Beer Creek Brewing aims to make some big moves in 2023

From left: Jami Nordby, Rich Headley, Matt Oler, Jon Beyeler, and Ryan McArdle stand before a ton of local New Mexico malt.

People keep asking me, “When is Beer Creek going to open that new taproom of theirs?” To which, I generally shrug, believing that permitting through the City of Santa Fe these days is kind of like waiting on the scientists to finally invent a proper hover board, Tom Brady to retire, or George RR Martin to finish his books. I mean, it’ll probably happen, but also probably not soon.

But, I was starting to get mighty curious myself, and so it seemed like a great time to head out to the Creek and rustle up Beer Creek Brewing Co’s Look Back/Look Ahead Series feature for 2022-23.

It was one of those rare fake spring days, where I could drive down Highway 14 with the windows down and the Motörhead cranked way up. It was warm enough that I was already itching for beer on that big beautiful patio of theirs, wondering how soon that’ll be open. I headed through the newish bar, and when I got to the back, it seemed the whole gang was there (mostly) — founders Rich Headley, Matt Oler, and Ryan McArdle, head brewer Jami Nordby, and two new faces I hadn’t yet made the acquaintances of before, Stephan Eichermueller and assistant brewer passing through, Jon Beyeler.

The big changes are happening in the back of the brewpub.

It’s always a good time doing this story. It’s like hanging out in the backyard with your buddies. Tons of laughter, and there’s always a beer in your hand. I was, however, on assignment, and so I tried to keep my sips professional-like. I was looking for a few answers, but as usual came home with much bigger news than I bargained for.

But, to know where Beer Creek is headed, you have to know where they’ve been, and how they got here.

Last year, I had written about BCBC and a rather tough discovery they had made in the brewery. To remind you, back in 2021, after listening closely to the feedback from fans and critics, including beer bloggers and GABF judges, they had discovered a certain off-note of smoky, roasty flavor in their beer. It wasn’t just one of the beers, it was across the board. And, correcting it, unfortunately, wasn’t as simple as tightening up the brewing process. The problem wasn’t with the process at all. It was, to put it plainly, equipment failure.

The electric kettle they had recently built to fit in their low-ceilinged brewhouse had been scorching the malt every time they brewed. And, every beer came out tasting like they had used smoked malts.

They were still making quality beer, and Nordby had found ways to curb the smoky notes, but in the end, there was no getting away from it completely.

This discovery came just as they had also begun to ramp up production for their new accounts in and outside of Santa Fe.

The solution: a direct fire kettle from Stout Tanks

“It was just really serendipitous,” Oler said. “That at the same time we needed to upgrade, we needed to scale up for our wholesale, and (production) for our, knock-on-wood, new location. They came hand-in-hand, and so that’s when we got with Stout Tanks, and they basically custom-built us a 7-barrel propane, direct-fire kettle.”

In 2022, rather than working on their new taproom, which is currently being held up in city permitting (I’ll get to that in a minute; I promise), they focused their major efforts toward building the new system and getting it operational.

And this, of course, was no easy achievement. But, when have these guys ever done something that was easy?

Because they still had commitments to their accounts, they needed to keep their beer flowing, all the while getting the new brewhouse put together, so of course they did both.

They built the new brewery in their existing brewhouse, while keeping the old brewery equipment firing on all pistons.  

They moved the ‘cold-side’ equipment out from one half of the room, built the new mash tun and kettle in that space with the old equipment, hardly missing a brew day. I gotta say, the mash tun and kettle are quite an improvement! The mash tun itself is fully automated. It does everything itself, but grain in and grain out, but with the help of a new auger and strategically placed mill, there’s far less physicality to each brew day for the brewers.

So shiny!

“We brewed on the old system until the end of September, and fired up the new one in mid-October. We were only down for about a week and a half, maybe two,” Nordby said.

By October, they were already brewing up a storm on their shiny new 7-barrel system from Stout Tanks. It not only eliminated the scorched malt flavor, but it has since increased their efficiencies and yield, and head brewer Nordby couldn’t be happier.

From this experience, Nordby gives a stern warning: “I would solidly recommend anybody that’s going into brewing, just skip the electric. There’s just no way around it. You’re always going to have off flavors and struggles.”

With a huge ramp-up in efficiency, Beer Creek is now much more able to meet the demands of their new package and draft accounts, now stretching into the Albuquerque market. And, they have a ton of expansion capabilities, Oler explained.

“Efficiency is the name of the game,” he said. “Now that we finally reached that size. It’s not just a question of can we make it? Can we sell it? It’s now, we’ve got to make it as quick as possible, as easy as possible, as cheap as possible to be able to really compete in the world that we want to play.”

With increase in production, they’ve also had to add fermenters, and build more warehouse space to house them as well as a larger canning area. They’ve also added another glycol chiller to keep up with their warehouse needs, canning needs, and to keep both walk-ins cold.

Oler eyes the new cold side of the brewery, where they’ve doubled in size, moving on up to four 10-barrel fermenters, several 15-barrel fermenters, and a couple brite tanks, mostly used for canning purposes.

Through their expansion, the team sought to eliminate their weakest links, with equipment that would either save time, or the backs of their brewers and cellarmen, like automated keg washers or their new CIP station.

“You know, we had heavy delays with the city related to the taproom,” Headley said. “We get it. People may want to get grumpy about that or even us. We can be frustrated about that. But, I’ll be honest, if we hadn’t had that delay, we would have been undersized, and I don’t think we would have been in a position to keep up with the demand of the beer.”

During the brunt of the pandemic, Beer Creek leaned heavily into distribution to keep themselves chugging along, and that engine has carried them all the way to big stores like Total Wine, and Whole Foods and Jubilation in Albuquerque. The increase in production has even facilitated the need to hire Eichermueller, their new efficiency expert.

“That’s the baby. That’s New Mexico’s harvest. And, that’s what makes Beer Creek right here,” Oler said.

The plan was always to build as they go to keep up with the demand, but the Beer Creek team was surprised by how well their beer was doing out in the markets.

“They’re selling a lot more beer than we kind of thought they were going to sell, but that’s what we’re doing,” Oler said. “That’s what this whole expansion was about, for wholesale, to be able to get out there a little bit more and then to keep our tap rooms going.”

Beer Creek began work on their new taproom located at the Rodeo Plaza Shopping Center back in 2021. The sign outside of the strip mall corner building, between Rodeo Road and Zia Road, has read “Coming soon” ever since. But, as with many other projects in Santa Fe mid-to-post pandemic, the new taproom is currently in a holding pattern.

“The simplest way to put it is, from the land use office’s perspective, anytime you change the use of a building or property, everything has to be brought up to code,” McArdle said. “And so, basically, we had to go through a full plan review to get our special use permit, because the property is surrounded by a residential area, so we had to get approval, by giving notice to the people in the area, send out 350 letters six weeks before the hearing, that two people showed up to, to say they can’t wait for us to open. And then, we had to wait 30 days to get the permission to send out 300 more letters to all the same people for another hearing that nobody showed up to. But, all the commissioners on the board were like, we can’t wait for you guys to open.”

The wait continues on the offsite taproom.

After that the process moved on through several other departments in the city — fire, water, utilities, etc. What really brought everything to a stop was the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements.

“We got hung up on the ADA side because the property has been there forever, and there are some things that weren’t up to current ADA code,” McArdle said. “They gave us a contingency, where we can do the build out that we want to do, as long as we address this, this, and this. We’ve got to upgrade the sidewalk gutter, restrict that area of the parking lot, rebuild all the ramps up onto the sidewalks, because they’re slightly too steep, even though they were compliant in 2014. It’s just part of the process. But, we’ve worked it out with the property owner. He’s a great guy.”

“We were going to go ahead and make our building permit contingent on the ADA side,” Headley added. “But (the city) switched gears on us and told us we need to get the ADA side done first before we can even do this.”

So, strategically, the Beer Creek crew decided to separate their special use licensing from the property owner’s permitting, and now they’re both moving forward.

“Once we get to that point, and it goes into permanent review, at that point we can move and put in our building permit,” Headley said. “So that’s where we’re at. And, just so you know, I got the prints yesterday, so we’re moving again.”

Headley is gathering bids as you read this article.

“It’s like what I told you when we had this conversation a year ago, the name of the game is to be patient,” McArdle said.

“So we’re not even pissed,” Headley said. “We’re just being patient. Yeah, it’s frustrating. A lot of people keep bugging us. I know a lot of people are excited about seeing this sign that says coming soon in the window. Yeah. So this is what I say now, ‘Coming sooner.’”

As you can probably already tell, a little setback on one project isn’t going to stop Beer Creek from playing other hands, at other tables, whether it’s building out their wholesale operation or doubling down on creating beers with New Mexico ingredients. In fact, these gamblers are going all-in, once again, on the New Mexico malt industry.

Rich Headley serves up a pint of 100 percent New Mexico beer.

“You know we’re the biggest buyers of (Schwebach Farms New Mexico malt),” Headley explained excitedly, as he slapped his hand on a bag of Schwebach Farms New Mexico Pilsner Malt. “We’re the reason he kept doing it. He wasn’t sure if he’s going to keep going. And, you know, it goes all the way to Wyoming to get malted and brought back. OK, and so that obviously adds expense to it. Right? That’s added shipping costs. I guarantee you’ve heard me lecture before about how bad we need a malting facility in the state. So Ryan Schwebach called Mathew as soon as he got done writing the check. He bought it. He bought the facility that these guys are getting malted in right now, in Wyoming. So he’s asked me to help be the logistics guy to go help him create his plan to dismantle, load, and rebuild it here in Estancia.”

And, Schwebach already has the building and is currently getting bids on the build out.

“It’s going to do 450 tons a year,” Headley said. “The point is, Schwebach is taking it so seriously that he’s just spent a lot of his own money to be half of the first malting facility in New Mexico. His sister-in-law is going to train to become the maltster.”

And with that, the dream of producing more locally sourced ingredients for our craft beer industry is one step close to becoming a reality.

Headley told us that the current malt coming back from that facility is hitting quality levels when it comes to percentages of proteins that rival and surpass grains on a national and international level. And, if you need proof, well, come get yourself a pour of the ‘puddin.’

If anyone needed proof that they have upped their packaging game, here you go.

Beer Creek is cranking out more beer than ever before. They did just under 500 barrels in 2022, and they’re setting daily records on their canning line.

I just so happened to be out at Beer Creek for one of several brew days that week, where they were working on a Sahti, an old Finnish farmhouse ale. They were preparing the juniper tips when I walked in.

Their assistant brewer, soon-to-be on his way following his wife on a new adventure up north, explained that even though Beer Creek is brewing mostly to keep up with their thirsty taproom customers and accounts, they still get to have fun in the brewhouse with exciting beer styles.

I know for a fact, that they have some fun collabs coming up, as well. One, in particular, is with Hidden Mountain just up the road. I wonder how that happened.

Nordby said he is just excited at the prospect of improving all of the beers coming out of the brewhouse.

Headley assured me that their business model, built around 100 percent New Mexico ingredients, is all but guaranteed with the new malting facility, which you can bet the Dark Side will follow up on that story as more details emerge.

As for the Rodeo Road taproom, as McArdle said, the name of the game is patience. It will happen as soon as these guys can make it happen, and they are working on it.

“The actual date is April 1,” Nordby joked. “We’re just not sure what year.”


And, since I know you’re still wondering, Headley told me that the customers decide when the patio opens, not the weather. So, I’ll see you out there soon, my friends.

Thank you to Rich and the whole crew for their hospitality, and for doing what they’re doing to truly keep it local.

To always betting big on our New Mexico beer industry, cheers!

— Luke

Instagram: @lostgramsofluke

Untappd: SantaFeLuke

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