The monkeys were a mistake,” says Jim Counts, owner, head brewer, and managing partner of Nimbus Brewery Company. We are sitting in Counts’ office, which is a short staircase above the brewery floor, where 7,000 barrels of ale are brewed annually.
Everyone’s seen the monkeys: haloed monkeys holding banjos, monkeys sitting in meditation, monkeys wielding swords. On the brewery’s taproom wall is a vibrant mosaic depicting the Garden of Eden replete with the infamous tree of knowledge. But instead of Adam and Eve, there is the brewery’s signature monkey, enveloped in a halo and plucking a red apple from the tree.
The monkey mistake happened when Nimbus was in production for their first batch of six packs in 1999. Someone brought in a logo: a large navy capital N with wheat stalks crisscrossing it and the Catalinas behind. No one was thrilled with the design. They hemmed and hawed.
When the printer called to inform them that if they didn’t make a decision soon, the brewery would lose their spot, the assistant brewer asked the printer to be honest. “Well, it’s the ugliest artwork I’ve ever seen for a craft brewery,” she said. “It’d probably look better if you put a monkey on it.” They laughed. When the six-pack boxes arrived from the printer, the boxes still had the N with the wheat stalks, but on the handle of the box, they had something else: a small monkey, the size of a quarter.
Years later, when the brewery did a brand redesign, they showed the artwork around town. Counts recalls, “Everyone said, ‘It looks great, but where’s the monkey?’” It was then that a practical joke became the heart of the brand.
Like the monkey, much of Nimbus’s growth over the years has come through small moments developing into bigger ideas. In 1996, the building held only a brewery, the predecessor to Nimbus. In 1999, people began showing up, saying they smelled beer brewing. Brewery staff put a cooler outside, poked holes in it, and installed kegs. Then, the people drinking beer wanted food, so a sandwich cabinet was inaugurated. When news spread and more and more people were arriving to nosh, it was time to expand. In 2002, Nimbus added the full restaurant and taproom, where patrons can eat outside while watching jets fly overhead to and from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
The feeling of the space is at once industrial and warm. The amber wooden tables and bar, the purple felt pool tables, the vaulted wooden ceiling with exposed piping, the gate opening into the row of stainless steel silos. The sound system plays hits from the 90s. Giant Arizona and American flags hang from the walls, in tribute not only to the state and country but to the many servicemen and women from the air force base who patronize the brewery. Military personnel are honored in a large painted sign on the wall and also receive a discount.
Bartender Liz Torres has worked at the brewery for six years. She says that she loves coming to work because of the atmosphere. “I love the people. Everyone is on a first-name basis.”
Regular Jay Shurman sits at the bar with a large stein. He is one of the many members of the Nimbus mug club. Regulars at the brewery taproom can bring in their own 20-ounce mug; bartenders write a number on the bottom and the regulars receive an extra four ounces for their continual patronage. The brewery used to keep all the mugs at the bar; that is until the collection grew to about 700. Now, they ask patrons to bring their mugs with them when they come.
“I love the people. Everyone is on a first-name basis.”
In addition to regulars, Counts notes that beer aficionados plan microbrewery vacations and that a large portion of Nimbus’s patrons come from far away to taste their, and other, local brews. He says its good for the breweries and good for Tucson tourism as well. That is part of why he finds it exciting to see more breweries opening in Tucson since, for many years, there were only three: Thunder Canyon, Gentle Ben’s/Barrio Brewery, and Nimbus. “Now there are 13 or 14 opened or in process. I say, the more the merrier.”
Nimbus produces six different yearlong ales—Dirty Guera, Pale Ale, Brown Ale, Red Ale, Old Monkeyshine, and Oatmeal Stout—and seasonal brews that are inspired by the land where they are made. Count explains, “Snowmelt results in soft water which is suitable for lagers, like those brewed in Germany and Colorado. With its high mineral content, Tucson has a good water profile for producing ales.”
Counts says that the American palate became accustomed to lagers in part because of the popularity and availability of German beers and credits craft breweries for popularizing the ale style. Now, Nimbus’ ales are available in 2,600 locations in Arizona, in addition to California, New Mexico, Georgia, and, in 2014, New York City, where Nimbus was awarded the #1 Arizona Brewery at the New York International Beer Competition last March.
Beyond producing quality beer, Nimbus is interested in practicing sustainability. The brewery donates all their spent grain to rescue horses. The grain is not only nutritious but, after the sugar is pulled, soft, which is easier for the older rescue horses to eat and digest. Hors’n Around Rescue Ranch and Foundation freezes and stockpiles the grain for the winter. Nimbus is also working to become solar powered, hopefully as soon as 2014.
The brewery world is not easy,” Counts admits. He said that when Nimbus opened in the late 90s, breweries were closing left and right. Nimbus opened and thrived despite the odds, but there have been obstacles. In 2011, the brewing company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. That same year, according to the Arizona Daily Star, Counts sold a majority stake in his restaurant to New Way Restaurants.
But the biggest obstacle by far, which affected Counts both personally and professionally, was when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2011.
“This is not a business you turn your head from,” he says. Nimbus had won the Best Local Brew award in the Tucson Weekly for 14 years in a row until their streak was broken in 2013. Counts believes it had to do, in part, with the time he needed to be away to focus on his healing.
“Making beer is tedious and exacting,” he says. If the beer is not fermented within a degree or two, if the distributors don’t store the beer properly, if the equipment is not cleaned the same exact way every time, the beer can taste completely different. For example, he says, a Hefeweizen is meant to be fermented at 70 degrees. At 68, the beer will taste like cloves. At 72, bananas.
Now that he is back, with a clean bill of health as of last August, Counts is committed to providing the same quality beer as before, though the challenge is not completely over. Although Counts is the head brewer, his taste has not fully returned. When he goes out to eat at a restaurant, he often struggles with his palate. “I can taste the most minute amount of salt,” he says. “How do you own a business that relies on your taste when you can’t taste things accurately?” It helps if you have a longstanding product and a slew of loyal employees and customers. He has learned to rely on others, steady customers and staff, to help him know when the ales taste right by comparing their taste to his own. Counts says he is grateful for all those who have volunteered to sit across the table from him to help. “The customers have been amazing.” ✜
Nimbus Brewery. NimbusBeer.com. 3850 E. 44th St. 520.745.9175.
Lisa O’Neill originally hails from New Orleans but has made her second home in the desert, where she writes and teaches writing. Her favorite food to make is lemon icebox pie.