Discover Taos Mesa Brewing Through Music and Malts
By Sam Hedges · Photos by Stephanie Cameron
Top left, clockwise: The Mothership; Dan Irion sipping beer in front of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and future Airstream rental; the entryway to Taos Mesa Brewing; a flight of beer; and one of the outdoor stages.
Taos Mesa Brewing’s informal motto is “A conspiracy’s brewing.” But while conspiracies are usually veiled, Taos Mesa Brewing’s mission is open and obvious: link enterprise with social consciousness to enrich New Mexico. Craft beer plays a central role in this sinister plot.
In its short lifespan, Taos Mesa Brewing has greatly transformed its already unique town. Since building their home base, the Mothership, on the northwestern outskirts of Taos, the brewery’s team has added an upscale, artisanal taproom to the heart of downtown and an intimate clubhouse to the Taos Ski Valley. The Mothership hovers due west of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a quasi-industrial Quonset hut jutting up from the desert scrub against a vast horizon. You’re likely to see it long before you pull into its dirt drive, but you’re just as likely to hear it first.
In almost every way, the Mothership is more than it seems. From a distance it’s a simple airport hangar, but closer inspection reveals a structure of environmental ingenuity and sustainable design, built primarily from salvaged materials and heated almost entirely by passive solar energy. It houses three performance stages, including an outdoor amphitheatre, and hosts three annual music festivals. Although the Mothership can hold five hundred concert-goers, more often it offers a quiet daytime retreat for gregarious locals.
If you focus on one element, you’ll likely miss the myriad others: the snarky beer names (Party Guy IPA or Knight Train Imperial Stout, which is brewed with twenty-five pounds of local clover honey per batch), the stage floor built of recycled tires for greater bounce, the Tectum-lined walls arranged for acoustic perfection, or the Thai Chile Chicken Poppers on special. Perhaps all of this is why Travel + Leisure magazine voted it “One of America’s Coolest Breweries.”
Music is the beating heart of Taos Mesa Brewing. From 2005 to 2007, co-founder Dan Irion’s band Last to Know turned a local warehouse into an underground music venue, a place where huge, impromptu parties sprung up from the earth. More than a decade later, Irion’s eyes still light up when he speaks of that warehouse. “It was a creative space that gave the illusion of limitless possibilities,” says Irion. Eventually the warehouse was shut down, but the seed had been planted for a business that housed the power of music. In the following years, Irion and his partners found the perfect location for their brewery and new music venue, just a quarter-mile down the road from the warehouse.
In business for more than five years, Taos Mesa Brewing has been at the core of a Taos music revolution. They’ve hosted indie star Devendra Banhart, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, The Weeks, Lucinda Williams, and Steve Earle. Visit their online calendar and behold the Southwest’s growing musical diversity, with descriptors such as “multi-dimensional soul punk,” “live from the Ukraine,” “9-piece power-funk,” and “horn-driven Southern soul band.” You can easily imagine ending every night of a Taos vacation with a Taos Mesa brew in your hand and melodic beauty in your ears.
Before the brewery, the town had few venues for musicians. Irion has made great strides working with area promoters to bring more music to Taos, but he says there is an even greater conspiracy afoot. Taos’s strategic position, just south of the musical jet stream running from Denver to the Golden Coast, makes it a natural tour stop. “Musicians love Taos,” Irion says. Devendra Banhart visited it first on vacation and liked it so much that he brought his band back and played three shows. For traveling artists, Irion explains, every town starts to feel the same, but Taos feels unique. Irion points to the artistic history, the ancient pueblo, and the mountains. But to him, there is also something intangible about Taos: “An unnamed spirit that you can’t put your finger on, something about the quality of light, the angles, that makes Taos special.” This spirit, Irion claims, inspires musicians to give better performances. Taos Mesa Brewing is both capitalizing on Taos’s offbeat nature and enriching it. Plans are also in the works for an Airstream trailer hotel adjacent to the Mothership, with more acreage for campgrounds to support bigger music festivals. Festivals, such as Taos Mesa Brewing’s annual Music on the Mesa, are a key part of turning Taos into a music-lover’s destination.
While bringing more musicians to New Mexico is a part of Taos Mesa Brewing’s multifaceted mission, its greater goal is local sourcing. The brewery provides a market for aspiring regional musicians and local farmers. In Taos Mesa Brewing’s future, the Grains to Glass program is of particular interest. Funded through Los Alamos National Laboratory, the program has partnered with four farmers out of Arroyo Seco to grow barley, a grain that once covered northern New Mexico and is essential to brewing. Last year, the farmers harvested seven thousand pounds of barley, which was featured months later in Taos Mesa’s Rosetta Comet SMaSH IPA. After its successful first year, Irion hopes that, with continued funding and hard work, the program can broaden the scope of New Mexico’s exploding craft beer industry.
While Grains to Glass works to help reinvigorate northern New Mexico’s ailing economy, Irion and his friends hope to sweeten the deal by building a boutique malt house. Malted barley is the primary ingredient in almost all beer, and New Mexico breweries currently source it out of state. With its own malt house, New Mexico farmers would have a guaranteed market for their barley, and New Mexico breweries could source all of their malted barley from their own community, effectively closing the economic loop. Beer, music, food, and festivals are all seeds in a field of germination, unfolding through jazz fusion, smoked-brisket tacos, and chocolate stouts. Irion’s little dream for a good stage is materializing into a better future for all of us. A conspiracy, it seems, is indeed brewing.
20 ABC Mesa Road, El Prado