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Where Magic Isn’t Just Fantasy

Tucson family manifests their dream with Crooked Tooth Brewing Co.

June 29, 2017

Baja Brews

Crooked Tooth beer is not just hops and barley. It’s a scientific study, made of shaman’s prayers, mantra, and years of trial and error. Depending on the day, it may taste of toasted coconut and Madagascar vanilla, or Willcox peaches. “We like to do some crazy stuff,” says Crooked Tooth Brewery co-owner Benjamin Vernon. “We want you to put something in your mouth that hasn’t been there before.” But the magic ingredient, my dears—well that’s simply locally-grown, organic, desert-sun-soaked love.

Julie and Ben Vernon own Crooked Tooth with their good friends JoDee and Armando Basurto. After 15 years of backyard brewing, owning the brewery is a dream come true.

Crooked Tooth Brewery, on Sixth Street and Arizona Avenue, a block-and-a-half west of Fourth Avenue, opened last November. But for 15 years prior, Ben brewed on his back porch using a turkey fryer and a couple of converted kegs. Brewing was Ben’s happy place. Even in the summer heat, he was outside brewing all day. Seven beers on tap at all times, and he never made the same beer twice. His friends were always stopping by to fill their growlers, so Ben and his wife Julie Vernon thought opening a brewery just made sense.

The Vernons have always been a brewery-loving family. Vacations with their three kids were either “beaches and breweries” or “mountains and breweries.” The landscape changed, but the tradition didn’t. “We’d go hiking or to a pool and then to a brewery,” Julie says. “Wherever we were going, we’d balance it out with breweries.” Tucson natives, Julie and Ben have known each other since high school. They would have met in middle school except for the fact that she was a grade above him.

Twenty-one years ago, at barely 16 years old, Ben asked Julie to be his girlfriend below the third tree up from the Tucson High stadium. When he graduated, a year after Julie, she had their 7-month-old daughter on her hip (now, she’s at the University of Arizona, studying pre-law and environmental studies). Their son came four years later, and their littlest one another seven years after that. In 2010, Ben got a bachelor’s degree in environmental science with a minor in chemistry and started working in remediation. He knew that going into the field would mean a lot of travel, but after being away from his family for eight months in one year, he needed a change. “This has always been a dream of ours,” he says about owning the brewery. “It’s fun to chase a dream and make it a reality. It’s a good lesson to teach your kids too.”

Ben Vernon sets up a flight of beer. The skateboard motif is a throwback to his childhood.

The Vernons own Crooked Tooth Brewery with their long-time friends, JoDee Basurto and her husband Armando Basurto, who everyone calls “Junior.” Ben’s background in chemistry enhanced his brew skills, and Junior’s experience owning a car dealership primed him for the business side of the brewery. Together, the two couples renovated the old auto garage. With the help of good friends and family, they upgraded plumbing, electrical, and bathrooms. They refurbished doors, put dark stain on palate wood to build the bar, and scraped paint off every brick in the walls with a hand grinder. It took almost three months. And, Julie says, in the tradition of Tucson natives, they did it with love, tears, and sweat.

Crooked Tooth co-owner JoDee Basurto works behind the bar. Her favorite beer is the Archmagus English ale.

In the tradition of breweries, they’re making it family-friendly—“a sweet place where anybody can come and feel seen and heard and celebrated,” Julie says. “You just exhale. That’s the goal. When you walk in, you just exhale.” On the back patio, the sound of the train hums. Triangular sail shades offer a reprieve from the sun as condensation builds on the outside of a cold glass of beer. A stack of brightly-colored hula-hoops lays in the corner. Inside, are stacks of games: Dominoes, Jenga, Battleship and Oregon Trail (yes, apparently it’s a card game now and not just an 8-bit video game for third-graders in the ‘80s).

Inside the tap room are garage doors, ready to open on a cool fall day, refurbished (by one of Ben’s old-school Dungeons & Dragons cronies, of course) with panel windows from floor to ceiling. Local art hangs on grey brick walls. This month’s display is a collection of colorful abstracts by the artist couple Douglas and Maija Jackson, to be switched out on the first Saturday in July for the works of Jessica D. Melrose. The tables are hand-crafted (by our brew-lovin’ DIY Tucsonans, of course) out of blue-beetle pine, which Julie’s uncle found and cut at his mill in St. Johns, Arizona. Skateboards, painted by Eddie Madril (yes, another D&D comrade) hang above the Star Trek arcade game, one for each brew that’s christened Crooked Tooth taps, such as Phantom Patriot, Holiday Cash, Dwarvish Ale and Charlie’s Home for Dinner. And skateboard trucks function as purse hangers under the bar. (Finally, right ladies?)

Tyler Lynch cleans out a whiskey barrel. Lynch is a brewer and helps with Crooked Tooth’s sales.

The Archmagus board, painted with an hourglass inside an eye, is an homage to one of Ben’s favorite characters from “Dragonlance,” a fantasy book series that started in the ‘80s. Ben and Julie had been together four years when she found out about his once-secret fantasy obsession. A bump against her bedroom wall woke her up one night. She knew Ben was in the living room with his buddy Madril and a few other friends but was shocked to see them sitting in a serious, dimly-lit circle, notebooks out, playing out a D&D scene. He and his friends had agreed to a pact of secrecy. (She didn’t just out him by the way. These days, he totally owns it.) The Archmagus is a gluten-reduced English Ale made with caramel and toffee.

Crooked Tooth ages some of their beers in whiskey barrels to give them a whiskey profile.

True to their Tucson roots, Crooked Tooth is all about the local (in case you hadn’t noticed). Ben likes playing with Southwest flavors: sours, salts, and lime, incorporating all the local produce he can get his hands on. They get their grains from BKW Farms in Marana. And they just started a partnership with Barrio Bread. Don Guerra of Barrio Bread uses their spent grain to make bread and gives Crooked Tooth a sour yeast strand to ferment their beer. The first love child of this union will be available mid- to late-July. “Tucson community is like no other,” Ben says. “We’ve been really focusing on businesses downtown and making sure that they know that we’re here because that’s important to us. We want to supply the locals.” And he’s not kidding. Not even eight months after opening, they already have taps in 45 local restaurants and bars, like Lindy’s, Mr. Heads, Hotel Congress and Bar Passé.  When the Vernons go out, they eat at the local businesses that also support them. “We like to keep that cycle going cause that’s what going to separate Tucson from other towns,” Ben says.

And, just as the brewery is an outlet for Ben to share his skill and passion with the community (including his not-so-secret fantasy obsession—Dwarvish or Archmagus Ale, anyone?), it is for Julie too.  She’s been opening up about her Ayurveda-inspired, yoga-infused spirituality, and her favorite beer is imbibed with it. The Del Bac Wiracocha, their first barrel-aged sour, has characteristics Julie loves. This malty imperial porter has a higher alcohol volume at 8.4 percent ABV and a slightly smoky and woody, chocolate and whiskey profile—and this baby is bursting with yummy energy. After concocting a recipe, Julie spent a day cracking the grain on a mill that “needed some love.” It kept getting stuck, so she stood there with a hammer (the only tool at her disposal) and forced the wheels to keep turning. She finally just shut herself inside the mill, in total darkness, and sang a mantra to remove obstacles. “The grain is milled to the mantra of Ganesh,” Julie says, laughing. She also sang mantras during other parts of the beer’s journey—the boil and the mash. And the magic ingredient (as if it needed more) is Palo Santo, blessed by shamans. (OK, if you feel an eye roll coming on, hold up. Julie hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon of some new-age trend. She’s the real deal.) She was raised with a “really special medicine man”—her grandpa.

Julie’s grandfather Walter Gene Schroeder died last year and left her the huge mounted caribou and dall sheep heads that are part of the eclectic Crooked Tooth décor. They hung them in his honor during last year’s All Souls Procession. When Julie was growing up, her grandfather took trips to Alaska and Canada, spending months living off the land, foraging and hunting game. “When he hunted, it was in ceremony,” Julie says. “He honored [animals] when he took their lives.” He was also a medical doctor and naturopath who did acupuncture and kinesiology, the study of body movement to address physiological and psychological issues.

Julie Vernon sits in the shade on the Crooked Tooth patio.

When Julie was in her early 20s, she became very ill. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her, so she called her grandfather. He did long-distance kinesiology and told her she had bacterial endocarditis. Her doctor wouldn’t even test her for it. She switched doctors, and turns out grandpa was right. This experience and his example are part of what inspired Julie down the road of a holistic lifestyle—“finding the wholeness,” she says. She went to massage school, then yoga-teacher training, then studied Ayurveda. “Using my meditation as medicine. Using the foods as my medicine,” she says. “To me, everything is energy. When you put that intention of love, you feel it.”

On a Saturday morning, Julie stands under her grandfather’s caribou and reaches her arms to the sky, then tells her class to bend into downward dog. The small group in front of her, bathed in sunlight, eases into the stretch. Every Saturday morning at 10:30, dedicated regulars show up for the $5 “yoga and a pint.” Either Julie or one of Crooked Tooth’s two yogi bartenders teaches the class, which ends with a Saturday-morning celebratory beer. Julie ends her class by going around to each participant, gently massaging their necks and fluttering essential-oil-soaked fingers over their faces. They settle into Savasana, traditionally the last yoga pose, where participants lie on their backs in meditation, and she gently stirs them with a whole-bellied laugh and the proclamation—“time for beer.”

Julie Vernon teaches a Saturday morning yoga class in the Crooked Tooth brewery. She ends the classes by announcing: “Time for beer!”

Crooked Tooth is about “not complying to societal standards,” Ben says. “If you have a crooked tooth, have a crooked tooth. If you have a mole on you, have a mole. Be who you are and what you do—be unique. We appreciate that in people. We appreciate that in our beers.”

Beers

Crooked Tooth Brewery always has nine unique beers on tap and most of them are gluten-reduced.

They have four flagships, which are gluten-reduced and always available: The Trial is a light and crisp Kolsch-style brew. The 18th Hour is a piney-citrus IPA. The Archmagus is a caramel-toffee English ale. The Quaker is always rotating adjuncts (ingredients that add the flavor). Right now, it’s a juicy-orange Vermont pale ale (following a mango and a toasted coconut—yum!). The next Quaker is a sour saison, made with hibiscus and the wild yeast Brettanomyces.

Flavor faves—staff picks:

Ben’s favorite, the Dwarvish, making a comeback next fall, is an English strong ale, aged with an oak spiral. This one he brewed at home for three years before the pub (OK, he did make one home brew more than once). At the 2017 Arizona Strong Beer Festival, the beer won Crooked Tooth Brewery a spot in Draft Magazine’s top seven beers, grouping them with veteran brewing companies like Wren House, Borderlands Brewing Company, and 1912 Brewing.

Junior’s favorite is their current Quaker. “It’s just really light and just brings out the beer,” he says about the orange adjuncts. “And especially on hot days like this. It’s perfect for pool sides.”

Events

Crooked Tooth has a rotating selection of food trucks out front. And starting July 25, they’ll be doing Taco Tuesday with Geronimo’s Revenge taco truck (Eddie Madril’s little brother—keepin’ it local).

They’ve got live music on a regular basis and a projector on the patio for movies and brew.

They just started a monthly trivia (think Geeks Who Drink but local), and it was packed. Next one is July 6.

At the Real, Wild & Woody Beer Festival, put on by the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild in Phoenix on July 29, they’ll be sportin’ Julie’s favorite Del Bac Wiracocha and Lazer Sound Waves, their first Brett beer (made with that wild-and-free yeast).

Check Facebook for upcoming events.

Crooked Tooth Brewery
228 E 6th St.
Tucson, AZ 85705







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