Back in the midst of the more restrictive days of the pandemic, a change in brewers went down on the Westside, and none of us in the Crew was able to head over and get the lowdown. I finally rectified that on the final day of 2021, catching up with Lava Rock head brewer Dan Cavin for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
“When I got here in 2020, it was basically like opening a new brewery,” Cavin said. “There were no brew logs, no nothing. It was during the shutdown. All I had were the names and styles of the beers, that was basically it. So basically every single recipe here is 100-percent me.”
Cavin has years of experience brewing in New Mexico. He was the head brewer at Kellys Brew Pub for years, and then moved over to be lead brewer at Ex Novo when it first opened in 2019. When the chance came to run his own place again, Cavin jumped at the chance to bring some stability to Lava Rock, which had gone through a number of brewers since it first opened in 2017.
Taking over in the midst of the to-go-only/patio-only days of the pandemic gave Cavin plenty of time to dial in just about everything in the brewery.
“One nice thing I like about this place is it’s 100-percent RO (reverse osmosis),” he said. “I’m able to build each water profile to the style. That was a fun shutdown (to take the time to do) calculations and book learning, figuring out how to properly do water calculations, stuff like that.”
After years of battling with the water at Kellys, it was a welcome change.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” Cavin said. “Basically there I just had a carbon filter. The only thing I do with city water here is what we call our New Mexico Tru IPA. That one the night before I fill the brew kettle, brew it for 15 to 20 minutes, then shut it down. Get as much off-gas, the chlorine, as I can. Then I just add some sulfates to it.”
Naturally, 2021 still managed to upend some of that 2020 work.
“I’ve been able to get this sucker dialed in, (but) unfortunately the last six weeks this guy has been down because the burner went down,” Cavin said of his main brewhouse. “To get a brand-new burner was six-to-eight weeks. Hopefully it will be shipped, they said, (this) Tuesday. I’ve been cranking on this little Spike system. This is not the worst time of year for it to go down. Instead of brewing one-and-a-half times a week, now I have to brew three times.”
Relying on the 1-barrel Spike system has actually been beneficial, in a way.
“My biggest learning curve for 2021 was I made a lot of my specialties, not just house beers, on the big system,” Cavin said. “Now it’s only on the 1-barrel, so I can turn and burn them. What I’ve learned is that on this side of town, people like their higher ABV beers, also light lagers. And also, they like change. If I can have a new specialty on every other week, that would be fine with me.”
The biggest challenge to close out 2021 for most breweries was the disrupted supply chain, but Cavin said that at Lava Rock’s size, it has not been too big of a problem so far.
“I have not run into that too much, except for obviously the burner,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve run into lately is getting that here on time. Probably a third of my house styles actually use the New Mexico malt for my beers. He already has it in stock, give him a call, and he gets it to you that week. I’ve been overstocking, too. I started overstocking stuff in August, like hops. Oh, hey, they have Citra available on (the spot market), let’s get 80 pounds of that.”
A bigger challenge for Lava Rock is attracting new customers from the east side of the Rio Grande.
“It’s Albuquerque, people don’t go over the river if they don’t have to,” Cavin said. “It’s trying to get new faces in here, trying to get them over the river. Even if they come once a month, we’re cool with that.”
Lava Rock has also dealt with the same staffing issues as most other breweries.
“Front of house started a little rough in 2021,” Cavin said. “Through the summer it was hard to get (servers) in here, and keep (servers) in here. Now we have a good staff. Nowadays it’s just the kitchen. We can’t keep the kitchen staff to save our life. The most senior person we have here is like a month. I know that’s just about everywhere, but we might be a little bit severe in this location on this side of town.”
Looking ahead to 2022, the biggest news is that a long awaited project is finally getting off the ground. Namely, Lava Rock is finally moving forward with an offsite taproom. It will be located at 2015 U.S. Route 66 in Moriarty. From exit 194 off Interstate 40, just double back on the frontage road and you will find the building to the west.
“Actually, that place has been built with a Lava Rock logo on there for three-plus years,” Cavin said. “We were planning to open it right before the shutdown in 2020, the late spring. Now it’s looking like the spring of 2022. It’s ready to pour beer. Everything is done, it’s just licensing and staffing, which will be the issue.”
Rather than set up a new kitchen, Lava Rock is partnering with the existing Buttercrust Pizza at the location.
Other plans for 2022 include the return of live music and special events on the patio, though those will wait until after winter.
“When the weather is nicer, just because it’s so hard (inside), the acoustics in the dining area are so terrible,” Cavin said. “When we’re able to have concerts outside again is better. Next year, in the winter of 2022-23, we’ll have better heating and be able to host more events on the patio.”
On the beer side of things, Cavin said he is taking the judging notes from the 2021 Great American Beer Festival competition and aiming to improve his beers and aim for Lava Rock’s first medal.
“I’d like to dial in my lagers, get them fine tuned, and hopefully get World Beer Cup awards or medals at GABF, that’s the goal,” he said. “I submitted five styles for GABF (in 2021). I’m doing four for World Beer Cup. Pinche Cerveza did well, and Andesite Light American Lager did well. I got to the final tables.”
The Pinche Cerveza has become Lava Rock’s most popular beer, Cavin said, outselling the rest of the beers three to one. Hey, all of us in the Crew appreciate a quality lager, so it is nice to see one top all the hazy IPAs and fruited sours that trend higher elsewhere around town.
Wherever you live in Albuquerque, if you have not been to Lava Rock in a long time, head on over and check out how the beers have continued to evolve and improve. If you live out in Moriarty or parts nearby, stay patient as another craft beer option is about to open in your area.
A big thanks to Dan for the interview, and good luck with getting that burner in a timely manner.
Keep supporting local!