Places to Wrangle

The long and short history of craft beer in Baja Arizona.

September 9, 2016

Baja BrewsIssue 20: September/October 2016

Before this town was even a town, you could have sat down at a bar and ordered a craft beer. In 1864, 13 years before Tucson was incorporated, Alex Levin and Frank Hodges opened Pioneer Brewery on the north side of Camp Street (now Broadway) between Church and Stone. A few years later, Levin—described by Tucson historian C.L. Sonnichsen as “a fat, jolly, outgoing German”—opened Park Brewery, on Pennington Street, which served, according to an 1869 advertisement, lagers, ales, and porters. John Spring—Swiss émigré and fellow Tucson brewer—commented about the beer at Pioneer: “The less said about its quality the better.” The quality, however, would improve. Levin found better water sources (he had been using water from the Rillito), started using beer yeast instead of bread yeast, and sent Spring to buy better bottles from Hermosillo. By 1884, the Arizona Daily Star described the Pioneer as “the sink of drunkenness, vice, and debauchery,” which, in early Arizona brewing days, may very well have been a description of success.

Park Brewery on Pennington Street, served, according to an 1869 advertisement, lagers, ales, and porters. Image courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society.

Park Brewery on Pennington Street, served, according to an 1869 advertisement, lagers, ales, and porters. Image courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society.

At these early breweries—by 1873 there were three, Pioneer Brewery, City Brewery, and Park Brewery—early Baja Arizonans, according to historian Ava S. Baldwin, “spent hours playing poker and wrangling over matters of opinion.” When the first railroad chugged into town, in 1880, the boxcars brought not only raw goods and finery from the East, but also opened up a new beer market. What was at first a boon for Boss Levin, as he came to be known—he could start shipping his beer across the state—eventually put local craft brewers out of business. Larger brewers would soon start shipping their beers into Baja Arizona. It was a trend that would continue for a century, and not until more than a hundred years later, in the late 1990s, would Tucson once again boast three breweries. Today, the Old Pueblo has 16.

We (and I mean to encompass all of us in the collective pronoun) have been drinking beer for about 10,000 years, more or less. Egyptian pharaohs drank suds out of golden bowls. Ancient Chinese farmers fermented sorghum and got sozzled. In the southwestern United States, Apaches got tipsy on tiswin, which came to be known as Apache beer, and was made from fermented corn, with juniper berries replacing hops as the bittering agent. Locally, Tohono O’odham made a version of tiswin flavored with saguaro fruit. East Coast English-style alehouses, in the late 18th century, were where the first militias were formed, and where the thinking behind the American Revolution fomented. Beer, in sum, has been an integral part of the human project since the project began.

Early American beer drinkers swilled mostly ambient-temperature ales. That changed starting in the 1830s when German immigrants started coming to the United States, bringing with them their love of cold lagers. Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, explained that changing shipping technology, the rise of the quicker clipper ship, which traveled more northerly (cooler) routes across the Atlantic, also led to the ale-to-lager shift. Lagers are brewed at colder temperatures, and lager yeast dies when it warms. Thus, the rise of lagers—still by far the most commonly imbibed beer in America today—closely followed the rise of refrigeration. It wasn’t until the 1880s, with further advances in cooling technology and the advent of pasteurization, that beer could effectively travel. Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, Schlitz, and Pabst all trace their origins to the newly refrigerated mid-19th century.


Patrons gather at Barrio Brewing’s popular brewery near the railroad tracks south of downtown. Last year, Barrio brewed 9,000 barrels of beer.

In 1873, the same year there were three breweries in Tucson, there were 4,173 across the United States. A hundred years later, by the 1970s, there were just over 40 breweries nationwide. Today there are 4,600 breweries, with another 1,000 in the works. What caused the drought, and the recent resurgence?

As soon as beer was able to move from state to state without skunking, you didn’t need a brewery in your town, especially if you lived along the railroad. (The beer-rail connection is still in play in Tucson: Barrio offers $1 off pints when the train goes by. At Borderlands, drinkers observe a forced moment of silence—a chance to reflect and stare into your glass—when passing trains shake the bar.)

By 1891, Anheuser-Busch was selling more than a million barrels of beer a year nationwide. Consolidations and takeovers continued until the temperance movement killed off, or sent underground, hundreds more breweries across the country. In 1919, when Prohibition began, major brewers, including Busch, shifted to producing ice cream, soda, and yeast—essential ingredients for a sixth birthday party, but not quite enough to take the edge off a sharp day. Even after Americans started drinking legally again, breweries didn’t bounce back. In fact, they continued their decline. By the 1970s, the 40-some remaining breweries produced almost nothing but low-alcohol, hop-zero, pale lagers, also known as yellow swill. Many of these beers, including those produced by Budweiser and Coors, contained rice and corn additives (and still do today).

In 1987, changing Arizona laws paved the way for microbreweries to pour their own beer at the same location they brewed it, opening a once-barricaded door for craft brewers. Previously, there were regulations to stop beer and wine producers from distributing or serving their own product—and the firewall is still in effect for major domestic brewers. The idea, a relic from Prohibition days, was that “brewery ownership of bars was a primary reason for the overconsumption and abuse of beer,” writes Steve Hindy in Craft Beer Revolution.

In my experience, however, over-consumption has more to do with approaching deadlines and the state of your soul than it does with exactly who is pouring the pints.

Just a few years after the laws lined up right for brewers in Arizona, in 1991, Dennis Arnold started cooking grains on University Boulevard at Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company. The brewery would expand to become Barrio Brewery, though still maintaining its Gentle Ben’s site to serve beer and food.

Raise your glasses: the Anno Domini of decent beer had come to Baja Arizona. Nationally, the ’90s stood as the demarcating decade of BC (Before Craft) and AD (After Domestic).

Dennis Arnold broke into brewing by smuggling steel into Tijuana. In the ’80s he would buy stainless steel from Escondido to smuggle south into Mexico, where he had set up a shop to turn the scrap metal into brew tanks. With the money he made from welding, he was able to construct his own kettles. Barrio still has, and uses, two fermenters and three bright tanks that Arnold built from the illegal steel. He first tried opening a brewery in San Diego, 30 years ago. When that didn’t stick—San Diego city officials said there would never be a brewery within city limits because of the “stink,” though now San Diego is the one of the craft brew capitals of the country—Arnold and his wife, Tauna, decided to try again in their hometown of Tucson.


Dennis Arnold started cooking grains on University Boulevard in 1991 at Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company.

Arnold is a fast-talking man with a large personality, a convincing tan, obvious business acumen, and lots of stories to tell. He spent about 20 minutes describing the history and varieties of al pastor tacos—a new happy hour menu, featuring the high-expectations tacos, is coming to Barrio soon. As we talked tacos and beer in his office, he rocked in a steeply reclining chair underneath a St. Arnold (the patron saint of beer) tin plaque. A team of Barrio workers was running the canner just outside the door, loudly filling up six-packs of Barrio Rojo.

Just as Gentle Ben’s Brewing was expanding beyond capacity in the early 2000s, Arnold moved the brewing side of the business into an old Quonset hut, basically a tin-skinned tent, by the railroad tracks south of downtown. On a recent hot and lazy Saturday afternoon, the place was packed, and I could barely get a table to enjoy a pint of Rae’s Grapefruit IPA—made with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Last year Barrio brewed 9,000 barrels of beer, which is up 40 percent from 2014. Since 2010, their distribution has spiked about 1,000 percent. Soon they’ll be selling their cans in Fry’s supermarkets across the state, and you can already find them in town, pretty much wherever beer is sold.

City-wide distribution and popular appeal didn’t come easily for local craft brewers. In the late ’90s, as Steve Tracy, owner and brewer of Thunder Canyon Brewery, told me, “The whole brewery thing was a novelty.” He and other brewers had to put in a lot of sweat and money, and somehow find a critical mass of drinkers. Establishing a successful brewery “isn’t just sitting around and drinking beer,” Tracy explained. It may, however, be crucial for making a mouthwatering product, which is the first step toward financial sustainability.

At Thunder Canyon, Adam Marshall (left) and Kyle Ratcliff continually tweak their IPA recipe to reflect Tucson’s changing tastes.

At Thunder Canyon, Adam Marshall (left) and Kyle Ratcliff continually tweak their IPA recipe to reflect Tucson’s changing tastes.

Thunder Canyon currently employs 80 people in two locations, and for the last four years has set record production numbers. Some of Tracy’s recipes, his amber and blonde ales, haven’t changed over two decades of cooking. What has changed, however, is people’s appreciation for them. Tracy, and Thunder Canyon’s brewmaster, Kyle Ratcliff, have been tweaking their IPA to match Tucson’s changing (read: enlightening) palate. Thunder Canyon’s original IPA, in 1997, was 5.5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) and had 45 IBUs (International Bittering Units, which basically measure hoppiness); now his flagship IPA, stronger and with more flavor, is 6.8 percent ABV and has 75 IBUs.

I asked both Arnold and Tracy what they thought had spawned the craft brew craze. They both reached for analogies and theories to explain the phenomenon—kids don’t want to drive what their parents were driving, the rise of Starbucks habituated the public to more bitter flavor profiles, the antiglobalization pushback sparked an interest in drinking locally. Even beer economist Bart Watson had trouble putting his finger on it. “Generational change is a powerful force,” he told me, though many previous generations certainly seemed content with their macrobrewed lawnmower beers. Watson also speculated that the “expectation of choice” might have something to do with it. Millennials, who grew up with 17 flavors of Vitamin Water, make up a “generation of experimenters,” Watson told me. Tastes, however, are fleeting and subjective, beholden to the mysteries of suggestion and the tides of trend, and maybe the best explanation for the rise of craft beer is as sententious as: Because it’s better.

It is 2010. Dennis Arnold is drinking a beer at his bar. He turns around and sees a gaggle of “sweet little ladies,” as he calls them, from the Red Hat Society (a global society that supports women in pursuit of “fun, friendship, freedom, fulfillment, and fitness”) drinking Hefeweizens and IPAs. That was the moment, Arnold told me, “I realized my world had changed.”

When Tracy, of Thunder Canyon, first started brewing in the ’90s, “You couldn’t give away an IPA.” Part of the job of a local brewer, Arnold said, was to “get people moving up the flavor scale.” Both Thunder Canyon and Barrio worked to educate and sophisticate Tucsonans’ palates, pushing them toward more “forward-flavor” products. “You stay in the game long enough,” Arnold said, “and you can convert the unconvertible.” And once you win those people over, they tend to stay in the craft brew camp. Arnold: “I don’t know of anybody that’s ever gone back” to the “MichUltra days,” as he calls precraft consciousness. “Babies don’t want to go back to baby food, to eating peas out of a jar, after they’ve tried real food.”

Establishing a successful brewery “isn’t just sitting around and drinking beer,” says Steve Tracy, owner of Thunder Canyon Brewery.

Establishing a successful brewery “isn’t just sitting around and drinking beer,” says Steve Tracy, owner of Thunder Canyon Brewery.

Thunder Canyon’s Good Vibrations IPA is a delicious example of real food. It’s continuously hopped, which means that hops are added during all of the stages of the brewing process. Typically, hopping beer in an early brewing stage lends a beer its bitterness. Dry-hopping (the hops added when the beer is done brewing) will give a beer its hoppy aroma. The hyper-hopped end product, the Good Vibrations, as Ratcliff described it to me, is piny and resinous, with a citrus touch on the tongue. It’s a classic Northwest-style IPA, full of flavor everywhere, lingering in your nose, even following the liquid down your throat.

But a brewery isn’t just about beer, no matter how frothy the suds or thirsty its drinkers. What you want to develop in a brewery, Ratcliff told me, is “a sense of community. [Where] everybody knows everybody and you can sit and have a pint after work and talk to a buddy.” Basically: a place to wrangle.

Tom Storey ordered his first amber ale at Thunder Canyon in 1997, the day Thunder Canyon opened its doors, and has been drinking the same beer and participating in neighborhood meetings at the brewery a few times a week ever since. “Thunder Canyon is like a family,” Storey told me. “It’s comfortable in here.”

We talked a while about the importance of community space, but Storey and another long-time regular, kept bringing the conversation back to beer. And then back to community. And then back to beer. Which seems to be the way it works: the beer lubricating community and the community downing the beer, brewing up a symbiotic sort of fermentation.

In 1864, in the midst of the American Civil War, Levin’s Park Brewery stood, according to Sonnichsen, as “a symbol of community cohesiveness.” Walk into either Thunder Canyon or Barrio, and you’ll see that the same holds true today. 

John Washington is a writer and translator. Visit
or find him on Twitter at @EndDeportations.

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