It goes by many names — an apertif, a libation, the hair of the dog, hooch, booze.
What ever you call it, alcohol is a thriving industry in New Mexico and Valencia County.
The beer industry had an economic impact of $333 million in 2016, according to the Brewers Association, with 67 craft breweries across the state.
The 50 wineries and tasting rooms throughout New Mexico, according to WineAmerica, the National Organization of American Wineries, generated $876.7 million in total economic activity by production, distribution, sales and consumption of wine in New Mexico for the same year.
Those are some big numbers, but local producers in the industry caution that while it’s a worthwhile investment, getting into the business of producing beer and wine is a long term project.
On just 2.2 acres off Gabaldon Road in Belen is Valencia County’s only hops farm, and it’s only one of six in the state. Despite the dozens of breweries in the Albuquerque and Rio Rancho metro area, most of them buy hops — a key ingredient in beer — from out of state or in a pellet version.
The four-person crew at Stone Lizard Hops Farm, along with their sister farms, want to see that change. Four years ago, Miles Tafoya and his cousins, Diego and Alyssa Marlar, and friend, Adam Winslow, saw the booming local brew pub industry and decided if New Mexico was going to make beer, it should be completely “made in New Mexico.”
“‘New Mexico True’ and all that, right,” Alyssa said, quoting the state tourism department’s favorite social media hashtag.
The four set up what they called the “mother plot,” to see just how hops would do in the high desert, and the plants thrived, easily adapting to the New Mexico climate and long, hot growing season. With at least five years before a solid return on investment is expected. Stone Lizard has been able to harvest small amounts of the 40-plus strains of hops growing at the farm.
Harvesting the small, cotton-ball weight flowers is done by hand. Feeling like a puff of air in your palm, Alyssa laughs and asks you to imagine how many you have to pick to get a pound.
The ultimate goal of Stone Lizard and its sister farms is to get New Mexico breweries to use fresh hops grown in the Land of Enchantment.
“It means an extra filtering step in the brewing process,” Tafoya said. “Most breweries use pellets. The flavor is there but it’s just so much fuller with fresh hops.”
While the four are hustling to make connections with brewers and singing the praises of their hops to all who will listen, Stone Lizard isn’t looking to corner the market or push anyone out.
“We love to help people, teach people what we know. We’re all about sharing information,” Tafoya said. “We’re not looking to get people into exclusive contracts for our hops, but we think local brewing needs to use locally grown hops.”
Diego Marlar, the operation’s head grower, said they are always more than happy to share growing knowledge.
“We’ll tell people what worked and what didn’t,” Diego said. “It’s all about exchanging information and helping each other.”
In addition to growing the planting area for the farm, Diego and the others would like to offer educational and community learning opportunities at the farm.
“We’d love to teach people how to build their own grow box. It’s so peaceful out here, I can imagine people coming out and doing painting parties or just hanging out in a hammock in the hops,” he said. “Call it agro-tainment.”
Tafoya sees the farming project as something that appeals to veterans, such as himself and Alyssa.
“These guys come back from the service, maybe they don’t want to work some office job,” he said. “This is a way to be your own boss.”
With two of the four owners being veterans, Stone Lizard is working on obtaining its Homegrown by Heroes designation from the Farmer Veteran Coalition.
Not far from the farm, in Belen proper is a place that could make good use of their organically grown hops — the Hub City Brewing Company, which is fast becoming a favorite spot for locals to gather for a beer, some darts and just good company.
“We’re kind of becoming Belen’s ‘Cheers’,” says Hub City owner Tom Greer. “We’re in a town where somebody always knows somebody, even if they don’t know your name. I’ve seen old friends reconnect and neighbors who’d never met become friends.”
The microbrewery — another Valencia County only — began its third year in business in late September and isn’t showing signs of slowing down. The cozy building, which began life as a house nearly a century ago, used to be the Rail Cafe. The eatery had barely gotten off the ground in early 2007 before the recession hit the next year.
“We didn’t want to open the restaurant to close it,” said Greer, who was part owner of the cafe.
The smart thing would have been to sell, but Greer committed the cardinal sin of developers — he fell in love with the property. So he and his wife, Cindy, decided to hold onto the little building just west of the Rail Runner Express station in Belen.
About five years ago, around the same time a certain group of friends over on Gabaldon Road took notice, the Greers began thinking about the beer business. They also found themselves a bit tired of the old refrain of, ‘there’s nothing to do around here.’
“We’re the kind of people that if there’s a problem, we’re going to look for a solution,” Greer said. “So we decided to open a brewery. Or at least that’s what we thought we were doing. Turns out, we opened a community gathering place that sells beer.”
A pet-friendly, family-friendly, casual, kick-back-around-the-fire-pit kind of place, Greer said the brewery and taproom have brought together people who normally wouldn’t have even spoken to each other.
“We see people here from 24 to 80,” he said. “When we opened, people asked if we were going to have food. I said, ‘No but you can bring your own.’”
There are two grills set up outside that patrons are more than welcome to use to cook their own food if they like, and on Thirsty Thursdays, there’s karaoke and Po Boys food truck offers up some of the county’s best barbecue.
“People asked me if I’d serve pizza, so I became a Domino’s hot spot,” Greer said. “By doing those kinds of things, I’m supporting other local businesses.”
Greer said Albuquerque breweries have saturated themselves and new growth in the craft brew industry is going to be in rural areas, small towns.
“What we’re about is providing a nice experience for local people without a 70 mile round trip to Albuquerque,” he said. “We are safe and close to home and we keep gross receipts taxes in town. Our biggest leakage is entertainment dollars because there wasn’t anything to do.”
Heading into its third year, Greer said the taproom has nights that equal some of its best months in the first year.
“But if you’re going to start a business, you have to listen carefully to your community — what do they want? Need?” he said. “You might have a great idea but if it’s not needed or wanted, well ...”
Because everyone isn’t a beer appreciator, Valencia County has enjoyed a long history of vineyards and wineries in the valley.
While most have remained rather hidden away, one has put on a public face by opening a tasting room in the historic Belen Central Hotel on Becker Avenue.
Jaramillo Vineyards owners Barb and Robert Jaramillo began working on restoring the 1909 hotel several years ago with plans for a tasting room for their award-winning wines. Through economic fits and starts and permitting escapades, it finally happened.
The tasting room opened in early August and has been gaining a following.
“We are hoping it will draw more people down from Albuquerque. It’s something to do in Belen so they can then see all the other wonderful things nearby, like the Belen Harvey House Museum, the galleries — so many great things are right here,” Barb said.
New Mexico is often seen as not really being much of a wine state, but Barb said that hasn’t been their experience.
“People love their local wines,” she said. “Our wine club has more than 300 members. It’s nice because locals get a better and the tourists pay a little more, and we’re OK with that.”
The wine business, like hops, is a long game. The Jaramillos began by selling their grapes in order to establish the cash flow needed to buy wine-making equipment. As they outgrew the tanks, they sold them to other fledgling wineries and invested the money into more and larger equipment.
“You can start small. We started with half an acre to see if we could make it,” Barb said.
Now the vineyard has 11,000 plants in the ground, numerous employees and harvests 30 to 40 tons of grapes a day.
“People can drop tons of money on this and go into debt. Pay as you go — don’t get loans,” she said. “It’s going to be about 10 years before you get a product, so prepare for the long term.”
While they were waiting, Barb and Robert networked with other wineries in the area, joined the New Mexico Wine Growers Association, which brings in regular speakers and educators for its members, and volunteered to work at festivals and in tasting rooms to learn the trade.
“This is an industry that I think will grow,” Barb said. “New Mexico has excellent wines and people enjoy them. The opening weekend of the tasting room, we had more than 500 people in two days.”