Honoring History, Keeping it Fresh

Shortly after Brian Lock and his three partners bought Santa Fe Brewing in 1996, he drank a beer that saved his life. It was a Saturday and Lock was cleaning kegs at the brewery’s original location in Galisteo. He put a keg on the rinse cycle and stepped outside to have a beer with Mike Levis, the brewery’s founder. A few minutes later, they heard a deafening explosion from inside the small shack where Levis had developed Santa Fe’s signature pale ale and Chicken Killer barley wine. “The whole barn shook,” remembers Lock. The water heater had clogged with calcium deposits, causing the explosion, and insulation and shards of metal covered the floor of the small space.

Twenty years later, the brewery has occupied two different spaces, including its current location at the northern terminus of the Turquoise Trail on Santa Fe’s south side. Its state-of-the-art equipment is a far cry from the five-barrel “frankenbrew” equipment—as Lock describes it—that Levis had purchased from Boulder Beer Company in 1988.

Levis was retired when he started what has become New Mexico’s oldest craft brewery, and he operated it more as a hobby than a business. By the time he put it up for sale, Lock had been working at Nor’wester Brewing in Portland, Oregon, for a few years. He had always wanted to own a brewery, so when two of his college buddies, Carlos Muller and Dave Forester, originally from Las Vegas, told him about Levis’s operation, Lock packed his bags and headed south.

The three of them, along with Levis’s son, Ty, bought the brewery and, under their management, it grew steadily over the ensuing years. Under this new leadership, tradition remained an important component. “It’s always been about green chile and New Mexico,” says Lock. He’s mindful of the state’s culinary traditions and wants his beer to complement those flavors. As he explains, the sweet, malt-forward English-style ales balance New Mexico’s spicy foods.

By 2003, Muller, Forester, and Levis were ready for new opportunities, and Lock happily bought their shares of the business. Two years later, he moved the brewery to its current location—a moment he now views as a watershed for the brewery. “I reached a point where I had professional brewing equipment, I had a professional staff making good, consistent beer, and I felt good about the quality,” he says.

Alana Jones started working at the brewery during her senior year of college, in 2004, when the tap room was located on Dinosaur Trail and only opened a few days a week. She started as a bartender, but slowly assumed more responsibilities and is now the general manager.
“I’m the reason craft beer is popular in New Mexico,” she jokes. Even as recently as the mid-2000s, Jones recalls having to educate most people on what craft beer was. “I had to explain to a thousand people what an IPA is.”

Knowledge of craft beer has come a long way since then. Customers now ask about the specific kinds of hops that they use in the beer, and with the explosion of new breweries in northern New Mexico, Santa Fe Brewing has to ensure it remains relevant in the increasingly competitive market. “For younger people, we are literally the beer that’s in your dad’s fridge,” remarks Jones.

This is a challenge they’ve welcomed. “That’s crucial to the success of the whole industry,” says Lock. Recently, the brewery hired a new master brewer who had worked for the Boston Beer Company, which makes Sam Adams. They’ve experimented with new seasonal brews, like Adobe Igloo, a malty, dark red beer infused with cacao nibs and red chile flakes that debuted last winter.

In 2013, the brewery opened a hops farm along the Rio Grande, south of Taos, to grow native neomexicanus hops. Although the seven-acre farm cannot produce nearly the volume of hops needed, it is enough to make small batches sold only in the tap rooms, giving customers something new and different to sample.

As the brewery has grown, the nature of the business has changed. With more than thirty breweries spread across the state, the industry now has the ability to influence laws, regulations, and tax policies—something that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. With the capacity to brew two hundred thousand barrels a year and a new canning line that can fill two hundred eighty cans per minute, the brewery has come a long way. Earlier this year, Lock opened The Bridge as a concert venue. As construction continues, the site increasingly resembles a compound with multiple tasting stations and walkways connecting the growing number of buildings.

Jones admits that the balance between fun and professionalism has shifted as a result, but neither she nor Lock have lost sight of what they love about working in craft beer. In mid-October, the sales team, which is spread across ten states, was in town for their annual meeting. Lock rushed into the brewery, excusing himself, “Give me a second. I have to do a shotgun with these guys.”