an interview with Jason Baczkiewicz and the Steel Bender brewyard team
Local Hero – Best Gastropub
Steel Bender Brewyard is a family-owned brewery and gastropub in the Village of Los Ranchos, serving craft beer and cider alongside scratch comfort fare (made daily by award-winning chef Jason Baczkiewicz and his remarkable crew). A warm and welcoming public house, Steel Bender Brewyard also distributes beer and cider to restaurants and retail locations throughout New Mexico.
How did you get to where you are now? What’s the backstory, and what was the moment that brought you to your current work?
Jason Baczkiewicz: My culinary road map started in Roswell, where I spent six years making mozzarella at Leprino Foods, one of the largest dairy producers in the world. In the early 2000s, I moved to Albuquerque, flipping burgers at 66 Diner before heading to Flying Star for several years. After attending CNM’s culinary program, I cooked at Fat Squirrel and Turtle Mountain Brewing until I got a call from executive chef Jonathan Perno to do a one-day stage at Los Poblanos. For the next five years, I worked under Perno, learning about field-to-fork cooking, animal butchery, and local, seasonal ingredients. I then became sous chef, and then chef, at Steel Bender. I love everything about the kitchen and have enjoyed using my passion and experience to shape Steel Bender’s menu and culture.
You won the People’s Choice award in the 2019 Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown, which now seems like a lifetime ago. How did you develop that delicious recipe, and is it still on the menu?
Jason Baczkiewicz: In creating the Los Ranchos Four-Chile Burger, my goal was to showcase as many local ingredients as possible. I wanted to intensify the flavors while respecting the simplicity of the classic green chile cheeseburger. The burger is 100 percent brisket, sourced from Navajo tribal lands. We made a chile mustard aioli using paprika, Padrón, and bird peppers from Thunderhead Farms. We sourced seasonal tomatoes and onions from Loose Leaf Farm and arugula from Vida Verde Farm, plus Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory cheddar, and chopped Bueno green chile. A balsamic truffle-onion vinaigrette brought it together, and then we stacked it all on a Pastian’s Bakery bun.
We’ve been selling a lot of Los Ranchos Four-Chile Burgers since last September, and it’s a great addition to our menu. (All limbs crossed that by the time you’re reading this, we will be offering it on our full menu once again!)
Irresistible appetizers are elemental to any gastropub menu. What are your most popular starters? Your most unusual?
Our fried green chile strips quickly became a customer favorite. They’re beer-battered and fried and served with a side of red chile ranch. For something different, try our vegetarian seitan wings, which won an Albuquerque The Magazine Hot Plate Award.
What’s a menu item (or beer) you wish people ordered more often?
Jason Baczkiewicz: Definitely the Village Turkey! It’s a play on the classic Albuquerque turkey sandwich, but we pickle the green chiles to give it a new twist.
Robert Haggerty, head brewer: A pet project of mine and a personal favorite, the Village Wit, a Belgian-style wheat ale brewed with coriander and orange peel. It’s offered can-conditioned, enhancing the complexity and producing a prickly carbonation.
Tell us about your single-hop hazy DIPA series.
Robert Haggerty: Our single-hop hazy double IPA series showcases some of the more characterful hop varieties out there. With this series of four brews, we wanted to have some fun and bring some smiles to some hoppy faces. Three more will be released.
How have your team and business fared during the pandemic? Have you had to adapt your menu or your distribution model?
Shelby Chant, co-owner: This industry is made up of some of the most resilient people you’ll ever meet. Since March, we’ve been using the tagline (more like a mantra): “Stronger. Because we’re bending steel together.”
Early on in the pandemic, we joined Other Half Brewing’s (New York) initiative to brew and can All Together IPA, with 100 percent of proceeds benefiting restaurant and hospitality workers. (We donated to the New Mexico Restaurant Association’s Serving New Mexico Fund, which awards small grants to hospitality workers facing hardships during the pandemic.) We had just lost about 95 percent of our taproom staff due to the shutdown. The support was unreal. Guests who had their own challenges ordered takeout, leaving big tips (even a hundred-dollar tip for a six-pack!). They told us they missed us and thanked us for providing some normalcy by staying open. Our skeleton crew wore more hats than usual to keep things running. And our fellow breweries—well, New Mexico has the best brewers guild around. Everyone has been “bending steel” in some fashion since March. Our taproom, kitchen, and brewing staff have become masters of agility. But strength in numbers, strength in positivity, strength in kindness, that’s how we’ve been able to adapt, sometimes daily, to battle the challenges. I’m in awe of our staff and the creative problem-solving that’s happening in small businesses, and I’m humbled by the community’s support.
Adam Auden, sales and distribution manager: As for distribution, obviously with the restrictions around on-premise dining and drinking, we have had to pivot to packaging much of our beer that would have previously been draught-only in our taproom. Another change was forgoing festival season. Normally, we’d be all over the state at festivals, meeting New Mexico’s craft beer fans—something we look forward to being able to do again.
What is a local food issue that’s important to you?
Jason Baczkiewicz: I strongly encourage people to support local restaurants during this time. Too many small businesses have closed due to the pandemic. By buying local, you’re supporting farmers and independent businesses to help them survive during these uncertain times.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?
That’s easy: our heartfelt thanks for supporting New Mexico’s small restaurants and businesses.
8305 2nd St NW, Albuquerque, 505-433-3537,
All Together alltogether.beer