Rowley Farmhouse Ales is still on the rise even after a season full of change

Jennifer Arvizo, John Rowley, and Jennifer Treu strike the hard pose.

It’s well known that in Santa Fe, we are lucky enough to experience all four seasons. And, for Santa Feans, our first open-space patio beer means that we’ve survived whatever winter the gods saw fit to throw at us, and we have indeed made it to spring. Well, as the seasons change, we often reflect on how things went, what’s different, what’s stayed the same, and what’s new.

2022 brought many changes for the Santa Fe brewery and gastropub, Rowley Farmhouse Ales. It was a year full of ups and downs, both professionally and personally. There were a few major losses, but there were some pretty big wins as well.

Recently, I caught up with brewmaster and owner John Rowley, head brewer Jennifer Treu, and (front-of-house and back-of-house) crew member Jennifer Arvizo to chat about how Rowley Farmhouse Ales (RFA) fared in 2022, and what they’ve got coming up from the cellar in 2023.

“The beginning of the year wasn’t great, but I’d say it’s been a steady increase leading into 2023. And, the pandemic is officially over, according to Joe Biden,” Rowley joked.

2022 started off pretty rocky for the team, to say the least, with Rowley having lost one of his faithful pups. Head brewer Mike Donovan gave his notice to pursue something beyond brewing, and dear friend of the brewery, and former shift-supervisor of RFA, Kaley passed away in her home state of Florida.

And, though there were a few more challenges yet to come, just as with bad weather in New Mexico, the sun would eventually shine through the clouds once again, and things would get better for team RFA as the year progressed.

“All things considered, I think it was pretty good,” Rowley said. “(Treu) came along in May. There was a transition, but Jen has stepped right in. She makes really good beer. I can rely on her. The brewery’s clean, and the drama is low.”

For Treu, her year has been largely about managing the many changes of moving to a new town, one a bit smaller than her former city of Austin, and working at a brewery on a smaller, more boutique scale, than Austin Beer Works. For more on that, check out my 20 Questions with Jennifer Treu.

“(2022) was good, a lot of transitioning for me, both here and personally, moving and getting adjusted from Texas, but I think it went relatively smoothly,” she said.

By now, Treu said she feels more adjusted to life in the City Different, and has even found a decent rhythm.

“Since it’s almost been a year, I have a feel for the ebb and flow of the seasons, and how the brewery does with each season,” she explained.

One thing that we’re all trying to adjust to is the rising tide of prices on supplies, both on the brewery side and restaurant side of things.

“We’re not in a position like Santa Fe Brewing, or La Cumbre, or Marble,” Rowley said. “Bigger breweries have (an) economic advantage in terms of buying in economies of scale. They can buy grain really cheap when they fill their silo. As a 7-barrel brewery, we’re buying bags of malt, a pallet, sometimes two pallets at a time. Those prices have gone up, but not tremendously. I think they’ve done their best to try to keep that fairly level, but we feel it.”

A similar sentiment is shared by the kitchen side of the gastropub. As you know, most breweries in Santa Fe have a dedicated food element attached to their business model, and are currently being affected by the rising cost of food and supplies.

Rowley Farmhouse Ales is certainly in the same boat, according to Jeffrey Kaplan, chef and co-owner at RFA. To contend with these issues, Kaplan said he keeps a close watch on the ever-changing cost of goods.

“I’m constantly just watching pricing on things,” said Kaplan, as he oversaw the bar area one evening. “All of our recipes are costed out on spreadsheets, and I regularly check what we’re paying for stuff, to make sure that we’re staying on top of keeping items at a fair price.”

But, at the end of the day, RFA is still a business, and needs to make a profit to stay afloat.

“I know some people think our prices are expensive for what we do, which is local farm-to-table, but it costs money,” Kaplan said. “It’s more than buying a commodity product from a big box like SYSCO, and we’re aware of that, so we’re really just trying to keep the prices as fair as we can.”

Both sides of the business are optimistic and looking forward to warmer weather ahead, as it signifies a return of business for Santa Fe restaurants, bars, and breweries.

Patio season is upon us!

“We’re coming out of this slow time of year, so we haven’t really brewed a lot during the winter,” Rowley said. “We’ve been trying to do other things just to kind of maintain through the winter. Now that the weather is picking up, hopefully we’ll see more butts in seats. And then, we’ll get back to our normal summer type of business, where we’re going to be brewing a lot more.”

Though we’re pulling away from the pandemic, staffing is still affecting many industries, including the local brewing scene in Santa Fe. But, staffing hasn’t been a major issue for Rowley Farmhouse Ales, like it has with other breweries I’ve spoken to this year. There have been some tough losses for the team, of course, but one loss in particular shook up the dynamic of the crew, a bit more than others. That was losing front-of-house bar manager, Ebbie Edmonston, to her new role as executive director of the New Mexico Brewer’s Guild.

“Ebbie was a big loss for us,” Rowley explained. “I mean, we miss her tremendously. She’s great. So that really falls on Jeffrey’s shoulders, because Ebbie was bar manager, and so Jeffrey has kind of taken the role where now he’s not really doing the full-time chef work. I think we make it work. It’s sad to see her go. But, at the same time, it’s great for Ebbie. She’s in her dream position. And, I want to support Ebbie in that way. She did great things for us. But now, she’s doing great things for everyone. So, I mean, how can you say no to that?”

In her absence, many of the front-of-house staff have stepped up in their roles to keep the brewpub running smoothly, according to Treu.

“Nobody’s really filled her position, but I see them taking more ownership and responsibility for their shifts. It’s really cool to see,” she added.

Their current chef Juana has stepped up in the kitchen, taking on more of the jobs that Kaplan was previously doing to free him up for more front-of-house duties.

Rowley has even taken a few shifts to help out behind the bar.

But, all in all, their staffing situation is in a good place, Rowley told us.

“Everyone is doing a great job. The team has congealed into this great space. We probably need a couple more shifts picked up here and there, but we’re covering everything right now,” he said.

In 2022, RFA weathered a few storms as well, both figuratively and literally.

When lightning struck a nearby transformer, it caused a power surge that took out quite a few electrical devices in the brewpub, including most of the kitchen printers and the canning line.

Also, after several thefts and robberies at gunpoint, RFA made the tough decision to switch to a no-cash model, which, luckily hasn’t adversely affected business a whole lot.

“I don’t see any detriment other than we’ve had a few customers complain,” Rowley said.

Rowley added that there are probably more positive things about going cashless to consider.

“We don’t have to set up a cash register, drive to the bank, keep track of the money,” he said. “If you don’t have to deal with that, you can spend more time cleaning. Clean bar. Happy bar. It’s win, win.”

Speaking of wins. In 2022, Rowley Farmhouse Ales brought home its fifth Great American Beer Festival medal (second gold in total), for a very cherry version of their Grandissant Flor. For more info, I caught up with RFA just after the win.

The beer and the gold medal it won.

“It was great for all of us,” Rowley said. “The beer was fantastic. I really am proud of it.”

For Rowley, the big wins are sweet indeed, but he says they don’t affect how he and the crew approach recipe development.

“We just want to make the best beer we can within our limits,” he said. “I mean, we’re not going to try to do crazy shit, like go and find a meteorite and put it in.”

Treu counted her biggest highlight of 2023 as taking her first head brewer position at Rowley Farmhouse Ales. Having brewed for nine years, at breweries of various sizes and makeups, she’s brought much of what she’s learned along the way to an already well-adorned table.

“Just gaining that confidence, which is still building, but then also being able to take responsibility for the entire process,” she mused. “That’s been really rewarding for me to take that ownership. I’ve always brought that to every brewery that I’ve worked for, but to actually be able to enable it is really nice.”

For Treu, a couple other major highlights included expanding her crew and making improvements in the brewhouse in her first year.

Rowley crew of ’22 is back on the canning line after the lightning strike temporarily disabled it. (Photo courtesy of Rowley Farmhouse Ales)

“Mark (Dawson) was transitioning into the back,” she recalled. “And then Roger (Pacheco) worked maybe one or two days a week. But sometimes, when I first started, he wasn’t available, due to personal transportation issues, so I had a lot of time to figure out what I wanted to change about how the brewery was set up, and just to get to know the system in general. Did a lot of cleaning, I feel like things are like really organized right now. And then also just trying to consistently make our core brands, so that they’re the same every time.”

In 2022, another front-of-house crew member of RFA spent a good amount of time in the brewhouse learning from Treu. She is also named Jen, and also very passionate about beer and brewing.

If you’ve stopped into the tap room in the last year and a half or so, chances are you’ve been poured a beer by the cheerful and knowledgeable young beer geek, Jen Arvizo. At first she began helping out on the canning line, and then she quickly expressed her interest in learning to brew.

“We had an opening, and so I asked if she wanted to be an assistant brewer, and that’s what we’re working on,” Treu said.

“I feel like I’m much more educated on the styles than back when I first got into beer and breweries at 21,” Arvizo said. “Looking back, I was pretty naïve. But, being here, I realize that there’s so much more that I don’t know yet, but I’m looking forward to learning more.”

Arvizo’s next goal is not necessarily recipe development just yet, but she wants to brew an entire beer from start to finish. And, with Treu as her mentor, she could very well be the next brewer at RFA or anywhere else for that matter.

The whole team at Rowley Farmhouse Ales is very passionate about beer, and it carries through in the conversations that you have with them. When you ask for recommendations, they don’t just ask, what are you into? They do that, too, but also educate you on something else you should try, even if it’s just beyond your wheelhouse, like, say, a beer aged on cherries, or plums, or whatever is tasting great from the cellar.

One of Rowley’s favorite beer projects that he’s worked on, which started in 2022 and was tapped in 2023 was Petite Death, a foeder-aged mixed fermentation beer, re-fermented on cherries.

“We have a 40-barrel foeder,” Rowley said. “It’s filled with a beer we call Petite Blanche, which is basically what we call a bière blanche. It’s a really light, mixed-fermentation beer. It’s around 5 percent (ABV). It’s not very strong. It’s flavorful, sessionable, and delicate. We’d like to do a few things with it. You know, we’ve tried that out that in the past, where we’ve fruited it in multiple different ways. But, Petite Death was just an exceptional exercise in balance. There’s nothing over the top, but it hits all the marks. I love that beer. Petite was aged on 300 pounds of fresh cherries that we processed for about five to six months.”

Treu said she really enjoyed trying her hand at directing the Scully IPA series in 2022.

“I like the concepts that John’s created with the seasons and episodes (of Agent Scully IPA). It was just fun to be able to play around with the different hops. I just haven’t really gotten to do that in a long time. It was my first recipe where I was like, OK, let’s have some fun with this,” Treu said.

Other fun and upcoming beers include several fruited versions of both Petite Blanche and Mountain of Light, one for each of the different seasons, and they’re also working on a Germophile variant with pomegranate. And, you can bet good money that a few of their cellar beers that are tasting just right will see the light of day in 2023.

If we’re on the subject of things aging gracefully, Rowley Farmhouse Ales also celebrated their sixth anniversary back in September. It’s not a major milestone like the previous year’s celebration, but every year still in business is something to celebrate. The entire team at RFA truly appreciate the community support.

“I think it’s great,” Rowley said. “You know, this place is kind of like a small community hub here in this area. We’ve got locals that come every day. We’ve got tourists coming in all the time. It just feels good to be able to have a place for everyone to come. And, it doesn’t matter who you are. You know, we’re not trying to exclude anyone. It’s just an open place. Well, we don’t really have country music, but that’s OK.”

Also named Jen, also a main staple at Rowley Farmhouse Ales

For 2023, as far as expansion goes, RFA is still looking for a few more good people to round out an already great team. They’re hoping to maintain their steady growth in business, and increase their tank space by at least one 15-barrel tank to start, as well as add other various pieces of equipment in the brewhouse as needed. It’s also now less of a secret that they’re working on putting a taproom in Los Alamos, for which they already have the building picked out and are at the negotiating table. That’s still sounding like it’s more of a possibility in 2024 or beyond, but of course we’ll keep you and the good folks of Los Alamos posted.

I asked Rowley if he had any final words for the local beer community after six solid years in the books.

“Thank everyone for continuing to support us in our passion to make the best beer we can,” he replied. “I mean, I know we’re not going to win everyone’s hearts over with our crazy kind of shit. But, we’re still here and we’re doing what we want to do. And, you know, of course we brew an IPA or two to keep the lights on. But otherwise, you know, thank you for your support. It means a lot to us.”

Special thank you to John Rowley, Jennifer Treu, Jennifer Arvizo, and Jeffrey Kaplan. During my time writing about this brewery, I’ve seen the Rowley Farmhouse Ales team achieve some great things. The folks at RFA have made it through a lot together, and the brewery continues to be successful, year after year, not simply because of the accolades, the great beer and great food, but because of the passionate people behind the scenes (and in front) who put their hearts into what they do every day.

To the whole crew, and to a year with a little more sunshine and possibly a few more shiny medals, cheers!

— Luke

Nov. ’22, when we got together for our Dark Side collab on Season of Night.

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