Beer Creek Brewing ready to expand into the heart of Santa Fe

From left, Rich Headley, Dewayne Anstey, and Jami Nordby

While 2021 has been a rough one for many breweries around New Mexico, Beer Creek has managed to come off of one of their best years yet. And, while they’d like nothing more than to take a breather, 2022 will absolutely not be the year they slow down.

With the Pandemic all but halting their search for a second location in ABQ, Beer Creek doubled down on a ton of big projects closer to home, including one major enterprise that will soon be heading straight into the heart of the City Different.

This past weekend, I sat down with a hefty helping of the Beer Creek team, Rich Headley, Ryan McArdle, brewers Jami Nordby and new brewer Dewayne Anstey to hear about their 2021, and what they’ve got in the works for 2022. Unfortunately, BCBC co-founding member and friend of ours, Matt Oler, was home recovering from surgery and unable to join us. We wish him a speedy recovery and look forward to raising a glass together soon.

Even with no shortage of business from the surrounding area, the global situation of 2020 led Beer Creek to focus more on the distribution side of business than they’d planned when the brewery first opened. In 2021, Beer Creek put more beer in cans than they ever had before, doing just north of 15,000 by hand. They’ve already upgraded the system, and on their New Gosling canning line, they can crank out about 1,000 a day, which is a great thing too, because with new accounts like Whole Foods and Total Wine picking up their product, they’ll have to keep up with a whole new level of demand.

With distribution firing on all pistons, the boys at BCBC realized they also had to hit the gas on a few other projects directly tied to it, such as speeding up the estimated time to complete their distribution cooler, currently packed with fresh kegs and cans of their 14 products, ready to hit the road or the tap lines now running through their new indoor bar.

The new indoor bar at the 3810 NM-14 Beer Creek location

As for the other side of that distribution project, the bar includes three large beer fridges for direct sale, 16 taps (18 if you count the red and white wine taps), and a beautiful, polished wood and lacquered bar, lit up in glowing blue light, coursing the length of it like an electric creek.

The increase in distribution also turned into a conversation about an increase in production, which, if you know the guys from Beer Creek, ended like most conversations they have: “Sure. What’s one more project?”

So, in 2021, BCBC also made the decision to move from the electric 5-barrel brewhouse to a 7-barrel direct-fire kettle, including a new mash tun to match (with rakes, auger, and a grist hydrator).

“We’re kind of moving up in the sense of production, size-wise,” Headley said. “We have another chiller coming online, too.”

And, all of that equipment is already bought, paid for, and being manufactured as of the writing of this article.

Every brewery deals with challenges as they grow, from upgrading equipment, changing processes, to working with new ingredients.

In Beer Creek’s case, working with the budding community of malt and hop farmers proved a unique challenge, but one they were more than happy to take on to continue making truly local products.

“The first batches of local malt that we got, were under-modified,” Nordby said. “So we had to adjust through times and temperatures to really extract what was good. And, it was learning on the fly. The other challenge is using the whole cone hops to such an extent.”

Local hops had not been pelletized much, as of yet. But, that’s likely to change very soon, as more local beer pioneers keep pushing for it.

Nordby’s hope is that, with the new system, they’ll be able to get more flavor using less of the older methods, like less hop socks, for one, and less of the whole cone hops in general. Headley assured us that the new hop back system they just ordered will help with that as well, as they aim to keep supporting the local farmers and the local farm-to-tap movement.

Moving product has never been a problem for the brewery just down Highway 14.

“If you’re selling the product, and it’s not spoiling in your vessels, you’re winning. Well, that’s what we’ve managed to do. We never have a spoiled beer, as we never have anything laying around. We’re always trying to play catch up. Hence the reason we’re going to 7-barrel (system),” Headley said.

It’s true. The folks from all around the Turquoise Trail corridor just adore their beer. BCBC loved their own beer. When you really had to think about it, it was always tough to put your finger on anything wrong with it.

But, a small handful of people had found what they considered flaws in the ales and lagers.

Some people were saying, “Hey, how’d you get the smoky flavor in there?” Headley recalled.

It wasn’t until BCBC received some solid feedback from the Great American Beer Festival judges, that they were able to confirm that there was a certain smoked flavor across the beers submitted.

So, the brewers listened. They went back to the brewhouse and racked their brains as they looked at their own processes. It wasn’t until they viewed the problem as engineers, that they were able to point out the issue at hand.

“At first, we thought maybe it was because of the fire season around the barley, because there was a big heavy fire season, and that will pick up smoke flavor out in the fields,” Headley said.

“When we initially talked about opening a brewery, I had made a comment about whether (the electric kettle) was going to caramelize the wort,” Nordby said. “The (GABF notes) said we got ashen flavors.”

It turned out to be a heating element scorching the malt after a few batches, a common issue among electric kettles. It took a big change to the cleaning regimen to correct the problem they were having, but they had no problem doing it to keep their beer consistent, and their customers happy.

“It’s a lot of labor. It definitely helps the flavor, though,” Headley explained. “And it was worth it to us. But that also is what partially led us down this path of going to a direct fire (brewhouse).”

I can tell you, that after tasting all 14 of their beers, nearly the same lineup I tasted a year ago, it feels like the beer has been invigorated. What was once solid most days, decent others, is now consistently exceptional. Whereas before the beer still had great mouthfeel and body attributed to knowledge and good process, the flavor of each beer, from dark to light, now matches the level of skill of the brewers. All is as it should be. And, you would do yourself a service to revisit your friends at the Creek sometime soon.

Another major difference in the beer has come from having a little extra help in the brewhouse, Nordby told us.

“Dewayne’s been with us for almost a year and a half,” Nordby said. “And, Alec joined us a little bit after that for distribution. But, Dwayne has learned on the fly, picked stuff up through the last year and a half, and actually ran his first solo batch on December 30. Last year, he ran the whole thing on his own, (as) I was not even in the country.”

The new assistant brewer came to the Creek from a background in production and manufacturing, so he’s no stranger to handling complex equipment. His presence has really helped the others focus on the quality, and of course the growing distribution Nordby told us.

Of the 14 beers currently on tap, Headley suggested that I try the Golondrinas Gold, first. This specialty beer was one of the brews BCBC was most excited to do, as it was one of their favorite local collaborations. The beer was brewed with hops from Rancho de Las Golondrinas, after the BC fellas helped their friends start a hop farm on the property of the 18th century living museum. Perhaps due to whatever agricultural magic is in the soil of La Cienega, or just good agricultural know-how of all involved, the half-acre produced hops its first year.

They couldn’t believe it. So, brewers Jami and new brewer Dewayne got together with the Director of Operations and Museum Director of Las Golondrinas, Sean Paloheimo and Dan Goodman (respectively), to brew the inaugural beer made from Las Golondrinas ingredients. Another 100-percent New Mexican beer.

That’s right. You won’t stop seeing 100-percent or mostly New Mexican beers from Beer Creek anytime soon. In fact, you’ll now be seeing more, and now exactly what percentage of New Mexican ingredients they’ve used. New labels will soon display different levels from 50 percent up to 100 percent, which of course is “Alllll New Mexican!

Headley is also particularly proud of their new marketing campaign, spearheaded by their friends at Monsoon Designs. This long-time relationship has led to some excellent new social media presence, as well as a huge swing in direction of Beer Creek beer-branding, such as the creation of the imperial line of barrel-aged beers as poker cards, leading to the rest of the core lineup of beers being added soon to the deck. If you’ve been to any of their events recently, BCBC has taken it a step further by handing out poker chips good for a free pint. That’s better than money in my book.

Photo courtesy of Beer Creek Brewing Co.

But, even with good branding and good business, the more ‘metro’ side of Santa Fe wasn’t entirely sure who exactly Beer Creek is, and Headley aims to fix that, which is why Beer Creek also made the big decision in 2021 to move their beer a bit closer to the Capitol City populace. Albuquerque may not see a Beer Creek flag just yet, but by summer, with the City of Santa Fe permitting, the neighborhoods around Zia and Camino Carlos Rey will get a good taste of the Creek.

This corner will look very different in just a few short months.

Headley assured me that the new taproom will be very Beer Creek. It’ll feature 16 taps of beer and cider, with four wine taps from Black Mesa Winery. They will have another beautiful bar top, because that’s no less than you’d expect from Beer Creek, and there will be a wrap-around patio connected to the inside space by a windows that’ll be wide open to welcome in the fresh air during the warmer months, and of course plenty of package to fill the bright, beckoning beer fridges, beacons that could probably be seen from space if they could get that permitted.

If you’re wondering about food, I’m told Joe’s Diner, just a few doors down, will be taking very good care of BC’s hungry customers via QR code orders directly from the taproom. Or, you can bring in your own Lotaburger from across the way.

“I can tell you this much,” Headley started. “As far as strip malls are concerned, it’s something I wanted to avoid as a taproom. But, when I’m done with this, mark my words, it’s going to be one of the coolest little spaces you’ve ever seen in a strip mall.”

Currently the space is still empty, with a large, familiar “Coming Soon,” sign out front, next to the Beer Creek logo. They’re just waiting for the checkered flag from the City of Santa Fe to floor the pedal.

“We have the physical plan for the space. We know what it takes, having turned every screw, and built everything here. We know how to do it again. We know how to set up what we need to set up. And, with Rich and I, and our experience with contracting and working with the city through permits like that, but we’re a couple years out of that game, and a couple years of COVID additional out of that game, right? So it was our very first permit (in a long time) that we need to get to get the ball rolling again, and now it’s a whole different ballgame, even from when we did this three and a half years ago, to what it’s like now, because of COVID,” said McArdle.

If they had to throw a dart at a map for an opening date, the bullseye would be June 13, they said. But, we all know how permitting is going for new projects these days. The Beer Creek crew may just need a few more darts.

“When we do open the taproom in Santa Fe, it’s not even going to take four months. Everybody in Santa Fe is going to know exactly who Beer Creek is,” said Headley.

The taps at the new location will have a similar to the new indoor bar currently at Beer Creek.

The last time I interviewed Beer Creek, it was in the heart of COVID. It was around the tail end of that first wave, Headley reminded me. Economically, the brewing company is still holding strong. Which is why they’ve been able to fund their activities at home and the new taproom in Santa Fe.

Looking forward, there is certainly no shortage of projects in the BCBC future. Once the brewing equipment is switched out and moved around, once they’ve completed the expansions to their current cellar and new canning line room, and of course the build-out on the Santa Fe Taproom, maybe then they will be able to rest for a minute. Maybe.

I asked the guys what they were looking forward to the most for 2022.

“In 2022, as far as Beer Creek, 3810 and 2801, the two locations, right now, should be done,” Headley said. “I don’t want to do any more projects. I want to put my tools away for a little while.”

Nordby joked that it won’t be happening anytime soon. And, he’s right, as I have it on good authority that even greater expansions are on the horizon for BCBC, but I’ll drive down the road and chat with the guys once more as we get a little closer to that time.

“I’m hoping by the end of this year we have the brewery expansion complete, dialed in the taproom here (and the Santa Fe taproom), and have our accounts set up so we can take a breather for a minute and really assess, because since we opened it’s been pretty much nonstop,” Nordby said.

For Beer Creek, this is the first time in three or four years of the Dark Side interviewing them, that they’ve felt really comfortable in the brewery, where they were not worried about running out of one of their beers. Headley said it’s their first time they truly felt caught up, and everyone is happy about it.

They’re also really looking forward to getting their other main man, Matt, back ASAP.

New brewer Anstey said he is looking forward to the expansion of the brewery. He said that he loves working with the team and has definitely enjoyed learning from Jami. He also has a baby on the way in March with his significant other, two-year front-of-house manager, Tory.

McArdle said he is really looking forward to not having to worry about future planning projects on this property: “We’ve got the light at the end of the tunnel here for 3810 Highway 14, and it’s our first stepping stone on to the next thing, of course.”

Lastly, Headley added, “The whole thing (for 2022) is, let’s take the leashes off. Let us at it. Let us do what we have to do. Let’s get them brewing in the way they want to brew. Let’s get my project finished so that other people can enjoy it.”

At their heart, Beer Creek is a team of builders who love beer and making people happy, who just want to build spaces where people can also enjoy the things they love. And, so far they’ve seen great success at this, because of their food and beer, the patio, of course. But, Headley most attributes their continuous success to his amazing crew and highest on his list, the community.

To more great work from Beer Creek (and maybe a few less projects), cheers!

Luke

For more @NMDarkSideBC news and #CraftBeer info, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro. Untappd: SantaFeLuke

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s