Wheeler Peak above the valley

A hike and a couple beers at high altitude

Moreno Valley location in the USA
Moreno Valley location in the USA

The Moreno Valley in Northern New Mexico is as long wide bowl of grassland punctuated by a large lake.  There are unique opportunities for scenic hikes and a couple of brewery visits all at above the 8200 feet (2500 meters) altitude of Eagle Nest Lake.  High peaks up to 13,000+ feet (3960+ m) tower above the valley to the west and 10,000+ feet to the east.

location of breweries and hike
location of breweries and hike

For some reason, I got curious about what are the highest altitude breweries in New Mexico, the USA, and the world which led me to take a trip to the Moreno Valley, location of the highest breweries in NM.  Enchanted Circle Brewing Company in Angel Fire and Commanche Creek Brewing Company near Eagle Nest are both at about 8400 feet (2560 m) .  I knew I would be able to find a nice hike to work up a thirst so I packed up my tent and my bike and hit the road on a sunny June morning.

The history of the valley is rooted in old school ranching operations and as the area has become popular for tourists and vacation home properties There is relatively little public land in the Moreno Valley although there are a couple of State Parks with camp sites.  I camped near Eagle Nest Lake which meant I had a short, scenic 20 minute drive in the morning to get to the trailhead.

Clear Creek Hike route
click for interactive map of hike route

The hike I chose was on a trail up Clear Creek canyon, a side canyon of the dramatic Cimarron Canyon.  This canyon is a NM wildlife area that is part of a NM State Park.  The hike I took was about six miles (10 km) round-trip, in and out by the same route. The first half climbs reasonably gently along the stream although there are occasional short, steep stretches.  I would call it an easy-moderate hike.  The stream is crossed several times on wooden plank footbridges for most of the route although I had to wade higher up (glad I brought my water shoes).  The beauty is that you can turn around and retrace your steps whenever you want, so there is no need to worry about going beyond your abilities.  Clear Creek is a beautiful little stream that cascades over several small waterfalls along the route.  The undergrowth can be thick along the stream but thins out into nice glades of fir and aspen away from the water.  Once you turn around, it is pretty much down grade all the way back to the trailhead.  (Click on any photo in the gallery below to open a slideshow of all of the images.)

By the time I finished the hike, I was ready for a beer. Finding the closest brewery was a small adventure in of itself. Comanche Creek Brewery is embedded on a ranch north of the village of Eagle Nest. The highway turn-off is about two miles north and is well marked. You immediately are on a well-maintained gravel road heading toward the mountains to the west. Occasional rustic signs give confidence that you are going the right way. Otherwise, you would think you are in the middle of a remote ranch — and you are.

Road to Comanche Creek Brewery
Road to Comanche Creek Brewery
Approaching Comanche Creek Brewery
Approaching Comanche Creek Brewery

Approaching Coyote Creek Brewery

Coyote Creek Brewery

Coyote Creek Brewery Beer GardenAfter a couple of miles you pull up into the yard outside an old cabin with a rustic “Brewery” sign hanging under the eaves. A tin roof projects from the front of the cabin over a small outdoor seating area.   The beer garden consists of some handmade rustic log furniture and a couple of picnic tables.  A wooded stream flows by in the background and there are big forest and mountain views all around. Standing behind a counter in the open doorway of the small cabin is owner and brewer Kody Mutz. He gives me the rundown of the available beers and then draws me a Homestead Amber Ale, his flagship brew.

Homestead AmberThe Homestead Amber is a German-style Altbier that strikes a nice balance between malty and hops flavors.  It is a smooth beer that went down very easy.   In surroundings with such interesting character and natural beauty it makes for a pretty cool beer experience.

Coyote Creek BreweryThe brewery, a 3 BBL kit consumes all of the space within the old cabin.  Kody told me that his great-grandfather built the cabin back in the 1940’s to serve as a blacksmith shop for the 7000 acre family ranch that remains in family hands to this day.  Kody and his wife had been living in Colorado where he did a bit of home brewing and became interested in the idea of a brewery.  About seven years ago they decided to get serious but felt that the brewery scene in Colorado was a bit overheated.  The old cabin on the homestead in New Mexico came to mind and the rest is history.

Kody draws a beer
Kody draws a beer

Coyote Creek Brewery bottling machine

Coyote Creek Brewery OfferingsOther groups started showing up and I couldn’t miss the “wow” factor on many of the faces of finding a good beer in such an interesting and pretty setting.  A couple of the groups were people (adults) from the nearby Philmont Boy Scout Ranch (no merit badges relating to beer — I checked).  Apparently Philmont has a core staff of about 200 and hundreds of adult leaders come in seasonally from all over the country for various trainings and activities.  Another group was a couple of families from Texas — the kids played by the creek.  The beer garden is open year-round Wednesday through Saturday noon-6.  It is apropos to bring a snack or a picnic.  Soft drinks and a couple of NM wine choices are also available.  The venue is available for private events as well.

Coyote Creek BreweryCoyote Creek Brewery

Coyote Creek Brewery Ol' Smokey AleIt was time for another beer and this time I tried the Ol’ Smokey Ale, a brown ale brewed with a smoked malt.  This beer is quite dark in appearance, but not overly heavy to drink.  The smoke flavor is not overbearing and balanced nicely with the overall aroma and taste.  They keep five beers on tap at any given time and they also bottle the amber ale.  The taps rotate between a range of nine or ten different beers depending on what Kody has been brewing.  In addition to the brewery, he told me that they supply a couple of places in Eagle Nest.

Coyote Creek Brewery

So, is there anything tricky about being a high altitude brewery?  The impression I took away from Kody was that there are some adjustments to be considered, but he didn’t really see it as a big issue for him.

Coyote Creek Brewery - leaving the ranch

sign at the highway

Hells Bells HellesAfter a nice afternoon stretch at Commanche Creek I headed over to the resort town of Angel Fire at the south end of the valley for a beer and a bite to eat at Enchanted Circle Brewing Company.   ECBC is a brewery and pub operation tucked into a business strip along the highway that passes thru Angel Fire.  The altitude here is also listed as 8400 feet.  They list fifteen different beers in their range and I chose the Hells Bells Helles Lager to accompany my taco salad.  Nice, friendly service and a good, drinkable beer.  I did not have a chance to talk to the brewer, but I did get a peek into the brewhouse.

Enchanted Circle Brewing Company
ECBC does barrel conditioning for some beers

Enchanted Circle Brewing CompanyEnchanted Circle Brewing CompanyEnchanted Circle Brewing Company

Wheeler Peak across the valley
Wheeler Peak across the valley

Alot of people think of the Denver area as being high altitude at 5000+ feet (“mile high”) but most all of the breweries in Northern NM are mile-and-a-half high or more.  My internet search did not find any definitive list of breweries by altitude, but there were a few fun things.  The highest brewery I found in the USA was Periodic Brewing  in Leadville, Colorado at 10,100 feet ( 3075 m).  I think there are several others in Colorado above 9000 feet in places like Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco, and Silverton.  These are downhill compared to some South American breweries in places like Cusco, Peru (11,150 feet/3400 m) and La Paz, Bolivia (11,975 feet/3650 m),

Touch Me Not Mountain across Eagle Nest Lake
Touch Me Not Mountain across Eagle Nest Lake

The question of the effects of consuming beer at high altitudes also came into the conversation, so I did a bit of research on this as well.  Interestingly, I could not find any definitive studies but I got some interesting insights that made sense to me.  Let me share a nicely written answer to this question I found on Quora.com

You can think of each person’s ability to tolerate unfavorable physical conditions as a sort of “physiologic reserve” that “tanks” adverse conditions and prevents the body from tipping too far out of homeostasis too quickly and risking injury.  Alcohol requires some physiologic reserve to tolerate.  It’s a poison. A socially accepted and popular poison, yes, but a poison. If you drink too much or too fast, you’ll use up more and more of your reserve.and next thing you know you might find yourself waking up the following morning in the ER. Or a stranger’s room with a broken nose wearing a gorilla suit and wondering why you have a tattoo of a hairy tortoise on your forehead.

The thing is, altitude that you’re not accustomed to also requires some physiologic reserve too, as seen in mountain sickness in a general tourist … Altitude is pretty challenging stuff, if you’re not used to it. Your body as a whole is compensating for oxygen changes and undergoing physiologic responses to its acid-base chemistry to keep you alive and functioning. The higher you go, the more reserve you need.

So…imagine then, if you mix the two, what might occur. You have two forces competing for space in your physiologic reserve. It’s obviously going to be THAT much easier to hit the max and become hammered. It’s not just altitude’s fault, and it’s not just alcohol’s fault, but they definitely don’t make things easy for each other. If you balance carefully, you might well be just fine, with maybe even some room to spare…  …but at higher altitudes or alcohol consumption levels, it’s just so much easier to exceed the capacity of your reserves.

The key is this: note that altitude is always going to be using some physiologic reserve until you go back to sea level, meaning that you may well be drunk for a little while longer before you’re back within your physiologic reserve’s usual limits.  The extent to which alcohol will affect you at altitude depends on the following variables: 1) The size of your physiologic reserve: as you get older, the reserve available for discretionary use gets smaller, as it is increasingly used just to keep you alive despite aging. 2)  The level of altitude: 5000 feet is not going to be the same as 30,000 feet.  3)  Alcohol consumption: quantity matters.

I hope you found that as interesting as I did 🙂

Morning view across Eagle Nest Lake
Morning view across Eagle Nest Lake

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