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Barrio Brewing Company Turns 25

The local craft brewery celebrates a half century of brewing in Arizona this October.

October 5, 2016

If you came out to last Thursday’s Baja Brews event, you already know Barrio Brewing Company has a gorgeous taproom that’s prime for throwing a party. What you might not know is that Barrio Brewing Company (and its predecessor/sister brewery Gentle Ben’s) has been serving up beers in Tucson for the past 25 years. Better yet, they’ve set aside the first two weeks of October in order to officially “commemorate, celebrate and, yes, even consecrate” Barrio Brewing Company and Gentle Ben’s reaching the quarter century mark for brewing craft beer in Arizona. Adding another feather in their cap: the iconic Barrio Blonde is officially the longest continuously brewed craft beer in the state of Arizona. (Not too shabby, Barrio!)

Way back in 1991, Barrio owner and brewmaster Dennis Arnold purchased what was then known as Dirt Bag’s West, located at 841 N. Tyndall Avenue. He restored its original name, Gentle Ben’s, and began brewing up batches of Barrio Blonde. In 1994, Gentle Ben’s moved to its current location at 865 E. University Boulevard in Main Gate Square (hard to imagine University Boulevard wthout that big carved bear).

When Gentle Ben’s outgrew its brewing facility on University Boulevard in 2006, Barrio expanded to their current location at 800 E. 16th Street. Originally built as a Quonset hut in 1947, the space now houses two large taprooms/dining areas, a kitchen for Barrio’s restaurant, and the brewery itself, whose gleaming stainless steel tanks can be viewed through windows in the taproom itself.

The world has changed since Arnold started brewing: “When we began brewing operations in May of 1991, the Soviet Union was still around, George H. W. Bush was president, and Timothy Dalton was still James Bond,” he says. “Craft brewing was in its infancy and there was only a handful of craft breweries in the country.”

Today, Barrio Brewing brews ten year-round beers and three seasonals, many of them award-winning, and is part of a rapidly expanding Tucson craft brewing community. Their impact is such that Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild issued an official proclamation marking Barrio’s Silver Anniversary.

A particular highlight of Barrio’s anniversary festivities is the addition of a 25th Anniversary dinner to both the Barrio and Gentle Ben’s location menus, from October 2 through 7. The dinner package includes an appetizer, choice of entrée, gelato dessert, and a beer of your choice, as well as a commemorative anniversary t-shirt and pint glass. Priced at $25 plus tax and gratuity, it sounds like a delicious way to celebrate a quarter-century with one of Tucson’s favorite breweries.

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The Barrio Blonde from Barrio Brewing Co. Photograph by Laura Greenberg.

The Barrio Blonde from Barrio Brewing Co. Photograph by Laura Greenberg.

25 Fascinating Facts about Barrio Brewing and Gentle Ben’s That You Probably Didn’t Know

Provided by Barrio Brewing Company

1) Owners Dennis and Tauna Arnold originally wanted to open a brewery in San Diego in the mid-1980s but, lucky for Tucson, the city fathers said there would never be a craft brewery within city limits. Today, San Diego County is home to more than 90 breweries, though they certainly missed out on this one.

2) Barrio Brewing Company began humbly as Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company on May 1, 1991.

3) Filling pint glasses and the bellies of happy customers for 25 years in Tucson, Barrio Tucson Blonde has been brewed longer than any beer in the history of Arizona.

4) Both Dennis and Tauna are native Arizonans—Dennis was born and raised in Tucson and Tauna was born in Mesa, AZ. Dennis actually grew up a ten-minute bike ride from Gentle Ben’s.

5) The original Gentle Ben’s location at 841 N. Tyndall Ave. was built in 1908 where The Marriott University Park Hotel now stands. It was demolished in 1996:   some Tucsonans might remember it… Or perhaps not, depending on the night.

6) The original building served as a private residence, the official residence of UA presidents, the Pi Beta Phi sorority house, the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house, the Yucca Inn, and the Peppertree Inn. It was also used as a boarding house for students and soldiers during World War II and an apartment house for the growing UA community in the late 1960s. The current Gentle Ben’s building had a previous life as a bank and still contains the original vault.

7) The “Bear Down Cellar” at the original Gentle Ben’s location was named in honor of UA football hero John “Button” Salmon who, according to legend, used his dying breath to ask Coach J. F. “Pop” McKale to tell the football team to “bear down.” It was built out of lava rock from Sentinel Peak near ‘A’ Mountain.

8) The wooden bear statue that now stands outside Gentle Ben’s on University Avenue was carved from two trees that had grown together near Sierra Vista. It originally held station in the front of a second hand store beginning in the early 1950s.

9) The Arnolds purchased Gentle Ben’s in 1991, though the name had been temporarily changed to Dirt Bag’s West at the time.

10) The name “Gentle Ben’s” refers to a black bear from the 1970s television series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. A UA professor came up with the name because he thought the manager looked like the show’s (human) star, Dan Haggerty.

11) Michael Jackson (the English authority on beer and whisky) once told Dennis that he was perfect for brewing beer because his name is derived from the Greek God “Dionysus,” who ruled over wine and revelry, and Saint Arnoldus of Soissons, who is the patron saint of brewers. Saint Arnoldus was canonized because he traveled the land telling everyone to drink beer instead of water because the fermented brew was safer.

12) Dennis holds a degree in journalism and public relations from Northern Arizona University but says he got into brewing due to his love of beer.

13) Pints are always happy-hour-priced at the Barrio whenever a train goes by; they’re called Rail Pints when this special is in play.

14) Arizona author Ed Sipos, who wrote Brewing Arizona (the definitive book on Arizona brewing), likened Dennis to Alex Levin, who founded Tucson’s Pioneer Brewery in the late 1860s.

15) Barrio Brewing enthusiasts espouse a “Type B” personality because good craft beer can’t be rushed or taken too seriously.

16) Barrio Brewing is a family company through-and-through: TJ’s Raspberry Ale, Nolan’s Porter, and Rae’s IPA are all named after the Arnolds’ kids.

17) The enormous grain silo in front of the current Barrio Brewing location on East 16th St. is functional and can hold as much as 60,000 pounds of two row malt at any given time for making beer.

18) Barrio Brewing has brewed hundreds of craft beer varieties in its 25-year tenure, including the Pumpkin Porter, Beach Blonde, and NCAAle, which are only available seasonally. Both the 16th St. location and Gentle Ben’s serve about a dozen of those varieties on tap at any given time.

19) Barrio Rojo won a Bronze Medal at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival in 2015. Months later it took home the silver at the AmeriCan Fest. Nolan’s Porter won the gold at the GABF in 2008 for robust porters.

20) It takes about 12 gallons of Barrio Rojo to make a week’s worth of corned beef for the house-made Reuben at the Barrio and Gentle Ben’s. Other foods on the Barrio Brewing menu that are cooked with the company’s own craft beers include the spinach dip and gelato.

21) Each of the beers brewed on-site at Barrio Brewing are classified as ales due to the type of yeast they employ in their fermentation process. The light crispness of the Barrio Blonde mimics a lager because…the brewers have their secrets.

22) The brewery houses fourteen fermentation tanks which range in size from 30 to 90 barrels. One barrel is equivalent to 31 gallons, which is two kegs or 331 cans of beer.

23) Rae’s Ruby Red Grapefruit IPA is made with real grapefruit. This unique beer must be kept refrigerated as it is fresh, unpasteurized and will, therefore, spoil in the heat.

24) Using nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide in beer results in a much smoother brew without the bite of carbonation. It also takes highly specialized equipment and know-how to accomplish. This technique is only suitable for a few styles of beer; Barrio Brewing currently serves two nitrogenated brews on tap.

25) Waste not, want not: the one million pounds per year of Barrio Brewing’s spent grain is donated to local farmers for animal feed after its role in the brewing process is complete, making cows and pigs happy across southern Arizona.

Header image by Jeff Smith, from “Tucson on Tap,” which appeared in our July/August 2016 issue.

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