This year’s Baja Beer Festival is all about reinvention.
Formerly the Baja Oktoberfest, the party is on Saturday, April 23, this year. It will feature more than 50 breweries and over 200 beers, including concoctions by 19 brewery-firefighter teams.
The teams are part of the reincarnated Top Hops beer competition, which has been absorbed into the Baja Beer Fest.
The Top Hops Beer Festival was born in 2010 when Northwest Fire’s Brian Sturgeon pitched the idea of a beer-based fundraiser to Steve Tracy, owner of Thunder Canyon Brewery, 7401 N. La Cholla Blvd.
Sturgeon says a lot of his firefighting colleagues are homebrewers, and it seemed logical to use their brews to benefit Northwest Firefighters Charities.
“I think we just noticed that it was something that a lot of the guys really enjoyed,” Sturgeon says. “I think firefighters are notorious for wanting to be self-starters and create things on their own, and the whole craft brew idea is just that. You know, enjoy the process, learn how to do this, and those kind of things are what firefighters like to do in their spare time.”
“That’s the local fire department where the Foothills Mall is, so a lot of those guys would just come in as guests and regulars,” says Tracy. “When they actually had the idea for the beer festival they approached us because they happened to know us.”
As a former Arizona Craft Brewers Guild president and treasurer, and long-time Tucson brewer, Tracy knew starting a beer festival would be no easy task.
“We kind of tried to scare them away a little bit at first, like, ‘Are you guys sure?’” Tracy says. “But the thing about them, they’re very well organized, because they’re firefighters. Everybody has a job, and they know what their job is and they get it done.
“They took care of all the logistics, the permitting and setup and all that, and we worked with the brewers to get brewer involvement.”
The first few years, Top Hops was a parking lot party outside Thunder Canyon, with food from the brewpub, live music and firefighters pitting their homebrews against each other to be judged by the local craft brewers selling beer at the event.
Proceeds went to the Northwest Firefighters Charities, and as time went on, the event expanded in size and popularity.
“It was probably time for the event to grow,” Tracy says. “It needed to take that next step. It outgrew the parking lot at the Foothills Mall. Getting the (Arizona Craft Brewers) guild involved is big because that brings the breweries from all over the state.”
Tracy helps organize the Tucson chapter of the guild, called the Baja Arizona Brewers, who are helping to organize the Baja Beer Fest. Teaming up seemed obvious.
“They wanted to continue to support our charities, and we knew that the microbreweries and the guild itself was going to be the way to make the best event in the long run. So we figured, ‘Let’s just team up and do this together,’” says Sturgeon.
This year, firefighter teams are paired with professional breweries to collaborate on competition brews from recipe to finished product. The first-time drafts will duke it out in a blind tasting before the gates of the festival open, and the winners will display a trophy.
“This is really kind of a cool experience for us. It’s the first time we’ve ever been able to brew in a commercial brewery, and it’s been a great experience,” says Brad White, a Mountain Vista firefighter and 20-year homebrewer.
White and brewing partner Josh Johnson, brewing as 240 Brew Works, have competed since Top Hops’ first year in 2011. Their “Old No. 3” stout won third place in last year’s contest. For White, the collaborations on the brews and the festival itself have propelled Top Hops to a whole new level.
“I think it’s better. I think it’s gonna be a bigger crowd, the competition as far as the firefighters is probably gonna be a little stiffer and first-time beers are always fun because you never know what you’re gonna get,” White says.
Brewing on Thunder Canyon’s equipment has also made White and Johnson think more seriously about starting a brewery of their own. They wouldn’t be the first to sprout from Top Hops. Golder Ranch firefighter Jeremy Hilderbrand decided to start Sentinel Peak Brewing Co., 4746 E. Grant Road, after his experience at the festival.
“It was completely ‘no brewery plan’ yet, it was just: ‘Hey, I have these beers. I wonder if people will like them,’” Hilderbrand says. But the positive feedback from the competition swayed him. “Family and friends getting free beer will always like it, but these were complete strangers. The feedback was good enough that I thought I might have something here,” he says.
This year, Sentinel Peak is participating as one of the breweries, with a booth at the festival, and hosting three firefighter teams in the pro-am brewing competition.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is that the proceeds from the event will still go entirely to the nonprofits involved, Northwest Firefighters Charities and the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild.
“We always kind of try to pat ourselves on the back because 100 percent of the proceeds go to the cause,” says Sturgeon. He says everyone working on the event is a volunteer, and Tracy says all the beer is donated.
Sturgeon says that reflects another shared quality between the event and being a firefighter: giving back to the community they serve.