A few months back, we reported that former Blue Corn (now Hidden Mountain) head brewer James Warren was coming back to New Mexico to take over the operations at La Reforma. After we let him get settled in, Warren was happy to sit down last week to go over where he’s been and how things have been going at the popular brewpub.
“It’s gone really well,” he said. “Every equipment, every business has its own quirks and weirdness to it. So there’s been a little bit of learning. I even screwed up this morning mashing in. It’s one of those rookie moves you can (still) make, but at least my years of experience tell me how to fix this quickly. But, there’s still a learning curve, no matter how many times you’ve done this, no matter where you’ve done it, there’s still things to be learned and there’s still quirks and inconsistencies to make sense of in your mind.”
Warren’s first new beer, El Novato (West Coast IPA) is now on tap at La Reforma, and he has also be cranking on the still to get their spirits back in full stock.
“It’s quicker for me to adapt to the brewing side of things, (and) I think that’s because I’ve done that a lot longer,” he said. “Especially here in New Mexico, where a lot of the brewers come from a similar background, I can kind of think the way they do, and think about how this equipment was laid out, and what they were trying to do.
“Distilleries, especially craft distilleries, are still kind of in its infancy (as an industry), a little bit. People have all kinds of techniques and the ways they do things. Here, they’re adapting techniques from the brewing side, moving it over to the distillery project. If you work for somebody who’s just a straight distiller, oftentimes you see things completely different than how a craft brewer approaches the distilling process.”
Warren left New Mexico back in 2019 as his wife’s career became the priority. The two of them then began crisscrossing the United States.
“I guess I left about three-and-a-half years ago, right before COVID came in,” Warren said. “We moved a little north of Chicago in the Arlington Heights area. We got there and I was working part-time for a brewery called Prairie Krafts, which is no longer in business anymore post-pandemic. And then, part time for Binny’s Beverage Depot, it’s a huge company out there, I was a beer buyer for them. It was a great learning experience, too. I’d never really seen that side of the industry, the viciousness and stuff that comes along with that.”
We can only imagine the cutthroat business in America’s third largest city. It was a city that Warren said he wished he got to see more of during his time there, but the pandemic had other ideas.
“It was frustrating to live in a wonderful city like Chicago with nothing to do,” he said. “What’s the main drag there? Michigan Avenue? One day during the pandemic I got bored, and my wife and I just drove up that street. Literally, you could not see a car behind you or in front of you. It was odd, just a post-apocalyptic experience.”
The experience would change again as the Warrens returned to the desert.
“And then, we moved on to Phoenix,” he said. “I got to work with SanTan Brewing and Distilling. Those guys are awesome, man. They’re doing great things. The owner, Anthony (Canecchia), is innovative, creative, passionate. I was basically working R&D, mainly with their distillery over there, making canned cocktails that they were getting into, and sugar whiskeys. I learned so much on a professional level and a personal level working there. It was a must-have experience of my life, I needed that.”
From there, it was back to the humidity.
“And then, we left and we went to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I worked as a consulting brewer at Clouds Brewing Company, which mainly produces German-style lagers,” Warren said. “The owner’s name is John Oldendorf. And they do them very well. But, that’s not necessarily what the kids want. And so, they had attempted some hazy IPAs in the past.
“Basically, I went there, helped clean the place up a little bit. I insisted they needed a hazy IPA if they wanted to keep things going. They operated two restaurants, they’re doing fairly well. The owner went on vacation for two weeks, and finally in frustration just said brew whatever you want. The Forecast IPA quickly became a best-selling (beer).”
Going from brewing to distilling to brewing actually helped, Warren said.
“That kind of helped me get back to a little more beer creativity after spending so much time on distilling creativity,” he said. “And, to use some techniques that I thought were strange or BS, but I was going to try them anyways. I found that it’s sometimes kind of an Occam’s Razor, a lot of times the simplest solution is the best way to go. I think we over-complicate the things we’re doing. We can make a great hazy IPA that doesn’t have to be 40-percent adjuncts, and they’re (shelf) stable.”
The Warrens, now with a baby along for the ride, returned to New Mexico after both found jobs in Albuquerque.
“There’s something about that drive in on 40, as soon as we crossed the New Mexico border, this place has always felt like home,” he said. “There’s just a sigh of relief just seeing the landscape. There’s a simple beauty in the New Mexico landscape, and I love it.”
It was not the only thing that Warren missed.
“The IPAs are good again,” he said with a smile. “It’s great, I’ve run into several brewers that have already come through, whether just to stop by or eat or whatnot. It’s really great to see there’s still a community and a love here between the brewers in New Mexico. After being in quite a few other states, I’ve seen the competition and other things that have led to more discord between breweries.
“Some things have changed, some things are the same. (But) it’s really great to see a lot of the same faces doing new things or better things.”
There was one thing that Warren thought he missed, but then he had it again, and, well, not so much. For his sake, we will not reveal this to Burqueños, but let me say as a former California resident, I had the same experience my last time there in 2016, and leave it at that.
Now that he and his family are mostly settled in, Warren said the focus is on keeping La Reforma at the top of its game.
“Honestly, just amping up and making more efficient the distilling side of things,” he said. “I think we’ve got a wonderful thing going on here. Their core set of beers takes a whole lot of the lines here. There’s not a lot of seasonality or change. I don’t think that needs to change. The whole concept of this place is kind of efficiency, from the kitchen side, knowing what we do well, and presenting that to the customer.
“A lot of the seasonals stay the same, and I’d like to change that up a little bit, let myself and Marisa (Sandoval, assistant brewer) both have some fun. She’s here to learn, too. I want her to have those opportunities to try recipes, make some great stuff, make some mistakes, we’re all here to do it. The point of coming to a place like this is she’s going to get a ton of experience distilling and brewing. I want to make sure that anybody else who works in the brewery gets a chance to learn, and have great experiences at La Reforma.”
That sounds good to us. A big thanks to James for the interview and the pint of El Novato. It was great to catch up after all these years. While it has not been that long, technically, let’s face it, the last few years have felt like decades.
Oh, and James would also like to let his fellow brewers know that he is happy to have all of you come by for food and/or drinks. And, that goes for everyone else in the beer community, too.
Keep supporting local!