Brew Mexico—The Craft Beer Capital Of The Southwest

Welcome to the craft beer capital of the Southwest.

VIEW NEW MEXICO MAGAZINE'S DIRECTORY OF CRAFT BREWERS IN THE STATE.

Mark Your Calendars

Most of the state’s top brewfests are organized by the New Mexico Brewers Guild. Find the entire schedule at nmbeer.org.
May 16—18
Santa Fe Bike & Brew Festival Biking, beer, food, music. May 16, 4–9 p.m, beSpoke Santa Fe (handmade bikes, handcrafted beers) takes over the Farmers’ Market Hall. nmbeer.org
JUNE 21
Albuquerque Craft Beer Fest The Yards in downtown Albuquerque. nmbeer.org
JULY 4—6
Pork & Brew BBQ State Championship The 11th annual competition, at Santa Ana Star Center, in Rio Rancho. rioranchonm.org
JULY 12—19
New Mexico Brewers Guild IPA Challenge On three different dates, NMBG hosts its IPA Challenge at four different breweries. Attendees help select the best. Buy a ticket for $20 and judge some 16 IPAs. nmbeer.org
OCTOBER 11
New Mexico Brew Fest Albuquerque. Expo New Mexico in the lovely Villa España village area. Local food trucks, local music, and mostly local beers. nmbeer.org
OCTOBER
(check website for date) Albuquerque Hopfest Isleta Resort & Casino plays host to an even larger event than Brew Fest, but with far more national than local breweries. albuquerquehopfest.com
NOVEMBER 1—2
Día de la Cerveza Las Cruces’ Day of the Dead–themed event, with music and food trucks. nmbeer.org

On a delicious blue-sky October day, I wandered New Mexico Brew Fest, at the Expo New Mexico grounds, in the heart of Albuquerque. It was like a campus devoted to craft beer, with nearly all of the state’s breweries offering pours at booths set around the lush courtyard of the Villa España. The festival drew a big crowd, but I was able to talk with each brewer and feel—and taste—the passion each brought to his craft. The ambience was as mellow and warm as the late-afternoon sun on the Sandías.

No wonder livability.com named Albuquerque numero uno among “Emerging Beer Cities” in 2013—but great beer is not just a big-city thing. With brewing operations spread from Farmington in the northwest to Artesia in the southeast, visitors and residents are slaking their thirst for distinctive local suds throughout New Mexico. From pale ale to stout, pilsner to porter, Belgian-style to barley wine, New Mexico is surging forward to lay claim to the title of “Craft Beer Capital of the Southwest.” All breweries combine yeast, hops, water, and grain (most typically barley), in myriad recipes, to ferment the world’s most popular beverage. So what makes our breweries and their beers special? New Mexico breweries, now some 30 strong, share the spirit and characteristics of top beer destinations like Portland, Denver, and San Diego. One trait is small-scale production, the “micro” in “microbrewing.” But craft breweries share other generally agreed-upon traits, including independent ownership, select regional distribution, and—perhaps most important—robustly flavored beers in a broad range of styles. Adding to their allure, brewpubs offer tasty comfort food, often showcase live music, and cultivate a casual, hip vibe.

New Mexico’s craft brewers have an irresistible combination of additional assets. Chris Goblet, executive director of the New Mexico Brewers Guild, says, “New Mexico’s brewers have an independent streak, they buck trends rather than follow them. We have, though, a cooperative attitude here, and promote each other. It’s easy to find beers from one New Mexico brewery at another down the road. Also, New Mexico law allows brewers to have up to a pair of taprooms for showcasing their production, away from their brewing facility. None of the surrounding states have that option.” He adds that craft breweries are top employers of young people, that they invigorate Main Streets as well as industrial neighborhoods, and even recycle “spent” grain to area farmers as livestock feed.

What’s not to love?

The History of Beer Here

Back before Prohibition, the United States had thousands of small breweries. In the mid-19th century, brewmasters were often men who had immigrated from Bavaria, like Jacob Hammel and his pal Eberhard Anheuser. Both set up brewing operations in the Midwest. In the 1880s, Hammel’s son, William, moved the family’s Illinois Brewing Company to Socorro. After the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution banned production and consumption of alcohol, Hammel’s company, like many others, tried to make a go of it as a softdrink bottling plant and ice house.

Even after Prohibition’s repeal, the Socorro-based company, like most similar operations, petered out, victims of the Great Depression, the advent of home refrigeration, and changing tastes. The Illinois Brewing Company’s New Mexico facility became the Hammel Museum, home of the Socorro County Historical Society. The massive stone structure sits at 6th Street and Neal Avenue and is open the first Saturday morning of each month and for private tours. (575) 835-3183; socorrohistory.org

Oh, and that family friend, Mr. Anheuser? He went on to team up with his son-in-law, a guy named Busch. Their company thought up innovations like the use of refrigerated railcars and a pasteurization system so that their beer could be shipped long distances without spoiling. Shrewd marketers, they developed the first nationally recognized brand and called it Budweiser, a name that would sound German to other recent immigrants but that Americans could pronounce. The antithesis of the old locally brewed suds, the mild lager appealed to the masses.

Not until the 1970s and ’80s did an interest in more robust and distinctive brews bubble to the surface again. Here in New Mexico, Michael Levis produced the state’s first craft beer in 1988, through a small start-up in a Galisteo farmhouse that Levis named the Santa Fe Brewing Company. Despite the excitement created among the media and consumers around the new brewery and its beer, the business of craft brewing in New Mexico didn’t take off; a few other early upstarts flamed out. In 1992, however, Steve Eskeback launched Eske’s Brew Pub in Taos, still chugging along today, and in 1994 the owners of Il Vicino in Albuquerque set out to make beer as good as their pizza. Both the Il Vicino beer and pizza are now sold in locations in several states beyond New Mexico. In the following three years came the still-thriving Kellys Brew Pub, in Albuquerque; High Desert Brewing, in Las Cruces; Sierra Blanca, in Moriarty; Three Rivers, in Farmington; and Second Street Brewery and Blue Corn Brewery, in Santa Fe. The pace just continues to accelerate. Jon Stott, author of New Mexico Beer: A History of Brewing in the Land of Enchantment (History Press, April 2014), predicts, “It’s going to get even better. The good ones are encouraging more good ones.”

The Pale, and Beyond

The state has become known as a producer of American as well as India pale ales, the bestselling style of craft beer in America. It’s characterized by bold hops bitterness and somewhat high alcohol. Historically, both acted as preservatives when the English sent their beer to India via a long sea journey, the source of the name. But the brewers here were following their hearts and their taste buds, not fashion, when many set out to create these ales. Goblet says, “We were way ahead of the curve on passion for the style. New Mexico’s respected annual IPA Challenge was the first of its kind in the country when it started a dozen years ago.”

Perhaps that’s because IPA lends itself well to local cuisine, standing up beautifully to chile-smothered enchiladas and burritos. At New Mexico’s hard-fought 2013 IPA Challenge, the crown went to Blue Corn Cafe and Brewery’s Resurgence IPA. Il Vicino, Turtle Mountain, Chama River, and Marble all had top vote getters, too. La Cumbre came in second, and can also boast that its flagship Elevated IPA is ranked the fourth most popular beer in the Southwest, according to the respected national publication and website beeradvocate.com. It’s seriously hoppy, and goes great with curry or about anything Thai. To pair it with cheese, think peppery Jack, pungent Gorgonzola, or other sharp blues.

Red Ale (with its medium hoppiness) goes well with spicy food, too; I recommend the delicious Marble Brewery Red Ale. Scotch or Scottish Ale, such as the one made by Nexus Brewery, in Albuquerque, lowers the hop bitterness and raises the toasty malt, and works with burgers, gumbo, or owner Ken Carson’s sandwiches of lightly smoked pulled pork in red chile barbecue sauce.

In the cool-weather months, New Mexico’s distinctive stouts (and generally similar imperial stouts and Russian imperial stouts) are among my go-to craft beers. Big, brash, toasty, roasty, and even chewy, a good stout should almost be a meal in a glass. Some stouts are made with oats, as in Marble’s Oatmeal Stout, and typically you can pick out lots of smoky or chocolate nuances. Try Il Vicino’s Panama Joe—it trounced the competition this year at the Great American Beer Festival in the coffee beer category—and Santa Fe Brewing Company’s Imperial Java Stout, with notes of coffee. I like these big beers with nibbles, maybe some New Mexico pecans or aged cheese or fried cheese curds from Old Windmill Dairy, available widely in the state.

New Mexico brewers are becoming noted, too, for barley wine, a particularly prized ale meant for aging. As with premium wine, additional time develops complexity in the brew. Second Street Brewery and La Cumbre make fine versions, as does Santa Fe Brewing Company, with its memorably named Chicken Killer.

In the last handful of years, a number of New Mexico–grown ingredients have started to appear as flavorings in the brews—pumpkins, chile, wildflower honey, and pecans. In the not too distant past, these disparate ingredients might have been used as novelties, but today’s brewmasters incorporate them in intelligent ways to make some very special beers, such as La Cumbre’s Witch’s Tit Pumpkin Ale, Sierra Blanca’s Pancho Verde Chile Cerveza, and De La Vega’s Pecan Beer (also made by Sierra Blanca).

More recently, several operations, such as Blue Heron Brewing, in the north, have begun to use, and sometimes grow, local hops, the bittering agent used extensively in ale. Some of these are hops varietals from the Pacific Northwest or Europe, but the makers of Monks’ Ale—the only monk-produced beer in the country—have isolated a true New Mexican native hops that they grow at Christ in the Desert monastery, outside Abiquiú. The Benedictine monks first planted an experimental quarter-acre along the Río Chama three years ago, and now they harvest enough native monastery-grown hops to use in their outstanding Dubbel and Tripel Ales. According to the brewing company’s layman general manager, Berkeley T. Merchant, the USDA now recognizes this New Mexican hops as an official subspecies. Visitors can help with the hop harvest; see information under the Abbey Brewing Company listing at mynm.us/ nmbrew. New Mexico State University is undertaking trials with hops too, in hopes of making them a viable crop for higher elevations in the state.

Everyone’s Welcome

New Mexico’s breweries are small, welcoming operations, and generally family friendly. I’ve never encountered a staff person who wasn’t enthusiastic about explaining the offerings. The beers on tap typically include a handful of regularly available signature brews, as well as some that rotate in by brewmaster whim. Seasonality’s a big influence, too, and so some of the heftier stouts and porters may be replaced in upcoming months with lighter, crisper beers, such as saison. Brewpubs sometimes offer “guest taps” where they showcase beer from another brewery, a friendly touch. Ordering samplers or flights is a nice way to sample the brewery’s offerings, and the menu will generally provide descriptions of the beers, and note the ABV, or alcohol by volume. Don’t be surprised if some approach the level of wine. A higher alcohol level gives a bigger mouthfeel, more viscous, hot complexity, and simply a bigger beer. You may also find the IBU (international bittering units), a measure of the hops’ bitterness. Feel free to ask your server for details important to you. Some of the breweries now have enough production to sell cans or bottles retail, and almost all of the breweries offer growlers— glass containers (your or theirs) of 64 ounces to take home. Some also offer kegs, but call ahead to confirm and reserve if that’s what you have in mind.

Santa Fe Brewing Company stays true to the indepen dent spirit with “Small Batch Saturdays,” each week at both the brewery and its Eldorado Taphouse, where you can sample something unusual like Imperial Smoked Rye Porter, Green Chile Pale Ale, or Piñon Brown Ale. Many of the breweries host lively release or launch parties for new beers, typically announced on their website calendars and especially to members of their “mug” clubs.

If you want a brewery tour, check the website to see if it lists a time they are regularly offered. Otherwise, it’s polite to call ahead, because the staff is usually limited and engaged in multiple tasks. Breweries and brewpubs have also become among the best showcases for live local music in communities around the state. Check their websites for schedules.

You can now eat well at the bulk of the breweries, as well as at the brewpubs. Places like Albuquerque’s Il Vicino and Sandia Chile Grill actually began as restaurants that expanded into brewing. Those breweries that don’t have their own kitchens sometimes partner with a nearby eatery, as Broken Bottle Brewery does with Paco’s, a nearby smokehouse.

Also in Albuquerque, food truck culture has grown up around the city’s craft breweries. For instance, Tractor regulars enjoy access to eats from the Supper Truck (Southern food), Soo Bak Korean Seoul Food, Joanie & Art’s BBQ, and the Boiler Monkey (crepes). Check Tractor’s website, getplowed.com, for the schedule. In other locales, assume menus of burgers, sandwiches, fish-and-chips, hot wings, Frito pies, burritos, and other simple, substantial fare, often with some of the brewer’s beer added to dishes here and there. More and more are whipping up desserts flavored with their beers, too.