By Eric Peterson | Jul 30, 2015
Albuquerque, New Mexico
A self-described beer geek, Erway decided it was a time for a career change and went from teaching music to learning about brewing at the American Brewers Guild in the mid-2000s.
Degree in hand, he went to work for Chama River Brewing Company for two years starting in 2007 before launching La Cumbre.
He's always had a mission, but the mission has evolved. "Back then, it meant brewing the best damn beer we could," says Erway. "Now it's more employee-focused."
That shift has come in the face of enviable growth. "For the last three years, it's been about 65 percent a year," he says. Production hit 8,100 barrels in 2014 and the 2015 forecast is north of 12,000, with the taproom selling about one out of every five beers produced while kegs edge cans and bottles for the remainder.
Hopheads have led the charge. "Elevated IPA makes up about 60 percent of our sales," Erway notes. "When it came out, it was just about the hoppiest beer in the area. That's definitely not the case anymore. It was the right beer at the right time in the right place."
But it wasn't just the 505 area code that took notice. Elevated won the gold for best IPA at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival.
Now that Erway has climbed hop mountain, he's looking at other trends for his next move.
"If it were up to us brewers, all of us our keeping our fingers crossed for pale lagers to take off." The catch? "Brewery owners would rather not keep a beer in the tanks for four weeks."
But Erway is a brewer and an owner, so he's looking at the bigger picture. He describes a bell curve in craft brewing. IPAs are well-represented, whereas pilsners and the like are not. "Most of the delicious pale lagers in the world weren't available in this country. They're seen as macro, mass-produced industrial beers that craft brewing was supposed to be firmly against."
But as craft brewing has grown up as an industry, that mindset is misguided, Erway adds. "We're not the rambunctious four-year-old we were 20 years ago."
So it's naturally time to reconsider what craft is all about, and pale lagers are a perfect fit. "They're not easy to produce," he says. "You can't screw up. If you screw up, everybody knows."
There's an ulterior motive. "Brewers drink a fair amount of beer. Most of us don't want to be drinking a seven percent beer all the time."
To this end, South Peak Pilsner is one of three year-round cans from La Cumbre and Erway is high on another seasonal pilsner -- simply named "Beer” -- going into cans next. "Our salespeople are really pushing for it," he explains. "They would love it if we packaged it. It really appeals to a wide range of beer drinkers."
He's also going the other direction with Project Dank. "I don't want to say I got bored with Elevation IPA," says Erway. "I didn't get bored with drinking it -- I got bored with making it."
To this end, the brewery's Project Dank special releases include hops from all over the world. La Cumbre's hop broker sources hops from South Africa (a first for a U.S. craft brewer), Europe, and other corners of the planet for beers targeting the most hop-crazed hop fiends of all. "We want to make something you can't get anywhere else," explains Erway of the 100- to 200-case batches. "We make it once and we might make it again, we might not."
Favorite beers: When it comes to La Cumbre's product, "It depends on the season," Erway says. "I love the beers we brew and I'm a seasonal drinker.
He's also a big fan of Prost Brewing in Denver ("I can't think of a place I'd rather sit and have five beers right now") and Firestone Walker's Pivo Pils. "And I could sit in the bars in Pajottenland, Belgium, drinking beers on end -- and I have."
Challenges: "The upturn in the economy has been good for everybody but businesses trying to find capable employees," says Erway. "Everybody's hiring and everybody's working."
The other challenge? "Where do you spend money? . . . There's a million and one places you can spend that money, the question is where do you spend it?"
Opportunities: Continued growth in New Mexico. "96 percent of our beer is sold in Albuquerque and Santa Fe," Erway says. "Every time we think our growth in our home state is going to slow down, our sales catch up with us." And as New Mexico law allows for three taprooms, La Cumbre could open two more, but Erway is looking for the perfect location before pulling the trigger.
"I totally love the idea of a small regional brewery," he adds, pointing to New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin as a model. "You know what I want to drink when I go to Wisconsin? I want to drink New Glarus."
Not that La Cumbre is totally exclusive to the Land of Enchantment. The brewery sells into Colorado a bit via Ska Brewing's distribution arm, but hasn't yet moved much past Durango. "We've been looking at the Front Range for several years," says Erway. "There's no rush."
Needs: After investing $2.1 million in a bigger and better brewhouse in the last year, La Cumbre is in the market for a centrifuge by early 2016.