A Stout Industry

Independent brewing in Tucson entering ‘maturity’

The back room of Dragoon Brewing.
The back room of Dragoon Brewing.
When Dragoon Brewing Company opened in 2012, there were only five craft breweries in the Tucson area. Eight years later, Tucson is home to 25. This 500 percent increase in less than a decade is even higher than the already impressive national increase during that same time frame: In 2012, there were more than 2,000 craft breweries in the U.S. Now, there are more than 7,000. For a relatively young industry, the local craft brewing scene is causing a definite impact, both culturally and economically. Tucson's two dozen craft breweries, or microbreweries, host dozens of annual beer festivals, brewing competitions and specialty drinking events. These include the Baja Beer Fest, the Tap & Bottle Invitational Beer Festival, the Born & Brewed Beer Battle at Hotel Congress and many more.

All-in-all, Tucson brewing accounts for 20 percent of Arizona's craft beer production, according to Rob Fullmer, executive director of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild. This equates to an estimated $105,000 in federal tax and $15,000 in state excise tax from Tucson's craft beer barrels in 2018 alone.

"While we are slowing down in the number of new breweries, we're also seeing more breweries open a second location," Fullmer said. "Overall, it's a net positive... It's a different kind of growth, maybe a deeper growth. Many breweries are young, so the next couple years will be very telling. Five years into a new business is a common time to renegotiate leases, and is a good time for people to reinvest."

According to the Brewers Association, the craft beer industry employs more than 9,000 Arizonans, with an average wage of more than $40,000. Since at least 2010, the state has experienced a constant increase in the number of craft breweries.

Ironically, one of the reasons Dragoon Brewing was founded was because the owners saw a gap in the number of craft breweries in Tucson. Despite the large industry increase since their inception, Dragoon Brewing manager and co-founder Tristan White says he does not feel concerned about Tucson reaching a detrimental "carrying capacity" of breweries.

"The marketplace is becoming more crowded here, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact it can be a good thing," White said. "You'll get these pockets in the city where people will gather for breweries, like we're known as the westside brewery... Tucson has a strong element of 'homerism.' Tucson is proud of Tucson."

Both Fullmer and White agree the Tucson craft brewing industry is experiencing a kind of maturity, or evolution. Many of the craft breweries are surviving their first few years of business, and as a result are expanding and experimenting with their business model; businesses like Iron John's Brewing Company and Barrio Brewing Company have already opened second locations, while others are in the process.

"We're not even 8 years old, and I think we're the fourth oldest in Tucson, so the maturity is definitely a new thing," White said. "It's becoming a more developed scene. Some of the breweries want to grow, but others are right where they want to be."

Tucson breweries are also experiencing maturation in ways other than opening a second location. In December 2019, Barrio Brewing, Arizona's oldest craft brewer, announced it was moving to an employee-owned model. This move to an Employee Stock Ownership Plan resulted in Barrio founder Dennis Arnold being designated as Tucson's first "brewmaster emeritus."

Craft brewing is also leading to commerce between Tucson and the rest of Arizona. For instance, Dragoon estimates they sell 30 percent of their beer in the Phoenix area. The connection between Tucson and Phoenix's beer industries becomes particularly strong during Arizona Beer Week, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary Thursday, Feb. 6 through Saturday, Feb. 15.

During Arizona Beer Week, multiple Tucson breweries will head up to the Phoenix area for the Arizona Strong Beer Festival. With roughly 10,000 attendees, the Strong Beer Festival is regarded as the largest craft beer festival in the Southwest.

The Brewer's Guild, based out of Tempe, even hosts events in Tucson, namely the Baja Beer Fest.

But these only scratch the surface of the roughly 5,000 special event licenses in Arizona in 2019. But none of this is to distract from the heart of craft breweries: beer.

As the craft brewery industry continues to expand and mature, so does their product. Tucson breweries are now producing a wide and wild variety of chili-pepper-infused ales, beers in the style of "adult lemonades," beers with rosemary and tamarind and cucumber, sours ranging from pink to black, stouts reaching higher alcohol percentages than wine, chocolate and mocha ales and much more. "People have seen everything now, so it's more of a 'try anything' culture," said Dillinger Brewing Company co-founder Eric Sipe. "The consumer is open to try more. Ten years ago, people might have seen a lemon-rosemary sour, and thought 'What the heck?' But now, it's game on."

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