The Craft Beer Guide to Tucson, Arizona

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The Craft Beer Guide to Tucson, Arizona

I realize something, as I step on a plane bound for Tucson—I have absolutely no impression whatsoever of the craft beer scene or culture of Arizona.

This is a pretty damn rare thing for me to be able to say in 2016 (or 2015, when I made the trip). As someone who has been writing obsessively about craft beer for years now, my knowledge of individual breweries and regions tends toward the encyclopedic. Sit me down with a map of Illinois or Wisconsin and I can draw you a huge connect-the-dots of my favorite breweries. But Arizona? I’ve never even really been to the Southwest in earnest. I’ve barely ever sampled a beer from Arizona, because none of the breweries are really big enough to distribute to the Midwest or the East Coast. I don’t know any of the reputations of these companies. The whole thing is a giant blank space, waiting to be filled in.

That impression of being a stranger in a strange land only increases when I exit the plane. This isn’t like driving to Alabama to sample some beers in Huntsville, or flying to California to attend the Firestone Walker Invitational in wine country. Arizona truly feels different on a bigger scale. Everywhere you look, the landscape and the streets are dotted with towering Saguaro cactus. Every other building is a perfect cube of smooth, autumnally colored adobe. I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a new city and immediately seen an identity so polar from a childhood in Midwestern suburbia. Even the street art is different.

What I found in the beer scene is a craft beer community in transition—growing quickly, but still quite insular. Tucson is interesting in the sense that there isn’t a “local kingpin,” a regional craft brewer that is sending its product several states over. Even though there are some local breweries that have been evangelizing better beer for decades, they’re still relatively small, and they still feel “local.” One gets the sense that the only way you can actually experience Tucson beer is to simply come to Tucson.

The Breweries

1. Ten Fifty-Five Brewing

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If a day ever comes when I don’t want something called “Coffee & Donuts Stout,” then I will need you to take me out behind the barn and put me down humanely, as I will have outlived all usefulness or potential for joy.

Ahem. Which is to say, I was excited when I walked into Ten Fifty-Five and found a beer by that name. This small taproom was where I kicked off my Tucson beer excursion, and in many ways it set the tone. Located in an industrial park, just a few doors down from longtime area stalwart Nimbus Brewing, it feels every bit the experimental start-up, even though the fact that it’s coming up on its two-year anniversary makes it a “veteran” presence among Tucson’s many new breweries. But aesthetically, Ten Fifty-Five is almost what we’ve come to expect in new, small breweries—located out of the way, with a DIY aesthetic and a confidence that good beer will compel visitors to venture off the beaten path to fill a growler.

The beers here are eclectic, well-balanced and decorated with local awards, including the whimsical “Iron Brewer” trophy decorating the tap area, which Ten Fifty-Five won in a yearly competition to incorporate a specific ingredient—in this case grapefruit, via a grapefruit IPA. Other highlights include the series of coffee and cacao-infused stouts, and the vibrant Two Sons Citra, a DIPA. Particularly creative was a one-off beer called Our Valentine—a very ambitious “all-Arizona” pale ale that incorporated rare, Arizona-grown barley and wild hops, not exactly easy to come by in the desert. You’ve got to applaud the effort to specifically highlight the fact that all regions of the United States have now become craft beer regions.

2. Iron John’s Brewing Co.

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I’ll just say it: Iron John’s, all on its own, provides ample reason to swing through Tucson on a beer-related expedition. This is an incredibly small operation that earns its “artisanal” title and is managing to produce at least a handful of beers that are undeniably world-class. That’s not hyperbole. That’s fact.

The frightening thing about it is that the guy behind the beer, John Adkisson, isn’t even doing this full-time, spending his days working in accounting. The brewery, therefore, feels less like a business and more like an extremely ambitious homebrewing project that somehow spun out of hand and ended up with state and federal permits. And that’s not a bad thing by any means—the industrial park location is tucked away and discreet, and allows easy access to meet the brewer, sample some mind-blowing beer and leave with bottles in hand from the cooler, all in a 15-minute period.

As for what he’s brewing, it might be faster to list what Adkisson hasn’t produced on his tiny system. But it’s the audacious stuff that will make you gasp—beers made with rare, $100-per-ounce coffee varietals. One-batch barrel-aged sours. Perfectly balanced green chile beers. The variety is stunning, as is the sophistication of the sours in particular. I drank a peach sour at Iron John’s that Wicked Weed or Jester King would have been proud to call their own, and if it had their label on it would have beer geeks beating down the door. God only knows what the guy could do with unlimited resources at his disposal.

3. Dragoon Brewing Co.

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Dragoon Brewing Co. feels like a riser—a fast-growing, crowd-pleasing brewery that has been able to grab the current craft beer zeitgeist without sacrificing all of its experimental side. Their taproom is spacious and slick compared to many of the smaller rooms in town, and it simply feels like a brewery primed to hit the rest of Arizona and perhaps push onward from there. Riding their flagship IPA (which is solid), they’ve made serious inroads in the last three years.

Beyond the IPA, Dragoon does some very nice work in subtle, malt-forward styles, with nice (and often underrepresented) takes on styles such as Vienna lager and dunkel when I visited, both of which had a good feel for the bready, nutty characteristic of malt-forward German beer.

Of course, no discussion of Dragoon would be complete without mentioning the double-edged sword that is the brewery’s award-winning “sour barleywine,” Lazarus. Currently rated as the #1 barleywine in the world on Ratebeer, it was the product of a botched barleywine fermentation that was salvaged by head brewer Eric Greene by pitching brettanomyces and sticking it in some unusual barrels for 13 months—port and cognac barrels that had then been used to mature whiskey. The result is quite unique, bracing, boozy and dark-fruit forward, but essentially impossible to replicate again. Which is to say, if you get a chance to try some of the small amount still in existence, don’t pass it up.

4. Sentinel Peak Brewing Co.

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Sentinel Peak is a brewpub founded by three firefighters, and you have to appreciate the fact that they didn’t go the cliche route of naming literally everything in the building after firehouse lingo—write about beer for a while and you’ll realize how many of those there are out there already. Rather, it has the feel of a well-balanced, classic American brewpub, with the bonus of a cafe/coffeeshop operating in the same location. It doesn’t hurt that the paninis are solid, either.

The beers keep things a bit on the simpler side, as one might expect from a classic brewpub—food friendly and approachable, for the most part. The Salida Del Sol Mexican amber ale is a nice nod to the better Mexican beers served not far to the south, and comes with a wedge of lime that you shouldn’t feel guilty about simply dropping in the pint, as is tradition. It’s not all just American styles, though—you’ll also find a black saison, Scottish ale and a banana-redolent German hefe.

And of course, there’s naturally a chile beer—you’re not going to find a firehouse brewery without a spicy beer, and that’s a guarantee. However, as became something of a theme in Tucson, the chile beer was surprisingly well executed, although it’s hot as blazes on account of the ghost chiles. But for a beer that hot, it’s an accomplishment to come off as more than a PR stunt. I can actually see how this one might be useful as a blending agent—a splash in your lager, or perhaps in a cocktail, could give an interesting punch of heat.

5. Borderlands Brewing Co.

More than any of the other breweries I visited, Borderlands feels like it exists in the American Southwest. Perhaps it’s the (somewhat moldering) old building; a former train station/rail depot full of character and reportedly haunted. Or maybe it’s the tap list, which takes full advantage of the local terroir. But if I was picturing one of these breweries as emblematic of the desert, it would be Borderlands, where a freight train regularly thunders by as locals raise a pint in the taproom.

Borderlands has some strong entries in the year-round beer category, particularly the “Citrana wild ale,” which despite its name is actually a gose, and an excellent one at that. I would say that it would be a go-to session beer for me if I was spending time in Tucson, but given that it clocks in at 6.5% ABV, it’s actually a touch stronger than one might realize, and that no doubt contributes to its tangy, citrus-packed flavor profile, with just a touch of salinity. Also interesting is the Prickly Pear Wheat, which derives a pinkish hue and Jolly Rancher-like sweetness from the iconic desert fruit.

Just looking at the current tap list reveals beers made with desert spices, herbs and fruit such as dates. It’s clear that this brewery has made a real commitment toward experimentation with local ingredients, and they’ve managed to incorporate them in such a way that they blend seamlessly into beers that are still crowd-pleasers for the weekend taproom crowds.

6. Pueblo Vida Brewing Co.

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Pueblo Vida is quite small, a veritable hole in the wall in downtown Tucson that looks more like a beer bar than a brewery with its prominent bar and long, thin, single room. The beer, though, is damn good. In fact, Pueblo Vida may have had the best “batting average” for above-average beers that I tasted while in Tucson. They also had the best IPA I tasted in Tucson.

Pueblo Vida keeps a smaller number of beers on tap than some of the other breweries, and seems to focus more on honing in on perfecting classic styles than getting really avant garde. They do have one very useful tool for experimentation, though, which is the weekly “infusion” series, where one of the standard beers on tap is infused with an extra ingredient to create a one-time-only new beer. Looking just at the last month, those infusion ingredients have ranged from horchata to tangerines, pears and papaya, each paired with different beers.

The tap room feels a bit more urbane than some of the others thanks to being located on a main street, but the clientele is decidedly laid-back. The afternoon I visited, an aging hippie held court at and end of the bar, preaching the gospel of kombucha and sampling out little glasses of the fermented tea. You might look at that scene and see a microcosm of Tucson itself.

7. Barrio Brewing Co.

Every city needs a brewery like Barrio Brewing Co. somewhere in its craft beer timeline—the trailblazer that paved the way for the modern crop of craft brewers who are now taking local beer to the next level. None of that would likely be possible without Barrio, which got the ball rolling in a much slower time when they opened in 1995. The downtown brewery and restaurant has been a staple ever since, known for cheap pints, bar food and private parties.

The lineup is almost exactly as you’d expect, full of classic brewpub staples, with a blonde ale as the flagship—i.e., the final beer I downed in Tucson while waiting for my flight at the airport. The styles don’t jump out at you so much, but it would be a mistake to overlook their quality. Barrio got a nice reminder of this when they took home a bronze medal at the 2015 Great American Beer Fest (which I attended) for their Scottish ale, Barrio Rojo. In a city full of up-and-comers, Barrio was the one coming home with a medal.

Beyond that, my only advice is to arrive at a time when there’s plenty of traffic on the nearby rail tracks. Any time the crossing guards are down, pints are only $3.25. What more do you want?

8. Thunder Canyon Brewery

Thunder Canyon occupies much the same role in Tucson as Barrio, although unfortunately it was one of only a couple beer locations I wasn’t able to visit during my 48 hours in town. It opened in 1997, an eternity ago for a brewery, and has been helping win converts to the craft beer cause ever since.

One gets a laid-back sort of feeling from the place, which has two locations in downtown Tucson and the Catalina Foothills. The downtown location maintains a huge tap list that is only partially Thunder Canyon brews—of the 40 beers on tap there, 26 are currently from guest breweries, which tells me that this is a brewery comfortable in its own skin and its role in the community. The website lists a surprisingly large and varied list of beers that the brewery has dabbled with over the years, but if you visit today, expect to see mostly classic styles. With that said, even at an old-school American craft brewery like this, you’ll now see a 10% ABV imperial barrel-aged porter as a “classic style.” Which is to say, it’s quite the time to be a beer fan.

9. Nimbus Brewing Co.

Nimbus is the other Tucson brewery I didn’t get a chance to sample, the third spoke in the Big Three of original Tucson production breweries, having started in 1996. Braving the rather irritating, monkey-themed website, it feels a bit—okay, a lot—dated, full of auto-playing sound effects for everything one might click on. Still, with a lineup of classic styles (brown ale, red ale, pale ale, stout), Nimbus has persevered and remained a local staple. They don’t have quite the level of hype owned by the city’s newer generation of breweries, but there seem to be no shortage of dyed-in-the-wool fans who show for burgers and beer every night.

10. Gentle Ben’s

Gentle Ben’s appears to be the business that really started it all as far as Tucson beer is concerned, although I have to be completely honest—I didn’t even hear the name mentioned during the time I was physically in Tucson. Nevertheless, when this brewpub started making its first beers in 1991, it was the only one doing so in Tucson—although this was after the building had already been in operation as a bar since 1971.

Those first beers were “a catastrophe” according to the owner, but credit where credit is due—every scene needs a point of genesis. And if Gentle Ben’s is still satisfying the university crowds more than 25 years after they started brewing, they must be doing something right.

Next: Tucson beer bars and bottle shops

Beer Bars and Bottle Shops

11. Tap & Bottle

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In Tap & Bottle, Tucson can say they have something that my home in Atlanta can’t match—a great beer bar that is also a great beer store. Thanks to some favorable laws, Tap & Bottle is a craft beer bar and watering hole that resembles many of the other great bar/package store combos now flourishing in states where the law is in their favor—similar to the Old Town Beer Exchange that I experienced in our craft beer guide to Hunstville, Alabama, although Tap & Bottle feels like it has a bit more focus on the on-site consumption part of the equation.

The bar was the vision of husband and wife Scott and Rebecca Safford and combines the aesthetic of corner tavern with hip urban watering hole. Local Arizona beers are well-represented on the draft list, although there are also plenty of representatives from sought-after West Coast and mountain state breweries as well. Of particular interest are the rows of coolers, which contain individually priced single bottles of just about every beer available in this distribution area. As long as you’re willing to pay a “cappage” fee, you can drink any of those single bottles at Tap & Bottle, and the prices are so low that even with the fee, it’s typically still cheaper than anywhere else in town that you might find the same beer on draft. Go on the right day, and you might find brewers from elsewhere in the state presenting their beers in a tap takeover or showcase.

12. Tucson Hop Shop

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And speaking of one-stop shops, Tucson Hop Shop is the kind of business that wants to turn itself into a destination for absolutely anything beer-related you might be seeking while visiting the city. Just listen to the mission statement: “Tucson Hop Shop aims to be North Tucson’s premier craft-beer bottle shop, growler-fill station, beer garden, and purveyor of artisanal beer-making kits.”

As such, you can sit out on the patio and drink a few pints, although the tap list seems to run more toward national brands than the locals. You can also grab a bite from one of the near-daily food trucks parked outside and pick up a pound of crushed crystal 60L for that pale ale you’re planning on brewing this weekend. You might even catch some live music.

13. 1702 Pizza & Beer

1702 is a pizzeria seriously committed to the advancement of craft beer in a way uncommon for many restaurants that don’t brew their own. Beer almost seems like the reason for the restaurant’s existence in a way—the first thing they lead off with is “we serve an ever-changing selection of 46 beers” rather than anything pizza-related, and they got in on the beer game earlier than most of the other bars. The prices are reasonable, and if you go on the right night you might catch the new release of a local brewery or a tap takeover from an out-of-towner. One note: They don’t post their current tap list online, which is a necessity for any beer bar in 2016. Get on that, 1702.

14. Arizona Beer House

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Arizona Beer House might be the best single stop if you’re really trying to find desert beer on tap, because the beer list trends strongly toward Tucson locals and other Arizona breweries from Phoenix and beyond. In addition to the 35 taps, you can also find Arizona-made wine and craft sodas at ABH, further demonstrating the philosophy toward promoting the local product. One would assume this would appeal to both tourists and locally-minded Tucson residents in equal measure, but regardless of who you are, ABH is a solid stop to try something you may not have ever sampled before.

15. The beer garden at Reilly Craft Pizza and Drink

Reilly Craft Pizza, on its own, has a decent little beer selection, but the real secret is the beer garden out back. Here, you’ll find 40+ taps in one of the most relaxing places to drain a session IPA in the desert heat. Long, communal tables promote socialization, and no one seems to be taking the beer geek aspect too seriously, even though the tap list is strong.

16. Arizona Pizza Company

Honestly, what is it with pizza places and craft beer in Tucson, anyway? Arizona Pizza Company at least manages to carve out its own niche in terms of its presentation—smaller tap list, more immaculate curation and focus on more rarities. Just looking at the current list reveals two varieties of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout along with brews from Funkwerks, Ninkasi and Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin—all that, and some local beer as well. It feels like a watering hole for beer drinkers who are looking to stretch their boundaries a bit.

Next: Three Tucson beers you have to drink

Three Standout Beers You Have to Drink

Borderlands Brewing Co. Citrana Wild Ale

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I’m still a little bit confused why Borderlands purposely refers to this beer as both a “wild ale” and a gose simultaneously, but whatever it is, it’s quite good. A bit stronger than the typical craft beer gose that has come into the vogue in the last few years, it marries lemon and orangey citrus flavors with a thirst-quenching, lip-licking salinity—right in the middle of the salty gose sweet spot. This is a beer that fits its market perfectly—I can’t imagine a better companion to a 100-degree, exceedingly dry day in the desert. There may have been a time when this kind of “light, refreshing” role was exclusively filled by various lagers and blonde ales, but styles like gose have since come along and introduced beer drinkers to craft styles that are in some ways more assertive and flavor-packed while still being accessible and refreshing. It’s just one more choice, and one that can appeal to drinkers who appreciate a mild tartness and the power it has to make flavors pop.

Iron John’s Brewing Co. Pater Peche

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I imagine that just about any sour beer from Iron John’s would work just as well, but I was really blown away by the sophistication of this peach ale, which seemed more like a beer that you’d expect to find from a brewery with far more resources behind it. “Patersbier” or “father’s beer” is itself a Belgian abbey ale term used somewhat interchangeably with “Belgian single/enkle” to denote a lightweight, low-ABV session beer made for daily consumption by the monks. Pater Peche takes one of these beers and sours it, aging it for 10 months in a Sauvignon Blanc wine cask with peaches. The stone fruit presence isn’t overwhelming; nor is the tartness or lactic acidity. It’s just a wonderfully balanced American sour ale, a beer that reflects years of homebrewing practice. Plenty of breweries try and never are able to produce such a well-balanced sour. This one isn’t “good compared to others in Tucson.” It would stand up alongside just about any other peach sour I’ve ever sampled.

Something infused at Pueblo Vida Brewing Co.

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I almost just listed Pueblo Vida’s Northwest IPA here, but if you’re able to get one of the variations of it that has been infused with a unique ingredient, so much the better. The brewery releases a new infusion of some kind each and every Tuesday, which lasts on tap until it’s gone. This week, the Northwest IPA has been infused with tangerines, and I bet the result is absolutely spectacular. Would that I could snag myself a taste.

The Hard Stuff

The beer scene of Tucson has been around for a while, which usually means that a microdistilling scene won’t be far behind. Indeed it turns out there are three distilleries in the area with product on the shelves, although each has a pretty distinct identity.

The Independent Distillery

Seemingly the most “classic distillery” of the three, The Independent uses old-timey iconography and is currently producing gin and vodka, as just about every distillery begins with these days. Naturally, as with just about any other distillery in its mold, they’re intending to get into both whiskey and rum, which are in progress. For now, though, it’s all clear.

Hamilton Distillers

Now here’s an interesting distilling project with a truly Arizonian outlook. Drinking scotch at the campfire led the founders to wonder what kind of flavor mesquite smoked barley might contribute to a single malt, so they went out and did it. They produce three products—a clear, unaged, mesquite-smoked moonshine, a classic single-malt whiskey, and the aged, mesquite-smoked whiskey that inspired the whole lineup. I didn’t get to try this while I was in town, but of all the local spirits, it’s the one I’d be most curious to sample.

Three Wells Distilling Co.

Three Wells also takes inspiration from the desert environment in their products. They produce an 80-proof agave that the law may prohibit them from calling “tequila,” but that’s essentially what it is—available in unaged and aged formats. They also produce a very interesting-sounding spirit called Sonora, a distilled prickly pear concoction that also clocks in at a full strength, 80 proof. It’s also offered in both clear and oak-aged variants, which would presumably make the resulting product an interesting cross between fruit whiskey and aged tequila. Definitely a unique expression of the southwestern landscape.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he wishes Atlanta’s current climate was a bit more Tucsonesque. You can follow him on Twitter.