Monday, June 27, 2011

Lofty Lunchers at La Cumbre

I lifted the squat, beveled pint glass to the unrelenting afternoon sunlight streaming through the window and failed to see any trace of solar brilliance, like some sort of deep-sea creature eager to see even a glimmer of light through the brackish water. (For once, Jenny is the deep-sea creature in this simile.) This stout was liquid night, and not just any night, but the kind of delicious, infinite, caramel-covered nights we associate with first-kisses or love-making. The stout was, in a word, perfect.

Good beer heaven. We found you at last!

Wait wait wait WAIT. We hadn't found beer heaven ever in our lives before now?

I suppose I should back up just a minute and explain. (Oh. You were going to elaborate. I should have waited.) You see, not eight minutes previously Zach and I were blanching under the scorching desert sun, deep in the industrial region that intersects at Girard and Candelaria. We were suspiciously eyeing a yellow-stuccoed, square, 1970s-box-style building with wrought-iron bars on the windows. The sign outside the establishment told us we had correctly located our destination, but all the tombstone-like gray warehouses and industrial lots spanning out as far as the eye could see told us otherwise.

It was more Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood than Mr. Rogers' is what she's saying.

At two-thirty on a Sunday, La Cumbre Brewery was not exactly hopping. We stood across the street wondering if we should even go in. Or if we should get back in the car and drive away, hoping no one had slashed our tires or stolen our engine while we stood there indecisively.

Maybe they were closed. After all, their posted hours for the day were noon to "close."

But go in we did, mostly spurred on by the sunburn forming on my pale shoulders. And our undoubtable masculine manliness, naturally. We discovered an easy-going, mostly empty, two-story drinkery. Big, bulky wooden chairs. Thick-lumbered square tables mixed in with round barrel-top tables. Hanging lamps were creatively crowned with license plate lamp shades. One quick glance up revealed an equally creative beer-bottle chandelier.

I could tell by the relaxed why in which the three or four patrons were snugged up to the bar, La Cumbre was a great place to enjoy a beer--despite the inauspicious exterior.

And apparently a great place to brew a beer, too. Or at least to be a brewer. The wall-mounted menu was the standard blackboard with colored chalk that so many breweries and brewpubs have come to love. But where most stop at the beer's name and the ABV, this one had terms I had to ask about to understand (Initial gravity and final gravity -- they are the density of the wort at the beginning and end of the brewing process) on top of facts like the brew date and the bitterness level (IBU). Non-sports-inclined stat nerds: I have found your mecca. (Sports-inclined stat nerds: you'll be happy to know the bar-mounted TV was showing sports. Present, without dominating the atmosphere. I dig it.)

Zach ordered a Beer. Yes, that's what it was called and I'm sure he'll spare no details describing it.

If one or two details are lucky I'll spare them. But yes, I mostly ordered this one on name alone. Beer with a capital B. The barkeep told me it was a pre-Prohibition-style American lager. And despite sounding like a drink for Neanderthals, this is the beer to give all your snotty friends who claim they don't like beer but they love them some white wines. This Beer tasted eerily like a good German Riesling, with the bubbles of a sparkling white. I could have sworn I smelled the acidity of fermenting grapes, which must have been a trick of the hops. The hops were otherwise veiled, as beyond the unexpected and remarkable flavor they added, the Beer had the lack of bitterness one associates with a good lager. Good carbonation, good head, good transparency, good full flavor... good Beer. Mmmm.

I got the Malpais Stout, which I described above. This stout warms the mouth, prickles oh-so gently without being at all creamy. It has no head to speak of, which brought to my mind the look of a porter, but perhaps La Cumbre did not use a nitros-tap as one would if serving a Guinness. But the initial flavor and aroma was definitely like a Baltic Porter. And I don't mean to kick off some kind of porter vs stout debate. I'll take the beer's name at face-value and say it was a stout. After all, there were the trademark flavors of coffee and a tiny bit of chocolate which come in a classic American Stout.

And, true to its name, that stout was just as black as the lava rock it was named for. If you haven't been to the excellent hiking areas of the El Malpais National Monument, you really should. They are just a short drive west, toward Gallup. From flowing pahoehoe (pah-hoy-hoy) lava-falls to jagged acres of razor sharp a'a ( know like the sound you'd make if you walked barefoot over it), El Malpais is like visiting another world.

And so is going to La Cumbre! They have and enforce a three-drink limit and post quite clearly the numbers to Safe Ride or cab companies. The owners feel strongly about drinking, but also feel strongly against drinking and driving. They encourage patrons to sip and enjoy or take home growlers. Zach and I strongly support their efforts, too. Indeed. This is a bar not about drinking so much as it is about savoring and appreciating and doing so responsibly. The time slid pleasantly by and before too long La Cumbre was filling up with a congenial crowd.

We settled into our seats, nestled down in our beers and then emptied our picnic bag on the table. Yes, you read that right. We brought in our own food and partook of it freely. Besides the wonders of it's beers, La Cumbre is unique because they allow the patrons to bring in their own food. Lunch, dinner, snacks. Whatever. We brought cheesy mustard sandwiches on rye bread, chips and salsa, some strawberries and Gouda cheese.

My goodness, my gracious. If you have never tried pairing beers with cheeses and fruits and breads... well, you'll be the snob you swore as a freshman in college that you'd never be. But the right pairings are SO GOOD.

With the right blend of blues, jazz, and rock music cranking through the speakers, we had no trouble getting comfortable at La Cumbre. We had been told before coming that the upstairs portion had an excellent assortment of couches and pool tables, but I'm afraid we were happily ensconced right where we were downstairs. Like the Walrus and the Carpenter, we talked of many things not limited to shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, cabbages, and kings!

We were so pleased and so thoroughly enjoying ourselves that Zach returned to the bar to get a South Peak Pilsner for me and Pyramid Rock Pale Ale for him. In hindsight, I am very glad I did an about-face on my beer selection. The South Peak Pils was just as yellow and transparent as the Malpais Stout was black and ubiquitous. According to the drink menu, this Pils is made with Czech Saaz hops, which imbue it with a "rustic" flavor, but I tasted warm, buttered sourdough. Heck, I smelled bread when I held this beer up to my nose. Whether that's a sign of rustic hops or diacetyl in the yeast, who knows or cares. The Pils was good and paired excellently with the strawberries and cheese in our picnic.

And the Pale Ale is not to be confused with an India Pale Ale (increased hoppiness in the original style to preserve it for travel) or an American Pale Ale (I swear these give hop-heads their name). This was more in the style of what I call English Pale Ales, wherein the scales are tipped in favor of hops over malt, but the hops play on each other and the other flavors rather than dominating. English Pales have always felt a little floral to me... sweet, and a touch of bitterness around the edges, but ultimately dedicated to a bouquet of beauty on the taste buds. Floats like a butterfly without ever stinging like a bee. Just beats you around the face with its vibrant wings for a while.

Ultimately, La Cumbre lives up to it's name. It is, in my opinion, the summit of great beers made locally in Albuquerque! (OUR opinion! I'm shocked -- SHOCKED -- to hear Jenny say this, though. Unless she's not counting Rio Rancho as part of Albuquerque...) You wouldn't want its neighborhood to be your neighborhood, but I guarantee that after one visit, you'll want La Cumbre to be your neighborhood bar!


  1. Footnote:
    Don't be so shocked, Zach. No, I did not count Rio Rancho in my "Albuquerque" area, but if I had I would have been torn between awarding a winner's belt or a tie between La Cumbre and Turtle Mountain...a place I hope we'll get to review before we leave for the Emerald Isle.

  2. I'm curious if you two have ever run across a place that allows beer tastings, say for someone who doesn't drink much and isn't sure what they would like. Smaller sizes suitable for sampling!

  3. You know, Kim, most good breweries will definitely do either small servings of their beers (about 4 oz.) or will serve a sampler with small servings of several (or all!) of their beers. And any respectable bar will let you have a very small taste of any beer before you order it.

    Shoot, we should take you somewhere and let you try a bunch of samples! Find out what your tastes are!