Just days from Sentinel Peak Brewing Company's grand opening, brewer Jeremy Hilderbrand was surprisingly calm.
It's not that he didn't have anything to worry about. For one, the interior touches at his brewpub were unfinished, with painter's tape still lining the walls. The staff was going into a grand opening after an incredibly short soft-opening period and, perhaps most crucial, he had only eight barrels' worth of product for his first weekend in business.
And while Hilderbrand is high-energy, you get the sense that it's not from the stress. Like his business partners, Hilderbrand is a veteran firefighter—and he's an Army veteran, to boot. And he's confident that Tucson will dig what they're offering: good beer made with a passion.
Hilderbrand said he caught the bug for quality beer in the early '90s when he was stationed in Germany during his Army days. He said he and his buddies discovered the holy grail of beer in German dunkel, a style of dark lager that was worlds away from the fizzy, yellow light beers that his father drank back home.
"At the time, it was the craziest, darkest, most insane beer we could imagine— like, we'd (have to) work up to drinking it," he said.
Hilderbrand said his constant search for good beer (and his constant complaints when he couldn't find it) prompted his wife to give him a home-brewing kit for Christmas one year, effectively telling him to "put his money where his mouth was" and make a damn good beer himself.
"It wasn't like I was brewing once a month; I was on it," he said. "I gave away a lot of beer for a while. My neighbors loved me ... of course. Then I'd get a bad batch, so I'd tell them, 'Hey, you got the good stuff, you gotta take the bad stuff, too.'"
Hilderbrand learned how to make the "good stuff" fairly quickly. Soon, he was sharing his brews with buddies at the firehouse and taking his beer to barbecues, where it often was the most popular drink. His beers also began attracting attention at competitions, including winning a gold medal at the 2012 Music City Brew-Off near Nashville. By that time, Hilderbrand had partnered with fellow firefighters Matt Gordon and Taylor Carter, and they began kicking around ideas for a Tucson location to sell their brews.
Their first choice, a building near Grant Road and Interstate 10, fell through. Then they came across an empty storefront at 4746 E. Grant Road, the former home of a Philly's Finest sandwich shop. After a stressful run in crowdsourcing funds ("If you ever do a Kickstarter, be prepared to not sleep at night," Hilderbrand said), Sentinel Peak raised more than $35,000 and promptly began a 10-month-long renovation of the shop.
After an almost total rebuild of the restaurant's interior, Sentinel Peak is ready to go. Patrons might sense something familiar about the place, because a number of fixtures came from other restaurants in town. The bar stools are from Jalopy's Grilleville, the chairs from Beyond Bread and the booths from the former Redline Grill. The sound panels on the wall are made from old shipping pallets, all of which follow an overarching directive from Hilderbrand, Gordon and Carter that Sentinel Peak be as self-sustaining as possible.
That's led to consistent reuse and recycling: Water and yeast are reused when possible, solar panels are under consideration and spent grains are being set aside for use by local farmers. Eventually, Sentinel Peak plans to use some of those grains for both breads and dog biscuits.
The idea of donating grains came from Borderlands Brewing Company, a fellow member of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, which has been doing it for quite some time. Hilderbrand said the association with the brewers guild has given Sentinel Peak an invaluable source of brewing knowledge. While some might find that curious, considering that other breweries could be seen as competitors in a quickly growing market, brewers love to share tips, Hilderbrand said.
"The way we look at it, people can be a fan of Dragoon's beer, or Borderlands' or Sentinel Peak's, but overarching, they're a fan of craft beer," he said. "In fact, I want someone to come in one day and say, 'Man, I make beer, and it's better than yours is.'"
Not that Sentinel Peak's brews are anything to thumb your nose at.
The four that I tasted—1811 Blonde Ale, Pumpkin Spice Ale, Haboob IPA and award-winning Monsoon Dunkel—were all easy-drinking, quality brews that are perfect for introducing people to craft beer. It's no surprise that Monsoon (inspired by his aforementioned love of German beers) is Hilderbrand's pride and joy. "I worked six months on the color alone," he said. "My wife ended up drinking a lot of beer."
Hilderbrand plans to eventually add more experimental brews to the lineup, drawing on his set of recipes to help educate craft beer newbies. "I want to have that growth room; I want people to say, 'It's a little bitter for me, but I'll still drink it,'" he said. "All it does is expand the palate."
The pub's long tables and cozy seating also were inspired by Hilderbrand's time in German bars, where you're likely to strike up a conversation with other patrons just by virtue of drinking together.
"We want to create an environment where people can eat, drink, hang out and chat ... and if we can provide a bit of social lubricant to set that off, so much the better."
Sentinel Peak Brewing Company
4746 E. Grant Road
Hours can vary, call or check their Facebook page for details