And The Thunder Rolls

Thunder Canyon Brewstillery reinvents itself with an anything-goes approach

Violet Kasser pours a Keep Tucson Hoppy IPA, one of Thunder Canyon’s most popular drafts.
Violet Kasser pours a Keep Tucson Hoppy IPA, one of Thunder Canyon’s most popular drafts.
You could see buzzards circling Thunder Canyon Brewstillery after closing their kitchen last January. Two years prior, they had shut down their flagship restaurant at Foothills Mall and their longtime head chef retired. To make matters worse, the brewstillery's kitchen struggled to find a loyal following in downtown Tucson since opening in 2013. 

Owner Steve Tracy needed a Hail Mary or else retirement might be in the cards. 

Tracy reached out to the brewery's longtime bartender, Jim Owens—now the general manager of Thunder Canyon and MC of hip hop group Jivin' Scientists—for his thoughts on how to change course and turn the brewstillery around.

"I had left for about two months and told the owner, 'If you want to do something funky, something weird, then give me a call,'" said Owens. "They were just going in the direction of every other brewery and that just wasn't my speed." 

Owens said he and Tracy had always been friendly. He told the owner how much potential he thought the brewstillery had, instead of what it's "ended up being at this point" before parting ways. So when Tracy asked Owens what he would do, the former bartender told him his plan—focus on brewing and bring back the small, local music venue that used to be the charm of Downtown Tucson in decades past.

"Flycatcher closed. Then Cans (Deli) had closed. All these small local venues had closed," Owens said. "I thought if we could open as a music venue and target that demographic, it could work." 

So Owens took over the reins and stripped everything down, from axing the kitchen to scaling back the full-service bar. 

"I felt like in order for us to survive we had to get back to what we had always done well and that was beer," Owens said. "It seemed silly to me that we were in the market with Pueblo Vida and all the other breweries, yet we're a whole other animal with a full service kitchen and full bar, and financially that was killing us."

Then he started booking all the touring acts he's known over his 20+ years in the music business. 

"I just went into full booking mode and it turned into a blessing," Owens said. "I knew there was a void, but it wasn't until the third month when I realized how big that void was."

It wasn't long before Thunder Canyon's calendars were fully booked with an eclectic mix of shows and off-the-wall events. Then the people started showing up. 

"Any given night it could be something different," said bartender Steven Romo. "We'll go from board games, to death metal, to karaoke, to hip hop and b-boy battles, to a three-course meal in a pop-up kitchen." 

Romo said the brewery's new environment has a "club house" feel, which he believes is "completely out of the norm" from other breweries in the Old Pueblo. 

"We're kind of breaking the mould on what a brewery should be," Romo said. "Having a brewery that doesn't take itself too seriously, but is serious about the product is what turns me on about working here."  

Thunder Canyon has consistently produced their malty Deep Canyon Amber Ale (5.2 % ABV) for the past 22 years. Recently they got into the retail sales game, inking deals with Safeway and Albertsons to carry six-packs of their flagship beer. In addition to brewing beer, the brewstillery also distills and sells three types of rum—silver, spiced and coconut.

To Romo, the secret to the brewery's newfound success lies in being an all-inclusive venue and brewing great beer. Thunder Canyon's new credo is "This is everyone's spot. We will cater to anyone who wants to be here," said Romo. 

Business has turned around 180 degrees, according to Owens. However, when patrons started coming back, Owens said he realized the brewstillery needed food. Without it, customers tend not to stay as long. Considering some of their brews pack a punch, like their rum-barrel-aged Warhead Russian Imperial Stout (10% ABV), Owens said they needed to come up with something. Quick. 

"We started thinking 'What if we didn't do food, but we had someone do food and it was their restaurant?'" Owens said.

Enter Matty Parsons. The legendary local line cook and Judas Priest enthusiast had worked for the previous kitchen before it shut down. Parsons, known for being equally loyal as he is creative in the culinary arts, opened his own concept, Shifty's Pizza, in the brewery last March. The young chef kneads his own pizza dough made with the brewery's amber ale, grinds his own sausage blend and makes a homemade roasted poblano ricotta for his pies. 

When first approached, Parsons admits he was unsure if he was ready to become a restaurant owner. 

"I was getting ready to go to gun-smithing school and they asked me 'Would you want to do this?'" said Parsons. "I've always been a line cook and it's real easy to go to work and blame someone else if things don't go right. But now if something goes wrong, it's on me." 

Parsons said it hasn't been easy making the change from line cook to small business owner over the past year. But with business steadily increasing, along with teaming up for weekly Wednesday pop-up dinners with Mo Madril of acclaimed food truck Geronimo's Revenge, he said. "It doesn't even feel like a job anymore." 

"I've definitely have those moments where I'm sitting on the edge of my bed, almost in tears, wondering when I'm getting paid again," Parsons said. "It's all about perseverance. If it doesn't work out, I'll open another restaurant. I just can't go back to working in a kitchen for someone else."

It looks like the hard work of Owens and the crew at Thunder Canyon Brewstillery is paying off. Every night is booked with something interesting, the food is worth the trip alone and its vibes hark back to an earlier Downtown Tucson lost to gentrification. 

"We just did all the high-end chef shit last year. We were trying to be those people," Owens said. "To have that not work and then bring in all these renegade dudes and be like 'Fuck it all, let's just see,' and then have it work?! That has been super cool."