AZ Wilderness, Blasted Barley and Mother Bunch battle for microbrew menu superiority.
Once upon a time, beer was treated as a lowbrow, second-class alternative to wine in culinary circles – that is, until the microbrewery craze elevated small-batch brewing and created its own breed of connoisseur. Seven years ago, Chicago brewmaster Ray Daniels created a national cicerone program, training enthusiasts in how to pair beer with food.
The number of microbreweries nationwide has more than doubled in the interim. Presumably, so has the number of people who put sober thought into which beer to pair with their chicken wings. Serious craft beer fans generally want high-quality, innovative grub in the bargain, and new-look brewpubs try to meet that demand, which is why we live in a golden age of bar food. Gone are overcooked potato skins with a side of sour cream; in are venison nachos.
We picked three new-ish microbreweries in the Valley with food-forward philosophies. Then we compared their respective levels of deliciousness. All to answer the question: Who has the best brewpub food?
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
Success came quickly for Jonathan Buford, Brett Dettler and head brewer Patrick Ware. Not six months after opening in 2013, the bearded confreres’ Kickstarter-funded Gilbert brewery (721 N. Arizona Ave., Gilbert, 480-284-9863, azwbeer.com) scored RateBeer.com’s best new brewery title. But does the food keep up?
The founding trio’s hirsute look is well-suited to Arizona Wilderness’ outdoorsy vibe, reflected in lodgepole furnishings, national forest signage and sturdy noshes. Zesty Sriracha ketchup and fluffy pretzel buns lend extra heat and texture to jalapeño meatloaf sliders ($7.99), while a well-balanced dry rub and a beautiful presentation make bone-in chicken wings a showstopper ($7.99). Kettle-soured for 48 hours, the high acidity and vinegary finish of Ware’s Hummingbird Springs Saison really brings out the savory spice blend.
Burger patties are made with ground brisket and cooked to medium-rare with juicy reddish centers. Tangy goat cheese and earthy beets ($11.99) accent the tender beef without dominating it, while milder apple and brie ($12.99) practically disappear under the burger’s heft. Topped with thick bacon slabs, cheddar cheese and oozing globs of peanut butter, Arizona Wilderness’ PB&J burger ($12.99) looks as unsettling as it sounds. Miraculously, the flavors work in harmony, with the zingy jalapeño jelly balancing the salt. It’s a difficult burger to pair, but the bitterness and light fruit flavor of Tres Alamos Tripel frame the burger’s pepperiness quite artfully.
The only disappointment here is the Flying Belgian ($9.99), a heaping plate of fries that fall limp and soggy beneath a pile of moist shredded pork and beer cheese.
Blasted Barley Beer Co.
The Tempe brewpub (404 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, 480-967-5887, blastedbarley.com) one-ups AZ Wilderness’ freedom-fry disaster with “popcorn of sustainability,” i.e. sage-seasoned corn buried in an avalanche of salty pork belly, tender bacon and shredded parmesan ($8). Our table scarfed the fluffy kernels down like piglets to slop. Try it with Red, White and Boom amber to fully taste the brew’s toffee and caramel notes.
Lean and fork-tender, the belly also fares well in creamy mac and cheese ($10); and again in Monte Cristo sliders on Hawaiian bread ($10). The latter’s mild muenster is overwhelmed by the potent tang of beer and tart cherry chutney, but that mild transgression is forgiven with a pint of Blasted Barley’s Das Blitz, an aggressively hoppy yet crisp German Kölsch used in the dish’s beer batter.
Having replaced the Tavern on Mill late last year, Blasted Barley has a distinctly youthful vibe, from trendy murals by Brooklyn Nine-Nine featured artist Eric Skotnes to chef Jason Shaw’s renaissance festival twist on chicken and waffles featuring sweet potato batter and a juicy, slow-roasted turkey leg ($16).
Other standouts include a tangy buttermilk-brined fried chicken sandwich ($9) and burgers made with locally raised beef. Granny Gouda’s apple burger ($11) imaginatively enhances the natural fruitiness of the world’s most popular cheese (look it up!) with Granny Smith slices, while the sturdier Good Life burger ($12) features a decadent pairing of bacon jam and truffled aioli. (It could use a lighter dose of pungent blue cheese.)
Blasted Barley’s softball-size cupcakes make excellent use of leftover brew ($5 each). The citrus and stout undertones of Orange Bomb pair beautifully with rich chocolate ganache.
Mother Bunch Brewing
Beer also plays a leading role in the desserts at Mother Bunch Brewing, a spacious and loft-like Downtown eatery (825 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-368-3580, motherbunchbrew.com) owned by husband-and-wife team Julie Meeker and Jimmy McBride. Caramelized apple cake made with seasonal saison is moist, rich and cinnamon-forward ($8). House stout is barely present in a too-dry brownie ($8); opt instead for the tangy chocolate chip milkshake, made with gelato and house-brewed stout ($6).
Mother Bunch’s Roosevelt Row-area address provides glamorous staging for head chef Holly Arguello’s cuisine. The setting is the epitome of industrial design: exposed ductwork, high ceilings and a handsome U-shaped bar. Washed down with McBride’s Irish Red or MB Cherry Porter, the mini beer mac trio ($8.50) is a crowd-pleaser. I couldn’t help going back for seconds (and thirds and fourths) of the intense Sriracha version with its meaty, succulent tri-tip chunks. Standouts among sandwich and burger entrées include The Downtowner ($13), a classic Italian hoagie served warm, and a sweet potato-and black bean burger with a silky texture and slightly sweet flavor amplified by the creamy tartness of ale-infused potatoes ($11).
Thick pork chunks make belly sliders ($13) a slightly fatty indulgence, balanced by lighter fare such as delightfully smoky house-cured olives ($4.50) and a crisp apple and spinach salad with refreshing apple cider vinaigrette that couples beautifully with the coriander and citrus notes of the house witbier, Good Wit It.
Blasted Barley excels with appetizers, Mother Bunch for dessert and Arizona Wilderness in beer quality – yet only one of these three brewpubs consistently delivers on taste and experience. The victor? Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co., by a nose. Their microbrews are smooth and palatable, even to the beer-averse, and dishes are creatively crafted to pair with each tapping.
IF YOU GO
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. M-Th, 11 a.m.-midnight F-Sa, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Su
Blasted Barley Beer Co.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. M-F, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Sa-Su
Mother Bunch Brewing
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. M-Th, 11 a.m.-midnight F, 10 a.m.-midnight Sa, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Su
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