Ale Republic Taps Into Unique Flavors
By Robin Babb
Although Albuquerque has no shortage of breweries, I regularly make my way to Cedar Crest to visit a little brewery and taproom with big mountainside charm. I like to go to Ale Republic after a hike in the Sandias because nobody will judge me for being muddy and sweaty, because they have free pool, because there’s always at least one dog to pet, and because their beer is damn good. The clientele is a mix of East Mountain locals and city dwellers like me who love the chance to get away for the afternoon and enjoy the outdoor seating area’s phenomenal views.
However, I recently visited Ale Republic for a different reason, to find out about a unique factor in their brewing: their water. Unlike breweries in cities, Ale Republic uses well water to make their beer, and this makes for some interesting flavors in the resulting brew. To illustrate the point, Zachary Gould, one of Ale Republic’s owners and brewers, pours me three tasting glasses of water. Each one contains a different kind of water that the brewery uses in a different way.
“This one,” Gould says, pointing to the glass on the left, “is RO [reverse osmosis filtered].” It tastes clean and almost sweet, with very little in the way of any lingering flavors. Ale Republic only uses this for drinking water in their water cooler, as the filtering process is time-consuming and has limited output capacity.
“This,” he says, pointing to the rightmost glass, “is the [property’s] original tap water; and this,” gesturing to the middle glass, “is the water we use for brewing.” I can instantly taste the difference between these two glasses and the water filtered through reverse osmosis. The water Ale Republic uses for brewing is pulled from an aquifer that goes through sand but is otherwise unfiltered, and it has a slight tang to it. It’s a flavor that people often think of as involving Belgian yeast, says Gould. “But it’s definitely not. A lot of our American-style beers end up tasting like that.”
“Basically, you have a couple different aquifers that you can pull from on this side of the mountain,” says Gould. “You can pull from right under the mountain, which gives you a really big water source, but it runs through a lot of granite.” He’s right; in the original, unfiltered tap water I can really taste the granite. There is no mistaking that this water came out of the ground, and recently. It is far more minerally than the well water they now use for brewing, so much so that I could easily understand how the flavors would linger in the final product.
Though there aren’t many people who notice the high mineral content of the water in Ale Republic’s beers, those who do are almost always out-of-towners, says Gould. People who live in the East Mountains are used to drinking that well water at home. Partly to mask the mineral taste of their water, Ale Republic leans toward brewing stouts and other dark beers like their Sombra and their Strong Dark and Handsome.
To clarify, this mineral taste isn’t bad—at least not to my palate. It’s just different from what most of us are used to. Knowing that the water comes from under the Sandias adds a little bit of romance to the flavor, because it frames it more in terms of local terroir than “impurities,” which is how water with high mineral content is sometimes thought of. These minerals aren’t unhealthy—in fact, plenty of health-concerned people add trace minerals back into their purified or distilled drinking water for their health benefits, admittedly minor. Also, there are plenty of people who like the taste of rocks in their water; just ask the wildly popular bottled mineral water industry. They’re just picky about what kind of rock, and how much of it.
“When we first opened here, every time we turned on the water it just reeked of sulfur,” says Gould. “We figured it had something to do with the hot water tank. So we cleaned out the water tank and it got rid of the sulfur, but the water in this building was still incredibly hard.” Brewing with well water—or doing anything with well water, really—has its own set of problems that most city folks don’t have to think about.
The water that Ale Republic brews with is from a well they had drilled just about one hundred feet away from the original, granite-flavored well. “This is a lot more shallow a reservoir that we’re pulling from,” Gould says. I ask if anybody has gotten in his hair about the environmental impact of operating a brewery on the limited well system in the East Mountains. “Yeah, definitely,” he says. “When we first opened, we had a zoning hearing. There were a bunch of people who were concerned about the amount of water we were going to use. And the state came in and did a survey and didn’t feel like it was an issue.”
Of course, any brewery in the city running on the city tap water uses much more water, because they don’t have hard limits on the amount they can use. When you’re drawing from a well, you can only use as much water as it can produce. “We’ve never had the well go dry,” Gould says. “We’ve come very close, but anytime we come close we always evaluate and see where we can reduce.”
Hypothetically speaking, Ale Republic could invest in a big enough reverse osmosis filtration system to filter all of the water it brews with, making it taste much closer to the neutral bottled-water taste that we’ve come to think of as a baseline. But then their beer wouldn’t taste like the Sandias anymore. And although being bound to the limits of the well is a hurdle that Ale Republic wouldn’t have to jump over if they just shipped in city water, it also means that their beers literally couldn’t be made anywhere else. And that sounds like an asset to me.
28 Arroyo Seco, Cedar Crest, 505-281-2828, alerepublic.com