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One-on-One with La Cumbre President Jeff Erway

If Jeff Erway didn’t want to wake up well before the sun to go to work, nobody would say anything. After all, he’s the boss.

The man who built La Cumbre Brewing Co. into a New Mexico craft beer powerhouse could easily delegate all of the early-morning beer-making chores to someone else. But Erway still wants to be part of that process.

“My alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and I’m like ‘uuuuuhhhhhh,'” he says from his office next to the brewery. “But, by 6:15, I’m mashing in, the smell hits me in the face and (there’s) steam and everything, and I’m like ‘Oh, never mind.’ This is why I built my career on this.

“I actually do love doing it. I really do.”

Erway, a guitarist, used to teach music to elementary school students on the Navajo Reservation. The Rochester, N.Y.-raised Erway landed in Gallup after he and now-wife Laura – who had grown up in New Mexico – decided to move west after college in New York.

They figured Church Rock Elementary was a one-year stop, a layover before they could get to somewhere else. Oregon, perhaps. Maybe Northern California. It turned into five.

Jeff Erway of La Cumbre Brewing Co. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Jeff Erway of La Cumbre Brewing Co. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

“We ended up absolutely falling in love with the area. We fell in love with the students,” says Erway, who started the school’s first band.

But Erway fell in love with something else while he was living out there – home brewing. And the hobby quickly became an obsession, one of those spend-every-extra-waking-hour-doing-it kind of things. He read, he practiced, he traveled the West Coast to meet other brewers. He knew he had to commit his life to it, ultimately leaving education to go to brewing school. He launched La Cumbre in late 2010. The brewery now employs about 40 people and is one of the state’s largest breweries, with expectations to brew 13,500 barrels this year.

Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.

A: I was a jock. I was long-haired and long-bearded, and I played guitar six hours a day. I was girl-crazy and probably found alcohol a little too early but, at that age, I was still fairly driven. I shouldn’t say “still” – I was fairly driven even at that age, though not on the same things I am today. I was a good student, I wasn’t a great student. … I was looking forward to college, but I also was personally a little bit tortured by the divorce of my parents when I was 10 and a very overbearing stepfather, who unfortunately passed away when I was 18.

Q: What sports did you play?

A: Track and field was probably my major focus. My mom stuck me on a drug for ADHD when I was like 11 years old and I think it was definitely experimental and they had me on way too much. I was a very quiet, reserved and overly self-reflective person and the whole running 5-10-miles-a-day thing really worked for me. Of course, that was like 75 pounds ago. (laughs) … I played soccer and the only reason I was good at soccer in any way is because I was very physically fit and I could run the entire time. I didn’t have any true skills but, to this day, it’s the only sport I really care about. It’s the only sport I really watch on a regular basis. Then I played basketball; “played” is kind of a loose term. Again, I was fast. (laughs). I was good on defense. I was really good on defense. That’s about it.

Q: Did you study guitar specifically in college?

A: My focus was on jazz performance on the guitar, but my mom, being the extremely practical person she was, encouraged me to get certified as a general music teacher, which I did, so I can passably play almost all the instruments of the band. If you stuck a double reed instrument like an oboe or English horn in front of me, give me an hour and I’ll be able to play it.

Q: What do you remember most from your teaching days?

A: It’s hard to say what I remember most about the time – about the actual job. I try to forget some of the absolutely ridiculous bureaucracy that goes along with being a teacher in one of the nation’s poorest performing schools, but I feel like it actually has nothing to do with teaching music. (It was) the experiences of trying to better these absolutely impoverished children’s lives. Going out to their homes and like trying to help their parents design a system for bedding the kids that wouldn’t result in all of them constantly having lice. I remember having to teach a 13-year-old boy who was severely mentally handicapped how to wash himself. I spent two hours one day (with) a 7-year-old girl who did not speak a lick of English coating her hair in mayonnaise and then putting a plastic bag around it and combing lice out. There were just amazing experiences that in some ways are truly tragic but, in other ways, I got to feel like I was making a difference in those kids’ lives for a while, even if I wasn’t the greatest teacher. (laughs) I was a good musician and I absolutely adored the children, and that was enough to be passable out there, but I think, more than anything, I left after realizing I was kind of being pushed into an administrative role and I didn’t want it, and I wasn’t the greatest teacher in the world. And I wanted to be great at what I was doing.

Q: How did you first get into brewing beer?

A: I’d been an absolute craft beer fanatic since shortly before I turned 21. I found myself on the Phish tour and there’s just people constantly selling craft beer to the attendees, and I tried a whole bunch of different beers and became absolutely infatuated with it. One morning (during) our first year of teaching, we were in Flagstaff after a long night of partying – because it was a great town to go party in with co-workers – (and) my wife wanted to go into the Buffalo Exchange to go shop, and I had no interest. It was right across the street from a home brew store. I had never even thought of home brewing, but it actually ended up being a really great idea because there was no availability of good craft beer on the Navajo reservation. None at all. And I bought a book called “How to Brew” and there was a singular moment on the drive home where I was reading, and you know how you start reading a book and you can’t put it down.

Q: That compelling, huh?

A: It was like a textbook. I know the author at this point – he and I have judged (competitions) together. The book was a tutorial on how to get started home brewing. (After starting it), I had been silent for the last hour and a half, and my wife looked over at me and said “Good book?” I looked at her and said “I could really get into this.” She said “Oh, good, honey.” And I said, “No, you don’t understand. I could really, really get into this.” Two weeks later, I had ordered everything I needed to brew my first batch of beer. The first batch did not come out great; it was drinkable, I guess, but it was not good. But, by the third batch, I’d made a very drinkable batch of beer and, 20 batches later, I was entering home brew competitions.

Q: You met a lot of brewers early on. Is there anyone in particular you really look up to?

A: Peter Zien at AleSmith literally stopped working for 2 ½, 3 hours to taste Laura and I on all of his incredible beers at Ale Smith Brewing Co. in San Diego. I began to realize in that conversation that nothing in this industry is secret. It is all open book and this guy, I realized, would have opened up his recipes to me and shared with me any secret he could give me. And his beers were fantastic. I met Alan Sprints of Hair of the Dog up in Portland on that trip, as well. And again, just dropped everything. I gave a phone call to these guys, showed up at their place a half hour later, (and they) dropped everything and wanted to sample all their beers with me and talked to me at length. … Some of the people locally who were really inspirations were Mark Matheson, who was over at Turtle Mountain at the time; my current director of brewery operations, Daniel Jaramillo, was definitely an inspiration to me. He was making at the time one of the greatest pilsners I’ve ever had in my life up at Blue Corn, and Stan Hieronymus – he lived in Corrales and he was a beer/brewing author, and he’s written a bunch of books. He’s since moved away and he’s a big inspiration. And, lastly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Ted Rice’s tutelage. More than any other one person, Ted (president of Marble Brewery) trained me very intensively for the better part of a year. I probably got 95 percent of what I needed out of him the first two months, but the last 10 months he just spent honing my skills as a brewer.

Q: La Cumbre has won a lot of awards. Is there one that stands out above the rest?

A: From a history of our business standpoint, the Great American Beer Festival of 2011 really set the stage for our success as a company. We won two golds and a silver. And the gold in the American IPA – that category had more entrants than any other category in any beer competition ever and we won the gold in that category. Elevated IPA won. … In a lot of ways, that kind of put our brewery and the Albuquerque brewing scene on the map.

Q: What’s your favorite La Cumbre beer?

A: The one I probably drink more than anything is BEER.

Q: Where do you see La Cumbre in five years?

A: In business. There’s a lot of pressure to grow as quickly as humanly possible. This is the only industry now where a business owner could see 25 percent growth over a year and consider that a failure. Because there is still a fair amount of growth to be had. The question is, when does that growth curve level off and how much in debt are you when it does level off? Because, at some point, it’s going to level and so I’m trying to situate La Cumbre to the most sustainable business model I can. Part of that is diversifying into distributing outside brands and some of it is trying to make our wholesale footprint cast a fairly wide net in the markets we’re in. But a lot of it is not taking risks that you don’t need to take. I feel like when you’re a business, if you take out huge loans, you’re taking out a bet on every single one of your employees’ futures and the future of their employment with your company.

Q: A lot has been made of how collegial the craft beer scene is. Is that changing with the number of new breweries?

A: Yes.

Q: How so?

A: I think the old guard has become a little bit more competitive with each other. There’s a little less of the sharing. There’s friends of mine I have in the industry that still to this day walk right into my brewery, try a beer and say, “Hey, can I see the recipe for this?” I say, “Here you go,” and that’s wonderful and I hope that continues. I hope I don’t ever lose any of these friends just because we’re trying to compete for the same customers. But there definitely is a little bit more of a sense of competition as the market tightens. Then, of the new breweries in town, I know very few of them. It used to be I had any of the brewers in town, every single one of them, I had on speed dial. Now, there are breweries I don’t even know who the brewer is.

Q: If you weren’t doing this, what else could you see yourself doing?

A: I see what firemen do on a day-to-day basis and that really appeals to me. That sounds pretty cool.

Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?

A: I don’t like craft beer, but I like this.

Q: What’s your life like away from work?

A: My boys. I still work a heck of a lot, but I go home and spend a lot of time on the floor wrestling around with a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, building Lego structures or, more likely, watching them build Lego structures.

Q: What is your biggest regret?

A: I don’t have too many of them. Not being more probably reflective when we lost my stepfather. Trying to be a stone.

Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?

A: You know what? (Singer) Michael McDonald. The funny thing is with Michael McDonald, I feel bad as I’m listening. I’m like “I shouldn’t be listening to this.” It’s terrible. But I’m like, “Hey, if my wife can listen to Journey, I can listen to Michael McDonald.”

Q: What was your last splurge?

A: A baby grand piano.

Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?

A: Driven, disorganized, chaotic.