“It’s like Portland, only a lot sunnier!”

That’s the way a beer lover described his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Although he was right about the sun, he may have been exaggerating about similarity with the Oregon city. Portland has over two dozen microbreweries and brewpubs.

Nonetheless, Albuquerque is growing rapidly as a beer town. Since 2008, five microbreweries have opened and two more are in the planning stages. At present, there are seven breweries in the city and two in nearby Coralles and Rio Rancho. Breweries in Moriarity and Los Lunas, each under an hour’s drive away, have tap rooms in Albuquerque. And — a sure sign of any young and growing industry — one of the newer brewpubs has already gone out of business.

In a recent trip to Albuquerque, I had a chance to visit five micros or brewpubs, each of them a five-minute drive from Interstate 25.

Chama River Brewing Company: www.chamariverbrewery.com

It was close to lunch time, so I started my “tour” at Chama River Brewing Company, a wonderful gastropub. I took exit 229 and headed south on Pan American, the service road on the western side of the freeway. Chama River was at  4939 Pan American North East. I recognized it by the grain silo outside the building.

Chama River opened in Albuquerque in 1999, as Blue Corn Brewery, part of the Santa Fe Restaurant group. The name was changed in 2005 to distinguish its menu from the more specifically Santa Fe cuisine of its northern partner. Two of its brewers have gone on to start their own breweries. Ted Rice is one of the partners of Marble Brewery; Jeff Erway runs LaCumbre.

The menu features such items as crab stuffed mushrooms, cavatappi with red chile paremsan cream, local goat cheese stuffed zucchini, and cinnamon roll bread pudding. It is complemented by six regular beers ranging from light to dark and a number of very interesting seasonals.

Current brewer Justin Hamilton, who was trained by Rice and Erway, described Chama River’s brews. Class VI Lager “started out as a helles but now is more like a pilsner. It’s light and clean, but has a dry, malty edge.” Broken Spoke Honey Wheat Ale “is fairly dry for the style, but not overly sweet.” Amber Ale is designed for “the people who like New Belgium’s Fat Tire.” Rio Lodo Brown Ale is “hoppier than the British style.” Jackalope IPA, the flagship beer, is “a big, West Coast style ale. It’s for knowledgeable drinkers.” Sleeping Dog Stout, an oatmeal stout is chewy and roasty.

Nexus Brewery:  www.nexusbrewery.com

From Chama River, I took the service road south to Montano, turned left, crossed the freeway, and then turned left on Pan American north, the service road that runs along the eastern side of I-25. Nexus, Albuquerque’s newest microbrewery, is located at 4730 Pan American East.

Nexus, which opened in the summer of 2011, was created by Ken Carson, a home brewer and a former state bank official. “During my travels as a banker,” he remembered, “I sought out BBQ restaurants and brewpubs and began to think about starting a brewery. I felt that Albuquerque was big enough for another brewery and certainly had an enthusiastic and growing base of craft beer lovers. I wanted to create a  social gathering place and I wanted to be my own boss.”

He chose the name Nexus, meaning a point of connection, and decided to establish a brewery with a full restaurant, the better to bring people together. “I came from a soul food background and was raised in New Mexico, so I decided that we’s serve ‘New Mexican Soul Food’.” The signature dish, one he found on the menus of many soul food places is southern Fried Chicken and Waffles.  There’s also New Mexico Red Chili as well as Red Chili Flaked Onion Petals.

The beer menu was designed to complement rather than to compete with other local breweries. “We purposely set out not to do too many hoppy bears. We like malty beers.” Brewer Manuel Mussen, who trained at the food sciences school at the University of California, Davis, developed a fondness for lower alcohol, balanced beers while working in Cornwall, England, after graduation.

The signature beer is a Scottish Ale, one of Carson’s favourite beers from his home brewing days. “It’s like a wee heavy,” Mussen explained. “The Scottish yeast gives a hint of smoke. The malts contribute caramel, toffee, and coffee flavours. It’s strong, 7.8 per cent, but it’s not in-your-face. It’s good for sipping.”

Nexus also offers a cream ale, designed as an entry beer (although Mussen has also created a 9. 4 per cent imperial version), an American Red, a wheat ale (which he describes as being like Blue Moon, but not so spicy), an ESB that’s only 4.5 per cent, an English stout, and an American style IPA, which, along with the Scottish ale, is the brewery’s top seller.

“Our beers are for people who like flavour, but don’t want to be overwhelmed,” Carson remarked.

Il Vicino Brewing Company: www.ilvicino.com

After visiting Nexus, I returned to Montano Road, turned left and headed east to Carlisle Boulevard.  After that I turned right and drove south to Candelaria, then right to Vassar and right to Aztec. The Il Vicino Canteen, home of the brewery which makes the beers for the Il Vicino restaurant chain’s New Mexico locations, is at 2381 Aztec Road. In addition to the brewery, the canteen has a tap room and small restaurant.

Master brewer Brady McKeown, who has been with Il Vicino since the first restaurant opened in 1994, just as the microbrewing/brewpub movement was arriving in the southwest, noted that Il Vicino’s first beers were crossovers, unassertive blond and golden ales. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that they developed an IPA. “It’s our best-seller now.”

In addition to the Wet Mountain IPA, a hoppy American style beer, Il Vicino offers  four other beers on a regular basis. Slow Down Brown, which was inspired by the popular Pete’s Wicked Ale, does not have the malty sweetness of English versions of the style. 28 M is an American wheat ale that was designed to be a lighter-bodied beer that would complement the less spicy sandwiches and pizzas offered at the restaurants. Dark and Heavy is an American style stout.

Of the regular beers, only PigTail Pilsner moves away from American styles. It is a German pilsner, using German hops, malts, and yeast. Only the water comes from New Mexico.

McKeown told me that at the Canteen, as opposed to the restaurants, higher alcohol and hoppier beers are frequently on tap. “And we have some special one-off brews. One of my favourites was our ‘Fruitcake Beer.’ To a not too hoppy strong ale, we added fruit, molasses, cinnamon, cranberries, tart cherries, and orange and lemon zest.”

The Canteen’s small kitchen offers appetizers and a wide variety of sandwiches.

LaCumbre Brewing: www.lacumbrebrewing.com

I left my car at the Canteen and walked the two blocks — east on Aztec and then south on Girard Boulevard — to my next destination, LaCumbre, Located at 3313 Girard, LaCumbre opened just before Christmas 2010 and within a year has become one of the most acclaimed of microbreweries in the western United States.

When owner and head brewer Jeff Erway was growing up in Rochester, NY, what he calls the “home of industrial brewing,” he discovered Newcastle Brown and Sam Smith’s beers and quickly realized that Genesee, the town’s student beer of choice, was lacking in taste. “Then I discovered Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Christmas ale, and I was sold.

When he and his wife moved to the southwest to teach and enjoy the wonderful hiking, he discovered that he could still get Sierra Nevada, but not much else worthwhile. “So my wife and I drove into Flagstaff, Arizona, and bought a book on homebrewing.” He became a successful homebrewer and a certified beer judge and, when Ted Rice, then of Chama River, encouraged him to attend the American Brewing Guild he did.

After his studies, Jeff became head brewer at Chama River and earned three gold medals for his brews. But his dream of owning his own brewery kept nagging at him. And just before Christmas 2010, his dream came true. “LaCumbre Brewing Company” became a reality. The name comes from the Spanish for “mountain peak” and refers to the mountains of the Albuquerque area and the idea that Erway wants, as the advertising tag says, to create “beers at their peak.”

In less than a year, LaCumbre has become both a local and national success. Not only do they serve in their own tap room, which is always very busy, but also they have close to 70 taps in local restaurants and bars. Their beers won two gold medals and a silver at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival competition. The golds were for “Elevated” — an American style IPA and their American style pilsner and the silver was for “Malpais’ –their foreign style stout.

The brewery has five regular beers: Jefe’s Hefe (which puns on the owner’s name and the Spanish word for boss) a German style wheat beer, South Peak Pilsner, Pyramid Rock Pale Ale, and the IPA and stout. Several limited editions are also brewed, the most unusual of which, Jeff says, was a coffee and milk stout that used 20 pounds of coffee in the brew.

The tap room is not, Erway emphasizes, “a place for drunks,” and a three-pint limit is strongly recommended. There is no restaurant, although the fridge stocks sandwiches from a local caterer. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own food or to phone out for pizza from nearby establishments.

Erway hopes to have a canning line operational by the summer. In the meantime, growlers can be purchased at the bar.

Marble Brewing: www.marblebrewery.com

Back to my car and back on I-25 south to the Lomas exit, west on Lomas to Marble and two blocks north on Marble to the brewery that has grown so big since it was founded nearly four years ago it is already expanding facilities to a nearby building.

Head brewer Ted Rice, who discovered about good beer from his home brewing friends at college, came to New Mexico because his wife was pursuing a PhD in English at the Univeristy of New Mexico, began to work for the Santa Fe Restaurant group’s Blue Corn Restaurant, which became Chama River. He focused on hoppy beers, particularly IPA. “People here like the bold flavours with spicy New Mexican food.”

Ted wanted to grow as a brewer and so he and two members of the Santa Fe group decided to grow their own brewery. Naturally, their first product was an IPA. “We strove for rich, deep, fruity, resinous hop flavour,” he says of their flagship beer, one of the top-selling bottled microbrews in New Mexico.

There other beers include Wild Flower Wheat. “We didn’t want an American style wheat beer or a hefeweisen, so we used local honey to give a unique flavour.” Their other beers include a Red, which Ted described as “chewy, with toffee malt flavours;” an Amber, which, although it uses hops, is balanced, with subtle malt notes; a full-bodied, rich Oatmeal stout; and a German pilsner. These beers are available in 12 ounce bottles in much of New Mexico.

The Tap Room serves sandwiches made at Chama River. And patrons are welcome to phone out for pizza or bring their own food.

Albuquerque certainly isn’t Portland as far as beer goes. But it definitely is the most exciting and active beer town in the American Southwest. If you’re in the area, take time to sample some of the very fine brews and if you’ve got a cooler, pick up a growler from one of the breweries tap rooms. Then when you get to your hotel, you can phone for a pizza and twist open the growler cap and enjoy.

For directions and maps, hours of operation, menus, notices of music nights, and descriptions of special edition beers, check the various breweries websites.

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