Scott Moore and Tom Hart once dreamed of opening a $6 million regional brewery. Instead, they ended up with a $600 used dairy tank at the heart of their 30-barrel brewery, the Rio Grande Brewing Co. in Albuquerque, N.M.
“Tom found the tank in a dairy in Los Lunas (N.M.), and we built the system around it,” Moore says. “It was originally a milk cooler. We reversed the coils and now run steam through it.” Everything else in the brewery was scaled to brewing in the 1,000-gallon tank.
When Moore starts describing the birth of Rio Grande, he makes it sound almost simple. “What we’ve got going on here is, basically, homebrew gone wild,” he says. The equipment takes up more room than at home, but “it’s all done a lot like your basic three-tier homebrew system.”
Moore appears prominently in “Franken Brew,” a video made by Tom Hennessy of the Il Vicino brewpubs. The video describes how to build a microbrewery for less than $20,000. At one point Moore refers to a piece of equipment in his hands as “these clamp guys.” He also shows a pump they mounted on a skateboard, and later on a dolly truck, rather than spend $150 to $250 more for a pump that comes attached to a stainless steel platform on wheels. Moore and Hart were already experienced homebrewing hobbyists — Moore was a Shakespearean scholar, Hart was, and remains, a Presbyterian minister — when they started building brewing systems together.
Each one was larger than the last, as they went from five gallons to 10 to 30, then built a double mash tun and, eventually, a 1,000-gallon system. They used “anything stainless that would hold water.” That included soup kettles, a candy cooker, and parts from salvage yards.
They weren’t afraid to stop and ask people if they wanted to sell something sitting beside their houses. “This is New Mexico. You see a lot of people with junk in their yards,” Moore says.
In 1991 Hart and Moore started thinking about turning pro. “A lot of people drank our beer and said, ‘Oh, man, you should sell that.’ Unfortunately, we took them seriously,” Moore jokes. He and Hart considered opening a brewpub but decided they weren’t interested in running a restaurant. They worked on various brewing projects for about a year and tried to raise capital for a $6 million regional brewery. Failing in that, they started putting together a brewery and recruited another partner, Matt Shappell, who has since left the company. Moore says Shappell woke up one day and thought, “I don’t want to spend a half million dollars and go into some serious debt, and then have to be at this place from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m., dealing with a huge staff, a lot of cash business…I just want to make beer.”
The partners found in an industrial park 2,400 square feet of warehouse space (a former winery), which they later doubled. They made major modifications to a wine fermenter, adding a false bottom and legs, among other changes, to create a very efficient mash tun.
The tun conversion illustrates that where the equipment comes from and what it looks like aren’t as important as how well it works. Their extraction rate approaches that of large breweries using equipment built (at a considerably higher price) just for brewing.
The hot liquor tank was a dairy pasteurizer in a former life, and Hart built the counter-pressure keg filler, but other equipment at Rio Grande was actually designed for a brewery. The pasteurizer used to belong to Buffalo (N.Y.) Brewing Co., which in turn had bought it from F.X. Matt of Utica, N.Y. The unitanks came from Riverside Brewing Co. (in Riverside, Calif.), and other pieces of equipment have similar histories.
The cold glue labeler, however, is new. “The old one (a sticker labeler) was the bad link in the chain,” Moore says. “We cut our labeling costs by two-thirds.” The recently installed Krones bottle filler will let them fill up to 600 bottles a minute. Moore and Hart handle virtually all the work, from brewing to bottling, so tours are not offered on a regular basis.
All three of Rio Grande’s year-round beers are clean, flavorful lagers that are filtered and conditioned for three weeks. Outlaw Lager, based on a steam beer Hart made as a homebrewer, debuted in June 1994 and is still the brewery’s top seller. It’s deep gold in color, with a slightly sweet nose and the fruitiness (but not sweetness) and rounded mouthfeel characteristic of a steam beer’s warmer fermentation. It finishes dry and clean, with a lingering hoppiness.
Desert Pils is a German-style pilsner with a flowery hop nose and light gold color. It’s not intensely hoppy but finishes dry. Elfego Bock, named for New Mexican folk hero Elfego Baca, is in the Vienna-lager style. Medium-brown with red tints, it has a nutty nose and maltiness throughout. A bit of the flavor comes from chocolate and patent malt.
“If you mix them up, they mellow each other out,” Moore says. They are added at the beginning of the sparge and make up only a small percentage of the malt bill.
Rio Grande uses a California lager yeast from Wyeast for all its beers, usually repitching after 10 to 12 batches. “We used different strains to begin with, but we can control the temperature to get different flavors,” Moore says. The year-round beers are all between 4.5 and 5 percent alcohol by volume.
The seasonal beers include Pancho Verde Chile Cerveza, a silver medal winner at the 1996 Great American Beer Festival. Moore won’t disclose how it’s made but said it will become a year-round beer starting in June. Bock Holiday, a nutty doppelbock, is the brewery’s winter beer. This year it weighed in at just over 6.5 percent alcohol by volume.
The regulars are all warmer-weather beers, and the long Southwestern summer is the make-or-break season for Rio Grande Brewing. Sales double during the summer months, due in part to tourists. “We brew two times a month in the winter and three to five times a month in the summertime,” Moore says.
Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the 1,000 barrels Rio Grande brews each year are bottled, so shelf stability is essential. Thus, the beers are filtered and pasteurized. “Mexican beers are all pasteurized, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference,” says Moore, a longtime fan of south-of-the-border beer.
Rio Grande has about 300 accounts in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Draft sales have picked up recently, but overall competition is fierce. Price points continue to fall, and because it’s cheap for breweries outside of New Mexico to obtain licenses to sell in the state, there’s always a new beer fighting for consumers’ attention.
The Southwest/outlaw mystique plays prominently in the brewery’s image. The beers are easily spotted by their distinctive cow-skull tap handles and the cow skulls on the bottle labels. Rio Grande has trademarked slogans such as “New Mexico’s most wanted” and “Reward yourself.” That’s good business, but it’s also fun. The labels feature the letters “JKS,” which Hart refers to as “our 33” — a secret symbol, similar to the “33” on Rolling Rock labels.
“There’s a big mystery around making beer,” Moore says. He finds himself bombarded with questions when he’s out checking the quality of Rio Grande beer in the marketplace. People have come up to him and said things like, “Wow, you really make beer. I thought only big companies could do that.”
Moore and Hart know that it can be done for a lot less than $6 million.
Rio Grande Brewing Co. is located at 3760 Hawkins NE, Albuquerque, N.M. 87109. Call (505) 343-0903.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of the Beer Travelers Guide, which lists more than 1,700 brewpubs, bars, and restaurants in the United States that serve flavorful beer.