By: Rob McCorkle
While on a reconnaissance run to Las Cruces last spring to find a place to rent before moving from the Texas Hill Country, I decided it was time for a little R & R. I went in search of a brewpub I had read about – High Desert – to have a beer and eat lunch. I had yet to acquire a smart phone, so I employed the age-old wayfaring method of map and address. After one false start, I finally found my way to West Hadley Avenue. I drove a couple of blocks east to where I thought the brewery would be. But nothing. I turned around and approached the supposed location from the other direction, and again, no luck. I saw a lunch crowd waiting to get into Nellie’s Café, so I parked on the street and inquired about the brewpub’s location. With a bemused look, one of the prospective diners pointed across the street to a nondescript, slump block building barely visible behind a row of trees and monster shrubs. Upon closer inspection, sure enough, I spotted the microbrewery sign mounted just above the eve. Eureka!
Of today’s more than 5,000 craft breweries, San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing claims to be the nation’s oldest, dating to the Gold Rush. Another California microbrewery, Albion Brewing Company, is widely credited as having launched the nation’s current craft beer movement in 1976. Craft brewing didn’t debut in Las Cruces until the 1990s. High Desert Brewing Co., founded in 1997, reigns as the granddaddy of the city’s craft brewing scene. New Mexico State University biology professors Mark Cunningham (now deceased) and Bob Gosselin decided to take the success they enjoyed in home brewing competition and go commercial. At the time, two struggling local microbreweries already existed. They ultimately played out, but this July marks High Desert’s 20th anniversary at their central Las Cruces location in a light industrial/commercial area about a mile west of downtown.
High Desert occupies a rambling building that once housed various commercial enterprises, including a furniture store, and small apartment units in the back that the brewery took over as leases expired to expand brewing operations. Manager Donna Almarez says the brewhouse originally occupied what is now a small room adjacent to the bar area that once was separated from the rest of the brewpub by doors and a large glass window to watch the brew-making magic. The room, which was updated during a large-scale interior renovation 10 years ago, now includes a handful of concrete-top tables and padded benches built along the walls. High Desert, unlike many of the newer, trendier brewpubs, has a true “bar” feel — dark, but not too dark, minimal decorations, and classic rock and blues pulsing overhead. Hundreds of beer coasters cling to the ceiling like a tiny cardboard bat colony. Patrons can grab one of the stools at the wooden bar, sit at one of a dozen or more tables in the bar area or adjoining dining room, or sit outside. The front courtyard, mostly hidden from street view by walls lined by a thicket of trees and large rose bushes, provides an intimate, yet informal, setting.
I took advantage of a recent bluebird March afternoon to grab a small courtyard table next to the door with an ideal vantage point of customers sipping on suds and enjoying ideal weather. A handful of regulars, one with a large black dog, occupied stools at a counter in a small a “Smoking Area”, puffing and quaffing. A young couple from El Paso, one wearing a Rahr (a Fort Worth brewery) t-shirt that catches my eye, is seated nearby, sipping an IPA and Brown Ale. A NMSU coed sits down at the adjacent table, stacking unlit cigarettes in an ashtray to photograph for a multimedia class. I’m surprised, but delighted to see that the brewpub is featuring its German-style Octoberfest as one of the 11 beers on tap even though it’s spring. (The 12th tap is reserved for the homemade root beer.) The flavorful, full-bodied seasonal ranks at the top of my High Desert favorites. I had the server bring me a taste of the golden-hued Steam Beer, but opted for the Octoberfest to go with an order of chips and slightly piquant queso.
High Desert is open seven days a week and offers a rotating menu of light and dark beers, handcrafted with top-quality hops and grains by Head Brewer Andres Obregon, following Brewmeister Bob’s recipes. The brewery’s original 100-gallon system has been doubled to 7 barrels. The Las Cruces Sun-News 2016 Reader’s Choice poll ranked High Desert the city’s top microbrewery. During my visits, I’ve enjoyed 8 or 9 different styles, ranging from the Peach Wheat to the Dark Bock, and found all to my liking. The weeks surrounding Saint Patrick’s Day “blessed” my palate with a seasonal Irish Red Ale – a light-bodied brew tasting of caramel malts and roasted barley with just a hint of hops. It’s worth noting that once a year High Desert brews a batch of India Pale Ale with its own hops grown from rhizomes donated 20 years ago. IPAs top the brewery’s most preferred list with several styles rotating off and on the laminated beer menu, where red dots denote what’s available. However, other styles, such as the Brown Ale (Donna’s favorite), Amber Lager and Amber Ale (even my wife, who rarely drinks beer, liked it) hold sway with a number of customers. Pours come in 10 ounces ($3.25) and 16 ounces ($3.75) for most ales and lagers. A 60-ounce pitcher runs $12. You’ll pay a little more for bocks and some seasonals, as well as specialty beers. Take home a half-gallon growler (a $3 jug deposit) full of your favorite for $10 to $14 or order a keg for your next party.
Donna has High Desert caps and growler Koozies on order. Hanging on the wall near the bar is a colorful array of long-sleeve and short-sleeve tee shirts, featuring the brewery’s stylized thunderbird logo. High Desert souvenir pint glasses, too, are for sale.
This neighborhood pub draws beer lovers young and old and from all walks of life. You’ll rub elbows with general contractors, NMSU faculty and grad students, doctors, lawyers, retirees, cyclists and the like. High Desert features live music starting at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. A younger, tattooed party crowd comprises much of the brewpub’s clientele after dark. Expect to hear a variety of music – from country to blues to rock. Dogs on leashes are welcome, as they have been since the day the brewery opened. Parents bring young ‘uns, too, for lunch and dinner. For wine drinkers, High Desert stocks several local varietals from Amaro Winery and Rio Grande Winery.
The nachos – a veritable volcano of black beans cheese, diced tomatoes, jalapenos, salsa and sour cream – have a fanatical following. Choose from 4 sizes, ranging from an extra small to large. But give me the down-and-dirty green chile cheeseburger served on a Kaiser roll with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion – please! I’m not sure if it’s the seasoning or the chile “filet” (not diced or sliced) topping the patty, but I rank this toothsome baby right up there with New Mexico’s best. High Desert features a number of enticing appetizers, such as raw veggies, jalapeno poppers and fried raviolis, as well as more filling items like chili, green chile stew, bratwurst, quesadillas, burgers, chicken sandwiches and a popular Reuben sandwich. A Children’s Menu offers kid-friendly meals for $3.50.