Beer helped civilize humankind.
That’s a broad statement, but it has its roots in fact. No one can say for certain when and where the very first beer was brewed, but historians believe it may have been a happy accident about 7,000 years ago.
The story goes this way: Wild grain was gathered and made into bread. Some was left out and got wet. Yeast that occurs naturally in the air fed on the sugars in the grain and produced alcohol, and voila! beer was born.
It turned out the brew was a great way to preserve grain, provide nutrients and as a happy side effect, make people feel good. Reason enough to stop wandering, settle down, establish a village and start growing grain on purpose.
Rob Fullmer, executive director of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, says that today, as small breweries and brewpubs proliferate, beer is helping again, knitting together neighborhoods and building a sense of community.
Think of the neighborhood pub as the coffeehouse for this century, a place where old friends and new acquaintances gather for a cold one and conversation.
Anyone who visits bars and restaurants in the state will have noticed the proliferation of taps and a sometimes bewildering array of styles and colorful names of local beers on the menus. From a handful in the ’90s, the number of brewers making craft beers in the state has grown to more than 90, Fullmer says.
They’re brewing blondes, Kölsch, and IPAs; hefeweizen and wheat beers; stouts, porters and ales and pale pilsners. People who want to know more about the brews and the people who make them will find plenty of opportunities as they trek from bar to brewery to restaurant and back during the seventh Arizona Beer Week, February 9 to February 18 in locations throughout the state.
Over the 10 days Arizona will be awash in suds, with dozens of events (check out arizonabeerweek.com for a complete schedule), including dinners with brewers, beer-making classes, introduction of new releases, and collaborations between breweries and restaurants.
Quirky fun events including Girl Scout Cookie and Beer Pairing Socials (several are scheduled through the week), keep things from getting too serious. And there are plenty of other opportunities to match beer and food, among them SanTan Brewing’s Chimi week, with a different chimichanga and matching brews every day.
The diversity of events parallels the diversity of Arizona’s craft beer industry itself.
“To date, there’s really not an Arizona style of craft beers,” says Chuck Noll, division manager for Crescent Crown Specialty, a distributor of craft brews throughout the state. “There are breweries playing around with spruce tips from Arizona, pinecones, Sonoran white wheat. It’s a young industry.”
Noll, a longtime aficionado of quality beer, moved to Arizona in 2002. There were craft brewers in the state then, he says, notably Prescott Brewing, Four Peaks and Thunder Canyon, but “it didn’t explode in terms of local brewers until the last four or five years.”
It’s a national trend, Noll says. “People are looking for different flavors, for bigger flavors. They want to explore, to expand. You see it across the board—artisanal cheeses, artisanal meats, artisanal everything. Craft beer is just another expansion of that.”
The brews also satisfy a growing demand for local products.
When you think of craft beer, you may envision a bunch of guys with a lot of facial hair, wearing overalls, making beer and then drinking it. That’s changed, Noll says. “There’s still a lot of facial hair, but no overalls. And a lot of women are making craft beer these days.”
“We have a great beer scene and we’re building a great beer culture,” Noll says. “We still have plenty of room for growth in Arizona beer, though we may be getting to the saturation level on some retail shelves. You hear about a shakeout coming. I don’t see that coming per se, though poorly funded, poorly planned breweries may start falling by the wayside.”
Noll says it’s easy for people who want to learn about craft beers. Just start tasting. “I’d be willing to bet that at a non-busy time you could walk into any craft bar or brewery in the state and say, ‘Hey, I’m really trying to learn about beer. Can you educate me?’ and the brewer or manager, if they have the time, will sit down and walk you through their beers and the key things to look for in tasting.”
The Arizona Craft Brewers Guild also puts on occasional tastings. Check its website, chooseazbrews.com.
Craft beer isn’t just growing, it’s growing up as an industry and getting involved in public issues that affect its businesses. That’s where Fullmer and the Guild come in.
“We’re working to make Arizona a better place for everybody,” Fullmer says. “The pub experience helps us build closer communities. It gets us out of our houses and into meeting people.”
Fullmer and his Guild members sometimes face opposition from people who don’t want a brewery or bar next door. While some people welcome the idea of a small brewpub in walking distance, others fear there will be added noise and traffic.
“As a Guild, we’re getting better at supporting our members and working with people on issues including public transportation, common sense zoning and local ordinances,” Fullmer says. “I grew up in Milwaukee, a beer community, and there were outdoor beer gardens and spaces to enjoy a beer or a cocktail everywhere. I don’t know why it is so hard to get a patio approved in this city.
“We’re getting to the point as an organization where we can represent breweries and have that discussion,” he adds. “I’m not saying we want free rein to open up wherever we want. Instead of individual businesses fighting that battle, we have the tools not only to assist them and work with government but also to work with people in the neighborhoods. We won’t get anywhere if we go where we’re not wanted.”
Beer Week will help in that effort, Fullmer says. “When they go to our festival, we hope people remember these businesses and want them to be part of the community.”
The people behind the brands
Arizona Beer Week is a great opportunity to taste a lot of beer and to meet the people behind the labels.
People like Jeff Huss, who with his wife Leah owns Huss Brewing Company.
Like a lot of craft beer makers, Jeff got into home-brewing first. That led to brewing school and a job as head brewer at BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in Chandler. He met and married Leah, then owner and manager of Papago Brewing Company.
“I felt I’d learned everything that I was going to learn at BJ’s so I decided to split off and start our own brewery. We opened our doors in August of 2013. Leah stayed at Papago for a couple of years, then we needed her here.”
Over the course of a year Huss might make 15 different styles of beer including five made year-round: Scottsdale Blonde, Koffee Kölsch, Husstler Milk Stout, Magic IN THE IVY, and That’ll DO IPA, and other seasonals and specials.
Today, Huss has about 15 employees.
“The biggest difference for us in the last couple of years is the addition of cans,” Jeff says. “We started canning at the end of December 2014. Cans are more eco-friendly than bottles and maintain better quality. Now our beer can go anywhere—here at our tasting room, a beverage store, a bar, anywhere.”
“Beer Week is a 10-day series of events that gives us the opportunity to get Jeff’s and other brewers’ stories out there in a unique way,” says Chip Mulala, who styles himself as “minister of craft beer” for Huss. “This will give people a chance to have beers that they may never have again. For example, Jeff’s got a beer called Juicy Fruit. He added peach and mango puree to our traditional Kölsch to make a nice fruity beer, then put it in old whiskey barrels to age.”
That Juicy Fruit demonstrates “how far down the rabbit hole beer makers can go” to play with flavors, adding ingredients and tweaking techniques like roasting and aging, Mulala says.
And speaking of rabbit holes, Huss and THAT Brewing are ending Beer Week on February 18 at Gertrude’s at the Desert Botanical Garden with a Mad Hatter Tea Party.
“We’re encouraging everybody to dress up in their finest tea party attire,” Mulala says. “Every single beer is going to be infused with tea—all kinds of crazy teas—and that is going to be paired with tea-style food like finger sandwiches, as well as some other great things like coffee-rubbed pork loin.”
Another unique offering at Beer Week is “State Bird,” a collaborative beer made by female brewers from all over the state. This will mark the second year the women have gotten together to produce a beer that will raise money for charity.
Steene Routh, assistant brewer at Mother Bunch Brewing in Phoenix, was at Barrio Brewing Company in Tucson recently, working with a team of women to State Bird.
“There are 22 breweries are represented in making this beer,” she says. “We have representation from all corners of the state. It’s a big undertaking—we’re putting in more than 1,000 pounds of grain. It will be distributed around the state at the participating breweries, as well as at Beer Week.”
Arizona Craft Brewers Guild