Without beer, society wouldn’t exist.
So says Mike Mallozzi of Borderlands Brewery. And so it might feel for some in the burgeoning beer scene in Baja Arizona. And even if Mallozzi might be exaggerating—just a touch—the proclamation might not be merely tipsy hyperbole. If you look closely at major human developments, you’ll see that beer, sort of like a liquid Forrest Gump, consistently pops up in the background.
Some 7,000 years ago, “During agriculture’s earliest days,” Mallozzi explained, “it was impossible to store excess grain, but you could turn it into beer.”
Developing a more stable product that could be traded, sold, planned for, he said, led to developments in commerce, economics, politics, and, eventually, tail-gating.
Beer, Mallozzi professed, is also responsible for sparking some of the major sciences, including biochemistry and microbiology. In trying to understand why their beer was skunking, early scientists, including Louis Pasteur, discovered yeast, and subsequently developed the germ theory of disease. That is, before beer inspired Pasteur to gaze deeply into the eye of a germ, people thought they got sick because their humors were imbalanced, or they were possessed by bad spirits. Thanks to beer, we started developing vaccines, and started thinking more carefully about hygiene. And even if beer wasn’t the primary catalyst for all of the other major scientific developments of the last few millennia, you can bet that it was at least lubricant for a lot of them.
Today, in Baja Arizona, beer continues to fulfill another of its august roles: bringing together community.
Will 2017 see Baja Arizona open its 18th brewery? The count, as I write this, is at 17, though it’s hard to keep track—with new breweries cutting ribbons and starting to fill growlers seemingly every few months. A lot of the motivation for the spike in breweries is about beer itself, but there seems to be something more driving the boom. Last November, with politics on the minds of many of us, Borderlands Brewing became a space to bridge differences rather than build a wall between them. Breweries, along with the saloon and trading post, have long stood as spaces that allow for and motivate community gathering—pushing drinkers to discuss both the personal and the political.
“It’s bullshit if you try to stay out of politics,” Mallozzi told me. “You don’t want to offend anyone, but you have to be who you are, as a business.” On Nov. 27, just a couple of weeks after the divisive national election, Borderlands hosted “Get to It,” an activism and volunteering fair. Thirty-two community organizations and as many as 700 people came to find a more hands-on way to engage in their communities. Mallozzi saw it as a response to the election’s outcome. People wanted to engage, and a natural space to do so was at the brewery.
Borderlands recently teamed up with Buqui Bichi Brewing of Hermosillo to brew a brown ale called Cerveza sin Fronteras. Mallozzi told Arizona Public Media, “We wanted to be a counterpoint to some of the more toxic sentiments that are going around right now.” Though it’s a “political beer,” brewed, in part, in response to rising anti-immigrant sentiment, Mallozzi told me, “We thought that one thing we could do was to make beer with our friends.” He wanted to remind folks that, “People in Mexico are real people. Good entrepreneurs. Not people to wall out.”
There are two distinct versions of the Cerveza Sin Fronteras. Borderlands and Buqui Bichi brewers used piloncillo when they brewed in Sonora and mesquite flour when they brewed in Arizona. A Borderlands bartender told me that a lot of people had been coming in and asking about the beer, which was part of the point. In Borderlands, as in many breweries around town, “Perfect strangers will sit down and start talking,” Mallozzi said.
“We wanted to be a positive force in the community. If your business doesn’t have a mission that is beneficial to the community, you’re not going to survive. Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious about the decisions they make, how they make their purchases,” he said. It’s why, for example, Borderlands has invested in technologies to conserve water during the brewing process.
“Like the foodie movement,” Mallozzi said, consumers are increasingly interested in where and how their products are made. “People want cruelty-free eggs,” he said. I asked if the beer was cruelty free. He chuckled and said that it definitely was.
For 11 years, 1702 has been a local stalwart for craft beer aficionados. In a prime example of how local brewers put community, or at least beer, ahead of profits, 1702 owner Austin Santos refuses to stock or pour any noncraft label, even popular “craft” names such as Sierra Nevada. I asked Santos where his strict ideology came from. He answered, rather humbly, “I’ve just never liked Bud or Coors.” He also cited an “early infatuation with complex flavors in the regional breweries at the time.”
For local brewers and drinkers, 1702’s commitment to small-label craft is commitment to community. Part of 1702’s mission has been education. For example, they used to carry Lost Coast Brewery’s Great White, a Witbier very similar to Blue Moon. Santos noticed, however, that customers were coming in thirsty for an approximation of the nationally distributed Blue Moon rather than trying new beers or new beer styles, and so he did something that would make traditional profit-seekers and beer barons choke: He stopped carrying it. “We stopped carrying our best selling beer,” Santos told me, in order to “eliminate that crutch,” and stop people from “mindlessly drinking” according to national trends. There are better beers out there than Blue Moon, or Blue Moon knock-offs. “We could sell a ton of Budweiser and make a small fortune, but that’s not the business we want to have,” he said. “We wanted to grow these other brands.”
“It’s not only an ethical decision,” Ty Young, 1702’s assistant manager, told me. Staying with craft-only beers “frees up shelf and handle space for more interesting beers,” he said. 1702 won’t carry even Ballast Point or Lagunitas, two popular (and delicious) beers owned by breweries that have recently outgrown the small craft label. “The taste also changes,” Young said, when beer is mass-produced. He gave the example of Goose Island, a classic craft IPA. They were bought by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, in 2011. “Goose Island’s IPA used to be better,” Young said, but now its quality has gone down—it’s been standardized.
Santos tries to maintain the same ethos on the pizza end of 1702—staying distinctive and, if possible, sourcing from local distributors. Though he said that there are currently no local farms that can keep up with their demand, they are hoping to collaborate with a new greenhouse project to source tomatoes and basil, and with a flour mill that is planning to open in Phoenix.
Even as The Address (1702’s brewery) finds success with some of their own beers, like their Habanero pepper-infused Paloma White IPA (the soft heat settles into your throat rather than pricks into your tongue, and is nicely complemented by a fresh sparkle of hops) they want to stay deliberately small with their brewery. They aren’t looking for a statewide footprint. Better, Santos explains, keep a chef’s mindset to the brewery: go to the farmers’ market, see what ingredients are available, and take advantage of the small size to be creative, maintain control, and keep products fresh. “It’s a very important aspect in producing quality beer,” he said.
Sitting at the bar in 1702 last December, sampling a Prairie ‘Merica, a saison beer from Oklahoma, Young suggested to me a pizza slice that would pair nicely with my beer: “a middle spectrum beer for a middle spectrum pizza.” Young recommended it with the Odysseus Slice (no red sauce, ricotta, garlic, pepperoncini, red pepper, and chicken). The Prairie ‘Merica was balanced, hoppy, and slightly grassy. You could make for a worse afternoon: The tastes mingled, flirted, cavorted with each other across my palate. If you want to wash down pizza with a perfectly complementary beer, there’s no better place to go in town than 1702.
Brian McBride, who opened Arizona Beer House in 2015, described the importance of having a good local beer and community space on the east side of town. (If you’ve never been to the Arizona Beer House, hop on Broadway and pedal against the sun, hook a right on Kolb, and begin exploring the wonders of the Orient.) Until Arizona Beer House opened, anywhere east of Alvernon was a beer desert, and craft aficionados had to take a pilgrimage downtown, or to the closest brewery, Sentinel Peak. Arizona Beer House developed regulars almost immediately. (BlackRock Brewers is opening soon in the Research Loop, to help quench thirsty eastsiders.)
Arizona Beer House’s taproom, open for a year and a half, has 11 handles dedicated to local brewers, though the afternoon I visited, there were 12 Baja Arizona beers on tap. McBride told me he might add a few handles (there are currently 34) or dedicate a couple more to local beers.
Though McBride, born in Tucson, lives close to downtown, most of his friends are on the eastside. When they used to invite him east to drink, there was nowhere to go, and they usually ended up in someone’s backyard. Arizona Beer House changed that. McBride has long been friends with Tucson’s brewers, and wanted to help support the local craft scene. The Beer House has done some educating, but a lot of his regulars already knew their Baja Arizona beers, and were thrilled they didn’t have to drive all the way across town to drink a decent pint. “I love being on this side of town, where people live all year,” McBride told me. “There are no snowbirds or students. It’s a more consistent population.” Last July—typically a slow month for downtown Tucson—Arizona Beer House had their best month yet. McBride is excited to see breweries continuing to open. “The more there are,” he said, “the better for all of us.”
When 1702 opened in 2006 as Tucson’s first craft-focused taproom, only around 3 percent of all beer sales went to craft beer. Even by 2011, when Borderlands opened, the percentage of craft sales was only at 5 percent of the national market. But through the efforts of 1702, Arizona Beer House, and the multiplicity of Baja Arizona breweries, as well as those around the country, craft beer sales now make up around 16 percent of the national market, and the percentage is climbing.
For what is beer actually responsible, besides fostering community and our basic understanding of civics? To beer do we also owe the art of philosophy, the study of genetics, autonomous vehicles? How about space travel, the domestication of wolves, or wireless technology? Some of that might be a stretch, but drink a few and you start to make the connections. “Also,” Mallozzi told me, “beer just makes you feel good.”
My recs from this article: 1702’s Paloma White IPA with Habanero, and Borderlands’ Toole Avenue IPAs, their single-hop series. ✜