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Head Cellerman Leif Rotsaerd is stoked on what’s coming next.
Thomas Ragan

In the Can

Expanded capacity for can production is underway for Santa Fe Brewing Co.

December 16, 2015, 12:00 am

Adobe Igloo, a craft beer with a hint of red chile and chocolate, hits the shelves at local liquor stores in the next few days, courtesy of Santa Fe Brewing Co., the largest and oldest microbrew producer in the state.

Touted as a seasonal beer, it’s just the latest microbrew to come in an aluminum can, joining the likes of the brewery’s Happy Camper IPA, with its spicy and citrus flavor, and Imperial Java Stout, a coffee infusion that packs a mean 8 percent alcoholic punch.

It used to be years ago, back in the mid-1980s, when punk rock was just beginning to die out and Doc Martins were on the downslide, that the only microbrew to be had was the stuff that you made in your basement.

Then over time, the home-fermented barley and hops started to pour from local taps in Bohemian neighborhoods, and bottles popped up on store shelves. Now, this microbrew stuff comes in cans, like the Budweiser and Blatz and Old Milwaukee of yore, a true sign, if ever there were one, that craft beer has gone mainstream, due, in part, to the departure of the bigs. Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors have long since become joint ventures, multinational corporations whose headquarters are now in places like Belgium and England and South Africa.

“It’s gotten to the point where craft beer is the only truly American-made beer that’s left these days,” says Brian Lock, owner of the Santa Fe Brewing Co.

Of course, Lock, a Portland, Ore., native who started homebrewing as early as high school, may be partial. But there’s no question that he’s doing well, as he finds himself in the midst of an $8.5 million expansion in the next two years to make way for the mammoth increase in barrel production, which has been driven, at least partially, by the popularity of the can.

And nowhere is that more evident than in the 18,000-square-foot building that’s being built along Highway 14 at the brew company’s headquarters, which sit on 7 acres of land, a far cry from the small operations that were once located in Galisteo.

It took Lockwood Construction all but three weeks to pour the cement and build the 26-foot-high shell of a building, which, by spring, will house a canning line capable of churning out 150 cans per minute, humming alongside the traditional cogs in the machinery that pump bottles and kegs full of beer in what will become the company’s new “packaging hall.”

And if you think that the beer from the can doesn’t quite taste the same as the bottle, Lock debunks that notion, saying a lacquer coating on the inside of the can protects the beer from ever hitting the metal.

“People used to think canned beer was cheap. But now everybody is realizing that cans protect the beer better,” says Lock, 43.

“If you leave a bottle out in the sun, it’s going to get skunked,” he adds. “But not with a can. A can travels much better than a bottle. You can take it hiking and biking, and there’s the affordability factor. It’s a bit cheaper.”

It also accounts for half of the company’s overall production these past two years, especially for out-of-state markets such as Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Kansas and Missouri, which account for 25 percent of the company’s sales.

And it is this lure of the can that has become the principal driving force behind the increase in capacity for barrel production from 30,000 barrels a year to 200,000 a year (a barrel is equivalent to 13-plus cases). The change calls for 60 more employees to be added to the payroll by 2020, with the company more than doubling in size, from 45 to 105.

For now, the current employees seem beside themselves with enthusiasm as they watch the company grow, brick by brick, steel beam by steel beam.

Among them is Leif Rotsaerd, a first-generation Belgian who’s known as the “flavors guy” around company headquarters but whose title is actually head cellarman.

“I’m stoked,” says Rotsaerd, who’s in charge of barrel-aged beer and is looking forward to overseeing the new line and the accolades it could bring. After all, he’s already been recognized at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, where in 2014 his American-Style Sour Ale beer, Los Innovadores Kriek, took third place after it was aged in American oak barrels for two years and blended with a generous amount of Michigan tart cherries.


 

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