Arizona Craft Brewing History – Part One
Note to the Reader: this is the first article in a series of articles on Arizona beer history.
Famed novelist William Faulkner once observed that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past,” underscoring the central fact that, like your GPS, history is a roadmap into society that bespeaks of human failure, success, hopes, and disaster. If one has not consumed too many cold brews, history can enrich one’s understanding, for it affords a narration of where one has come from, and it serves as a compass to where they are going. All things have a history, and that history provides meaning and depth into the people, places, and events that have shaped the formation of human culture and society throughout all time. Understanding history, then, allows for individuals to develop a deeper appreciation for any subject or passion. Why is this important? Because with each day a new history of Arizona’s bourgeoning craft beer scene is being written! It is a history rich with malted barley and aromatic hops, a story of innovation and creativity, a tale of the dedicated men and women who bleed and brew craft beer for enthusiasts with an insatiable appetite that seems to have no limits; indeed, this is a trend!
As of December 2017, the United States boasted some 6,000 breweries, of which more than 5,200 are craft breweries, both independent and otherwise. Of that number, over 80 are located in Arizona and although this accounts for less than one percent of all breweries, the number of breweries in Arizona has increased more than 30 since 2013, clear evidence of steady growth. (These figures are based upon work done by Ed Sipos, author of Brewing Arizona: A Century of Beer in the Grand Canyon State, while other info can be located here at the BA website.) According to the Arizona Brewers Guild, 8 more breweries are “in planning,” including Arizona Brewing Company, a location that initially opened in 1933 following the repeal of Prohibition: the greatest day in all of human history! Unfortunately, it was sold in 1964. In a bit of “cold brew” irony, Faulkner may have said more than even he knew: Arizona Brewing is not dead. It’s not even past.” And its not just the name that is being resurrected, their famed A-1 Pilsner is also making a comeback. According to the brewery, “John L. Rivers IV, a 25-year veteran of the Wine, Beer, and Spirit industry has aligned with longtime Arizona resident and Brew Master Zach Schroeder to replicate the original recipes . . . that would have been used during the 1950’s when A-1 was the top selling beer in Arizona.” Just like Marty McFly, this brewery is quite literally coming Back to the Future and it promises to aid in the process of transforming Arizona into a beer destination.
Although the Arizona beer scene does not yet approximate that of Grand Rapids or Portland, give it time, it is home to some of the most flavorful brews I have encountered, much of which is cutting edge. One of the most talked about locations hails from a town with a rich history all of its own: Tombstone Brewing Company. Opening in October 2016, this brewery came, “out shooting with IPAs, sour ales and barrel-aged stouts that would make Wyatt Earp’s mustache curl,” Zach Fowle of DRAFT magazine argued. With so many fantastic ales, Tombstone already holds medals from AZ Strong Beer Fest and GAPF, underscoring just how good they really are. Although Tombstone Brewery will gladly be your “huckleberry,” it is not the only gem to be found. Another “must see” brewery is Wren House, located in Phoenix inside a historic home that has as much character as their beer. According to Wren House, “We fell in love with its character,” the house that is, and so they, “rebuilt the old guest house and garage in the backyard into our brewhouse and converted the main 1920s bungalow house into our cozy taproom.” These breweries will not cease to please patrons in search of innovative, clean, quality, and consistent ales: the beers are great. But perhaps part of their appeal lies in something less tangible, something that resonates from days gone by. From the historic charm of Wren House to the gun slinging reputation of Tombstone, these breweries do much more than produce great beer: they are a living legacy.
Although Tombstone Brewing and Wren House, among many others, are producing high quality brews, Arizona beer was not always this way. According to Ed Sipos, Arizona, “brewers did not have a full understanding of what role yeast played in brewing beer prior to the 1890s, wild yeast and bacteria could have infected the beer from time to time.” In 2018, it is obvious that Arizona brewers have learned from the past, because unlike some of those libations from the 1860s, Arizona is brewing up high quality beers…consistently. The men and women who engage in their craft are part of a long tradition of brewing that dates back to German immigration during the 19th century, and the tenacious persistence of brewers to defy and bounce back from Prohibition. In so doing, craft beer enthusiasts get to enjoy the fruits of an industry that has been in the making long before Sun Up, McFate, or 12 West hit the scene with their amazing beers.
Therefore, in order to fully appreciate the craft beer scene that exists in 2018, part two of this series will look back at Tucson in 1864 and the formation of Pioneer Brewing Company by Alexander Levin. Its only by starting at the beginning that we can truly form a deeper appreciation for the craft beer industry that, as Faulkner notes, is not dead, and not past.