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.