How the Birthplace of the Atomic Bomb Sparked an Unlikely Beer Scene

May 31, 2018

By Elizabeth Miller, May 31, 2018

John Rowley tries not to mix his day job with the one that dominates his evenings and weekends. He did once, parking at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he works as a chemist, with a beer keg in the back of his truck from his brewery in Santa Fe. His building is “near where the plutonium stuff is going on,” as he describes it. The northern New Mexico laboratory builds and maintains the nation’s nuclear arsenal—plutonium is the active ingredient in those weapons. Security is, to say the least, a bit tight.

“I got someone running into my office about an hour later, yelling at me, like what the fuck  are you doing?” Rowley recalls. “They were very unhappy with me.”

At the time, he was hauling water from his home well to serve at the brewery he co-owns, Rowley Farmhouse Ales. The security staff demanded the keg don a sign to that effect, so it spent the rest of the day emblazoned with the proclamation: “This vessel contains water.”

The lab, and the town that shares its name, carry some strange holdovers from its history as a hidden holdout for scientists. The federal government took over the site in the 1943 to host a top-secret project to create the world’s first atomic bombs. Scientists were recruited from all over the country to live in hastily constructed houses and work on a project once compared to “tickling the dragon’s tail.” Many of them left their homes unable to explain even to their wives and children where the family was moving. During World War II, an average of 65 people per day checked in at an office in a 300-year-old Spanish hacienda in Santa Fe, before being shuttled another 35 miles up the red canyons of the Pajarito Plateau. A historic placard marks that site at 109 East Palace—just a short walk from Blue Corn Brewing Company.

In 1945, the first atomic bomb exploded in the desert 200 miles south of the town. The project’s lead scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, wrote later that while watching that first mushroom cloud rise into the sky, he thought of a line from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Some of the observers cheered while others cried.

Decades later, the Manhattan Project has matured into an ongoing research laboratory. While research has diversified, the mission is still largely focused around the weapons program. The town that surrounds it, Los Alamos, has the pastoral feel of a 1950s-era suburb. It breaks with other New Mexican towns’ uniform flat-roofed, adobe and desert palette. The rooftops are peaked, and streets lined with green lawns and trees.

Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op

“We’re obviously not a secret anymore, but there are still parts of the lab where people have jobs they can’t speak about—not even their families can know, and they leave town on a whim because they have to,” says Ashley D’Anna, assistant general manager at Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op. “We’re like any other town now, just with guard gates and a lot of high-end information.”

The brewery takes its name from a block of houses visible from the hewn-log benches around its patio fire pit. Those homes were the first in the rapidly built town to be equipped with a bathtub, and it marked the truly high-level staff. The popular Hoppenheimer IPA, noted for a citrus, bitter and dank profile, is named for that lead scientist, a resident of one of those covetously equipped houses. As a co-op, the brewery is owned and directed by its 1,500 members, who buy in for $50 a year or $250 for a lifetime. That membership comes with the option to attend board meetings or run for the board, as well as ongoing discounts for pints, but stems from an ethos that the feel like it place belongs to everyone. Many of the members are employees at the lab, and occasionally the barroom conversation veers toward the confidential, for the most part, work gets left at the office along with any radioactive residue.

Pouring for a remarkable concentration of high IQs can lead to some very complex questions about the beer and a tendency for drinkers to analyze while they sip. One regular comes in weekly to order a flight of the four newest beers on tap and takes notes to send to his son-in-law, a home-brewer. Another comes in with a notepad to run his calculations estimating ingredients, which he’ll then pass to staff so they can check his math—although usually the brewer is gone by the time he’s drinking and there are some secrets they’d be keeping anyway.

Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op

The three-year-old brewery brought on a new brewer in December after two prior staffers left to launch their own operation, which opened its doors in April. Those staffers were Jason Fitzpatrick and Jason Kirkman, who launched Tumbleroot, a combination brewery and distillery, managing near simultaneous openings of two locations, a tasting room at their brewing facility off the southern edge of Santa Fe and a pub and music venue closer to downtown. The tasting room is camouflaged in an office park off the interstate, its narrow bar leading to a window on the warehouse with the copper-topped still for their spirits and a steel table that houses a tiny brewing lab. The wall is lined with droppers, test tubes and devices to measure temperature, density, gravity and pH.

“You’re breaking out the microscope and doing yeast counts, you’re quantifying the amount of oxygen—so there are aspects of chemistry,” Kirkman says, flipping through a three-ring notebook of diligent records. “Chemistry is important, but a scientific process as a whole is more important.”

Without documenting the process as thoroughly as possible, Kirkman says, there’s little chance of repeating the same recipe or making the right changes to it. He’s back to tinkering with some old homebrew recipes based on those notes he made as he methodically worked his way through every style assessed in the beer judge certification program. He’s brought along a couple of those beers to Tumbleroot, including an imperial red tweaked to make even stronger and a hibiscus honey wheat that saw warm reception at the Sangre de Cristo Homebrewers intra-club competition.

He and Rowley both have a longstanding practice of attending Sangre de Cristo Homebrewers meetings. Lately, Tumbleroot’s brewing facility has been hosting their monthly meetings. Rowley has recently stepped down as president of the homebrewers club, the demands of his work at Los Alamos National Laboratory and running Rowley Farmhouse Ales having reached a point he felt precluded him from giving that role the attention it deserved. He still homebrews when he can, and echoes what Kirkman says, that meticulous record-keeping has been vital. He leans on a dataset built by over more than 200 homebrews, and says that skill ranks among the best crossovers from his time at the lab.  

“I have notebooks for everything— Los Alamos has trained me well,” he says.

Those notes help him know what didn’t work well and aid in sparking some strange pairings, he explains, appropriately, over a pour of the Kaffeeklatsch, a Berliner Weisse brewed with Sumatran coffee that does indeed make for a surprisingly palatable combination of peppery and sour flavors.

Bathtub Row Brewing Co-Op

That Rowley would be tinkering with these funky flavors is no surprise, given that he’s so committed to the farmhouse styles that he put them in the brewery name right next to his. Still, the distributors keep asking for more the IPA, Agent Skully, a name listed on the menu with season and episode numbers to mark the varying deployments of hops combinations. With a lot of yeast strains in the “brett-forward” brewery, he takes the extra measure of isolating beers he doesn’t want tainted with Brettanomyces or other free-ranging yeast strains. An English barleywine is currently aging in Buffalo Trace whiskey barrels in a walk-in cooler. The strategy came from a paper Rowley read on cold-aging beer to slow yeast growth.

The brewery situated itself to be a locals’ spot, and so is sandwiched between the commercial corridor of Cerrillos Road and labyrinthine residential streets. The location pairs well with a tour of the installation art project and music venue Meow Wolf and serves late enough that it catches post-concert diners. Dark maple tones dominate a cozy indoor space with just a few seats at the bar and a handful of small tables; the bulk of the seating is outside, under white tent tops and at long community tables. Though they recently hired a full-time brewer, a year and a half after opening their doors, Rowley still stops by most evenings to check on things and on Saturdays to work on production, almost always in a beer geek t-shirt.

Where his work as a chemist really helps, he says, is with honing quality to allow him to meet the demands of these farmhouse ales.

“If you have a big imperial stout or a big barley wine, there’s a lot of room to hide flaws—there’s a lot of malt, there’s a lot of hops, there’s a lot of weird things going on. You can hide off-flavors very well. You can’t do that in saison, in Berliner Weisse, those kind of beers,” he says. “It’s such a simple beer that the only way to really for it to really be good is if it is perfect.”

But good beer takes a little of both sides of the brain.

“The science gives me the tools to figure out the problems with the beer, but it doesn’t help me in terms of my creativity,” he says, “so I think it’s a balance. I’m a Libra, so I’m born to be balanced. I know that sounds really corny, but that’s perfect for Santa Fe.”

Creativity in pairing and cultivating new flavors, he says, comes from the same place any other artist draws: practice. And, of course, lots of carefully considered tasting. Just not at his day job.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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