18 January, 2011: Jeff Erway: La Cumbre Brewing Company
Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’ve been a fan of craft beer for years, so I was looking forward to photographing a brewer at my earliest opportunity. In the first season of Dirty Jobs we paid a visit to Long Trail Brewing company in Vermont, and having dabbled in home brewing enough to appreciate the process, I hoped to spend time with a brewer I was a fan of. Jeff Erway is that guy.
After nearly a decade of driving between the airport in Albuquerque and my home in Taos, I’d come to appreciate a local establishment by the name of the Chama River Brewing Company for their exceptional beers. I saw fit to join their brew club, which gives a discount on the refilling of growlers (half gallon glass jugs that provides an alternative to store bought beer), and allows you to enjoy your favorite beers at home.
Long impressed with CRBC’s quality and consistency, in late 2009 I introduce myself to their head brewer at a craft brewfest at Taos Ski Valley. At that time Jeff was the man, though it was rumored that he would be leaving the company to pursue his own enterprise. I remember feeling a particular disappointment, but over a year later, La Cumbre Brewing Company is the result.
It’s mid morning when I arrive at the brewery, and Jeff is running around a large, empty space that resembles a warehouse. As I set up my camera, Bruce Springsteen’s recording of Pete Seeger covers fills the cavernous space with gritty Americana. In his work clothes, Jeff looks more the old school gas station attendant than entrepreneur, especially with the sweat glistening on his face. Camera now ready, I catch up to him as he heads to a closet-sized room in the corner, where he is loading bags of German malt into a hopper which transports the powder to a massive kettle in the main room. Emptying the bags is interspersed with jogging to the kettle to monitor the mixing of malt and barley. As he monitors the mixture, he regulates the temperature of the kettle. Then it’s back to the hopper for another bag of malt, stealing a swig of coffee en route.
The brewery is only a month old. Jeff’s grand opening is still fresh in his memory, and fortunately for him it was a good one – a testament to his reputation in town as a talented brewer, and an auspicious sign that his business just might make it. There is certainly room for expansion, and Jeff is already considering the ramifications of a potential foray into distribution. “Cans are where it’s at,” he says. “Quality control and superior preservation of the beer is enhanced with cans, and we have enough space here to set that operation up. It’s only a question of expense, because the demand is certainly there.”
I’m aware that at least one brewing company in New Mexico has made the transition from on-site brewery-restaurant to distributing brewery: Marble Brewing Company. Their current Director of Brewery Operations, Tim Rice, taught Jeff the ropes when he was head brewer at Chama and Jeff was his apprentice. Several years later, their respective successes have fostered an evolution in regional brewing. In this writer’s opinion, Marble makes exceptional beer. With bottles now available in local grocery stores and tap offerings becoming ubiquitous in better restaurants, I am not the only one who believes this.
It is this dynamic that I come back to throughout the day: Jeff, a young entrepreneur, seems an upstart competitor to not only the company that gave him an opportunity, but to the master brewer who gave him his knowledge and ethic. How does that fly?
“There’s a large and growing market for craft beer, and while it’s true that we are considered competitors, there’s still tremendous room for growth. In this way, you could make a case that our independent success helps our market, which in turn helps each other.”
I see this, I say, realizing that conventional mass-distributed beers have actually lost market share to the surging craft beer scene. Craft beer has grown to 4% of the beer market in this country, and fans of microbrews tend to appreciate variety as opposed to one brand. You might call it a movement, if not a craze. “It’s true. The brewing community is very supportive of one another, and of course we drink each other’s beer.”
I ask if Ted is supportive of Jeff’s endeavor, and he stops for another swig of coffee. This is not a convenient question. “I have to believe that he is, though to be honest, we don’t talk much.” After further probing, I learn that Ted’s reputation as a master brewer is defined by excellence through quality and consistency, and not by social graces. “Ted is a professional and taught me everything I know, which informs everything I do and what I subsequently passed down to my own trainee at Chama. But Ted and I didn’t always see things the same way, nor should we,” he says. “No, we are very different.”
“How’s your trainee at Chama doing?” I ask. “Justin (Hamilton) is doing a great job, and he’s a great brewer. We’ve become good friends. We get together to taste each other’s beers, and we’re always helping each other out. It’s a tight community in our industry, and I love that about what I do.”
Apparently Jeff has a reputation as someone who helps others. During the course of the afternoon, a couple of inspired individuals pay the brewery a visit to discuss logistical requirements of their own speculative breweries, such as building codes, water and gas lines, and sewer capacity. One guy has the MLS data for an industrial property not far away, and the floor plan looks great for a brewery. When Jeff inquires about the date of the last building code inspection, explaining that a particular code certification is required for buildings of certain age and the exorbitant costs associated with upgrades should they be required, the gentlemen scrawls notes and backpedals out the front door.
Jeff looks at me with a smile. “So many home brewers want to go professional. They think a ribbon or two in a home brewing contest is the validation they need to go big, and they fail to see the demands of the business owner. I’d say one in twenty people will get it together enough to go into business as a brewer, which explains why there are so few owner-brewers out there.”
Jeff goes on to explain that it pays to serve as an understudy, if only figuratively. “Brewers aren’t getting rich, so if you’re going to brew beer, you’d better love beer and the craft of making it. Serving as an apprentice and then assistant brewer was vital for me. Only by training under a master could I efficiently excel in my craft. It would have taken years to master certain techniques through trial and error alone.” He laughs. “Then again, this comes from a guy who studied jazz guitar in college. Now look at me.”
Are there any recipes you’re particularly proud of? “My favorite original recipe is definitely my Bohemian Pilsner. While my IPA is ever evolving, I think it rocks pretty hard as well. While it might not be my favorite to drink day in and day out, my Baltic Porter at Chama, 3 Dog Night, has won 3 major medals in competition and that is something I am certainly proud of.”
Jeff’s wife and partner, Laura, is on-site with their baby, Miles. Laura is managing the books, and has opened the front of the house for the day’s customers. As our acquaintance grows throughout the day (with my periodic visits to the front taps to research the product), it is clear to me that the establishment exudes a friendliness not unlike the family that owns and operates this space. And, as evidenced by the number of casual visits to the back (for a friendly shout out to Jeff ), the customers at La Cumbre are an extension of that family.
By the end of the day, after Jeff’s hopping and secondary hopping of his batch of Elevated IPA (India Pale Ale), emptying of the mash and it’s donation to a local rancher for use as cattle feed, assisting a truck driver with an overheated engine, and finally a long session of copious cleaning (“Cleanliness is everything”), Jeff and I are able to enjoy a beer together. The front tap room is packed with happy patrons, and Laura is filling the growlers I so thoughtfully remembered to bring. The vibe is chatty and warm, and despite only a month’s being open, everyone seems to know each other. By the end of my pint I’ve met a beverage distributor delivery driver, a photographer, a Ferrari restorer, Laura’s brother and his scientist girlfriend, and a competitor brewmaster from a joint down the street.
It is this brewmaster that poses the most important question of the day, and it is directed at me: “Well, what do you think?”
“I have a new favorite brewpub,” I say.