Sunday, December 29, 2013

Santa Fe's Brewing Scene - A Work in Progress

There are several reasons you head to Santa Fe - the art, the food, the history, the beautiful churches. But on a trip down there earlier this month, I also wanted to take some time to understand whether the rumors of a resurgent New Mexico brewing scene were true.

After a week imbibing in Taos and the "City Different," it becomes apparent that while there are a few gems to be found in northern New Mexico, the quality and consistency of the beer remains hit-and-miss. And the scene, however growing, still lags behind that of the one south in Albuquerque.

Nothing embodied these traits quite like Blue Corn Café & Brewery, a locally loved brewery/restaurant that recently took home two medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Both of those honored beers - the End of the Trail Brown Ale and Gold Medal Oatmeal Stout - are solid offerings that are smooth and, in the case of the stout, pleasantly sweet. But much of the rest of the menu ranges from dull to cloying (the 40K Honey Wheat Ale especially), and you leave without any specific memories of the products.

Santa Fe Brewing, which distributes some of its beers in the Denver area, left a similar feel. While the Freestyle Pilsner is classically German and largely enjoyable, its resonance is offset by beers like a Pale Ale that seems little more than a dressed-up copper ale with a slightly stale-tasting malt.

Then there is the beer scene in Taos, a 5,700-person artists' community frequented by area skiers that can tout two breweries in the downtown area. But one, Eske's Brew Pub, offers 8 beers (see board at left next to the Beer Geekette) with only one real winner - a Taos Green Chile with a light, crisp body and a late-activating spice that flavors nicely without burning. And the other, Taos Ale House, offers mostly other breweries' beer (see picture at right), which may not be a bad idea after you gulp down the uneven malt sweetness in its West Coast IPA.

One of two real discoveries of the Santa Fe trip was Second Street Brewery, a brewhouse/restaurant that didn't push the envelope on styles but did them all very well.  Its dark beers were terribly appropriate for enjoying while the snow fell outside, especially its easy-drinking Cream Stout fermented with an English yeast strain and its Old Pecos Porter with its solid, slightly roasted feel. And the Civil Rye - a new offering on the menu - is a keeper, with a nice punch of sweetness and bitterness in a medium body.

The other is a reminder of just how good some of the Albuquerque breweries are. La Cumbre Brewing's Elevated IPA, served at a number of local restaurants, had a gigantic mouth of citrusy-sweet but earthy hops. And Marble Brewery, which has a downtown taphouse, went beyond its normal offering to put out creative one-offs like Lambert's Pale Ale, giving you a huge mouth of grass and flowers in a body that is decidedly easy.

Certainly, the Santa Fe beer scene is coming along. But it still has improvements to make.

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