WANTED: 30-something grad student to own brewery, champion local ingredients, and preside over tasting room & hip hub for downtowners, musicians, foodies. MUST LOVE BEER.
Pretend this post popped up on, say, Craigslist. Would the volume of replies immediately break the internet, or would it take a few minutes? As Mike Mallozzi put it, “Starting a brewery is always a fantasy for young men our age.”
Mallozzi would know. He and fellow University of Arizona graduate student Myles Stone opened Borderlands Brewery in December 2011. It didn’t take long for their dream to deliver returns in reality. Though initially imagined as mostly a shipper of brews, Borderlands opened its tasting room doors to find lines around the block. “We couldn’t believe it,” Mallozzi said. Enthusiasm stayed strong through December 2012, when Borderlands closed the doors due to happy mandate: Public demand demanded expansion.
Now, the new tanks and tasting room tables are full. And over thirty Arizona establishments stock their product.
Adding to the mythic allure: Borderlands’ focus on water conservation and local ingredients—a quixotic concern, considering it inflated their start-up costs, and the young entrepreneurs were students (i.e., poor).
“We used up all our money just printing the business plans,” Mallozzi said. And when they took those plans to the bank, they were met with laughs, not loans. So the duo schlepped said plans (along with growlers of their nascent brews) before “friends, neighbors, friends of friends” and slowly the capital built up; amongst these micro-investors, sustainable aims were a draw, not drawback. “The number one thing,” Stone said, “was they wanted to see something cool, new, going on in their hometown.” He and Mallozzi even resisted the lure of larger venture capital when it meant they’d have to compromise their vision. “If we were going to do it, we knew we couldn’t be just one more beer on the shelf… We had to be something different.”
So I stopped by on a recent Wednesday to see if, and how, beer could be equally kind to planet and palette.
Holy water, heirloom grain
Located in an old warehouse on Toole and Seventh Ave., Borderlands abruptly abuts the railroad tracks. Inside, windows display passing graffiti-washed trains as if by successive snapshot—strobe pops of art to complement a cavernous cathedral interior, punctuated with iron girder, worn wood, and chain link fence.
Mallozzi recently completed his postdoctoral research in microbiology, and displayed a nerdy glee in explaining the complex chemical processes used to create the brews. His pride in their new tanks was abundant, but he beamed equally when showing off some less ostentatious objects out back: a large water harvesting tank, and barrels of used malts. The former captures all the water used (now reused) to chill their wort—a practice that saves 2,000 gallons of water every week.
“We knew if we had to pick one issue to go all out on, it was water conservation. It’s a brewery in the desert.”
Indeed, Borderlands has a bit of a water obsession. They only make beers that are compatible with the mineral-rich H2O of the desert, without additional distilling. While this rules out beers like stouts, it also lends their lager a real regionalism. “We knew,” Stone said, “if we had to pick one issue to go all out on, it was water conservation. It’s a brewery in the desert.” How apropos that their One-Year Anniversary beer was named Agua Bendita—holy water, indeed.
That Agua Bendita also featured a hallowed heirloom grain, White Sonora Wheat, completing a conclave of local ingredients: prickly pear from Arizona Cactus Ranch for their wheat beer, real Mexican vanilla from Arizona Vanilla Company for the porter, Green Valley pecans for the ale, various local honeys for the Kolsh—all of which will soon be joined by novitiate hops from Arizona Hops and Vines.
And lo, what happens when this crew of brewing biomass has served its sacred purpose? That’s where the barrels behind the brewery come in. The protein-rich detritus is donated for compost to the Community Food Bank of Souhern Arizona, as well as to local farmers. The circle of life! And all the drinkers said, Amen.
But I shouldn’t make Borderlands sound so saintly. When I asked about sacrifices—in taste or finances—made to be more sustainable, Mallozzi expressed the opposite: “It’s a big advantage!” I’d wondered, before stopping in, if the brewery’s aims were based on environmentalism or business savvy; that the two suddenly seemed indistinguishable was the best news for humans I’d heard all month.
One growler, to go
Of course, this would be moot if the brews were bad— but I can happily report that I loved the Nut Brown, and Borderlands’ overall roster was highly affable/quaffable (beer snob translation: they tasted good, and I’d like to drink more of them). The Kolsh had the honeyed lightness one wants in a summer selection, plus a woody finish. Was it the mesquite origins of the honey—we talk of wine’s terroir, so why not beer? Also worthy of mention: the Gose, a sour beer from Northern Germany which has only recently made rare forays stateside.The sour is sincere: Tartness punches your tongue even as citrus bubbles soothe the stomach, perfect for certain simmering days in the Ol’ Pueblo.
But back to that Nut Brown. Some versions of this brew have an assaulting nuttiness— which can be tasty, but also makes the beer more of a sipper. Borderlands’ version is more subtle. I’d liken it to Italian table wine. It’s enjoyable pre-meal, but can complement your dinner, too. Speaking of which, Borderlands has landed on a symbiotic solution to their lack of kitchen. Food trucks park outside, and you’re welcome to bring your kimchi quesadillas in to the brewery’s tables.
I also loved their Vanilla Porter—but I want to point out that I wasn’t a fan of all their beers. Thankfully. Early success is so often the hobgoblin of innovation. “That’s something we really try to guard against,” Mallozzi said, showing me old tanks from pre-expansion, now used for brewmaster Blake Collin’s mad/genius experiments.
So my advice: stop in, sample some brews, and see what suits you. Then grab a growler and shamble on home. Amble, stumble, stride—or pedal.
Think about it: Biking home with Borderlands in your backpack? It’s hard to find a better definition of sustainable buzz. ✜
Dave Mondy is a freelance writer/imbiber and an instructor at the University of Arizona.