Beer is big in Albuquerque. It’s so big they have a Brewery District. Capital B. Capital D. Not all the breweries are in the Brewery District, but they have a Brewery District, and that means that this is a place that appreciates craft beer.
(Oh, Albuquerque, have I told you lately how much I love you?)
After we sampled the teas and honeys at Old Barrel Tea Company, Paola suggested a few breweries. One of the places she mentioned was Marble Brewery. We went on a Thursday evening and there were no seats, but we waited until a couple opened up and tried the Oatmeal Stout.
Another place she mentioned was Santa Fe Brewing Company. This is the Goose Island of New Mexico. Both breweries did things a little differently from the big boys and launched the craft brew craze in their respective states until they became the big boys themselves.
That’s not the only similarity. They both started in 1988. At the time there were fewer than 100 breweries in the country; in 2017 there are nearly double that in the Chicago area alone. Another likeness? Neither one is dancing with the one that brung ‘em. John Hall sold Goose Island to Anheuser Busch in 2011 and his brewmaster son Greg moved on to Virtue Cider. Santa Fe Brewing Company’s founder Mike Levis sold to a quartet of gents, including his son Ty, who was then bought out in 2003. Ty stayed with the brewery until 2014, and then he joined Rio Bravo Brewing Company as their Head Brewer and Employee #1.
Which is where we went.
We were there to meet Darlene and her father Carl, owners of the bed and breakfast we’d be staying in that evening. Her sister (his daughter) and brother-in-law own Rio Bravo, and when Darlene found out how much I love craft beer she suggested we meet there to try a few and take a tour. (I knew then and there that Darlene was going to be one of my new favorite people.)
Considering how much I enjoy craft beer, you could say it was serendipitous, which is the key word to remember when talking about Rio Bravo Brewing Company.
In 2004 Randy and Denise Baker decided that when their kids were grown they would open a brewery. On September 12, 2014, when their last child was in high school, the couple purchased an abandoned tire warehouse. The building was a mess. Squatters had taken up residence, any copper wiring was long gone, and the space was condensed by low plaster ceilings, to name just a few of the problems. And although they’d dreamt of opening a brewery for a decade and Randy was an avid home brewer, they needed someone with experience.
On September 15, three days later, they met Ty Levis. Ty, whose dad had started New Mexico’s biggest brewery and who had twenty-two years experience under his belt - that Ty.
Ty brought with him his mentor. A man of formidable experience, John Seabrooks was a Navy Captain and the head of R&D at Miller-Coors for 20-some years and was also the President of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas in ‘94 - ‘95. They met when Seabrooks visited Santa Fe Brewing on a brew day in 1999 and wanted to know what hops were used in the Pale Ale. Ty’s reaction when he saw John’s title was “What the hell?” Basically, what is this guy doing here?!
It was serendipity, baby!
Now they work together at Rio Bravo, and their complementary experiences at giant and small breweries are evident in the beers. John tends to brew traditional styles, while Ty likes to go a little crazy. His lemon shandy is flavored with lavender, and he makes a salted caramel-infused Belgian strong ale that smells like cream soda and bubble gum. My personal favorites were the Russian Imperial Stout and the New Mexico Pinon Coffee. I took a 6-pack of that beauty with me and it was perfect to enjoy by a campfire.
The brewery itself is the cleanest I’ve ever seen. I host a beer tasting event in Chicago and I’ve been in a lot of breweries. I’ve been on a lot of brewery tours. Rio Bravo’s operation is the sparkliest and most well organized brewhouse of them all. You could eat off the floor and see your reflection in the stainless steel tanks. Everything has a place; there are no loose hoses or wayward buckets. It has the precision of a Naval vessel, because that’s exactly how it was designed, and that’s another example of the serendipitous circumstances that have created this brewery. Randy’s construction experience combined with Seabrooks’ Naval experience (and don’t think I’m ignoring that the Navy Captain’s name begins with “Sea”) have created a space that’s efficient and built for growth. Most importantly, they brew some great beer.
Serendipity sure is delicious.
Carl, Theresa, Jim, and Ty at Rio Bravo Brewing Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Look how CLEAN those floors are!