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."
Tucson's Willy Wonka
On the opposite end of the spectrum sits Jim Counts, the managing partner and CEO of Nimbus Brewing Company, the local brewery that should be, by all accounts, a regional brewery.
The funny thing about Nimbus Brewery is that, despite its awards and status as Tucson's largest brewery, Nimbus has never felt as if it was part of any larger brewing community — moreover, it just seems like something important is missing.
There seems to be a variety of reasons behind that. The beer's quality is, generously, inconsistent; of all the breweries in Tucson, it's the only one that isn't a part of the Arizona Craft Brewer's Guild, an off-putting sign in an industry built around camaraderie; and truth be told, it seems that Nimbus held their decade-plus stretch holding the Best of Tucson®'s Best Locally Brewed Beer title simply by name recognition, one of the benefits to being the only brewery to distribute bottles throughout Southern Arizona.
The reason, it seems, is Counts.
Let's step back. Nimbus opened in November of '96, when homebrewer Nimbus Couzin joined with three friends to open a brewery on Tucson's south side, scraping together parts from Portland's Widmer Brewing Company and a non-commissioned Washington nuclear plant for their operation.
It wasn't long before the brewery began struggling to keep up with demand; in '99, Counts joined as managing partner, where he set about a plan to fix what he saw to be problems with the business: That, despite its popularity, it wasn't making enough money and was having trouble paying off its debts.
"The brewery at that time was way too small to cover its overhead," Counts said, "so I came in and put the money into it to build the thing out so it would have the possibility of being profitable. I guess the boys who came in originally didn't do their math correctly."
By "build the thing out," Counts means that he funded the brewery's expansion via a new brewing system and fermenters; he also was the man behind Nimbus' rebranding, developing the now-familiar monkey motif that graces the company's packaging. There are two differing stories behind that, actually: An interview with Edible Baja Arizona has Counts claiming that the monkey was born of a practical joke replacing a boring "N" with a barley spike; Ed Sipos' Brewing Arizona claims that the logo drew from sketches made by Couzin.
Around 2001 Nimbus hit a rocky patch; Counts claims that Couzin ran the business into near-ruin, telling me of an ultimatum: "Did I fire him? No. I gave him the opportunity to make things right ... if he wanted to work here. Now he's off selling insurance in Kentucky, or something," he said. (In reality, Couzin is teaching college courses in southern Indiana. Interestingly, he also ran for mayor of Louisville, Kentucky in 2009.)
This is, Counts claims, in contrast to the numerous rumors floating around stating that Counts tossed Couzin out on his ear. Soon after, in May '01, the taproom was closed by Pima County. Counts blamed Couzin, claiming that the brewery's namesake got revenge by telling a friend at the County that there were problems with the brewing equpiment ... problems, Counts said, that only Couzin would know about, since Couzin put the system together.
Over the following years, Nimbus Brewing expanded, opening restaurants, increasing its line of bottled beers and licensing the rights to use the Arizona-famous A-1 Pilsner trademark (an act of kindness to a dying friend, Counts said).
Then, in 2011, Counts was diagnosed with throat cancer. The wheels fell off about that time; the Nimbus Bistros closed, one by one; he went through a divorce; and in 2012, Nimbus filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. (Counts also filed for personal bankruptcy.) Since that time, Counts has taken the reigns completely at Nimbus, acting, it appears, as CEO, head brewer, and head of sales, fighting cancer (he was given a good bill of health last August, though a recent test led to concerns that his cancer may have returned) and attempting to reorganize his business all the while.
It's because of this massive pile on his plate that Counts claims he's unable to work with other local brewers. "I haven't been able to get out and gladhand with everybody; plain and simply, I've been sick. I've not been able to go out and visit other accounts and other brewers," he said. "Things are what they are. I was at the Congress Hotel (Tucson Beer Cup) recently, and that wasn't too long after I got my ability to get strength back again. I know a bunch of (local brewers), but as for actively getting involved, I've yet to have the time or ability to have much involvement with them yet."
As far as he's concerned though, Nimbus is rolling. "The brewery is still doing well, still selling product just as well and has opened up new markets. We have Georgia, South Carolina, New York City and Long Island," he said. "It's not me, it's the brand; the one thing that I'm able to do is to get out and market the product and sell the product and assist in production, but it's the brand that was built."
However, it seems that outside the walls of Nimbus Brewing Company, Counts (and his brand) have few fans.
"I don't think they want to be part of the community, and I don't think the community wants anything to do with them," says Blake Collins, beer manager of downtown Tucson's Good Oak Bar and former brewmaster for Borderlands Brewing Company. "They're producing beer that's not amazing and selling it and putting Arizona on the map with it; it's kind of unfortunate. It's like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory: No one comes in, and no one goes out, and I don't know anyone who works for them," he said, later noting that Dragoon brewer Eric Greene spent time working at Nimbus.
John Adkisson, Tucson's foremost homebrewing expert, also spent time at Nimbus, working under Counts for a year as a brewer.
"Nimbus should have been a regional brewery by now, and they've had all the elements to do that, but he's been in the way the whole time," Adkisson said. "It's just his stubbornness and resistance to change.
"For him, it's always been about expanding to other markets, going to Alabama, to New York, to California, when he should be maxing out the Tucson market instead of just trying to get his name out there," he said. "I was sent out to Portland once to represent Nimbus at a brewfest. I asked, 'Wait, why would we even go out there, you aren't going to distribute!' It was just to create a buzz," he said.
What strikes me about Counts' demeanor during our interview, particularly in light of the favorable profile given to him by Edible Baja Arizona, is that his passion appears to be in growing the brand; he doesn't strike me as someone particularly passionate about beer. Ordinarily, that wouldn't be much of a problem for someone involved in strictly running the business side of a brewery ... but keep in mind, he's also the head brewer, responsible for the flavors of his beers. Moreover, he himself has admitted that his palate is nowhere near what it used to be.
I've got nothing against Counts or his brewery (I'll admit that Old Monkeyshine was, for a time, my favorite beer in the world), but there seems to be something deeply wrong for a man with a broken palate, fighting cancer and running every major aspect of his business; there's a nobility in that, sure, though there's just as much foolishness. For the sake of his health, and the health of Nimbus Brewing, I hope his soon-to-complete reorganization includes serious consideration toward taking a less-strenuous role.
The New Brews on the Block (and One Old-Timer)
Now, more than any previous time in the Old Pueblo's brewing history, Tucson beer lovers appear to be in good hands. And thankfully, they're not just those of the increasing number of local brewers.
Late last year, Dragoon Brewing Company, long the darling of local beer lovers, hooked up with Colorado's New Belgium Brewing, one of the largest craft brewers in America, to collaborate on Westerbru, a dark lager that disappeared from local tap handles seemingly as fast as it was put on. With its IPA taking Best Beer at Hotel Congress's Born and Brewed Local Beer Cup for the second year running, Dragoon's beers are increasingly found at restaurants around the city. Notably, in talking with Dragoon marketing manager Tristan White, they've already stretched their warehouse space practically to capacity; they hope to expand to a larger area shortly after their second anniversary in April. In the meantime, however, they've recently remodeled their current taproom to have a "much less clinical feel," White mentioned.
Early in 2013, Ten Fifty-Five Brewing opened to wide renown, a block away from the turf of Nimbus Brewery, and has rapidly developed a devoted following on the strength of their quality brews. They recently held their one-year anniversary, drawing hundreds of people to the industrial park where their brewery is set up, hosting a number of food trucks, offering rotating limited edition beers and filling a parking lot full of warm fans on what was otherwise a breezy winter afternoon.
Craft beer fanatics Scott and Rebecca Safford met in Hotel Congress' Tap Room years ago over craft beer ("It was probably New Belgium's 1554 — they've had that there forever," Rebecca said, laughing) and turned their shared passion into Tap and Bottle, which was recently recognized as one of the top beer bars in the region by CraftBeer.com (and voted upon by Tap and Bottle's fans, of course). They've become a beer mecca of sorts, hosting a series of events for the Dragoon/New Belgium Westerbru collaboration; regularly showcasing craft breweries from across the country to showcase growing Tucson's beer culture; and holding workshops and events for local beer education and appreciation.
The recently-opened Good Oak Bar is the perfect showcase for beers coming strictly from Arizona and infusion experiments drawing from the mind of beer manager Blake Collins ("A non-Arizona beer will never grace our taps," he promised); Sentinel Peak Brewing has made the first push toward Tucson's underserved craft beer market; and there's no shortage of breweries in the planning stages, as downtown Tucson's Pueblo Vida Brewing and the prospective Button Brewhouse, both led by professionals with a passion for good beer and strong business sense, are determined to make a difference both in the craft brewing community, and in the community at large.
Local brewers have made an effort to get together as a part of a Baja Arizona Brewer's guild, meeting at least once a month as a chapter of the larger Arizona Craft Brewer's Guild to focus on issues pertaining to Southern Arizona and ways to support each other as a community.
But in my mind, the most promising sign of Tucson's craft brewing future comes from one of its longest tenured community members.
The aforementioned John Adkisson, better known around town as Iron John, is weeks away from opening the doors of Iron John's Brewing. Most interestingly, unlike the recent trend of selling beer inside tap rooms, Adkisson's brewery plans to market its beer in a strictly retail fashion, selling 750 ml spring-top bottles from its storefront.
To simply analogize Adkisson's beer knowledge, let's put it this way: If Dennis Arnold is a beer nerd, Adkisson is Mr. Wizard. Walking into the garage that comprises his brewery, one that can be seen in totality from his hospitality room/storefront, he can quickly and easily explain each stage of the brewing process with enough information to be thorough without going overboard.
"It's all about chemistry," he said as he brewed the wort for his San Diego-style IPA, a strong, hoppy beast of a beer. Largely self-taught, Adkisson recieved his first homebrew kit as a present from his wife in 1991. Adkisson decided that he wanted to replicate a favorite English beer of his, Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout.
"I was enamored with it, saying I want to make something like that, but with more oatmeal character and roundness into the beer. I did about six varieties of it before I came up with one that I liked. I entered some bottles of it into a homebrew competition at the old Gentle Ben's, and I got a blue ribbon. I got hooked. I was just fixated on the idea that other people liked my beer."
A few years later, Adkisson's father died; at that point, brewing became a form of therapy for him. "I decided that I was going to brew a beer of every style, and master every style," he said.
If he hasn't mastered every style, he's certainly on his way there: According to Adkisson, his homebrew count is over 350 different batches, and documented 50 "good, reliable recipes to draw from," another 10 he's developing in his head, and yet another dozen that he'd pull from his larger recipe book to tinker with further.
Before I left Adkisson's storefront, I asked one question: What would he like to see out of Tucson's scene in the future? He thought for a second, then answered.
"I talked to someone the other day who made an oatmeal pale ale, which was interesting. It never occurred to me to use oatmeal in a pale ale," he said. "I'm curious to see how it turns out for him, because I want to do more of that, making things that aren't out there, combinations you haven't thought of, and there's a lot of that that goes on.
"Some of it's really good, some of it's not, but there's a lot to learn from it. If a lot more of that were happening, and Tucson became a mecca for really inventive brewing, that'd be great."
Looking at the talent Tucson has developed, I'd say we have a shot to become that mecca.