by Patricia Duran and Jim Stearns
Anxiously awaiting your arrival at the Colfax Ale Cellar brewery in downtown Raton, New Mexico is a small and mighty brew dog named Rudy. This brew dog is always ready to greet you with a bright spirit and a refreshing experience.
Named for its high-ceiling cellar of 6,000 square feet at 215 S. Second St., the Colfax Ale Cellar is owned and operated by Jim and Karen Stearns who opened the venture in July 2017.
After the 2008 recession, Jim felt he was at a crossroads with his career choices in Albuquerque and wondered about taking a different direction in life altogether.
He sought after “something creative yet technical, something with more tangible and pleasurable outcomes compared to processing data.” In 2009, he began looking into brewing beer and thus began the journey that eventually brought the Stearns to Raton.
Jim’s goal for the brewery was to “[have a place where the residents] could say, ‘We have a brewery in the area.’” The craft beer industry brings millions of dollars into New Mexico’s economy, much of it from travelers and tourists who desire to sample local tastes.
Searching for locations to open a brewery, Jim and Karen spent time traveling and analyzing which New Mexico area would be a good fit for their business idea. After a year of trekking small and rural communities, the desire to find excellent water, essential infrastructure, and proximity to roads of commerce led them to Raton. The city was an obvious choice with great potential, climate, and in need of new businesses.
“I grew up [east of Albuquerque] at this elevation and with seasons similar to here,” explains Jim. “When my dad was still alive, he would call me every week after we moved to Raton to ask how the weather was. I would tell him the conditions and temperature because of the International Bank sign across the street.” Jim’s father passed away in 2016, just a month before he would have made the move to Raton.
“I feel really at home here; I like the elevation and climate. I like pretty much everything about the area,” explains Jim.
Additionally, Raton became their top choice because Jim and Karen wanted to be a part of the historicity of Raton—an 1800s gateway to the Southwest.
“The downtown area of Raton has so much charm and history, and it shouldn’t be forgotten. We would love to be able to breathe some life back into the downtown area,” explained Karen. “We have so many residents that are just west of downtown and are still in the historic part of Raton. It’s nice to be able to be a part of that.”
The story of the Colfax Ale Cellar began in the 1990s when Jim and Karen met in Albuquerque while working together for an engineering company. Karen’s degree is in Civil Engineering, and she brought her Professional Engineer’s license in 2014 to open the Raton office of Engineering Analytics, a consulting firm headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado. Jim’s background includes engineering technologies, but his degree is in Spatial Sciences (Geographical Information Systems) and Mapping.
In 2010, Jim began brewing professionally at a small one-barrel brewery in Albuquerque. To supplement his knowledge, he studied Brewing Science and Engineering under the American Brewers Guild, receiving a diploma in Fall of 2012. That education was indispensable in preparing for installation of a manufacturing facility.
"I had been working in the engineering and mapping business since my early twenties. However, brewing is something I always enjoyed after those other jobs of making maps and drafting construction plans,” says Jim.
The enjoyment of craft beers has been a passion of Jim’s since the early 1980s, giving him an appreciation of the products but also the culture that is related to beer around the world.
From beer halls and festivals in Germany to the high art of Belgian ales, where a bottle of beer may be shared between five or six people over conversation and a meal, to English Pubs that have served their communities for 500 years. Jim and Karen researched and have come to know the different kinds of beer that influenced the emerging American-beer history since homebrewing was legally passed in 1979.
“I’m from a different sort of world where the whole family comes into the bar, even the dog. That hasn’t existed [in Raton] yet, but it’s starting to.” Hence, brew dog Rudy, a rescue Chihuahua who entered the picture in 2018.
“The craft brewing experience in the U.S. parallels my adult life. New Mexico’s craft beer scene has exploded and evolved over the years from the 1980s in Albuquerque,” says Jim. “A lot of people don’t necessarily come to bars because of perceived stigmas, I think. I am converting one person at a time to the joys [and culture of savoring] one beer after work and enjoying conversation with friends and new acquaintances.”
Homebrewing with Jim from 2012 to 2013, Karen learned the steps of brewing and packaging beer, which helped her understand how to renovate the historic Dwyer Building that would be home to their brewery.
Since opening as Dwyer’s Department Store in 1908, the building housed a diverse assortment of tenants, including a silent movie theater in the early 1920s, Sears, Modern Electric, Buttram Plumbing and Electric, and an indoor archery range in the 1990s. On the top floor, the Aztec Commandery, a chapter of Masons, occupied and owned the building for decades.
The demolition and renovation took two and half years before opening. Since then, Jim has brewed over a dozen different styles of ales and lagers. They have three house ales – Rabbit Chaser Golden Ale, Goat Hill IPA and Van Houten Stout. Other beers are available as seasonals, including Saisons, Scotch Ale and a variety of stronger, barrel-aged beers.
The making of the beer takes place in the cellar. Karen noted that the basement of the old Dwyer building works well for a brewery because it reduces costs of air refrigeration, keeping the kegs and bottles below the tasting room at 52 degrees throughout the year.
The Colfax Ale Cellar logo is based on a photograph that Jim took of the original stairs leading down into the darkness of the cellar. The illustration we now see today captures the spirit of the building.
“There’s a certain synergy which I think we bring to some of the businesses in the downtown areas. For example, we get people coming in after watching a show at the El Raton or Shuler Theaters. Folks come in, have a drink, and discuss the play or movie with each other,” say Jim and Karen. “That makes [us] feel good [that they have a place to go afterwards].”
Jim says that the most rewarding part of owning the brewery is “having people come in who were unaware of what we do, unsure if they like beer, and then tell us how much they enjoyed their time and liked the beer. Being thanked for being here in Raton makes it all worthwhile.”
In building the craft beer culture in Raton, Jim and Karen are optimistic about their brewing endeavors.
Colfax Ale Cellar frequently hosts local and touring performers and musicians. They also host Buzztime Trivia and games for the youngsters.
Bruno’s Pizza and Wings delivers food to the cellar, as well as sells their beer along with the Ice House. The brewery has several employees who tend the bar and assist brewing in the cellar. Colfax Ale Cellar will soon be sending beer to Albuquerque to share a taste of Raton.
So come in, share a beer, and enjoy some conversation. Rudy will be waiting.