Southwest Brewing News

Rio Bravo serves up beer & jazz in Albuquerque
By Richard Vang
Southwest Brewing News. (Austin, TX) 1994, 2:1

Presented by the Upstate Chunk & Paradigm Company


Cruising west on historic Route 66, one can't help but wonder what the strip in downtown Albuquerque once looked like.  These days, there are a few diners, and some slick-looking classic cars which help ease the pangs of nostalgia.  (I'm making this up, since I wasn't born until 1965, and didn't move to New Mexico until 1991.)  But now, thanks to some innovative entrepreneurs, a New Mexico native Master Beer Judge, and the easy-going public servants of the Duke City, a 1950's vintage neon sign has been restored and glows like an oasis in the desert to signal the arrival of the Rio Bravo Restaurant & Brewery.

When I first entered Albuquerque's most recent addition to the Southwest brewing scene, I was a little skeptical of the size of the restaurant, the white linen tablecloths, and the art deco interior.  I am partial to beer halls with names like "The Windmill," whose interior decorating consists of the annual dusting of the Elk Horns over the fireplace.   But, knowing that there was beer to be had, I advanced undaunted to the distant bar.

I was greeted by a selection of three excellent beers: a golden ale, a American pale ale, and a porter.   Being inverted in many ways, I went straight for the porter, which I found to be slightly sweet and malty, with a mellow roastiness and hints of licorice and chocolate.    Brewmaster Brad Kraus, who is one of only a few Master Beer Judges in the US (and a member of the SWBN's crack team of journalists), brews this lusty, dark ale on the sweet side in order to make a stronger distinction between the different styles of porter and stout.   

Brad began homebrewing about eleven years ago in Houston, Texas, but most of his early experience came from working for Scott Birdwell at DeFalco's Home Wine/Beer Supply Shop.  He learned there that teaching people how to brew was the best way for he himself to learn, since people invariably asked the obscure brewing question.  For Brad, when seeking the desired attributes of a beer style "there are only so many numbers you can crunch.   Eventually, you just have to get in there and brew it." He adds that   "There is still some art left to it, and I like that creative aspect of brewing."

Along the brewing trail, Brad became a national beer judge, and continued to win regional and national championships for his beers.  He then returned to his native New Mexico to brew for the Santa Fe Brewing Company, where he designed medal-winning recipes for a porter (NM State Fair), a barley wine (NMSF), a nut brown ale (NMSF & GABF), and a raspberry ale (GABF).  Three years later, he is now a Master Judge and sole brewer for Rio Bravo.

In addition to the porter, the Brewery offers up Coronado Gold, a full-bodied golden ale which reminds many older patrons of what beer used to be like and lets newer patrons  know what beer can be.  The Gold has the toasty maltiness of Munich malt with a clear, dry hop finish, and, at about 4.8% ABV, it's a little stronger than what most of the Coors drinkers around here are used to.

Since opening in mid-November, Rio Bravo's biggest seller thus far has been the High Desert Pale Ale, an excellent example of the APA style.  It has a beautiful copper color, with an underlying caramel maltiness which balances the bitterness of the Chinook and Cascade hops.  It too carries a good punch at about 5% ABV, which must be one reason why the Rio Bravo wait staff is always so friendly.

The seven barrel system from Century Manufacturing also produced the tawny, malty McMinn 90-shilling Scotch Ale for the Christmas holiday, and an imperial stout for the New Year is about to be drawn.   Brad also plans on brewing a barley wine in late winter, a brown ale in the spring, and a wheat beer or kolsch during the summer months.  There is also talk about a true Dusseldorf style altbier.

The Rio Bravo Restaurant is a resounding success, not to mention a fine example of how to go about starting your own business.  Owners Frank and Lisa Smith and Dave Richards (that's R-I-C-H-A-R-D-S) first began the venture around August of 1993, when, frustrated with life as they knew it, thought "it might be fun to run a [microbrewery]."  They searched around the San Francisco area for examples of what they did and did not want, and then set out for New Mexico, where they had previously resided in Albuquerque.  It was there, while securing some excellent backing from the United New Mexico Bank, finding a space, and hiring a brewer, that Dave first heard of a business contest over a local radio station.

As an afterthought, the entrepreneurs decided to enter the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce's "New Business Challenge," an annual event rewarding the Best New Business Idea in Albuquerque.  Lisa submitted the trio's business plan, and, not soon afterward, Rio Bravo received $40,000 in goods and services from local businesses and vendors.  They admit that the prize has been a blessing, and wonder were they'd be without it.

They selected a site in the downtown area, close to a convention center, several theaters, and right on historic Route 66.  The building, formerly Simon's Western Wear, features a totally refurbished neon sign, first used by the early 1950's store.  Although signs such as Rio Bravo's are now prohibited by legislation, enthusiastic Duke City employees grandfathered the sign in as a historic piece.  Some original artwork, depicting the sign's animated cowboy, now hangs in the restaurant as a tribute.  I think it would make an excellent T-shirt, but then again, I'm just the writer.

The historic building was completely gutted, even to the point of ripping the plaster off the walls to expose the brick underneath, a process which uncovered a surprise mural of a sailing ship.  (The origins of the mural still remain a puzzle to everyone, so if any of our readers have any info that might shed light upon the mystery, please let the proprietors know.)  Everyone participated in the demolition and building of Rio Bravo, from the cooks and Brewmaster to the owners themselves.  Frank, Lisa, Dave, Brad, and architect Garrett Smith certainly were creative in cutting costs to get the operation up and running, but I can assure you that they did not cut corners on the quality of their work.

Rio Bravo's space is exceptionally big by any standards.  The trio picked an art deco interior, and although I am not a fan of the style, I must admit that Rio Bravo is a welcome change from the brass-and-glass look which so many restaurants seem to employ these days.  With clean lines and no clutter, its' "high-dollar" look is pleasing to the eye and deceptive to the wallet, as both beer and food are reasonably priced.

Speaking of food, consultant/chef Barbara Bangay set up the restaurant menu, using traditional Southwestern ingredients which Kitchen Manager Fred Perales serves up in new and tasty ways.  It is a creative, healthy offering, supplemented by different regional American ethnic foods, such as Bay Area seafood and the soon-to-be-appearing Native American buffet.  There is a daily seafood and pasta offering, but this starving writer suggests either a bowl of steaming Posole or the Wild Mushroom Enchilada to shrink the space and make you feel right at home.  If you're still not feeling warmed up to the place, have a seat in front of the mesquite grill and try some Fire Roasted Artichoke.  Finally, for the infidels among us, the restaurant provides an extensive wine list as well as other traditional non-alcoholic beverages.

An upstairs banquet facility has been established, and sits right above the brewhouse, which can be viewed from the main bar through a set of glass windows.  The mezzanine can be reserved for parties, and is used regularly by the Dukes of Albuquerque Homebrewing Club.  It will soon feature a service bar, as well as some dart runs, which should prove to become a quiet "pub within a pub" for the rabid beer fans that comprise the local rugby teams.

If there is one thing I truly enjoy, it's good jazz music, and Rio Bravo provides plenty of that.  They feature live jazz with the Andrew Paul Ensemble during happy hour on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and on Friday and Saturday nights with various local jazz artists.  In addition, the house sound system usually churns out some toe-tappers on a regular basis.

As I said earlier, I was skeptical at first, but by the time I was ready to leave the Rio Bravo Restaurant and Brewery, the cavernous space had been reduced to the dimensions of a cozy, comfortable room by the friendly jazz music, excellent cuisine, and quality beers.  It's a trick unmatched since Alice went to Wonderland.

The Rio Bravo Restaurant and Brewery is located at 515 Central Avenue in Albuquerque, between Fifth and Sixth Streets, phone number (505) 242-6800.

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