Untapped Potential

Demand is heating up at the eastside microbrewery Sentinel Peak Brewing Company.

September 5, 2015

BuzzIssue 14: September/October 2015

Jeremy Hilderbrand was told to put his money where his mouth is. Years after coming home from a two-year tour of duty in Würzburg, Germany, in the early ’90s, his wife, Jeannie, was tired of hearing him complain about the lack of good beer in the United States. So she bought him a home-brew kit.

Within a few days, the former Army interpreter bought a few extra beer kits. Within two months, he was experimenting with all-grain flavors to achieve the tastes he found in Germany. “The things I experienced over there were totally new,” said Hilderbrand, 43. “All the beer flavors, just the different styles … Once I got the kit, I was just off to the races.”

Today, Hilderbrand—a firefighter at the Golder Ranch Fire District in Oro Valley—is one of three owners of Sentinel Peak Brewing Company, Tucson’s easternmost microbrewery. He is also the brainchild behind the brewery, and four of the flagship beers the brewery serves, including the 1811 Desert Blonde, Salida del Sol Amber, Icebreak IPA, and the Dewpoint Dunkel—a dark, smooth German-style brew.

Although the University of Arizona graduate—with a bachelor’s in secondary education and a master’s in teaching English as a second language—had the recipes ready for thirsty customers in 2012, getting the brewery started was a different type of animal.

To put it together, he enlisted the help of fellow firefighters Matt Gordon and Taylor Carter. Carter—who claims the brewery came about from a “lack of sleep and drinking too much beer” on days off from the station—is the head of sales and marketing. Gordon manages brewpub operations. All three are still working firefighters, and regularly finish their shifts at the station and head into town to work at the brewery.

The three Sentinel Peak owners still work as fulltime firefighters. (From left) Jeremy Hilderbrand, Taylor Carter, and Matt Gordon.

The three Sentinel Peak owners still work as fulltime firefighters. (From left) Jeremy Hilderbrand, Taylor Carter, and Matt Gordon.

They opened the microbrewery in January of 2014 at a strip mall on the corner of Grant and Swan. Tucked away in a corner by PetSmart and behind Trader Joe’s, the brewery is quickly establishing itself as a player in Tucson’s craft beer scene.

When customers walk through the doors of the brewery and take a seat at the bar or any table, a quick glance outside the garage bay doors shows a spectacular view of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Sentinel Peak is available on tap at 30 spots around Tucson, including Saguaro Corners Restaurant and Bar, Monkey Burger, Good Oak Bar, and Tap and Bottle. “I’d like to see our beer all around Tucson,” said Hilderbrand, who was born in Detroit, Michigan, and moved to Tucson during high school. “I’d like to be a name that people recognize when they talk about craft beer in Tucson.”

The demand is there, and the supply is quickly catching up.

“We had a one-year, three-year, and a five-year plan,” said Carter, a graduate of Salpointe Catholic High School. “At about 10 months or so, we hit our ceiling for our three-year plan.”

The brewery, which currently employs 25, has expanded next door, adding about 500 square feet of space to the taproom. The 10-foot by 20-foot brewing space—which once held the 1.5-barrel system and produced up to three barrels per brewing day—has become more efficient. New water heaters, a six-barrel holding tank, and a 250-gallon cold tank have ramped up production to nine barrels a day. (A barrel creates 31 gallons, which can fill up to 248 pints.) A patio now spans the front of the brewery, soon to be covered by a solar panel ramada.

Sentinel Peak recently expanded their production to nine barrels a day, under the watch of head brewer Sam Diggins.

Sentinel Peak recently expanded their production to nine barrels a day, under the watch of head brewer Sam Diggins.

“We maxed ourselves out way too fast, which is a great problem to have,” Carter said, removing his Sentinel Peak Brewing Company hat, and running his hand through his hair. “At the same time, we didn’t have the infrastructure, or the money put together for the next upgrade. We really have just been scraping by to get to the next level.”

All of this comes at a time when craft beer could not be more popular, across the country and in Arizona, where the number of breweries has increased from 47 in 2013 to 53 breweries across the state in 2014, according to the Brewers Association.

For Sentinel Peak, the growth of the industry has gone hand in hand with their growth. Carter says sales have expanded every single quarter they’ve been in business.

Hilderbrand estimates that the brewery serves about 600 beers per week, which range from $4.75 to $5.50. Their four flagship beers are always on tap, but they rotate through 20 seasonal beers throughout the year. Their most popular beer? The Icebreak IPA. They also sell growlers. The brewery also offers a full menu.

While many breweries in Tucson are located downtown, the trio decided to move to central Tucson to focus on a different type of demographic.

“Outside of that downtown circle of breweries and clubs, I wanted to give the rest of Tucson a taste of the microbrewery experience,” said Carter—who Hilderbrand says was “half joking” when they chose the location.

“Grant and Swan, couldn’t get any more central than that. It’s a really busy intersection,” said Carter.

While the cross-streets may have been a big help to the visibility of the brewery, the zoning proved more difficult. Many of the microbreweries located in downtown are based out of warehouses, which are zoned as industrial—which works, since the beer is brewed at the location.

In this case, the strip mall that contains the brewery is commercial property. Although it required some work with the City of Tucson, the brewery was granted its licenses within the standard six-month period.

Carter admits the location is a little “weird,” but it seems to be working. “We generated that east side, that foothills, that central crowd, that does not want to go downtown, and some of our customers really didn’t have an idea of craft beer till they came into the brewery.”

The trio initially used Kickstarter to help fund the start-up phase of the brewery. The crowd-funded web campaign was Hilderbrand’s idea, and it worked: Sentinel Peak received almost $36,000 in donations, almost $9,000 more than they were expecting.

Carter estimates that almost 65 percent of the backers were people from Tucson—people they didn’t know—who liked the idea of having a centrally located brewery.

“When we first opened, we got a really bad review on Yelp,” Carter said. “A lady did not like the pallet art. She said the beer was good, and the food was good, but this weird funky artwork that they had using pallets was just weird.”

One pallet—a 140-pound, five-foot-by-eight-foot wooden mass—which held a grain order for the brewery, was put to a more creative use after fulfilling its original purpose. Now, it’s dedicated to the early supporters of the brewery’s Kickstarter campaign. Multicolored planks of wood—etched with black ink—give the names of those who donated. One plank reads “The Godfather.”

“We figured we might as well do something with it,” Carter explained. “It’s heavy. We had to put ridiculous supports in there.”

Gordon—a Catalina Foothills High School graduate—is a go-get-em kind of guy. “Why’d I go with beer? It’s the nectar of the gods, man,” Gordon said. “It’s delicious. I mean, why’s the sky blue? You know what I mean?”

He might not brew, but he’s made his own contributions to the brewery’s identity. The interior of the brewery, including walls and floors, tables, chairs, and bar itself were all remodeled by Gordon.

The 35-foot bar was made from poured concrete, a one time, cross-your-fingers type of creation. “We built everything from scratch. We had a product used to the point where it was beat down, broken, and ready for the scrap yard,” Gordon said. “Not only because we could, but also because it helped save money.”

And, he said, “if you want something done right, do it yourself, right?”

Jordan Branch delivers two flights of Sentinel Peak’s flagship brews to waiting customers.

Jordan Branch delivers two flights of Sentinel Peak’s flagship brews to waiting customers.

As the brewery grows, so do the beer selections. While the regular four are always on tap, Hilderbrand is working with head brewer Sam Diggins on the next set of test batches, to refine for production. An oatmeal stout, American porter, and an imperial red are in the fall lineup, while an Oktoberfest brew is in the fermenter. They’ve experimented with White Sonoran wheat from BKW Farms in Marana, and hope to reach out to a farmer next spring for local hops.

Hilderbrand’s endless variations of draughts are more than just moneymakers for the brewery. “I don’t really make a beer unless I have a connection to that style,” said Hilderbrand—his favorite beer is the Icebreak IPA. “The recipes that I come up with, a lot of them come due to experiences that I’ve had, or places I’ve been.”

The personality of the beer and of its creator is not just limited to the tap—the entire brewery exudes it.

“We want it to be a place where people can go to relax,” Hilderbrand said. “And have it be a place that people are comfortable going to.”

Sentinel Peak Brewing Company. 4746 E. Grant Road. 520.777.9456. SentinelPeakBrewing.com.

James Bourland is a high school journalism teacher and freelance writer. When he’s not teaching the youth of the nation, he’s out looking for his next story.

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