A Short History of the Arizona Brew Scene
At the turn of the millennium, the craft brewery scene in Arizona was all but nonexistent, with only a handful of dedicated brewers operating in a state where the masses that had yet to embrace their work. Two decades later, the number of breweries has increased five fold. A visit to any of the state’s major cities will reveal a thriving and eclectic community of beer lovers and makers. It’s officially undeniable. Craft culture has arrived.
Although growth in the state’s beer culture was slow and difficult for many years, the initial stagnancy created an intimacy that is now a cornerstone of Arizona craft brewing. Before some of today’s most successful breweries had the resources to expand into what they have become, they were pinching pennies in an attempt to live out their dreams. This required small operations and long hours to fulfill the tasks they now can outsource, such as distribution and packaging. From start to finish, the true beer makers were a part of the process, establishing deep rooted relationships with the bars, stores, and restaurants they sold to.
From the slow growth also came a diversity and respect between brewers. For a while, no one was really standing out above the others, as all were still in the process of building their brand. The lack of curtailing kept copycats to a minimum, allowing creativity to flourish. Beyond this, the state’s geography allows for a variety of ingredients to be grown locally, meaning beer will often vary in taste region to region.
While the spike in craft beer popularity has begun fairly recently, it’s the hard work of a handful of brewers that made it all possible. Four Peaks, for example, started with the simple idea of wanting to start a brewery, and nothing else. Thanks to an ingenious, short term business plan of importing Grundy tanks from England and selling them to American breweries, they saved up until they could start their own. Since then, their signature Kilt Lifter, has gone on to win multiple awards both across the country and internationally.
Dragon Brewing Co., another of Arizona’s best, started with a home brewer’s passion becoming a way of life. Twenty-five years since their first batch was brewed, they now produce around thirty different styles, with their Dragoon IPA, Stronghold Session, and Refraction being offered year-round.
Look into the histories of craft breweries here and it’s clear that the majority started with just a few, dedicated individuals getting in maybe a little over their head, and simply had the sheer will and love of the craft to push through to create the foundation of the beer scene today.
The Scene Today
Arizona is fortunate enough to have a best-of-both-worlds situation, with brewers around the state focusing on their own styles, but also working together to continue popularizing beer culture in the area. For many, the current uprise in popularity feels like a long time coming, but the hard work seems to be paying off. Beer tours are becoming more popular in cities like Phoenix, Tucson, and Mesa, where craft brewing is now becoming a part of local tourism. “Arizona Beer Week” is now an annual tradition, featuring over two hundred events statewide. In general, there is simply more love for craft beer in the state than ever.
In 2000, there were only around twenty breweries operating in Arizona. Today, that number hovers around a hundred, and counting. As Arizonians continue to gain an affinity for local brewing, the culture of crafting appears set to flourish for years to come.
By Ruben Estrada