The State of Tucson Beer

2013 was the year of the Tucson craft beer community's coming out party; the question is, where does it go from here?

Like most of you reading this, my first beer came before I was legally allowed to consume alcohol — about 19 years old, in my case.

But I'll assume that, unlike most of you, my first beer was a craft product: Fat Tire Amber Ale, from Colorado's New Belgium Brewing.

I hated it.

It was bitter, harsh, and just tasted ... weird. "How the hell could people drink this?," I wondered as I grabbed a Dr. Pepper from the fridge at my friend's apartment.

I didn't touch another beer for years, drinking imports like Guinness and Bass (Classy!) when I wasn't drinking straight off of the broke-ass student's menu with Tecate and Miller High Life.

These days, I love Fat Tire; it's malty and bready, with the slightest touch of hoppy bitterness. It's a perfectly balanced beer that feels like a hug from a good friend, particularly after coming back from the bitter hop-bombs of many West Coast India Pale Ales, or the practically chewy richness of stouts.

I'm 26 now, part of the generation that's come of age at the same time as the craft beer scene (a "Kettle-Baby" as Barrio Brewing Company owner Dennis Arnold put it, which is a much better designation than "Millenial," in my opinion), but it took me a long time to properly acclimate myself to craft beer ... not unlike Tucson, actually.

The Old Guard

The Old Pueblo was, during the late '90s, home to seven craft breweries: River Road (later Breckinridge), Habaneros, Nimbus Brewing, Pusch Ridge, Thunder Canyon and Gentle Ben's.

Today, of those seven, only Ben's (now operating as Barrio Brewing Company a few miles south of its still-standing location on University), Thunder Canyon and Nimbus have survived (and in Nimbus's case, just barely; more on that later).

The problem was, most of those breweries came before their time, arriving on the scene during a period when the macrobreweries, Budweiser, Miller and Coors, had a stranglehold on the market; brewpubs like Habaneros lost money hand over fist, opening at a loss and simply refusing to quit for two years, according to then-brewmaster John Adkisson.

If you ask Dennis Arnold, the owner of Ben's/Barrio, why he's successful, he's likely to give you a few answers (trust me, he will; the man loves to talk). My favorite?

"Luck. The first 10 ingredients to my success are pure luck," he said one day as we sipped beers in Barrio's tasting room.

Coming out of college with a degree in Journalism, Arnold admits that, even then, his job prospects were pretty slim, "especially since I wasn't the greatest student," he admitted.

Trying and failing to open a brewpub in San Diego in the late '80s (which is pretty damn ironic, considering that you can't throw a cat in San Diego today without hitting someone holding a local craft beer), Arnold and his wife decided to make a go of it, assembling brewing equpiment from scrap in Tijuana and smuggling it across the border without any formal training in brewing; truth be told, he learned on the job, without even having homebrewed so much as a single batch of beer before opening Ben's in 1991.

"If I was serving the beers today that I was 20 years ago, I'd be out of business; they weren't good beers then," he said. "But back then, there was no support system for craft ...but now, there are plenty of resources. The Internet itself is a tectonic shift in regards to the information available."

Now, it's safe to say that Arnold is a beer nerd; for the two hours we talked, at least half of it was about brewing science, about the specifics of canning beer (having hired beer quality expert Steve Thompson, formerly of Dogfish Head, Barrio will soon expand their lineup of canned brews from one beer to three—the magic number for getting into Arizona's chain stores, he said) and about the experimentation process his brews go through. At one point, he details the year-by-year changes his Mocha Java Stout went through, detailing the milk sugars, the chocolate selection process, the malts they used. For a guy who started out with a brewing system and no idea of his limitations, he sure as hell made up for lost time.

The biggest key to his success, in my estimation, is that that he's grown by never overreaching, coming in each day wondering what the next item on the agenda is and, importantly, never going into debt.

"The last time I borrowed money was $20,000 to buy out investors," he told me, noting that he paid that away immediately. Since then, they've carried no debt, recently expanding their operations to potentially produce as much as 40,000 barrels a year. And he still goes in having no significant goals in mind.

"This may sound stupid, but we generally don't have goals around here," he said. "We haven't budgeted, none of this was ever drawn up and we didn't really have blueprints. We just showed up and said, 'What do you want to do today?' It's just not who I am. It's worked for us so far, and I hope it continues to."