Brewed Awakening

Written by Georgann Yara Category: Valley News Issue: January 2012
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For beer fans, the numbers are a real buzz kill, but they could be changing. Led by longtime sales pro Fretz and Pyramid Brewery founder Hancock, Phoenix Ale Brewery is one in an emerging wave of Valley microbreweries. 

This isn’t the first time the Valley has experienced a microbrew boom. Tempe’s successful Four Peaks Brewing was part of a “new wave” of breweries when it opened in 1996. Nearly 16 years later, most of its contemporaries – including local outposts of such out-of-state brands as TommyKnocker and Leinenkugel – are kaput.

Sub-par beer and poor understanding of the Arizona market contributed to those failures, says Arizona Brewers Guild executive director Jerry Grant. But the growing popularity of events like the Great Arizona Beer Festival and Arizona Beer Week has raised the visibility of close-to-home concoctions and given upstart microbrewers (generally defined as those that produce less than 15,000 barrels per year) the chance to claim space on Arizona shelves and bars. Phoenix Ale Brewery’s unfiltered ale was sold at Chase Field during Diamondbacks games last season, and more restaurants and specialty shops carry Arizona beer. 

“There is a general movement for consumers to support local industries,” Grant says. “It is the home field advantage.”

Craft beer enthusiasts are also getting younger. Twenty-somethings aren’t keen to reach for the mass-produced beer they chugged in high school, says Cartel Coffee Lab owner Jason Silberschlag, who plans to open a microbrewery this spring. “They’re starting to realize there is little value spending $3 on a Corona when you can spend $4 on a [Four Peaks] Kiltlifter,” he says. “The more breweries that get people to stop drinking Coors Light, the better.”

Matt Weber, owner of Tempe’s Sleepy Dog Saloon and Brewery, says there’s nothing magical about towns that make great beer; it’s just concentrated talent. “What those places have is a bunch of craft breweries in one little area that makes it a destination,” Weber says. “Arizona should have a beer destination.” 

Four Peaks co-owner Jim Scussel welcomes the competition. “The latest resurgence is good to see,” insists Scussel, who plans to open a third location this year. “We feel we’re in this together to fight the big guys. It’s not just a fad, it’s going to stay.”

The Valley’s microbrew scene features a flavor profile for every palate. Here are a few worth raising a frosty mug to:

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Clockwise from top left:

Hop Knot IPA

Four Peaks Brewery, Tempe
Featuring seven different hops varieties, this redolent India Pale Ale won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011.

El Robusto Porter
Papago Brewing, Scottsdale
This rich, coffee-like Imperial style porter (8% ABV) helped put Papago on the
craft-brew map.

Devil’s Ale
SanTan Brewing Company, Chandler
With its citrusy-hop flavor and touch of caramel, this golden-maroon brew captured a gold medal at the 2011 Great Arizona Beer Festival.

Light Rail Cream Ale
Sun Up Brewing Company, Phoenix
This creamy, versatile ale pays homage to the Valley’s light rail system but hits the palate like a feather (4.6% ABV).