The number of Tucson beer breweries has tripled in the last five years, and some brewers are expanding to keep up with demand, meaning local trends mirror the national boom in locally-produced beer.
A national study by the Brewer's Association put the economic impact of breweries in Arizona at more than $600 million in 2013.
Will the demand keep up?
“You hardly ever see a brewery fail,” said Steve Tracy, who owns Thunder Canyon Brewery, one of Tucson's oldest breweries. Last year Thunder Canyon sold 2,025 barrels, which is 4,050 kegs.
Ten years ago, Tracy brewed beer at his Foothill's Mall restaurant, and his only peers or competitors were Gentle Ben's Brewing (now called Barrio Brewing Co.) and Nimbus Brewing Co.. Now, Tracy said he is one of ten breweries in Tucson, and those in the industry share a new camaraderie.
“It hasn’t been that way all along. When there were only three of us, we knew who each other were and we didn’t really get together all that often,” he said. But now, “we get together on a regular basis and we compare notes and help out each other.”
Thunder Canyon opened in 1997, and Tracy said as the business changed, so has the beer.
“Back in the early days, we couldn’t give away an India Pale Ale in Tucson, nobody knew what it was, it had a strange flavor to a lot of people, and now it’s our most popular style," Tracy said. "Times have really changed in Tucson, people’s tastes have really changed, and there’s really strong demand for craft beer now.”
Craft beer. That's what the industry calls itself, and insiders use that term to mean a business that produces fewer than 6 million barrels of beer a year, using traditional brewing processes and which are independently owned, said Tristan White, general manager of Dragoon Brewing.
His layman definition is a little looser.
Craft brewing is “dudes that really like beer, small companies that really like beer, putting their spin on a traditional process,” he said.
Industry Expansion Spurs Brewery Expansion
Dragoon Brewing opened a little less than three years ago, and is an example of the growing industry. Dragoon just completed an expansion more than doubling its tap room. The brewery is expanding, too, once the municipal permits are in place, White said.
“The production facility needed expansion just because of volume. We needed to be able to produce more beer, we’ve got enough demand for our product,” White said. “We’ve been selling everything that we can make since we started.”
While Thunder Canyon may be a more familiar product to people who have been tasting local beers for the past 17 years, it's expansion two years ago was also due to demand, Tracy said.
He opened a downtown location with the same name because people were asking for it, he said. There'd been requests from east Tucson residents, but he had not decided on a location.
"We’re familiar with the brew pub scene, so that’s what we wanted to do. I knew that that new location would be a brew pub, it was just a matter of where,” Tracy said.
When he saw downtown was "starting to turn around," Tracy said he wanted to do his part to help.
“We have the space and utilities in place to install a brewery down there,” but for now he's only brewing at Foothill's Mall, and distributing to his downtown location from there. Thunder Canyon also distributes to other locations in Tucson and Phoenix, but about 85 percent of the beer is sold at its two restaurants, Tracy said.
The industry expansion has led to industry education.
"We do events together, we collaborate, make beers together, borrow ingredients, share supplies,” White said. “We borrow ingredients from each other, we go out and have beers together.”
“We are competition, that’s for sure, but this industry is a lot different, there’s a lot more camaraderie because at the end of the day we all sit around and have a few beers with each other," Tracy said.
More breweries is best for all breweries, White said.
“Beer in America is still very much David v. Goliath, where the craft guys are very small,” he said. Small means less than 10 percent of the national beer market. “it’s not competition between us and pueblo vida or ten 55 or barrio, it’s all of us in competition with the big guys.”
That's a sentiment shared throughout Tucson.
“I believe that, the more breweries, as long as they’re making good beer, the better. It exposes new people to beer and it also gives variety,” said Dennis Arnold, brewmaster of Barrio Brewing Co.
The craft segment of beer is growing by double digits nationally, White said.
“Specifically in Tucson I think it’s mirroring the growth that we see across the nation,” he said.
Who is consuming all this craft beer Tucson?
At Dragoon: “we see a lot of locals, we see people from all different demographics, and what’s been really surprising for us, something we’ve learned is we’ve almost become a neighborhood bar” for the west side of the freeway, he said. “There’s this hyper-local following we’ve found.”
Just as in other segments of the food and beverage industry, brewers are looking for local ingredients. Ten 55 Brewing is trying to source as many of its ingredients locally as possible, said John Paul Vyborny, the brewmaster at the brewery.
He was getting the grains for Ten 55 Brewing's beers from Canada when he decided to see what he could find closer to Tucson. He found out barley is rarely grown south of Colorado, but Southern Arizona farms can grow wheat.
He turned to Marana's BKW Farms, which is growing White Sonoran Wheat, and selling all of its yield to local businesses.
“I think a majority of our sales have gone to the breweries here in Tucson and out of state also. Here in Tucson, I’d say it’s on the order of several tons of the wheat. I’d say 6,000-7,000 pounds," said Ron Wong, president of BKW Farms.
BKW then expanded to also grow barley, which is in a testing stage now, Wong said.
Vyborny said he wanted to support other local businesses.
“I get to brew beer because of Tucson, because they’re so receptive and so great to us. So we actively tried to support them back, and we’re always on the lookout for ingredients that come from and actively reflect the community," he said.