Turtle Mountain poised for even more growth even after opening 2nd taproom

The Turtle Mountain brewing team of head brewer David Pacheco, top right, Justin Sapp, top left, and Zachary Garmon, bottom.

If anyone out there thought that Turtle Mountain Brewing might slow down following the December of its North taproom, we can officially report that will not be the case. There figures to still be a lot of movement as the Rio Rancho institution continues to grow and expand.

I caught up with owner Nico Ortiz and head brewer David Pacheco for our Look Back/Look Ahead Series, having wanted to give them a little extra time to take stock of life with two locations and what it means for all aspects of the business.

“The demand up front was absolutely crazy,” Pacheco said. “We only had so much available time to us, to get that up and operational to serve beer, (and) then no shorter than a week after we were open. I think everybody was caught off guard by the amount of demand, not just brewery, but kitchen as well. We’re still in a world that is awful for staffing. I don’t think that’s really going to change anytime soon, though. So it’s all about staffing and supply and demand issues.”

Pacheco said that as soon as a beer was tapped, it was basically gone. Turtle Mountain has filled some gaps with guest taps, but that is only a temporary fix. Still, the brewery has come to the tough realization that its current barrelage may not be enough for all the thirsty customers at both taprooms.

“Back when Mark (Matheson) was here, I asked him what the theoretical capacity of this system was,” Ortiz said. “He off the cuff said probably 1,400 or 1,500 barrels (per year). Our previous two attempts at taprooms, East Mountain ’03 to ’05 and then Mariposa, obviously, we did not get anywhere near demand to test the actual capacity limit of this system. David gets the joy of actually seeing just how much beer he can get through the pipeline, given the three 20-(barrel) fermenters and three 10- fermenters and everything else. I’m actually very curious to see, because for the longest time Mark told me he thought 1,500 barrels could get through the pipeline, and we’re going to give that a shot.”

Ortiz said he does not want a repeat of the past, when Turtle Mountain was still at its original location prior to 2006, when then-head brewer Matheson was rushing his beers to keep the taps flowing and no room to expand his number of fermenters and serving vessels. That resulted in a lot of diacetyl bombs, and with beer drinkers now even more discerning, that simply cannot happen again.

There is no more room to expand in the brewing room.

“In order to actually have room for expansion we had to move into a new facility,” Ortiz said. “I thought we built this brewery enough to handle things, but again, we pinned ourselves in because the brewery here is on the back side of the building and there’s no more space for any tankage. So for us to increase our production above what David can do, we’re going to have to move again, we’re going to have to expand into a bigger space somewhere else. But, eh, twice in 23 years, I’ll take it.”

Turtle Mountain has not yet officially begun a search for a new brewery space, but that is one of the major goals in the near future.

“We have a hot liquor tank that needs replacing,” Ortiz said. “Getting it out of here is going to be a real pain in the ass. If we’re going to have to break down the brewery to get that tank out, then I think we’re going to just break down the brewery and we’re going to move it. The location has not been determined yet, but we do need more room. That would enable us to put in more tanks, and at least open us up to the possibility of a canning line, something to join all of our brethren. Maybe not a wholesale operation, but the ability to sell canned beverages at both of our locations. We’re looking at a few possibilities of that.”

As for what would take over the space at the main location, Ortiz said he was given a suggestion that he found quite intriguing.

“Someone else mentioned that if we were to move this brewery out of this space, it would probably work well as a distillery,” he said. “That’s another possibility, joining Tractor and La Reforma and having a brewery on one side and a distillery on another. I’d like to keep that as a viewable alcohol production area. We have these windows.”

While those are some big possibilities for the future, there is plenty more for Turtle Mountain to work on right now. The opening of North did not cannibalize too much of the original location’s customer base. If anything, Ortiz noted that some nearby customers who avoided the long wait times on the weekend have now returned.

“We’re bringing the people out of the woodwork,” Ortiz said. “If you combine the sales from our two restaurants, it’s not double, but it’s close. It’s very nice, given the ridiculous overhead of these two places.”

Getting the beer from the main location to North has proven to be a challenge at times.

Pacheco said his biggest adjustment has just been to make sure there is enough beer ready to move to North.

“Really, I think what we didn’t expect was how many empty kegs we’d be producing on a weekly basis, as well as how much cold room space we would need for ready-to-go beer for North,” Pacheco said. “We are limited on space in that cold room. It is what it is, so it kind of took us increasing our demand in order for us to realize new choke points, essentially.”

One of those choke points is in the actual deliver process.

“We anticipated and we have on our to-do list to join the ranks of all the other breweries and get a delivery vehicle,” Ortiz said. “Right now we’re using Adam (Galarneau’s) truck to ferry beer to and fro. That’s only a short-term band-aid. Once we actually have a Turtle Mountain-branded delivery van that almost everyone has, that will make life easier. We can make deliveries at any time, rather than have things clog up the pipeline.”

Turtle Mountain is still using some of its pandemic grants to cover the costs of similar purchases. One equipment addition made in 2020 is already paying off.

“I took one of the first Cares Act grants I got in 2020 from the City of Rio Rancho for $10,000, I bought a keg washer, well in advance of us needing a keg washer,” Ortiz said. “We weren’t doing any kind of off-site distribution. David was like I need a keg washer. The government was giving me $10,000, so I shipped that money off to Portland and we got ourselves a keg washer. That has obviously been a godsend, a saving grace.”

Another Cares Act grant went to purchasing all the kegs needed for North. Once the delivery van is purchased, the tally will likely be in excess of $50,000.

Turtle Mountain added a third employee to its brewing team to help keep up, which is yet another increase in labor costs on top of all the new servers, bartenders, and kitchen staff at North. Ortiz said instead of seeing his costs double with a second location, when adding in the rise in delivery charges, an increase in the cost of hops and barley, and so on and so forth, it is actually closer to a tripling the total costs of the operation.

“Being in the restaurant business, we’re under siege right now,” Ortiz said. “The money generated by the brewery helps to fund the restaurant, and that’s the problem, unfortunately it does not do both (locations). With the ridiculous cost structure on the restaurant side, it’s relying more and more on the funds brought in by the brewery. If the brewery was standing alone, it could easily afford all of these things. But, when you factor it into the general overhead, it’s a lot harder.

“We’re slowly checking off some of these things. High on the list is a delivery vehicle. I have some leftover funds from the COVID grants we got. That’s just due diligence to find the best deal, to make sure we’re not overpaying. The restaurant side of things, it was great in ’20 and ’21, and hopefully most of COVID is in the rear view mirror, (but) now it’s like oh my god, why am I in this business.”

The keg washer, purchased a year before North opened, has proven to be a godsend.

Pacheco said he has relatively modest goals in the brewery as he and his team settle into a rhythm with the increased demand from North, as well as planning for a possible move to a larger location.

“To be honest, I’ve really been focused during the mayhem to modernize this brewery while we’re in it,” Pacheco said. “If we truly do intend to move out, that’s well and good, but I want to make it better here. A fresh coat of paint and whatever it means we want to use it for afterwards. Just a lot of work, modernizing, cleaning up, making it truly a professional environment. That’s it for me.”

Ortiz said that he and Pacheco are headed to the Craft Brewers Conference in Minneapolis in early May, with a side trip planned to Wisconsin to find some New Glarus Brewing on tap. Other than that excursion, bigger plans are afoot later in this year and early next year.

“We’re going to make a return, I’m hoping in the fall, to our Fall Harvest Brewmaster Dinner,” Ortiz said. “We haven’t done a dinner since 2019. It’s been sad. The one thing about having restaurant breweries is we like to utilize the kitchen and have some special events. It will probably be three years this fall since we did a special event. I’m going to gun for a patio barbecue, because we have the smoker sitting in the front, so I told the kitchen some time in July. As far as having an organized dinner where the kitchen and the brewery get together and create a menu, that’s something we’re looking forward to. We want to do it, especially now that we have a secondary location with a bigger kitchen.”

Turtle Mountain is also making plans already for its upcoming 25th anniversary in March 2024. Ortiz said the goal is have a 24th celebration in 2023, with Pacheco releasing special beers starting then and continuing all the way to the 25th.

“Getting to 25 years in this business is a huge deal,” Ortiz said. “Not many of us make that, so we’re going to start celebrating it. The 23rd came and went without anything. David was under siege. For 24 we’re definitely going to do some stuff.”

While getting North open and running was certainly a major achievement, no one at Turtle Mountain is going to rest on their laurels and slow down anytime soon.

“The next 12 to 18 months, there’s going to be a lot of activity with us, refurbing this building, hopefully moving the brewery, getting new tankage,” Ortiz said. “For years and years, we were in stasis, but now with the opening of Turtle North, it’s forcing good changes that were necessary for a long time. When we were a one-unit operation, we could kind of back-burner them. There is no more back-burning, this is front-burning, we have tens of thousands of dollars of needs and we’re going to find a way to pay for them and make everyone’s lives better.”

There may be a few cracks in the old stucco, but Turtle Mountain’s future is still looking bright.

A big thanks to Nico and David for the interview. Turtle Mountain was the first brewery to give us a behind-the-scenes tour back in 2012 when we started this site, and it is great to see things moving forward all these years later.

This is the last Look Back/Look Ahead Series article for the Albuquerque metro area this time around. Luke still has a few Santa Fe-area breweries to finish (his day job has made it a lot harder this year to get out and interview people, but hey, that’s what happens when you earn the big bucks), but otherwise we are done after 35 articles. We will still try to catch up with some of the breweries we missed in the coming months, as warranted.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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