CBB // So, fantastic art, fantastic culture, fantastic food [in Santa Fe]. Great people. And some great beer; that’s going to be even more great beer as soon as you open something.
AS // Honestly, I feel like New Mexico as a whole, the breweries here really over-index in awards, like at GABF. And there really are not very many breweries here in Santa Fe—I want to say there are maybe eight or 10 at this point, 100 in the entire state. And they take home serious hardware every year at GABF and World Beer Cup. So, people here know what they’re doing. They care a lot about beer, and I feel very grateful to be a part of this community now.
CBB // Let’s talk about your story. Where does your beer story start? And walk us through the various chapters that you have lived so far.
AS // I guess the beer that really kind of made craft beer a thing for me was Elissa IPA from Saint Arnold Brewing in Houston. It’s named after a ship [the 1877 tall ship Elissa] in the Port of Galveston Harbor—it’s an old wooden ship. And when I was a kid in Girl Scouts, I remember going to get a badge, and we spent the night on the Elissa a couple of times. And I learned how to tie knots and had to do the night shift or whatever. But at any rate, that beer—I remember very much being like, “Oh, I spent the night on that ship.” But it was more of an English IPA style; it was quite bitter. I remember having it on cask at a few different bars in Houston. It was a beautiful beer, and I fell in love with IPA at that point in time—I very much was a hophead to start.
I moved to Austin in 2011 with my partner at the time, and I had bought him a homebrew kit for Christmas one year … and he never used it. So, when we moved, I was like, “I’m not going to pack all this stuff up unless we promise that we’re going to use it when we get there.” By the time we got there, I still had all the grain and everything, and the grain had worms and stuff, and it was disgusting. So, we did buy fresh ingredients [and] started homebrewing and just totally fell in love with it. I was homebrewing at least once a week.
When I first moved [to Austin,] I was applying to grad school, so I had some time. I ended up not getting into the program that I really wanted and was just devastated—but also kind of relieved. By then it was late summer 2012. My dad had passed away, and I was re-evaluating my life. … And I got my motorcycle license—it very much was kind of a quarter-life crisis situation. I sent out emails to just about every brewery in Austin at the time. There were not that many. [I was] asking for volunteer opportunities because, “Well, let’s see what this is about.” And Jester King was the first brewery that got back to me—the only brewery that got back to me, really, for a long time. And February 28, 2013, I went out there for my first bottling day. They were bottling Black Metal. We started at like 2:30 in the afternoon and didn’t get finished with that 30-barrel batch until 2:30 in the morning—at which point we ate cold pizza from ripped-up cardboard boxes as plates. And I was just totally in love, as a volunteer, with the process and the people and the experience and everything. I was just totally obsessed with it. So, anytime they sent out an email looking for volunteers, I was there, ready and raring to go. I moved rocks around that property, I painted the taproom, the taproom bathroom. … I was a volunteer for about six months. I asked for a full-time apprenticeship after six months, and they gave me that. So, I was there full-time—not getting paid a whole lot but learning so much.
I did the apprenticeship for six months, then they hired me on full-time as a brewer after that. I was at Jester King until the very end of 2018. I put in my notice at that point in time, but by then I had been production manager, head brewer. I had been awarded some equity in the company, as well, that I continue to hold, so I am still one of several owners of that brewery. I’m very grateful for my time there. I learned so much from so many people. It was a really, incredibly formative time for me. I quit for more personal reasons. … I was super burnt out and needed some personal time. My mom was sick as well. I was like, “You know what, I just need to take some time to be with my family.” And looking back, I’m really glad I did because she ended up passing away a few months after that.
At that point, I moved to Chicago and gave myself a bit of a sabbatical break. And in spring of 2019, I started doing a little bit of work for Half Acre. They used to have a really incredible wild program that was headed up by Lee McComb, who I consider very much to be my beer brother—I learned a ton from him. And I was helping them with some ideas for scaling that program, [which] ended up not coming to fruition post-pandemic, but I had a great time there. And eventually they were like, “We’ve got extra tank space, if you would like to make some of your beer here. I think that would work.” So that was when Keeping Together got started. I brewed the first beer in July 2019 [and] released that beer in December 2019—a table beer called The Art of Holding Space—and then managed to keep that project, that brewing concept, afloat throughout three years of pandemic. Thankfully, the amazing people of Chicago are quite thirsty and enjoy mixed-culture fermentation. So, I was able to make a bunch of different beers there before deciding to move about a year ago [down] here to Santa Fe.
CBB // And you kept it small through that. It wasn’t as if this needed to be a full-time, giant revenue-driving project. It was, make a beer, do a release, get a few more beers going, so that you got to keep a cycle of things coming out.
AS // Over the course of the three years that I was there—it was maybe closer to two years actually producing beer—I did maybe 24 releases, 22 different beers. I did the table beer a few times because obviously we had to keep that in stock.
CBB // That table beer was one of Yvan De Baets’ Pick 6 beers in Craft Beer & Brewing. (See “Pick 6: Yvan De Baets of Brasserie de la Senne is Under the Influence,” beerandbrewing.com.)
AS // Yeah, it was! I saw that and was like, “Aw, you’ve got to be kidding me!” Yvan. I love him, also. How can you not?
CBB // So, basically, a beer a month.
AS // Yeah, more or less. But total volume was about 200 barrels. And I basically did everything myself, from sourcing ingredients to brewing to fermentation management, packaging—which I did with a little bit of help from a couple of other people. I was very fortunate to have a good artist who helps me with the labels and things like that. Her name is Jessica [Deahl]. She’s in Austin. And then, thankfully, I didn’t have to do much in the way of compliance because Half Acre was doing that—which, [I’m] very grateful for all of that. But it was a really amazing experience and afforded me the opportunity to figure out what it is I wanted to make—what my personal beer-making philosophy was. Being at Jester King for so long, there was a little bit more of a collective understanding of what the beers were, for good reason. … There were many people who had ideas about what saison was, and we all came together to make something beautiful.
CBB // As Keeping Together as a brand now evolves into this next phase—and the next phase will be when a brewery and taproom [open] here in Santa Fe—what do you envision that looking like?
AS // I might answer this question, initially, with more of a philosophical [view]—what I wanted this brand to be when I first started it but wasn’t able to really execute because of the cultural moment—with the pandemic, specifically. I wanted the project to be a very experiential concept—[to] build in space between the lines for people to fill in as they enjoy the beers. I wanted there to be a lot more sharing and communication between myself and consumers about what the beers were eliciting for them as far as flavor experiences and memories and things like that. And because we weren’t able to do in-person events for so long, by the time we were able to do those, honestly, some of the wind had been taken out of my sails. I was trying to get this thing off the ground, and we’re all still kind of reeling from this experience, this cultural experience.
So, now here in Santa Fe, I am just so thrilled to be able to build a taproom—a physical, on-premise experience for people to experience the beers and just engage in fellowship and community around the beers. … It’s not necessarily a new idea, by any means, but I am excited to finally be able to shape that experience alongside the beers here in Santa Fe.
CBB // And there’s a particular creative class here in Santa Fe that is absolutely tuned in to that wavelength, that kind of experiential approach—and an experimental approach [that] loves the risk-taking. … There is this heavy, creative undercurrent here that loves that slightly off-angle approach to creating an experience that may be unexpected but also enveloping.
AS// Yeah, that’s actually a really great way of putting all of that. Well done. I feel very much the same way about Santa Fe. And to consider Santa Fe’s background, it very much has been a crossroads for so many people coming through the West. All of the people that have been here for so long, just so many different influxes of cultures and people—and, obviously, not all of it positive. For so many places that experienced that kind of—I’m going to use the word “tension”—with so many people trying to live in one place and make it their own. At some point, that tension has to break, and in so many ways it breaks as creative energy. So, I very much feel that here.
And I think there are absolute parallels between the craft-beer industry as a whole, where so many of us have come from different backgrounds—looking for respite, looking for some sort of creative outlet, looking for freedom from whatever it was that was keeping [us] bound. Prior to getting into beer, I think about so many of the lawyers and people who worked in cubicles and whatever who were like, “Screw this. I’m going to go start a brewery because I can’t do this anymore.” And then I would say, on a more micro level, saison very much has that kind of spirit of resistance and spirit of resilience to it as well. And I think that it will do well here in Santa Fe.
CBB // Let’s talk about saison. Since we’re in this creative place here in Santa Fe, talk to me about your creative process.
AS // For me, saison is very much the pinnacle beer style. So many people are familiar with the romantic notion of what saison is, historically, being this beverage to sustain farmworkers in bucolic places. It has this textural story. … It really is a blank canvas, and you can interpret it in so many different ways and take it in so many directions. … So, for me, saison very much has this tabula rasa—an “it can be whatever you want it to be” kind of thing.
But saison, philosophically, it’s a really fun style to brew. It is a fantastic style to drink. It is the beer that I generally want to drink and want to brew. So, that is more or less why I have gravitated toward it. I think a lot of brewers in the United States—there are plenty of people who make it “clean.” You can think about [Boulevard] Tank 7, that has been a longstanding beer. … And, at this point, when I think of saison, I don’t necessarily think of that beer, but it paved the road for so many of us younger saison brewers in the United States. And that beer has a very specific flavor profile—it’s a little intense for my general taste, personally, but I’m grateful that it exists. And for a lot of people that are maybe just getting into craft beer, just getting into saison, it’s a great starting point. Same with Saison Dupont—obviously Old World, but it has a very distinctive flavor profile, the same way that Tank 7 does. You know, saison can be that, but it can also be mixed-culture tart. It can be the beers that Jester King used to make. It can be the beers that I make. It can be the saisons that are made in so many other breweries around the country. I just appreciate that it can be all these things at once.
CBB // Maybe it’s okay that the style is all-encompassing like that because that pushes us beyond these overly simplistic, reductive terms for creating consumer awareness and understanding. And it forces you as brewers to engage in some sort of communicative way at a deeper level, to really help people understand what those beers are.
AS // I don’t disagree with that. I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues as well about the term “farmhouse ale” and using that. And I know that it is used pretty interchangeably with “saison” at this point, and I don’t disagree with that. But I do think that for the average consumer … like, what does “farmhouse ale” mean? It has a fairly esoteric—perhaps not esoteric, but experiential—connotation to it as well. When you think of “farmhouse,” what do you think? For me, I generally expect it to have some sort of texture or rusticity to it. It might have a little bit of funk, but it doesn’t have to. It might have a little bit of acidity, but it doesn’t have to. I don’t know, I feel the same way about “saison.” But saison, like I said earlier, has that more kind of esoteric term that people don’t fully understand. And I think a lot of people are not as willing, or are not as eager, to get into that vulnerable place of, “Well, what is that? What does that taste like?”
CBB // In five years, how do you hope your customers will think about and view Keeping Together as a brand?
AS // Honestly, I hope that when people think of Keeping Together, they think about a product or an experience that feels comfortable, and unpretentious, and safe, and is a place where they can be vulnerable and access memories of their own that they may not know that they have—and provide a safe space for them to share those memories with each other. Because I think that all of us have really deep-seated flavor, deep-seated sensory experiences. And, more often than not, you just need something to unlock your memory, and then you need a space to share with other people, to communicate those [memories], so that you can relive them. So that’s what I hope people think about.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
For the full conversation with Averie Swanson, listen to Episode 317 of the Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® podcast, beerandbrewing.com. beerandbrewing.com/podcasts