Slaking Tucson’s Thirst

Nanobreweries are on the rise in the Old Pueblo
—and there’s no shortage of thirsty customers.

March 7, 2015

BuzzIssue 11: March/April 2015

On a Wednesday night in January at Pueblo Vida Brewing Company, there’s only one stool left at the bar. A big group fans out at one of the long blonde wood tables in back, laughing; a couple chats quietly beside the brick wall, resting their drinks on a glossy reclaimed ceiling-beam-turned-counter. Outside, two bald men in winter coats pass by. They slow and then stop, peering through the glass storefront. It’s clear they’ve never been here before.

Connie Wick, the mother of Kyle Jefferson from Pueblo Vida, holds a glass of winter seasonal coffee brown.

Connie Wick, the mother of Kyle Jefferson from Pueblo Vida, holds a glass of winter seasonal coffee brown.

The latest in a wave of small microbreweries to launch in Tucson, Pueblo Vida has been open just three months, and business is already booming. “We’re so lucky to be downtown,” says founder Kyle Jefferson, who started the business with his girlfriend, Linette Antillon. “We didn’t even have a sign up. Someone etched our window, so I had to put something up, but we’ve done zero advertising.”

Making seven barrels per batch, Pueblo Vida has started off bigger than many in its brewery cohort. One-year-old Sentinel Peak Brewing began using a 1.5-barrel brewing system, although it has since upgraded to a six-barrel brewhouse. Two-year-old Ten Fifty-Five Brewing uses a three-barrel system, and Iron John’s Brewing Company is the most nano of the nanobreweries, brewing just two barrels at a time.

If the term nanobrewery isn’t familiar, don’t despair—even in brewing circles, the definition is debated. Microbreweries are more clearly defined: According to the Brewers Association, microbreweries produce less than 15,000 barrels each year, and must not be more than 24 percent owned by another alcoholic beverage company. (A barrel is equal to two kegs, or 31 gallons, or 124 pints of beer.) Nanobreweries are the smallest of these. While a widely accepted definition puts nanobreweries at three-barrel production or smaller, some brewers continue to use the nano designation even as they expand.

Why start as a nanobrewery? The answer is often practical: It’s less risk. The nano size requires a smaller investment—a smaller warehouse space, smaller tanks, fewer employees. There’s less ingredient investment in each batch. It is, as Tucson brewers repeatedly told me, just “glorified homebrewing.”

“This is the size to get going,” says Ten Fifty-Five’s John Paul Vyborny, gesturing to the entrance of his taproom, which features a small seating area and a brightly chalked blackboard listing current beers. Like most brewers in town, Vyborny and his co-founder, Chris Squires, began as home brewers. Behind the wood taps and cash register, tanks gleam. “Raise the brand, brew good beer,” Vyborny says.

Pueblo Vida’s tiny storefront on Broadway makes it seem like a nanobrewery. But it’s not. “We’re closer to a micro than we are to a nano,” Jefferson says.

J. P. Vyborny (left) and Chris Squires (right) toast a Leap Pale Ale in the tasting room of Ten Fifty-Five Brewing.

J. P. Vyborny (left) and Chris Squires (right) toast a Leap Pale Ale in the tasting room of Ten Fifty-Five Brewing.

Jefferson’s gamble to open with a higher production volume is not just a shot in the dark. It’s grounded in the market. “Tucson’s thirsty,” Jefferson said. “I hear people say all the time there’s so many breweries, and there really aren’t.” Ninety-eight percent of all beer sold in Arizona is still made out of state, he reminded me.

Taylor Carter at Sentinel Peak drinks his Icebreak IPA in front of the art wall of shipping palettes branded with Kickstarter contributors that helped launch the brewery.

Taylor Carter at Sentinel Peak drinks his Icebreak IPA in front of the art wall of shipping palettes branded with Kickstarter contributors that helped launch the brewery.

But the consumer trend overall is to buy local, which means the audience for craft beer—and his in particular—is rapidly growing. According to Rob Fullmer, the executive director of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, 11 new microbreweries opened in Arizona in 2014—up from just two or three in 2013. And the more established microbreweries are operating at full tilt. Borderlands Brewery, which started on a three-barrel system, expanded into a 20-barrel system between 2013 and 2014. Dragoon has amped up its fermentation capacity to 255 barrels. Barrio runs a 30-barrel brewhouse.

“You look at other great beer cities in the nation—there are sixty breweries in Denver, two hundred in the state,” Vyborny says. “I think we’re just at an earlier point on the same trajectory,” adds co-founder and general manager Chris Squires.

“So you guys think there’s room for more breweries?” I ask.

“At least thirty,” Vyborny says, grinning.

Over at Sentinel Peak, co-founder Taylor Carter is in the business of converting cheap beer drinkers to craft brew. “We have people on a daily basis that have never had craft beer before,” Carter says. “Tucson’s slow to catch up with everywhere else; it’s an untapped market.” He says many people don’t realize the difference between big cheap beers and craft beer “is like the difference between crappy box wine and a fine aged Pinot Noir.”

Whether it’s due to crossover customers or the same beer-thirsty crowd reared on established breweries like Dragoon, Nimbus, and Barrio, so far these new brewers’ projections have been spot-on: business is good.

Sentinel Peak had to shut down for three weeks when they first opened because they ran out of beer. Ten Fifty-Five has been selling out since four months in. And at Iron John’s, Adkisson says, “Lately we’ve been blowing out in 10 days.”

If you’re thinking that a booming market means fierce competition between Tucson’s nano and microbrewers, think again. “It’s not competitive from brewery to brewery,” Jefferson says. “We all support each other. I want to see them be successful.”

In fact, the relationship can be downright cozy. On the day I visit Ten Fifty-Five, Vyborny hops in his car and has me follow him downtown to Pueblo Vida, where he and Kyle offer me a taste of a fermenting Double IPA they recently brewed together. (“It’s still hot,” Vyborny says. “It’s still boozy. I’m thinkin’ 10 more days in here until it gets bright.” Jefferson winces. “I need the space, man,” he says. We all laugh—it’s a good problem to have.)

Vyborny says Tucson’s older microbreweries have paved the way for new businesses like Ten Fifty-Five, which helps keep any competition in perspective. “Because Dragoon has sold so well,” he says, “restaurants are willing to put other local beers on tap. Dragoon sets the bar. It helps the whole beer community.”

With sales so good, the question, becomes whether or not to expand—and how.

At Sentinel Peak Brewing, the initial business plan included a goal to expand within two years. But “we outgrew ourselves way too fast,” Carter says. Just a year after opening, the brewery, located at Grant and Swan, is poised to take over the space next door by mid-February. After knocking out a side wall, they’ll upgrade to a 10-barrel brewing system with 20-barrel fermenters. They’ll also expand onto the sidewalk with a full patio, planters, and roll-up glass garage doors.

“When we started this we did not just want to be a small guy,” says Carter. “The sky is the limit at this point. We have quite a few people who would like to back us at this point and go pretty big.” He sees Sentinel Peak becoming one of the bigger regional craft beers, more widely distributed, like SanTan Brewing Company in Chandler. But Carter also sees the nanobrewery stage as inevitable. “You gotta walk before you can run.”

Ten Fifty-Five, too, sees its current operations as laying the groundwork for what’s next. “When we decided to open a brewery, we planned around distribution—to get ourselves into as many restaurants as possible,” Squires says. But the ultimate goal has always been to open a brewpub downtown, with “a restaurant and great beer.” When Vyborny left his job in the IT world to pursue his dream with Squires, he worked for a year in the kitchen of Zona 78 on Tanque Verde to gain some baseline knowledge.

“We’re foodies as well,” Vyborny says. “Now we have a broker looking around downtown. We’re raising money.”

1702's Austin Santos gives his daughter, Margo, a tour of the back brewing room.

1702’s Austin Santos gives his daughter, Margo, a tour of the back brewing room.

Is a nanobrewery, then, just the first step in the microbrewery life cycle? Or are there reasons to stay small?

For 1702, the limit’s well defined: It’s the law.

“We didn’t think it would be possible to brew because of our zoning requirements,” Austin Santos tells me, seated at the bar of his pizza and beer shop on a gauzy winter day, wearing what seems to be the brewer’s uniform: a collared, button-down, short-sleeved workshirt, this one a darkish blue-gray with an Odell logo. (Vyborny calls Santos “Tucson’s Beer Visionary.” Squires says he’s like “John Wayne slash The Dude.”)

Wine barrels in the basement at 1702.

Wine barrels in the basement at 1702.

After looking for other locations to brew, in 2011 Santos found a loophole that allowed brewing at the current restaurant site. “It can’t be my primary business, or take up more than 25 percent of the business area,” he said. Since Santos likes to have control over his product—“no outside distribution,” he says—this works fine.

1702 keeps 64 draughts on tap and sells other beers in their new bottle shop—which means Santos is keenly aware of the recent explosion in availability of craft beers from all parts of the country. His commitment is to brewing what’s not yet available, including his wife’s favorite, an Elysian Jasmine IPA. “We’re still just trying to brew what friends, employees want to drink,” Santos said. But if he had the tank space, he’d be brewing all the time.

In some ways, the restaurant’s focus on pizza and others’ beer is freeing, Santos says. Although he recently expanded capacity by purchasing Borderlands’ three-barrel brewhouse with seven-barrel fermentation tanks, “We’re not reliant on selling our obscure weird beer. It’s not the end of the world for us if it doesn’t work out.” Perhaps this freedom is part of why Santos is less excited about the prospect of Tucson breweries growing up.

“Tucson’s not saturated with small breweries; it’s saturated with large-distribution breweries,” Santos says. He believes there’s room in the market for more brewpubs and storefronts—but not more breweries whose primary goals include extensive distribution. “I hope it scales down. I hope it does go down to nano size and we’re not always trying to outdo each other,” Santos says. He misses the excitement that came with visiting breweries in other cities to drink beer that wasn’t available back home. “I still feel kinda dirty putting Goose Island on [1702’s tap]. These used to be small companies, but they’re all getting so big. Do you really need your product to be everywhere?”

To Santos, the answer to the growing demand for craft beer is simply more breweries—and of greater variety. “I’d like to see one to three more nanobrewers popping up that are neighborhood watering holes,” he says. He says that there are new brewers starting up near Marana, in an area of town that’s underserved—Catalina Brewing Company and Button Brew House. (BlackRock Brewers raised over $5,500 via Kickstarter in June to support its production facility and tasting room in east Tucson.) And, while most of us don’t currently equate craft beer with pool tables and late night hours, “It’d be nice to have dive bar breweries, to be able to walk home from the local breweries,” Santos says. “This is where much of the unconverted potential exists, for craft beer to gain a new audience.”

Iron John’s John Adkisson holds a handful of belottas, Emory oak acorns, native to Sonora desert foothills; they're used in the brewery's Mole Stout and Nut Brown Ale.

Iron John’s John Adkisson holds a handful of belottas, Emory oak acorns, native to Sonora desert foothills; they’re used in the brewery’s Mole Stout and Nut Brown Ale.

If I hadn’t gone looking for Iron John’s, I would never have noticed it, tucked in an inconspicuous industrial plaza just south of Broadway, off Plumer. The most nano of the nano, Iron John’s bottle shop is modest: one big glass case of bottled brew, some memorabilia (I’m partial to the “DAMN GOOD BEER” snifters), a few stools at a wood counter, and a smiling tap room employee with an iPad register.

Iron John’s doesn’t have a liquor license, so this isn’t a taproom for tasting. With the exception of a few rare kegs headed to places like Tap & Bottle, Iron John’s sells only bottles—the big 750 mL resealable kind, which you can return to the brewery for a $1 refund. “We’re trying to sell beer like wine,” co-founder John Adkisson tells me, “get it into table service.”

Iron John’s strategy is in many ways the opposite of other breweries in town. “We’re aiming to create a limited release frenzy,” Adkisson says. They brew in two-barrel batches just once a week, on Mondays, with new beers hitting the bottle shop on Thursdays, and in Adkisson’s ideal world, customers would make it a part of their weekly schedule to swing by on Thursdays to snag new releases before they sell out.

Because when an Iron John’s beer is gone, it’s gone.

“At first we didn’t know if there would be enough people who appreciated this ethos,” Adkisson says, laughing. “We thought maybe we would just be making people angry.”

Still, there’s incentive to expand—cost. “Capacity is what holds us down now,” Adkisson says. Since it’s roughly the same labor to brew on bigger set-ups, “On big units, there’s just less labor per beer.”

The crew at Iron John’s (from back to front): Brian Dougherty, Anna Jackson, John Adkisson, John Markley.

The crew at Iron John’s (from back to front):Brian Dougherty, Anna Jackson, John Adkisson, John Markley.

The brewery plans to take over the 1,200-square-foot unit next door later this summer. Though he and his partner, John Markley, have discussed adding a distillery, as of now the tentative plan is simply to move the fermentation room and double their capacity, adding Wednesdays as a brew day.

Even with an expansion, he says, he can’t imagine settling into flagship beers. To Adkisson, that would defeat the purpose. “I’m a barley artist,” he says, putting his hands up. “It’s an art. It’s an art that gets consumed. I’m only as good as the next beer. The last beer was great, but what is the next beer?”

Perhaps I’m just buying into the “barley artist” thing, but hanging out with Adkisson feels more like touring a gallery with a maestro than hanging out in a brewery. (Indeed, he tells me he sometimes jolts awake at 3 a.m. with a new beer recipe.) “Five years ago I thought I’d done everything I’d ever do. Now I’m so excited. I’ve got a list of projects.” He’s working on a traditional American lager with hydrated masa, a local blue corn. He shows me Ziploc bags of coffee beans, a varietal called Monsooned Malabar that Raging Sage saved for him, which he’ll use to brew an Imperial Stout. “They leave [the beans] on this concrete floor in India through monsoon season,” Adkisson tells me, his eyes gleaming. It’s expensive, he says, and rare. “It just makes the biggest difference.”

His freezer is full of bulging bags of Willcox peaches, pitted and frozen, and Palo Santo woodchips that a brewer from Ecuador gave him, to finish a chocolate porter. Adkisson picks up a glass jar of bellotas, Emory oak acorns, which he plans to combine with mesquite pods for a local Nut Brown. He has a French Saison with prized Geisha coffee from Yellow Brick Coffee on the schedule; so, too, a re-brewing of his mesquite-roasted green chile ale. He recently brewed a pairing beer for Zona 78’s farm-to-table dinner, featuring—get this—pigs fattened on his own brewery’s waste grain.

The one that haunts me is a French ale finished with creosote flowers. “What happens when you pour the beer,” Adkisson says, his eyes glowing, “is it smells like a rain coming across the desert.”

Which is not to say that Iron John’s is the only brewery experimenting with delicately paired flavors or local ingredients. 1702 and Dragoon recently brewed a 13.2% ABV Imperial Porter using tequila barrels from Mexico; Ten Fifty-Five collaborates with Exo Roast Company on the light-bodied 4.6% XOXO Stout that is “more like an iced coffee—so you can drink it in the summer,” says Vyborny. In fact, one could say this kind of experimentation, collaboration, and local focus is a hallmark of craft brewing today, in nanobrewing especially. Ten Fifty-Five’s Squires sees this as a natural alignment of beer with a parallel movement: local food. “The local food movement has really helped,” Squires says. “There’s extra interest in heritage ingredients.”

In part, this is why Squires and Vyborny have been “on a quest since October” to localize further. The main ingredients for their beer—barley, wheat, and hops—come from outside the state and even Canada, and though they recently tried to brew with feed barley from the San Xavier Coop Farm, it didn’t work out. Now they’re working with BKW Farms in Marana, which is planting some malting barley for spirits and beer.

“It’s a big step,” says Vyborny.

BKW Farms first began serving the craft beer industry in 2013, when it planted its initial crop of White Sonoran wheat for Dragoon. Since then, they’ve increased the acreage each year, supplying Dragoon’s growing lineup of brews, as well as Borderlands, Ten Fifty-Five, Sentinel Peak, and Perch Pub & Brewery out of Chandler. According to Karen Dodson at BKW, the farm is the “only grower of USDA Certified Organic White Sonora wheat—maybe the only grower in the U.S.”

Now, they’re expanding into barley. Most of what is grown in this area is feed barley, which (as Ten Fifty-Five found) isn’t ideal for brewing. So in late December, BKW planted 40 acres of malting barley for Dragoon, Ten Fifty-Five, and Hamilton Distillery. The barley won’t be certified organic, but at this point the breweries say they’re more concerned with sourcing locally than the organic designation. After 76 years in Marana, Dodson says the 4,000-acre farm has “grown everything”—so if the local beer market continues to grow, they’re happy to plant more.

Down in Willcox, too, Carlson Creek Vineyards has planted two acres of hops for Ten Fifty-Five. “The main thing is to know your farmer,” says Squires. “That’s where we’re behind in the beer movement.” Ten Fifty-Five’s end goal, the founders say, is to brew a beer made from 100 percent Arizona ingredients by November.

At Pueblo Vida, Jefferson’s on the same track. “The trend I see is local ingredients,” he says. “The trend is toward organic. My plan is to use all organic at some point, when we can phase into that.”

Pueblo Vida's Linette Antillon enjoys a taste of community; the Mic Drop Double IPA is a product of a Pueblo Vida and Ten Fifty-Five collaboration

Pueblo Vida’s Linette Antillon enjoys a taste of community; the Mic Drop Double IPA is a product of a Pueblo Vida and Ten Fifty-Five collaboration

As I’m preparing to leave Iron John’s, Adkisson tells me the story of Iron John. It’s an old German folk tale that’s
been retold—by the Grimm Brothers, among others—for thousands of years. Though the story is full of twists and turns, it centers on a child’s decision to unlock a cage holding a wild man, who, though intimidating, becomes the boy’s long-term teacher, ushering him into adulthood.

Adkisson says the tale, at its heart, is “about growing up, becoming the person you are supposed to be. The choice to use the key is a necessary first step.

“For me, brewing was that right place in my life,” Adkisson says. “The time is right, the place is right.”

Perhaps—as formerly empty storefronts fill with new taps, as brewers collect local acorns and order bigger tanks, as nanobreweries spring up in untouched parts of town—we can say the same for Tucson. ✜

Kati Standefer writes from Exo Roast Company and teaches community writing classes from her kitchen table in Tucson.

Previous Post

No Girly Beer

Next Post

It's Not About the Bread