Filler Brewski News

Finally, Civilization Is About To Catch Up With Tucson Beer Drinkers!
By Mark Bryant

AMERICANS SPEND $1 billion a week on beer, most of it on the pale, taste-free lagers that are so heavily advertised by gorgeous models and talking toads. But a growing minority of people are rediscovering what true beer tastes like, everything from coal-dark stouts to ones flavored with fruit and spices.

In 1880, the United States had 2,272 breweries, according to Beer World, a World Wide Web site. In 1990, only about 60 operated. Along with fewer breweries came fewer choices, less color and flavor.

Prohibition played a role. The 18th Amendment outlawed alcohol from 1920 until its repeal in 1933, permanently closing most of the nation's breweries. (Others kept themselves going making sodas and other legal products.)

Surviving brewers adopted mass production techniques to raise output and lower costs. Paler beers with less taste appeared, to appeal to the most people. Since then, advertising has succeeded in overruling the taste buds, convincing people that Shangri-La lies just a foamy sip away.

For those searching for more in a beer, there are options from a slew of imports to microbrews, which have been making an increasingly strong comeback ever since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing.

One booming outgrowth of this trend is the brewpub, where fresh beers are brewed and served on site, alongside a menu's worth of food. Portland, Ore., is thick with them. Phoenix and its environs could have a dozen by year's end.

Tucson? Well, Tucson's always been a little behind the times. Except for Gentle Ben's which opened in May of '91, some Tucsonans might well never have heard of the concept. Gentle Ben's owner, Dennis Arnold, says that many a time someone's stood with the stainless steel brewing tanks looming nearby and asked, "So, where's this beer from?"

But Tucson is catching up, with two brewpubs opening this summer, and more waiting in the wings. Arnold, a native Tucsonan, explains the slow climb onto the bandwagon: "Tucson has always been five years behind the curve."

Some observers blame hindering bureaucrats for offering less than a helping hand to prospective proprietors. Others point to simple caution. But for Tom Jones, who's opening the upscale River Road Brewery, there was no need to do market research on something so obviously desirable. "It's a no-brainer," he says.

America's large beer companies have seen sales stay flat for nearly two decades. According to a 1994 beer industry report by Piper Jaffray Research, "Consumers are weary of bland, uninteresting and indistinguishable product offerings." So craft brewers have stepped up, offering quality and taste, much like the recent shifts with premium coffees and boutique bagels.

Brewpubs are one of many outlets for high-quality beer. And for the owners, going straight from brewing to retailing, cutting out the middlemen can mean hefty profits. Nationwide, more than 540 brewpubs dispense their wares; of those 196 opened just last year.

And here in Tucson, it's almost time to pull up to the bar and sample some local brews. River Road Brewery, which Jones hopes to see become an upscale hangout, is expected to open mid-July. Despite the name, it's a posh restaurant in its own right, with a distinctive menu that offers entrees approaching $18. The two-story, $900,000 structure fits well with the tony St. Phillip's Plaza. Maybe too well. Jones says he's had to hurdle constant legal challenges from neighboring Café Terra Cotta regarding his development plan, conditional use permit, zoning and liquor license.

His 10,000-square-foot site will serve three meals a day, he says, with room to seat about 250. Aside from the offering of fine cuisine, River Road Brewery will offer pints of six in-house brews, with such names as Javelina Stout, Sidewinder Blonde and Mesquite Pale Ale. (Once at full production, eight varieties will be offered.) Part of the decor, almost de rigueur at brewpubs, is the display of stainless steel tanks in which the raw ingredients are transformed into various beers.

Gentle Ben's will finally reopen this summer, not far from its original home, which was razed in 1994 to make room for a hotel. It will be a much larger reincarnation, and Arnold boasts, a much improved one. His is the larger of the two brewpubs, with 15,000 square feet, which includes a huge upstairs deck overlooking  University Boulevard from its locale just a block west of Park Avenue.

Aside from good beer and good cheer, Gentle Ben's will offer quick lunches for the working crowd. And dinner offerings will include fish flown in from Alaska, among other entrees. Upstairs, with its bandstand and 80-foot-long bar, will best serve the younger crowd, he hopes, while downstairs will be more comfortable for those less rambunctious.

Neither Jones nor Arnold sees himself competing with the other. Each says he serves a different area of town and a different clientele. And each lauds the presence of the other in the belief that the more brewpubs there are, the more interest is sparked.

A third brewpub may not be far behind. Tucsonan Len Baldauf is looking for a location for his Baboquivari Brewing Co. He'd like a site somewhere within the Swan, Wilmot, Grant and Broadway block, which would be a good geographical complement to Gentle Ben's near downtown, and River Road Brewery up at Campbell Avenue and River. "I think there's really room for four or five different places in town before we step on each others toes," Baldauf says. "At this stage, the more the better."

There's tentative talk of opening a brewpub at the now- empty Cactus Club at the Westin La Paloma. And rumors float of a few more coming in, once they see how receptive Tucsonans are. Jones predicts a half dozen brewpubs will be operating in a year and half.

Says Baldauf, "I think the market's definitely there." Let's hope. TW

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