Quick, what’s the first thing that pops in your mind when you think of the Blue Corn Cafe & Brewery on Cerrillos Road? If it’s not handcrafted brews, farmers market salads or green initiatives in the kitchen, you’re not alone.
In the year and a half since he’s become the chef at the 15-year-old brewery and cafe, David Sundberg has injected a heavy dose of fresh, creative passion into a place that had perhaps relied on the tried-and-true for too long. It’s been a quiet process, however, and Sundberg until now has been too busy to talk about it.
First order of business, Sundberg said, was reminding regulars as well as first-timers that the south-side restaurant is, first and foremost, a brew pub.
“Beer is such a natural complement to food,” he said. “In the U.S., beer is still considered a plebeian drink, and microbrews are only 5 percent of total beer sales in this country.”
Because the brewery is housed in the back of the restaurant, Sundberg has found that many diners don’t even realize beer is made at Blue Corn.
“So part of my job is really about convincing people to try the beer. It’s handcrafted here in-house, it’s fresh and all our beer is vat-to-tap — the only system like it in New Mexico. It’s fermented, transferred to the vats and it stays there. It doesn’t get bottled or packaged or shipped or warehoused. All the nuances of the hops are right there.”
To promote the variety of beers brewed at Blue Corn — including 40K Honey Wheat Ale, Atomic Blonde Lager and End of the Trail Brown Ale, among others — Sundberg last year began a monthly tradition of special meals, called Thursdays at the Brewer’s Table, which pairs the brewery’s beers with the cafe’s signature foods. Alternating between light meals he calls “Beer Socials” and five-course “Beer Dinners,” the events are scheduled monthly from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays and take place at an enormous group table in the restaurant. Each event ($15 for socials and $20 for dinners) features special menus crafted around seasonal or flavor themes. Reservations are recommended, Sundberg said, and information about upcoming events is shared on Facebook. The next Beer Social is scheduled for Aug. 23.
Though Sundberg has only been in Santa Fe for two years — coming to Blue Corn after brief stints at Red Sage and Encantado Resort — he’s quickly became a huge fan of the Santa Fe Farmers Market. He said he has forged relationships with several farmers who confer with him about their harvests. Blue Corn’s daily specials, signature salads and beer pairings all heavily rely on locally grown produce, he said.
“All our beef now comes from New Mexico … that was something I converted in the kitchen when I first arrived here,” Sundberg said. “We use Chama Ranch grass-fed beef in our barbecue, and I am making all-beef hot dogs myself. We’ve also instituted a recycling plan in the kitchen.”
Sundberg is particularly proud of how his kitchen has cut its waste output. “The city provided us with containers for recyclables, including cardboard, glass, cans, milk jugs and office paper,” he noted. “We save our green waste for farmers, who collect it to use for compost. I also have some animal rescue volunteers who come for meat scraps to feed the animals; they also take the yeast waste from the brewery for the dogs.”
In two months, Sundberg said, the restaurant was able to cut its garbage output by about half and reduced its waste-hauling costs by about 40 percent. He also attributes the restaurant’s success in waste management to the kitchen staff, which was already well-practiced in recycling before he joined Blue Corn.
“I thought the hardest part would be training my crew,” he said. “But of course, you know, kitchen staffs are mostly Hispanic, [and] they were like, of course, we always used to do it that way. We all say, [we] do it for your kids.”
To promote Blue Corn in the community, Sundberg works and cooks with other Santa Fe chefs. For example, he created a sake-and-beer pairing dinner with sake specialist Ayame Fukuda of Shohko Café.
“I love having other chefs in my kitchen,” he said. “I have no problem opening it to anyone.”
Sundberg’s enthusiasm and dedication to his work is palpable. “I fit this place very well,” he acknowledged. “I work well with the brewer, and I love the atmosphere. I love doing dinners, making menus, specials. I love choosing the food that will go with the beer, [and] I’m always thinking about what I feel like cooking. … The Thursdays at the Brewer’s Table dinners are all about the beer and our love for it.
“Wine dinners can be very serious,” he added. “With beer, we try to have some fun. [We] eat, drink, enjoy the company — I mash everybody together at a big table, as big as we need.”