This past Friday featured one of the better perks that comes with writing about beer, namely getting to experience a brewery before it opens to the general public. Steel Bender Brewyard welcomed four members of the Crew and representatives from multiple local breweries in for a special soft opening, giving all of us an advance look, and taste, at the first brewery in the Village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.
We will say, right off the bat before anyone asks, that there is no firm grand opening date yet. Steel Bender will announce it, hopefully this week, and the Crew will make sure to share that information. Right now they are waiting on the completion of the main driveway off Second Street. The brewery is located along the west side of the road, which as many know is paralleled by a small drainage ditch. A much larger bridge/driveway had to be built for the brewery to accommodate multiple vehicles passing over the ditch, and construction is not yet complete.
For all of us on Friday, we had to come in via Fourth Street and a narrow alleyway, but upon arrival we were greeted by one of the largest parking lots of any brewery in town (go ahead and rejoice just at this fact). The brewery itself is located on the east end of the development, all of which is owned by the Chant family. Steel Bender will serve as the anchor tenant for what they hope will become a focal point for the entire Los Ranchos community.
Facing east and with a great view of the Sandias in the distance will be the brewery patio. The outdoor bar, which will have its own set of taps, was not yet finished, and the patio furniture was not yet in place as well. Two nice cornhole boards had arrived (they light up at night), so there will be some games to play outside where people can gather.
Inside the building was an impressive combination of stylistic designs, mixing metal, brick, and wood. The ceilings were high, but the sound was never overwhelming. The bar sits at the center, with plenty of seating wrapping all the way around it. There are separate tables and booths on all sides as well. There is even an expansion area on the south end, with pseudo-garage-like doors that can be pulled down to make it into a private dining area. Overall, the taproom had a warm, inviting feel to it. The staff, many of whom you will probably recognize from other breweries, were top-notch and able to handle the sudden onrush of thirsty brewers and beer writers.
There is a solid menu of pub food, with burgers, chicken, salads, appetizers, and more. Brew Crew Bullpen member Tom and I both got the pulled pork sandwich, whose sauce was made with the Blue Bullet Stout. The flavor was different than, say, the Piggly Wiggly at Canteen, but it was equally good and stands on its own. The fries were also on point as a side.
As for the beer, five of the six house beers were on tap, plus the two collaboration beers that Steel Bender has already brewed — Steel Maverick, a Belgian-style red made at Marble (natch), and Steel Can Porter, an American porter made over at Canteen. The other five included the aforementioned Blue Bullet Stout, an Irish dry stout available on CO2 and nitro, as well as the Lloyd’s 3 O’clock Kolsch, The Village Wit, Sparkfitter Amber, and Skull Bucket IPA. Only Red Iron Red was not quite ready for its debut, but it should be available by the time of the grand opening.
The Kolsch was quite tasty, and should be a winner with the warm summer months coming up. The Wit was popular as well with the crowd, while the other house beers drew mixed reviews. I enjoyed the IPA more than others, while the stout came up a little short for me. Of course, these are all the first batches, and with a brewer of the quality of Bob Haggerty, we expect they will improve quickly as he dials everything in on the system and hones in his recipes.
Speaking of Bob, once we were finished stuffing our faces and talking to the many, many people we knew as they milled about, he took us on a tour of the brewery, starting in his barrel room. The small space is located on the west side, with a 60-60 feature, namely that it will always be kept at 60 degrees and 60-percent humidity, Bob said with a wide smile. He already had some barrels that he purchased from his old friends at La Cumbre, namely the brandy barrels that just recently held this current batch of Gracias Por Fumar.
“These will probably end up with a brett stout in them, I’d guess,” Bob said. “I’m a fan mostly of wine barrels. I like to brew with wine barrels. I’m not much of a spirit guy with beers. I think most of the time spirits overpower what I’m trying to do with the beer. When it’s done well, it’s really good. … But, I just don’t care for that. These will probably be for the stout and I’m going to put them against the wall in the expansion space. I’m going to line those walls with barrels, so that’s going to be sort of my brett room. Anything that’s just brett is going to sit there for about three months.”
As for the barrel room, expect some even funkier creations to be in the works.
“This is going to be for more of the multi-culture sour beers,” Bob said. “My ambition, and I hope to be able to do this, is to do a gueze-style beer. I want to do a one year, mix it with a six month, mix it with fresh, put it in a bottle, let it ferment for six months in the bottle and that’s it.”
Needless to say, the only person more excited than Bob at this point may have been our friend Karim.
We moved into the main brewery room, which is still all bright and shiny.
“Here it is, a 15-barrel Premier system,” Bob said of his brewhouse. “I’ve got three 15-barrel (fermenters) and a 30. The silo is right outside that door. I just decided on my base malt, so we’re just about to fill it up.”
Bob also just had his keg washer arrive, which should help with all the kegs he purchased from La Cumbre. Those will eventually have the Steel Bender logo on them.
For those who need a reminder of Bob’s background, he was originally a chef living in Maine when he decided he needed a change. He started working at Oxbow Brewing, and after the owner/brewer was injured in an accident, Bob said he had to take over. When Mrs. Haggerty took a job at the University of New Mexico some time later, Bob found employment at La Cumbre.
“I was at La Cumbre for about two-and-a-half years,” he said. “Then I had a chance to start (a new brewery), so I left, but that failed to launch. I started talking to the Chants, but it was too far out. So, I hooked up with Ponderosa and was there for a few months, and then I found out when this was really going to happen, I jumped at the chance. I took a couple months off to spend with my family (first), and then it’s been nose to the grindstone here since October.”
Bob was extremely impressed by how Ethan and Shelby Chant have put everything together.
“One of the coolest things about this place is that everything was kept in house,” Bob said. “The Chants built this. They brought everyone, we’ve got plumbers, electricians, and metal workers, they’re all here, not contractors. This is the anchor for the development. When they were building the place, this was what they wanted. This is the building they’re going to use to shop it out. Hey, we can do anything. We just set up a brewery. You look at all the work here in here, it’s so clean. The workmanship is so awesome. All the overhead stuff is done well.”
That includes leaving room for additional tanks.
“We’ve got room for three more, we’ve got three more stubs there,” Bob said of adding fermenters. “So I think what we’ll do, as business picks up, is pull one of those 15s, put a 30 in its place, put two more 30s, and a 30 bright. That will enable us to package.”
Ah, yes, packaging, the biggest question breweries find themselves having to ask earlier and earlier these days.
“It’s just one of those things, the market is what the market is,” Bob said. “There’s lots of people getting into distribution. If this taproom is booming and we’re making good money, why the hell would we get into distributing?”
Initially, at least, it will not be about six-packs of cans or bottles, or mass producing the house beers for packaging and distribution to all four corners of New Mexico.
“My first thought was having the 750-(milliliter bottles) and 500s,” Bob said. “I’m a Belgian guy, I love Belgian styles. This is my first round. Everything that’s happening right now is the first round to get people (in the door). This is the first draft, but my passion is really for esoteric styles, Belgian stuff. I don’t brew to style.”
The more general house beers will always be available, but ultimately, the goal is to give the beer at Steel Bender a different identity than what is found elsewhere in town.
“There’s so much going on here in Albuquerque, that if you don’t come in with a niche, if you don’t come in with an angle, then you’re going to compete (directly) with Boxing Bear and La Cumbre and Marble,” he said. “You’ve got to come in with your own thing and I’m kind of looking at that as my thing. We’ll see where it goes.”
If the brewery does end up being a huge hit, Steel Bender has a fair amount of flexibility when it comes to future expansion.
“This is the anchor of the development,” Bob said. “There are, I think, four more pads. There are three more pads that need to be built first, then the fourth is being reserved to see what happens here. The fourth one is about 14,000 square feet right behind us. If this goes well, we’ll see what happens next.”
A forward-thinking, well-planned brewery is just the kind of newcomer we want to see joining our local scene.
All of us in the Crew who attended the soft opening — myself, Luke, Julie, and Tom — would like to thank the Chants and Bob for the invitation and the hospitality. The food and beer were top-notch for a brand-new place, and the overall atmosphere is warm, welcoming, and above all, fun!
As soon as Steel Bender has its grand opening, the Crew will be back for more. After all, combined with Bosque to the east and Boxing Bear to the west, it forms what Luke has already dubbed “The Beermuda Triangle.” We can see ourselves getting lost here quite often.