The Wooden Nickel Tavern celebrates its 32nd anniversary this St. Patrick’s Day with an all-day party featuring corned beef and cabbage, 50 pounds of Irish stew, and of course, green beer, including some craft brews.
Dragoon Brewing Company’s IPA will be one of them; it’s been on tap at the tavern for about six months. Barrio Brewing Co.’s Tucson Blonde is another. It’s been on tap here for nearly two years.
The beers are popular. On a recent Wednesday evening, Dragoon was sold out.
“I normally have my go-tos, but they got the new beers in, and you can’t help but try it,” says Gustavo Rivera, one of about 10 regulars sitting along the bar.
“The Tucson Blonde is one of my top sellers. I didn’t think it would sell as well as it does,” says Joseph Varela, who owns the neighborhood haunt in the heart of Barrio Centro at 1908 S. Country Club Road. “My clientele is pretty mainstream, Bud, Bud Light, Miller Light, but it sells well, it sells really well.” Varela says he goes through a keg a week, and often runs out.
Craft beers can now be found all over Tucson, including some unexpected places.
Casa Video at 2905 E. Speedway opened its Film Bar in December with 20 taps and 300 bottles of craft and local brews for patrons to enjoy while watching films and perusing rentals.
Dragoon Brewing Company, which started brewing west of Interstate 10 four years ago, today distributes throughout the state.
Tristan White, general manager of Dragoon at 1859 W. Grant Road estimates 80 percent of consumption remains in Tucson, including ultra-local watering holes like the Golden Nugget Tavern, 2617 N. First Ave.
“We actually took down the mighty Blue Moon at The Buffet once,” says White. Kicking the Coors -owned brew off its tap at the beloved dive, 538 E. Ninth St., “was the one that I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that was an amazing score.’ ” White says.
White was born in Phoenix but came to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona in 2002 and never left.
He partnered with father and son team Bruce and Eric Greene when Dragoon opened in 2011 “because it’s home, and it’s a good market.”
The market has indeed been good to them. From humble beginnings producing about 500 barrels their first year, Dragoon now sells around 700 a month, employing 20 tanks and 21 people.
“I remember one time when we sold three kegs in a week and were like ‘That’s awesome! That was a good week,’ ” White says.
Everybody’s doing it
No longer is craft beer the domain of hipsters and hop-heads. Drinkers are old and young, urban and suburban, and coast to coast.
“I mean, our crowd is me,” says Jeremy Hilderbrand, co-founder and owner of Sentinel Peak Brewing Company, 4746 E. Grant Road. Hilderbrand and his wife, Jeannie, have been married for 12 years, and have two daughters, 10 and 8.
“It’s people with their kids, we have a lot of young families, but we also have a lot of people who are over 50. They feel comfortable coming in, they know it’s a family-friendly environment. I mean, my grandparents come here, and my grandpa is 90.”
Hilderbrand came to Tucson from Michigan as a youngster, and graduated from Canyon del Oro High School in 1989. He joined the Army and his beer enthusiasm began to develop while stationed in Germany in the early 1990s.
When he returned to study at the UA in 1997, Tucson was a three-brewery town. The only joints serving local suds were Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company of Tucson, Thunder Canyon at the Foothills Mall (its second location opened at 220 E. Broadway in early 2013), and Nimbus, 3840 E. 44th St. which now reports a production capacity of 22,500 barrels a year.
A slow start
Dennis Arnold was the only act in town when he founded Gentle Ben’s brewery, now at 865 E. University Blvd., in 1991. Arnold was born and raised in Tucson. His three kids all pursued degrees at the UA and worked at Gentle Ben’s as teenagers.
The first beer he made was a rich, hoppy brew.
“The learning curve was pretty sharp with the palates, because this town was pretty insistent on its Bud Lights.” Arnold says. “Boy, I couldn’t give it away. And now it’s all people want. That’s just how it works, timing is everything.”
It was timing that he says defeated his first attempts to open a brewery in, of all places, San Diego, now often called the capital of craft beer. San Diego County has 120 of the state’s 570 craft breweries, by far the most in the nation. Second place goes to Colorado with 300, and Arizona weighs in with 76.
“One of the first breweries my wife and I saw was in Berkeley, California, in the Bay area.” Arnold says. “And so we got in our cars and drove south and tried to start a brewery in San Diego, and we were told that they would never allow breweries because they stink. That was in 1986. The first brewery opened up there in 1989.
“After banging our heads against the wall in San Diego for a couple of years, we set out here and decided to get a brewery going in Tucson.”
And now, it seems Tucson’s time has come. Starting in 2011, microbreweries began to surge, jumping to 14 this year with at least four more planning to open in the next year or two. This follows a national trend in which 620 microbreweries in 2010 grew to more than 1,800 in 2014 according to the Brewers Association, a national professional organization.
Room to grow
With such rapid growth, it might seem sensible to worry about saturation, but Rob Fullmer, CEO of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, says that in fact, local craft brews have a super-small slice of the pie.
“Right now 10 percent of the beer purchased in Arizona is craft beer. And really only one percent is beer that is brewed in Arizona,” Fullmer says. “You could look at is as a negative, but we look at is as a positive, that means there’s a lot of room to grow.”
And growing it is. Fullmer says Arizona has added about 11 new breweries each year for the last three years statewide, and anticipates as many as 15 opening this year. But don’t think it’s a fad, or even worse: a bubble.
Arizona’s brewing tradition dates back to territorial days. Most towns had a brewery by the 1870s, generally catering to miners. But, the arrival of the railroad, followed by prohibition, meant local brewing had largely dried up by the early 1900s.
By the 1970s and ’80s, craft beers had started becoming popular nationwide. Arizona passed a law in 1987 allowing brewers to sell their own beers without a distributor, and microbrewing in the state was reborn.
“It’s not a bubble. Bubbles don’t last this long,” Arnold says. “Just like kids won’t drive their parents’ cars, they won’t drink their parents’ beers. Thirty years ago, there wasn’t any choice, but now there is.”
Beer has also become tied to the eat-local mentality.
“I have often said, and I really do believe, that it’s part of a larger movement of people knowing where their food comes from and wanting to know what goes into their food,” says Mike Mallozzi, who opened Borderlands Brewing Co., 119 E. Toole Ave., with Myles Stone in 2011. “I think that is a huge part of craft brewing, it’s something that people make with quality being the first thing in mind, and ingredients being the first thing in mind makes it a superior product.”
Mallozzi would know. He came to Tucson after finishing a doctorate in microbiology at Loyola University in Chicago. Before that, he “grew up drinking microbrews in college” at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, home of legendary craft brewers including New Belgium, famous for its flagship Fat Tire amber ale. But there is also an Anheuser-Busch facility where Mallozzi spent his last year of college working in quality assurance for Budweiser.
For Hilderbrand, the IPAs and other ales largely available from craft brewers in the late ‘90s didn’t scratch the itch he had developed for European-style beers like hefeweizens or dunkels, a dark, malty, German brew. His decision to open Sentinel Peak with co-founder Matt Gordon in 2014 and offer more of the Euro-brews is indicative of the broadening tastes in production and consumption of craft beer nationwide.
Chris Squires, co-owner with JP Vyborny of Ten-Fifty Five Brewing, 3810 E. 44th St., says the once-separate breed of “craft beer drinkers” is going away, opening the genre to all beer drinkers for any number of reasons.
“I think a more sophisticated consumer can drink beer the way they maybe would’ve drunk wine a few years ago, but I think there’s also another side that I wouldn’t even call a ‘craft beer drinker’,” Squires says. “They just want to support local businesses. They’re not ‘craft beer drinkers,’ they just like us and like what we’re doing and that’s what they’re into.”
For Ten-Fifty Five, the support of the Tucson drinking community has meant they’ve been able to get serious about opening a second, much larger location. This year, they issued a call for investors to raise $2 million to open in an 11,000-square-foot facility at 127 S. Fourth Ave., around the corner from Thunder Canyon’s downtown location.
Squires also links the foodie culture and use of local ingredients to the innovation and collaboration that many say sets the Tucson beer scene apart.
“You’ve got Dragoon putting out Daisy for example, Borderlands just did that collaboration with Ermano’s,” he says of the Pima County Stout, which won gold at the Arizona Strong Beer Festival.
“Not to toot our own horn but you’ve got us putting out Valentine from all Arizona ingredients, so I mean, the level of innovation in Tucson breweries I think is leading the charge in the Southwestern U.S.” Squires says.
“So many of us are focused on being sustainable and being local. That’s a thing that’s a huge theme for our beers, using local ingredients,” Mallozzi says. “BKW Farms has now produced a brewers’ malt that some of us are using in our beers, and that’s a huge step forward because until that, there was no local malt. And vineyards are growing hops down in Sonoita.”
Among its beers, Borderlands is currently featuring a Munich-style dunkel with local dates harvested by the Iskashitaa Refugee Network, a Tucson-based non-profit that gleans produce and donates it to refugee communities.
Such charitable partnerships are not uncommon. Mallozzi estimates Borderlands alone hosts 25-30 charity events a year and gave $5,400 in cash contributions and donated about $1500 worth of beer to local charities in 2015.
Community is key in craft brewing. Many of the local brewers began as homebrewers, and even the relatively major players keep their eyes on home as the prize.
“I would never consider sending my beer out of state.” Arnold says. Barrio was the first brewery in southern Arizona to package in cans, now cranking out 6,000-7,000 barrels a year which are distributed statewide. But Arnold says quality suffers when the product strays too far from its source, and it’s the home-base brewpubs that keep local breweries alive.
“Breweries do well in their own hometown, and we’re really grateful for the business Tucson gives us.”
Local brews going big-time has been a hot topic lately, especially in Arizona where Anheuser-Busch InBev announced its acquisition of Tempe-based Four Peaks last year. Arnold sees the move as clear evidence of ABI’s intentions to take over the craft beer market, and the revision of SB 1030 last year, also known as the Arizona Beer Bill, meant Four Peaks could remain a craft brewery while producing around 70,000 barrels a year, making it a tempting prize for ABI.
But, Fullmer says, the bill also allowed smaller breweries to plan bigger, and for really micro establishments to collaborate on brews that could be sold on others’ taps. Fullmer also says the national exposure only helps highlight the growing Arizona market.
“I think because of our legislative efforts, people are starting to see that Arizona does have something to contribute to craft beer culture,” He says. “Our peers are looking at who’s getting legislation accomplished and we were on top of the list last year.”
White says that “big beer is a big threat,” but understands Four Peaks’ decision to sell as a smart business move on their part.
“But that’s always been at the core of craft beers, it’s David vs. Goliath. I think that’s always something that will be at the core of the craft beer scene,” White says.
For Dragoon’s part, he says they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. He estimates that 80 percent of Dragoon’s statewide distribution remains in Tucson, where he and many others, including Fullmer, call the market “underserved.”
“That’s why we don’t really care to look outside the state,” White says. “There’s still a ton of growth we can do.
“I think it’s something exciting as people are continuing to eat closer to their home, it makes sense to drink beer that was made down the street.”