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.