s a little cooler, so we’re getting close to that. But, we were tasting these barrels and wow, one of them is really amazing. Just by itself. No adjuncts, just plain. So when we got these barrels, we had four of them to begin with of that batch beer. And then, we added some Flor Sherry yeast to two of the barrels. The problem with that use is it’s very time consuming. It takes a long time for it to come around. But, it really has stepped up, and it’s so good. So we’re going to do a plain version of that. Then we have a bunch of cherries that we got. We got some Rainier cherries, and I think we got some Montmorency cherries back when they were in season. And, we dosed one, let’s call it an aliquot. We did one aliquot with the Rainier cherries. We did one with a blend of both cherries and one with the Montmorency cherries. And, we’re going to release a box set for those at some point, and (individual) bottles. But, we haven’t we haven’t bottled those yet, but that’s coming up. There’s also some other ones back there. I’ll let Mike speak to that.
Donovan: Yeah, we have a really great fruit supplier that Jeffrey (Kaplan, co-owner) and John work with. And, he’s driving back from Colorado like every other day with fresh fruit. And so, we’ve got a bunch of smaller projects that will probably be on-site only releases and very limited bottle runs and some draft for here. But, the Petite Blanche, the foeder Blanche beer that we do, we have that on peaches. We have the Mountain of Light foeder gose on a bunch of different fruits. So we’re getting close to packaging a sugar plum version of that. We got some really, really great clumps from this fruit supplier, and also some raw sugar cane from a local farmer. And so, we were aging the gose on the raw sugar cane. I think my thumbs will never forgive me for the day that I cracked 50 pounds of sugarcane by hand, but the beer is fantastic. And yeah, I mean, I think that’s another highlight for me this year. Going back to your previous question is, I got to be here for fresh fruit season. And, that’s something that I think Rowley does extremely well just like, we get great fruit, we get it when it’s ripe, we have the kitchen to help us process it so that we can get it in the beer at the right time. And, we’re gonna have a lot of fun (with) little iterations of Petite, of Grandissant, and of Mountain of Light with fantastic fresh fruit.
DSBC: 2022 is going to be a great year. Any other big plans in mind? You mentioned the possibility of a new canning line.
Rowley: So that’s on our capital expenditures for next year is (to) buy a bigger canning line. We don’t have a huge amount of room, but we can get one that has better throughput. That will help us put out a little more beer and hurt less backs. We probably have to add another tank for cold water for the brewery. That’s one of our things to try to reduce our water loss and water waste, and we may have to replace the chiller, also, at that point. So, those three things would probably be a big boon for us. We want to continue doing one-off lager series. I think that’s big hit. Mike can talk about the next one if you want.
Donovan: Yeah, absolutely. John, after he gets a couple beers in him, he sometimes drops into German accent, which we all enjoy very much. I’m sure you’ve experienced the generic European accent, I don’t know if it was a podcast or just us hanging out one day, but there was a lot of danke being thrown around, and we decided that for the colder weather we were going to brew a dunkel and call it Danke Dunkel, so we’ll be brewing that this coming week. (NOTE: It is in the fermenters and should be released soon.) We’ve got the ingredients already and we’re super psyched to do a slightly darker lager and flex our malt muscles again. Like we said, we are a farmhouse ale brewery, but we are loving lagers right now, and there’s nothing wrong with it. So we’re going do more of that.
DSBC: What are you looking forward to most in 2022?
Donovan: I know that John and Jeffrey and Tyler, we talked about the five-year anniversary. And, you know, the kind of typical model is have a five-year business plan and now we’re moving beyond that. So I’m very excited for those three guys, as the board, to have the flexibility to think about what’s next and where we want to go. And, I talked to John and Tyler about being in on those conversations a little bit more just as far as what’s going to work for us production-wise, and how we continue to grow and meet the demand for the beer that we make, but also stay the size that we like, where people feel like they can come here and get beers brewed 500 feet away. So I’m very much looking forward to hearing, seeing, and participating in what’s going to shape the next five years.
In 2021, Rowley Farmhouse Ales made it through another rough year to celebrate their fifth trip around the sun in the craft brewing world. As King mentioned, Santa Fe has really embraced them and put them on the map as a must-visit spot for food and beverage. Heading into 2022, there is plenty to be excited about for the RFA team, as they continue to grow individually and professionally, and will only become stronger as a team. They have plenty of great package goods planned to come out from the brewhouse in the coming weeks, and there is a tremendous wealth of fruited goodness in the basement just waiting to be tapped. The pandemic may have changed how RFA has been able to serve Santa Fe and beyond, but it hasn’t changed their goal of putting the best product in front of you, whether in the glass, can, or on the plate.
To another five years and beyond!
For more #CraftBeer news and @nmdarksidebc updates, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro