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 V.22 No.4 | January 24 - 30, 2013 

Brew City

Crafting Community

La Cumbre Brewery’s Jeff Erway talks about the camaraderie in Albuquerque’s microbrew scene

Jeff Erway and Kaylynn McKnight work to brew a batch of La Cumbre beer.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Jeff Erway and Kaylynn McKnight work to brew a batch of La Cumbre beer.
Community is a tricky thing. You have to balance a little of this with a little of that to make it work. Beer helps, of course, so it may not come as a surprise to learn that many of the makers of your favorite local beers know each other. In fact many of them learned their trade together and have remained friends even as they've established competing businesses. Jeff Erway, president of La Cumbre Brewing Company, sat down with me at his taproom recently and talked about this camaraderie among brewers. “It's the nature of our industry,” he says. “We as brewers aren't trying to beat each other. Them being successful is a success for me.”

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
The industrial area on Girard just above Candelaria isn't the likeliest place for a brew pub. Outside there's not much beyond warehouses and parking lots, so the La Cumbre Taproom stands as a kind of warm, wood paneled anomaly. It's been there for just over two years now and has become a fixture in the neighborhood.

But not long after it opened, something unexpected happened: Il Vicino relocated its taproom just up the street, suddenly forming a kind of beer district. It's a testament to Erway's faith in his beer that he doesn't seem nervous about the competition from his neighbor. “The brewers feed off of each other's talents and creativity,” he explains.

The craft-beer community has been an important part of Erway's professional development since soon after he started home brewing in 2003. In 2007, he was hired by Ted Rice at Albuquerque's Chama River Brewing Company, an incubator of not only great brews but great brewers. “That was absolutely essential for me,” he says. “It was a training ground.”

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Working for Chama gave Erway an opportunity to learn about the beer business firsthand. “I got my ass handed to me,” he says. “When I started, I was a complete rookie and a cocky one at that. Ted did an exceptional job of letting me know exactly how much I had to learn and was able to train me to take over that brewery … I lost 25 pounds in four months.” He worked at Chama until 2009 when he decided to open a place of his own.

Erway's education among the microbrewing community has paid off. The day I spoke to him, I sampled two very different La Cumbre ales. My pint of porter was pitch black and malty with dark coffee and caramel flavors balanced against a crisp, effervescent finish. The Elevated IPA, La Cumbre's flagship brew and 2011 Great American Beer Festival Gold Medalist, was every bit the pure hop experience you'd expect, with hints of grapefruit on the front rounded by herbs. “If my IPA wasn't the best I could make, my wife would probably divorce me,” Jeff told me. That'll keep a brewer on his game.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Erway still keeps in close contact with the other brewers in the area. In fact, he found out about Il Vicino relocating so close to La Cumbre while on the phone with its head brewer, Brady McKeown. Ted Rice, who originally hired Erway at Chama, went on to co-found Marble Brewery in 2008. And Erway’s own head brewer, Daniel Jaramillo, is a former brewer at Assets Brewing Company and a fellow Chama Brewing Company alum.

It’s fitting, then, that La Cumbre Taproom nurtures it’s own kind of community. As the afternoon approached quitting time, tables started filling up and Erway waved to customers as they came in. A group of skaters gathered on one side rolling cigarettes from a shared pouch of tobacco, while on the other a middle-aged woman and her black lab sat side by side, both watching a game on the television in the corner. A man with glasses on the end of his nose sat reading the paper in one of the lounge chairs, while a trio meeting after work talked with a server behind the bar and laughed. Every weekend, cyclists ride over to La Cumbre on their way home from short, medium and long treks, and a group of home brewers gathers at the taproom once a month to hang out and swap stories.

Not long ago you had to go to some trouble to buy locally made beer. These days it's difficult to find a bar in town that doesn't offer several local options on tap. That happened not only because of the hard work and great beer from breweries like La Cumbre, but also because of a community of brewers like Jeff Erway who support, encourage, and challenge each other to keep getting better. As Erway told me, “The beer drinker sees that first-hand every time one of us bellies up at another's brewery to enjoy a pint of our friend's quality craft brew.”

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