When the beer hits the glass, you can smell the rain. It smells like the desert, like creosote, like home. John Adkisson of Iron John’s Brewing has seen people cry in his tasting room. The tears came because the drinkers, having been uprooted from Tucson, could smell the desert in their glass.
Two aspects of Baja Arizona’s craft brew scene jump straight out of the barrel: collective good will and the Sonoran desert. Mike Mallozzi, of four-year-old Borderlands Brewing, told me that the bottom line in the local beer scene is community. He described Tucson as “the most interconnected place on the planet,” and if you’re in the local beer bubble, that might not seem like hyperbole. Four years in the Tucson brewery business makes you a veritable graybeard. (And yes, the industry is still dominated by mostly bearded white fellas, though there are some welcome exceptions). When Mallozzi, along with Myles Stone, opened Borderlands, there were only three other local brewers (Barrio, Thunder Canyon, and Nimbus) cooking hops in the Old Pueblo. Since 2011, Tucson has gone from four breweries to 14 just halfway through 2016. There are two more opening imminently: Flux, Dillinger, and Green Feet, plus a handful on their way (or rumored to be on their way) soonish: Crooked Tooth, Black Mountain, Corbett, and, who knows, you’re probably thinking of upscaling from backyard buckets and going full-scale micro soon.
But despite the heat wave of craft beer, Tucson is about a decade behind the curve, according to a few craft-brewers I talked to. The “curve” is set by sudsphilic cities like San Diego, Denver, and Portland (there are nearly a hundred craft breweries in greater Portland alone). The surge of local brew houses in Baja Arizona, however, isn’t fostering a cutthroat culture of sniping away stout-loving customers. Rather, brewers hope the rising brew-tide will leak into what is local craft’s real competitor: big label domestics.
InBev, the Belgian-Brazilian beer conglomerate that bought Anheuser-Busch in 2008, which produces Budweiser, Natty Light, Lime-a-Rita, and King Cobra, among other over-chugged tongue-numbers, is the arch-kaiser of the marketplace. The cartel of macrobreweries, lead by InBev, currently holds about 80 percent of the US market, gobbling up rising mid-level or microbrews nibbling at their share. And though there are still many big brand-dedicated beer drinkers (think of those men who proudly proclaim their love of Miller over Coors, two beers whose difference in taste is about as wide as that between a yellow and red M&M, and both of which are owned by the MillerCoors consortium), American palates seem to be sophisticating. IPAs have been all the rage for West Coast hop-heads for years, but now weird sours, funky goses, challenging dunkels, and rye or chocolate porters are starting to wet whistles across the country. “There are 75 different styles or substyles of beer,” Adkisson said (think of him, the owner of Iron John’s, as Tucson’s zymurgical guru). “People need to know that … It’s damn near endless, because there’s so many different variations and tweakings that you can do.”
“Eventually, Tucson will hit 20 or 25 breweries.”
For the next year, Edible Baja Arizona will be covering the Baja Brews project, in which a dozen local brew houses (Ten Fifty-Five, Sentinel Peak, 1912, Barrio, Beast, Borderlands, Catalina, Dragoon, Iron John’s, Pueblo Vida, The Address @ 1702, and Thunder Canyon) will continue fostering the spirit of community that Mallozzi and Adkisson described to me. The project includes the creation of special small-batch beers by participating breweries that will incorporate a variety of locally originating ingredients (including cactus and tree fruits, cracked nuts, scavenged seeds, White Sonora wheat, and Sonoita-grown hops). David Zugerman, of Tucson Hop Shop, described these beers as “embodying the flavor and emotion of Tucson.” The resulting locally sourced beers will be available for tasting by the public at six events (stay tuned for details), which will also be fund-raisers for local nonprofits, including Native Seeds/SEARCH, Iskashitaa, Trees for Tucson, and Desert Harvesters.
It was the ides of June, a hundred and many degrees, and Adkisson and I were sitting at Borderlands after a Baja Brews meeting. The dilemma of the day was finding access, which was proving difficult, to saguaro fruit to season up some beers. Adkisson had ordered a combo Just Fingh Peachy, a Berliner Weisse from 1912, and a Saison (“a Saison-style Saison,” as Linette Antillon, of Pueblo Vida, described it to me) from Pueblo. Adkisson mixes it up even on this end of the tap: a Peach Saison. His improvised hodgepodge was fantastic: acidic, light, peachy, and punchy. After a few gulps of appreciation, holding the pint glass to my temple, I asked Adkisson if the craft market in town was saturating. Not even close, was his answer. “Eventually, Tucson will hit 20 or 25 breweries,” he said.
Adkisson has been making beer in town for over two decades. He’s a certified beer judge, teaches brewing, and, as he told me, has brewed every style of beer that exists. “Thoroughly celebrating brewing,” he told me, depends heavily on experimenting with local ingredients. Indeed, when I visited his taproom, I saw some wild stews bubbling in giant repurposed soup kettles (originally from an Arizona prison) or hanging out in old wine and whiskey barrels. Iron John’s Fruit Tea Goat Gose, for example, includes locally cultured goat yogurt, salt, black tea, and coriander, plus a colorful medley of fruits. “We’re going the whole hog,” Adkisson said, about the Fruit Tea Goat thing. “We’ll see what the hell we come up with.” Another unique brew was the Masa Cheve, a green-corn-based beer, which, not surprisingly, tasted and smelled like corn, and, for a hot day, was refreshing, balanced, and highly drinkable. (Green corn is young, just-ripened corn. Adkisson sources it from Mexico, and steeps the silk and the husk, as well as the kernels, into his brew.) One of the great things about micro- and nanobreweries is this room to improvise and experiment, though not all of Iron John’s beers are so off-the-wall. Their Copper Sky Sour Biére de Garde is a standard, and exceptional, sour. Slightly cloudy, fruity but not sweet, notes of citrus and raspberry take a slow ride down your tongue, lingering long after the swallow. Their Czech-style Pedaler Pilsner and Old Pueblo Pale Ale are other mouthwatering favorites.
The only city today that drinks more craft beer than domestic beer is Portland, Oregon. Whether the claim is apocryphal or not, Portlanders drink a lot of beer from Portland, and local brewers in Baja Arizona want the same. But how do you take a bigger slice out of that big domestic and Corona-dominated market? In a word: Quality. “Denver brewers”—as well as big domestics and foreign imports—“will continue to dominate Tucson if their beer is better than ours,” Kyle Jefferson, of Pueblo Vida, explained to me.
In 2015, Arizona brewed approximately 187,213 gallons of craft beer, which is about 1.8 million pints, and ranks 25th in production among U.S. states. That would be about enough for every one of us in Arizona to drink one single shot of craft beer. If you were to discount babies and teetotalers, maybe everybody in the state could enjoy a half a pint. Nationally, the entire beer market is worth about $106 billion a year. The craft beer market, which grew a whopping 12.8 percent in 2015 alone, is worth a little more than $22 billion. The number of breweries, throughout the country, went from 3,722 in 2014 to 4,269 in 2015, which is a 17.9 percent rise. Today, there are somewhere upwards of 4,500. That’s the equivalent of sprouting from a smidgenly five-foot tween to six-footer your freshman year of high school. There might be a period of tripping down the hallways, but eventually you’ll find your footing.
Tucson’s craft brew scene, as Kyle Jefferson of Pueblo Vida put it, might not even be of driving age. “We’re still in our infancy,” Jefferson said. According to Rob Fullmer, the CEO of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, only about 1 percent of beer swallowed in Arizona is local craft beer. For Baja Arizona beer makers, that means a lot of room to grow.
Pueblo Vida, run by Jefferson and Linette Antillon (both University of Arizona grads), is one of the many tenderfoot breweries in town that, despite still not having a sign in front of their downtown brewhouse, is already making its mark. I asked Jefferson why forgo the sign. “We wanted to grow organically,” he said. “We wanted to pull in people who were seeking out craft beer … to have a more one-on-one relationship with our customers.” In the last year, they’ve been solicited by more than 80 local restaurants that want to put them on tap. They’ve been growing phenomenally fast—their beer can be found in at least 15 restaurants around town, and they have already expanded their downtown taproom—but they’re still keeping their focus on their on-premise sales.
“We want to keep our growth manageable,” Antillon, who is 29, told me. “We’re a young company. And we’re young.” Jefferson, himself only 32, cut his teeth at breweries in Seattle, learning from a long lineage of veteran brew masters in the northwest. Antillon focuses more on the front house, and their taproom is rustically beautiful, with open ceilings, spacious tables, and lots of repurposed wood—a good place to write or play a board game while sipping an IPA. Their focus is also reflected in the quality of their beer. All of their brews (with one exception—their stout, which has locally roasted Yellow Brick Coffee) contain only four ingredients: water, hops, grain, and malt. “We try to do one thing, and one thing great,” Jefferson said. That’s not to say that Pueblo Vida doesn’t produce some damned interesting beers. Their Sapid IPA is specifically yeasted to bring out juicy and peachy notes, which, along with the hops, sizzle on the tongue. They also do a one-keg infusion every Tuesday (and they always sell out), pitching ingredients like hibiscus or watermelon juice directly in with an IPA. An infusion that was a big hit last winter was roasted pear with cinnamon, mixed in with a Belgian Blonde. If you’re reading this on a Tuesday, I recommend you stop, calmly put down this magazine, and go directly to Pueblo Vida.
Despite all the unique flavors, Baja Arizona’s rather urbane brewers aren’t pouring only for beer snobs. Like the locavore movement, locabibing is more environmentally friendly, economically sound, and, quite simply, more delicious than drinking the big domestics. “When you drink local brew,” Allan Conger, of 1912 Brewing, told me, you’re not stuffing the pockets of a CEO, “you’re supporting a family.”
Small brewing operations across the country accounted for 121,843 jobs last year, which was a 5.5 percent increase from 2014. According to Bart Watson, the chief economist for the Brewer’s Association (a sweet sounding job), 78 percent of adults 21 and over live within 10 miles of a brewery. A city drinking primarily its own beers would not only provide a thrilling variety of taste for travelers and natives alike, it would also support local economies.
Zugerman, of Tucson Hop Shop, told me he has trouble keeping Tucson craft beers on tap: patrons drink them too quickly. A keg of Iron John’s Pedaler Pilsen recently got entirely downed in just two days. Same with kegs from Borderlands and 1912. “I try not to bug [the brewers],” Zugerman said, about “not being able to make beer fast enough to satisfy my customers.”
Most commercial brewers are basically running a factory, pushing toward cost effectiveness and flavor consistency, bringing their flavor profile down to a common denominator. Consistency (with some exceptions) is not what you’ll find in the local craft brew scene, and that’s a wonderful thing. One of the most convincing examples of what Eric Erman, of Ermano’s Craft Beer and Wine Bar, called “collabrewing,” was a beer concocted with a cherry puree made in the Ermano’s kitchen, combined with a sour yogurt that Borderlands propagated, all mixed and brewed into a sour cherry beer by Conger of 1912.
But despite the synergy in Tucson’s craft brew world, local beer is still a small ship floating in a huge sea of America (the name Budweiser has rebranded itself with for the summer). Local suds-swillers, if they don’t go straight to the brewery, or to the few local-centric taprooms in town, still have limited access to local beer. Part of the challenge for brewers here is not only continuing to educate the masses, but also getting access to the supermarket/liquor store shelf-space (more on this market in future articles).
The brew that brought tears to drinkers’ eyes in Iron John’s taproom was Saison de Juhki (a trilingual name, French-Spanish-Tohono O’odham, meaning Season of Rain), which is brewed with creosote flower, orange peel, and white sage. I haven’t yet cried when I’ve drunk a beer, but, in the next year, while writing about the Baja Brews project, I don’t discount the possibility. In fact, I pose it as a challenge: Brewers—make me weep.
I asked Kyle Jefferson, of Pueblo Vida, what was the best beer he’d drunk in the last couple weeks. After a moment of silence he answered me, earnestly, “Anything that’s local, my favorite beer is the one in front of me.”
My Top Two Beers (from reporting on this first article): Iron John’s Copper Sky Sour Biére de Garde and Pueblo Vida’s Bavarian Hefeweizen. ✜