Craft beer in the Southwest

6 Dec

Well, the wedding in Port Aransas was a success…even if the attempt to find local beer wasn’t.  After a delayed flight out of Corpus Christi and an extra connection in Dallas, we finally got home last night.  Too bad it was after the local El Paso brewery had closed!  So this morning I woke up in a different state (NM) and more determined than ever to visit my old stomping grounds in Las Cruces: High Desert Brewing.  I probably started going here as an undergrad in the late 90’s.  I remember the beer was flavorful and BIG!  It probably seemed that way because I had been drinking Bud Light and Keystone my entire college career.  I also remember that the beers always seemed sweet.  Not in a cloying way, but looking back, it was clearly residual sugars from the brewing process.  I also remember wicked hangovers after just 3 pints!  I was eager to see if there was a difference this time around.  Upon arrival, I ordered 2 taster trays (they pour four 4 oz tasters per tray) and got down to business.

ESB- The beer had a light orange color and a cream-colored head.  The aroma had a mildly hoppy tint to it, but nothing that I could compare to beers in Portland.  The flavor started with citrus, sort of like a bitter lime, and finished with a barky/spicy/sappy quality.  The bitterness was nice and crisp at the finish.  I was especially impressed with the body on this beer.  It didn’t coat the tongue, but it hung around in the mouth in a really nice way.  I ordered a pint of this after the taster trays, so it was clearly one that stood out.

Steam- The color was a deep gold with a thick, foamy head.  This puppy straight up reminded me of Anchor Steam.  Is that good?  I guess, since that is what many steam beers are compared to, right?  Initially creamy and nutty with that characteristic malt flavor at the end.  Again, nice body to this beer.  Steam beers are not my favorites, usually because of that trademark flavor.  It overwhelms me after a pint.  I know Michael likes them and I could see him really being into this beer.

Amber- The most disappointing of the beers.  When we asked about the beer list, the waitress recommended this one with: “It’s a really good batch.”  Either she was lying or someone was lying to her.  The beer had a pale orange/gold color and smelled a bit of pear.  I could only detect a faint hop aroma.  The taste started crisp, but it got astringent fast.  The astringency overwhelms any malt flavor and characteristic, and basically covers up what little hop flavor may exist.  I also finished with a vegetal quality.  My brother said cauliflower, but I felt like it was more of a bitter green.  A raw bitter green.  Not a good beer.

IPA- The beer had a pale orange color (seems a lot of them looked this way) with absolutely no hop aroma!  I was blown away.  Of all the beers that might have a hop nose, this should be the one, right?  But then I remembered that a traditional English IPA would not be super hoppy in the nose.  This one had a very sweet aroma.  Sort of an apple smell.  The flavor also started off strong on the apple, with a little lemon finish.  The beer had good body and a nice bitter flavor, but I missed the hop nose.  Not sure I would go to the brewery to order this, but I would drink it on a hot day on the patio if someone at my table ordered a pitcher.

Oktoberfest- Deep amber color with a tan head.  The fruit and flower notes are the first thing that hits you when you smell it, then a faint amount of smoke.  Lovely.  The first taste was dominated by the fruit, with sour cherry being something I tasted right away.  As it sat, it gave way to the more toasty flavors and had a nice finish of orange peel.  This was another one that I would have ordered a pint of if I was staying for another round.

Dark Bock- Caramel color with no head to speak of.  The smells of allspice, orange, and smoke came through clearly.  The flavor was very sweet and caramel dominated my palette.  The hops were virtually non-existent in this beer, except for a small amount at the end.  As it sat, it only got sweeter and tasted worse.  It felt like I had just swallowed a spoonful of honey when I drank it. My brother said he would drink it with a toasted peanut butter and banana sandwich.  Good for him.  Keep this away from me.

Porter- Had a nice, dark brown color.  The head lasted a good 10 minutes on this beer as it sat waiting to be tasted.  The roasted malts were obvious upon the first smell.  The coffee and chocolate also showed up.  The beer had all the same flavors once I sampled it, plus the trademark smoke and nuttiness that I like in this style.  The body on this beer was spot on.  Slightly thin, very drinkable.  The hops did exactly what they were supposed to do in this beer.  Support the other flavors and shine at the end.  I think this was the most balanced beer we had and it ran neck-and-neck with the ESB as my favorite.  And wouldn’t you know it?  It was my brother’s fave.

Imperial Stout- The beer was black, but not that midnight black I am so accustomed to seeing in this style when in Portland.  I could see into the beer!  Smell was instantly roasted malt with coffee and a slight hint of vanilla and cognac.  The taste was nice, with more of the vanilla and cognac flavors.  If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that this sat on a barrel of some kind for at least a little while.  It had the flavors and aromas of an aged beer.  The body was a bit lacking though, as it was thinner than I think it should have been for those flavors.  Again, I thought it was well balanced with the hops playing the role they should in the style, but without the thicker body, it was just a so-so offering.

I missed out on the Wheat, Peach Wheat, and Barleywine, but feel like I got a good idea of their offerings.  I remember having some pretty good beers here back in the day.  Their Scottish Ale was a thing of beauty…if memory serves.  All-in-all, it was nice to get back and try all the beers I could.  I have fond memories of the place and was not all that disappointed by what I sampled.  I actually thought that the beers tasted better than they did the last time I came (except the Amber…that was just nasty).  This is an example of practice makes perfect, in my humble opinion.  More practice in the future should yield some tasty results for the residents of the LC.  For southern New Mexico, this is a right fine brewery.  If you ever end up in Las Cruces (for God knows what reason), this is the only place I would recommend for a good beer.  Nobody else is going to carry anything worth drinking.  Craft beer is not a way of life here.

One last note: it started snowing right about the time we went to the brewery.  Snowing.  In New Mexico.  Last week it was 75 degrees and sunny, and the wife and I were sooooo excited about the weather.  We get here and it turns into a winter wonderland.  Go figure.  By the time we left the brewery, the wind chill was down to about 16 degrees and the roads were icy.  This is turning into one hell of a trip back home.  Closed breweries in Texas, delayed planes, icy weather in the desert.  What’s next?  Hopefully one more post from a brewery in El Paso, then an uneventful trip home to my beer fridge and the comforts of Portland, Oregon.


One Response to “Craft beer in the Southwest”


  1. desert home | taphandle - March 25, 2013

    […] have written about this place and its beers before.  Not today.  Today I just wanted to be.  Today I just wanted to drink beer and shoot the shit. […]

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