Heritage Brew

Editorial StaffFebruary 1, 2017
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When Prohibition ended in 1933, thirsty Arizonans sorely needed a cold one. For liquid refreshment, many turned to the only in-state startup, the Arizona Brewing Company in Phoenix. The local brew house – arguably the state’s first craft brewery – did not disappoint, as its flagship A-1 Pilsner eventually became Arizona’s favorite beer.

The nation had been dry since 1920 when two brothers, Martin and Herman Fenster, hurriedly set up operations as the Arizona Brewing Company in 1933, placing their headquarters east of Downtown Phoenix at 12th and Madison streets. The Fensters, who had previously worked for other breweries, anointed their first batch Arizona Brew Beer. A contest for a catchier name resulted in Sunbru Beer.

The brewery subsequently changed its primary label to Apache Beer, “The Chief of Them All,” and produced an array of brands hoping one would go viral. These included Agila, Canyon Lake, Dutch Treat, English-Type Ale, Hopi, Sin Rival and Wunderland beers. The brewery produced what became its prize beer, A-1, in 1943. This became the largest selling brand in Arizona during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The beer was touted as “The Western Way to Say Welcome.”

Despite the commercial success of A-1, the brewery’s more than 50 years of operation was a challenge, as it struggled through changes in ownership, recipes, brands and even a plot to firebomb the facility.

“A ‘gang’ sent a letter to the brewery threatening the plant in 1934,” says Ed Sipos, author of the 2013 book Brewing Arizona: A Century of Beer in the Grand Canyon State. “It read: ‘We will bomb your plant sooner or later, cops or no cops, unless you have your foreman carry two grand in small bills in a package up the street each night beginning the first.’” Federal agents arrested perpetrator Glen I. McCloud, also known as the Cactus Kid, for plotting the bomb threat. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In a branding gambit, the brewery commissioned Western artist Lon Megargee to produce four A-1 promo paintings in the late 1940s. “Every bar and cowboy bunkhouse had The Cowboy’s Dream’ poster,” Flagstaff rancher Mary Lockett says.

A-1 became especially beloved in a particular Route 66 town. “Back around 1950, when I was a kid in Ash Fork, an A-1 beer truck crashed nearby,” says Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble. “Beer was scattered all over the place, and the locals went down and helped themselves. The refrigerators in every house were full of A-1.”

Besides happy hour refreshments, the accident provided home furnishings for many Ash Fork residents. “The truck was also carrying those Lon Megargee A-1 Beer renderings, and they littered the landscape,” Trimble adds. “They were supposed to hang in every saloon along Route 66 but wound up on the walls in Ash Fork homes.”

To connect with the community, Arizona Brewing Company became a supporter of Valley sports teams after World War II. These included the the Phoenix Stars baseball team and the A-1 Queens women’s softball team. “Women’s softball drew standing-room-only crowds,” says Trimble. “The A-1 Queens were famous nationally and won several championships.”

Later, A-1 also aligned with the Phoenix Roadrunners hockey team and the Phoenix Suns. “‘Good – like A-1 Beer,’ Al McCoy would always shout during his broadcasts when the Suns would hit an outside shot,” recalls Phoenix writer Tom Gibbons.

After its peak in the mid-1950s, with 150 employees and distribution throughout the Southwest, the brewery began a long decline. “For a while, people supported A-1 because it was the local product,” says Jerry Lewkowitz, a former Phoenix city councilman. “But then it lost its glamour as the national beers like Budweiser and Coors began distributing in Arizona.” In 1957, Anheuser-Busch threatened the brewery with a lawsuit that made them drop the eagle symbol from their A-1 label.

Competition from larger breweries that had recently acquired plants in Southern California impacted Arizona Brewing Company, and the Phoenix brewery was eventually sold in 1964 and operated in succession by Carling, National, Carling-National and Heileman.

According to Sipos, A-1 was given a bad rap after the demise of the Arizona Brewing Company. “I’ve heard some refer to it as ‘Arizona ditch water,’ but have been told by those who drank it during the 1950s that it truly was a good beer,” Sipos says. “The changes that were made to A-1 following the brewery’s sale gave the beer its bad name.”

But there was one group of consumers who thought the brewery’s product was always número uno. The plant shipped spent grains to a feedlot near Southern and 32nd avenues in the 1970s. “The cattle would see the tanker coming down the hill on Southern, and they would all run to feeding troughs to eat,” says feedlot employee Celestino Rios.

Some people loved the beer; others, not so much. But there was no doubt the brewery was a laid-back place to work. Former employee Bill Grant fondly recalls his job interview at the plant in the early 1980s, during which they offered him a beer. “Suspicious, I asked if this was a test,” he says. “They said that drinking on the job was OK, we just couldn’t be stumbling-down drunk. I replied, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be fun!’”

The brewery continued to struggle, especially with the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, terminating its beer shipments to troops in the Far East. In a $600 cost-cutting measure, the plant eliminated its steam whistle in the early 1980s, which for decades Phoenicians had set their watches by four times daily. But the free beer on tap continued to flow even during working hours for employees in the brewery’s hospitality room.

The workers were a tight-knit group, willing to sacrifice for the company. One night during production of Mickey’s “Big Mouth” Malt Liquor, employees noticed some slightly darker green bottles in the mix. Always quality-minded, they decided to cull these rejects, which numbered about 10 cases.

“We drank them as we pulled them off the assembly line,” Grant says. “The eight or so guys on night shift were all big partiers.”

Although it branched out with brands such as Carling Black Label, Tuborg and Colt 45 Malt Liquor, the brewery closed in 1985, a casualty of industry consolidation.

For many brewery employees, their well-paid union work was more than a job. “After its closing, former workers held a yearly picnic to reminisce about their days at the brewery,” Sipos says. “They called themselves the A-1 Family.”

The brewery was razed in 1992 and the Phoenix Fire Department administration building was constructed at the site. “To rip it down and put up an old-looking building is kind of hokey,” Phoenix preservationist Michael Levine told The Arizona Republic at the time.

Long given up for dead, the A-1 label was temporarily revived by Tucson’s Nimbus Brewing Company in 2010. While the packaging reflected A-1’s history, it used a different recipe, and production stopped when Nimbus filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

But A-1 is a sturdy brew and refuses to die: Another local relaunch is scheduled this spring. John L. Rivers IV and brewmaster Zach Schroeder will replicate the original recipes, including the German malt and hops strains that were used during the 1950s. Rivers and Schroeder are reviving A-1 as

the Arizona Brewing Company.

“I’m utilizing my 25 years in the industry to bring back an important part of Arizona’s history,” Rivers says. “We have been working on revamping the packaging and recipes along with negotiating a location for a tap house and brewery in Downtown Phoenix, where we feel that the Arizona Brewing Company belongs.”

Whether or not A-1 successfully returns, its legacy is perhaps best summed up by Marshall Trimble. “It might not have been the best-tasting beer around, but it was our beer, made right here in Arizona.”

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