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.”
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.
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.”