A craft beer oasis in the Arizona desert.
Today I set out on a research trip to a number of Arizona’s top breweries for my next article for Taste & Travel on Phoenix’s craft brewing scene.
First up I hit local favourite Four Peaks, makers of the state’s favourite craft beer Kiltlifter, a 6% Scottish-style ale. Owner and head brewmaster Andy Ingram told me about their special strain of yeast that throws a distinct note of apricot into their brews – a guiding influence for the creation of their popular Peach Ale as those fruits complement each other perfectly.
For those of you in Arizona, head down to their brewery in Tempe soon as they are about to open a batch of bourbon-barrel aged Kiltlifter, only to be served on site.
Andy took me on a tour through the brewery, where I learnt about their brewing process, that they are moving to cans from bottles gradually as cans are more economic and ensure the beer gets to the consumer in pristine condition. Bottles, as they are made from glass, allow UV to pass through which degrades the quality of the beer. Even though there is a social stigma surrounding cans, they are actually ensuring a higher quality product. Switch to cans!
Next up I head to Papago Brewing Company in Scottsdale to meet with owner and brewer Ron Kloth. He is an old-timer on the craft brew scene here in Phoenix – he has been around since 1993, and has watched the craft brew scene boom in the past few years – he agrees we are at the beginning of the boom.
Ron says that ‘the breweries here like to experiment – there’s a lot of barrel aging at the moment, and some breweries are working with sours.’ Papago brews some experimental brews too – their most popular is their light and refreshing Orange Blossom, a wheat beer with notes of mandarin and vanilla. They also have the largest selection of beers of any bar in the state – with over 500 labels on offer they have a huge selection of southwest flavours to try.
But my favourite (and my favourite beer of the day) was their Little Joe coconut and coffee porter, lightly sweet and the perfect end to a meal. Replacing dessert with a drink for a pastry chef is a big deal – this is possibly one of the only drinks that I would be satisfied with instead of dessert.
Ron and I head out the back to check out the coolroom where all the beers on tap were stored. It was interesting to see the maze of tap lines weaving out to the front of the bar.
Next up was FATE Brewing Company a little further north in Scottsdale. I met with Steve McFate, an absolutely lovely man with a passion for good beer.
They are working with some interesting brews there – only open a little over 14 months, they have already won awards at the Great American Beer Festival and are making waves with their eclectic brews such as their candy bar milk stout, brewed with roasted peanuts, cocoa nibs, whole vanilla beans and sea salt.
They have also been working with sours – their current rendition is the Strawberry Rhubarb Berliner Weisse. Steve says this beer ‘has a specific palate to it. It is brewed with 155 pounds of strawberries and 75 pounds of rhubarb, but it is a beer that has been infected with lactobacillus. So it is a beer with a sourness to it. People tend to have a love/hate relationship with this beer – you pick up a lot of sourness but on the front end you pick up a bit of a cheese note to it, which is very unique for a beer.’
In the small amount of time they have been open they have already brewed over 55 varieties of beer. In a few weeks their sour may be cherry – they rotate their beers and try different things. ‘Our small scale has allowed us to really mess around and try a wide variety,’ Steve says.
After a long chat with Steve and a tour and a meet with the brewers, I head down the 101 to one of the larger breweries in the state, SanTan Brewery in downtown Chandler.
I met with Anthony Canecchia, owner and brewmaster, and tried some of his famous Sex Panther Dark Chocolate Porter. Brewed with real Bergenfield Cocoa Powder, the beer is seasonal and much loved by the residents of Phoenix. Their other brews are deeply popular also, perhaps because they set their beers apart and style them to suit the climate.
‘We like to play with things, we like to make them our own. We carbonate our beers a little more highly than is traditional. They have a great effervescent zing to them, and when it is 116 degrees out you want something that quenches your thirst. This is indicative of the type of beers we make, and now everyone is realizing that style works very well in this climate,’ Anthony tells me.
Anthony starts to rave about New Zealand hops – evidently they pay more per kilo to ship it than it actually costs per kilo – but Anthony loves the flavour so is happy to shell out for the import.
Their on-site restaurant is pretty popular – Anthony tells me of their long process for making their housemade chipotle bacon. They use it to stuff inside their burger patties with cheese.
Last stop for the day is what is perhaps the most interesting brewery in Phoenix, the first brewery in my city (Gilbert) Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company.
Owned by a couple of down-to-earth guys who get all of their add-ins from local farmers markets and farms, and gather it themselves from the Arizona Wilderness. I spoke with Patrick Ware, one of the owners and brewers.
‘We use local honey, ancient grains that have been revived in the valley, spontaneous fermentation and wild yeasts. The main difference stems from our passion. We work from all modified dairy equipment. We like to consider what we do as farmhouse. The whole idea behind craft beer is the value and satisfaction you are getting from your product. The stage has been set – people are open to craft beer here in Arizona, so we have been able to come in and work with a completely different concept. Granted we are a brewpub with a chalkboard on the wall, but that is where the similarities end.’
The foraging brewers create beer that is quintessentially Arizonan – their ales are made with wild apples gathered from the Superstition Mountains. Their wild yeast was grown out in the wilderness under a tree covered in sap. The sugar source in the air developed a strain of yeast that is completely Arizonan. They never brew the same beers again – they constantly adapt, change, work with seasonals, and what ever they find in the wilderness.
Patrick says they will stay small – they want to bring craft beer back to it’s roots. They want to bridge the gap between consumer and brewer, they want to be able to talk to everyone at the bar and find what people like, talk about beer, and kick back and enjoy their work. And it seems like they love what they do – while hard work, Patrick is beaming when he talks about his craft.
Overall, the Phoenix craft beer scene is intriguing and diverse. With ten new breweries opening in the past year alone, the future of craft beer in Phoenix is exciting.
To read more about my adventure in Phoenix craft beer, keep an eye out for the next issue of Taste & Travel Magazine.
My research trip was organised by the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, and while tastings at all breweries were complimentary all opinions expressed above are my own.
Four Peaks Brewing Company
Papago Brewing Co.
SanTan Brewing Company
FATE Brewing Company
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company
Arizona Craft Brewers Guild