Award-winning Ponderosa brewer leaves to take over CNM program

Head brewer Antonio Fernandez will be waving good-bye to Ponderosa soon, after which he will taking over the brewing program at Central New Mexico Community College.

Another notable local brewer is on the move these days. He will not be going far, however, and this move could very well prove beneficial to the entire local industry and its future.

Antonio Fernandez, fresh off winning back-to-back gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup for his Italian Pilsner, is leaving Ponderosa Brewing to take over the brewing program at Central New Mexico Community College.

“With Nick Jones leaving to work at (Los Alamos National Laboratory) and David Kimbell will be moving — he’ll be still be teaching part-time for the fall semester, though — the bulk of the instructional duties will fall to me now,” Fernandez said.

The appeal of taking charge at CNM was too much to pass up.

“Clearly, I’m an academic and inquisitive brewer type,” Fernandez said. “Having some interns these last few semesters from over there, I’ve found I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of it. I have a lot of nerdy beer knowledge to share. Now that they have the new facility that’s done, with real professional brewing equipment and all to work on, so I think it’s a good time to still be doing brewing, but also help train the next generation of brewers around here.

“Another plus is that nice professor schedule. It’s kind of the opposite over here. I haven’t had a vacation in a long time. There’s better pay, better perks, a lot of things that aren’t traditionally available in brewery settings, so I’m ready for a less physical role at this point. Now that I’m 45, every day I feel a lot more after the long brew days. I’m ready to give my body a break, be able to turn my head at night, little things like that.”

Things came together fairly quickly right after Ponderosa won those aforementioned awards, and Fernandez seemed to really be truly putting the brewery on the map, but he could not let this opportunity go by.

“Everything just started coming together recently, the awards, the distillery coming into operation,” he said. “A lot of good stuff was coming to fruition, as well. But, it was an opportunity that was too good to pass up for me.”

Kimbell, who will be leaving Sidetrack Brewing in August while still helping out at CNM, said that Fernandez was his top candidate from the beginning.

“Antonio was my first choice, even before being interviewed,” Kimbell wrote in a text message response. “I know you’re not supposed to enter the interview process biased, but Antonio was the perfect candidate. He’s one of the smartest and nicest guys in the industry. I look forward to working with him setting up the new brewing facility and developing the program. Soon enough, CNM will have one of the best brewing schools in the country.”

That is the goal, Fernandez said.

“My goal is to turn CNM into the best brewing school in the country,” he said.

Since the CNM program started, it has received a mixed response from breweries in town. Some have been fully supportive, while other head brewers have expressed their doubts and concerns about how well the program was really preparing the students to work in breweries. Fernandez said he has heard many opinions from his fellow breweries, good and bad.

“I have a ton of ideas, and I’m hoping they’ll let me implement in terms of that,” he said. “When I had the interns over here, there was a lot of basic things that they would need to know, like first-day kind of stuff going into any brewery. Every brewery is different, but there were a lot of basic things that they hadn’t seen or touch or been able to do before. I want to be able to turn out graduates from the program that are able to go into any brewery setting and do a variety of jobs. From day one, learn the specific systems at that place, but when they say can you do this, you will be good to go.”

Fernandez said he will seek out as much input from his fellow brewers as they can provide.

“I’ll definitely be talking to a lot of the brewers,” he said. “I know what the students need, too, from what they didn’t know when they came to me. I want it to be more hands-on instead of theoretical. So many of the other programs at CNM are based around technical and job training kind of stuff, anyway, and this one should be like that. I can see students taking a couple paths, too. Hey, I’m here to learn how to the equipment so I can get the job, and also the ones who are going to be willing to go more in-depth on it when they’re setting their sights a little higher.”

All we ask is that the next Ponderosa brewer be able to churn out delicious lagers like this here Maibock.

As for Ponderosa, Fernandez said they are in the process of going over applications and setting up interviews for his successor. It is not an easy job, he said, but it can be quite rewarding for the right person, and there is a specific type of person who will be the right fit.

“Someone that can wear all the hats at once, the same thing I do,” Fernandez said. “(It requires) a lot of hard work, and a lot of ability to time manage and multi-task. Those are the biggest things for this job. You’re basically doing the work of two people, or doing the work of two days in one day, that kind of thing. That’s how it works at Ponderosa. I got this brew going, now I can load up and do deliveries, or whatever else it is.

“Today, I’m running the still. A lot of distilleries, they’ve got a nice pace going. For me, I’ve got two beers to transfer. I’ve got two more tanks to CIP. I’ve got a brew to get ready for tomorrow. It’s kind of non-stop. You’ve got to like moving and the action.”

It is essentially a one-person operation.

“You have to work independently,” he continued. “There’s not much of a safety net around here. You’ve got to get things done without a lot of oversight and help. It can be hard for people, especially people coming from a bigger crew, if you’re used to working with three brewers, eight cellermen, and a keg washer, and everything else. It’s a much different dynamic.”

There will be one part of the business that will not fall into the hands of the new brewer, so at least one thing will be off their plate.

“Of course, the good thing is you don’t have to worry about the distilling,” Fernandez said. “I’ll still be involved here on a part-time basis to help keep the distillery running.”

Fernandez’s final day at Ponderosa has not been set in stone just yet, but he is hoping it will be soon, so he can have a little downtime before moving over to CNM.

“I’ll be starting over there August 13 or something like that,” he said. “I was trying to get out of here by the end of this month. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not. Maybe a week after that or so. I would like a little time off. I haven’t had a vacation in the last two years. I’m looking for a little downtime before starting this. A little time off to decompress. The pace has been a little non-stop around here since we came back from the COVID lockdown. On the other hand, this is my brewery. Ponderosa is what it is at this point because of what I’ve done. (Wednesday) was actually my sixth anniversary at Ponderosa. It’s been a while. I don’t want to see it go down. I want to make sure it’s turning out good beers and keep going.”

You have certainly earned a vacation, Antonio. A big thanks for taking the time to talk in between your many tasks in the brewery, not just this time, but every time in the last six years. I know CNM will be all the better for you taking over its program, and so will the entire industry in the future.

It has been an honor, sir. Good luck and godspeed.

For all the rest of you, enjoy your weekend, and maybe consider swinging by Ponderosa in the next couple weeks to raise a pint to one of the best people in the industry as a final thank you.

Keep supporting local!

— Stoutmeister

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