Tucson has always been a second home to me, so after going more than three years between visits, I was pulled back to the Old Pueblo for a short-but-fun visit. Being a craft beer writer, I ended up spending most of my time bouncing between breweries and beer bars. Tucson has come a long way since my last visit, and while it is not Albuquerque good yet, it is definitely progressing in the right direction. Maybe a bit too hazy of a direction, but hey, forward momentum is forward momentum.
During my last visit in 2014, there were only seven breweries — Barrio, Borderlands, Dragoon, Nimbus, Sentinel Peak, Ten Fifty-Five, Thunder Canyon — but that number has now tripled. The good news is that many of the new breweries are even better than some of the older ones, and hopefully that will push the older ones to move forward or die. Nimbus, the oldest brewery in town, sadly is almost dead, killed off by an ownership squabble (per sources in the community).
Going in chronological order of visits, my first stop was a quick walk from my hotel downtown to Pueblo Vida Brewing on Broadway. One of the newer places, it has already built a major reputation as a true beer geek brewery. There was not a clear IPA or pale ale in sight, just a lot of haze. I snagged a pint of Embers Pale Ale, which was fairly mild in terms of the hops, with a good mouthfeel for the style. Hazy juice bombs are not usually my cup of tea, but they are selling like hotcakes in Arizona. It does not hurt that Pueblo Vida has some of the sweetest can designs anywhere, and when they released a new canned IPA during my visit, four-packs were flying out the door (it should be noted that the four-pack tallboy cans are the dominant type in the marketplace down there, so maybe they all owe La Cumbre a tip of the cap).
Pueblo Vida, which had a cool, relaxed vibe even with the afternoon sun beating down the south-facing front windows, does not just exist in the haze. There were also a couple of darker beers on tap, possible remnants of the semi-cool winter that just finished. Hyperspace was the only PV beer that I had previously tried at a bottle share. It is a coffee-heavy imperial stout, just big, bold, thick, and mean as hell. No one dropped any cream into this. The new darkness (for me, anyway) was Inertia, a 10.5-percent ABV behemoth. PV took a dark ale and brewed it with oats and lactose, then put it in whiskey barrels, before blending it with coffee and finally letting it sit on cascara (coffee cherries). I believed that my reaction sent to the rest of the Brew Crew read something along the lines of “I just want to exist in this aroma forever.” The blend of so many complex flavors was pretty damn good, too.
After catching an American Hockey League game between the Tucson Roadrunners (Coyotes affiliate) and San Jose Barricuda (Sharks affiliate), I caught up with some friends at Tap & Bottle. This beer bar is combined with a beer shop, essentially making it like a mini-Sister bar meets a mini-Jubilation. It came highly recommended by Tony Calder of Marble Brewery, and rightfully so as the beer list was impressive. I snagged three Arizona brews, while everyone else at the table went with the out-of-town offerings.
First up was XOXO Coffee Stout from the aforementioned Ten Fifty-Five. It functions as a lighter, sweeter little brother (4.7% ABV) to Hyperspace. From there, I had to snag a Flagstaff beer, namely Astro Cookie. This imperial milk stout was kinda ridiculous, as it is made with waffle cones and Oreo cookies. If my dentist yells at me next month, so be it. The finale was a special cask of Dragoon Stronghold Session Ale infused with a ridiculous amount of coffee. I have no idea how I fell asleep that night.
Amid the 91-degree temperatures of Day Two, I started my day with a lunchtime pour of Dragoon IPA at Frog ‘n Firkin, a favorite old college haunt (one of the few that remain; gentrification has pulverized much of the downtown and university area I used to know). It remains a classic West Coast IPA, tasting like the brewers got a wee bit of inspiration from La Cumbre’s Elevated once upon a time. Dragoon was one of the main holdouts against the haze, and bless them for sticking to what has now made them the largest brewery in town.
After wolfing down a Henhouse and fries (the nostalgia was thick on the food side), I drove up Oracle to Dillinger Brewing. Brew Crew Bullpen member Kristin, a fellow UA alumnus, was not a fan when she visited last year. Still, I had to see if things had improved. Alas, they had not, so the less said about that, the better. I tried two IPAs, an oatmeal stout, and a brown porter. The latter was the worst beer I had in Tucson, just bitter as hell and riddled with a strange, chemical flavor, while none of the rest stood out in any way.
Luckily, a number of folks out in cyberspace recommended that I hightail it up to Button Brew House on the far northwest side of town. Located near where Ina Road is supposed to intersect with Interstate 10, all I had to do was avoid the massive construction chaos in the area, as currently Ina and I-10 do not intersects. After a long slog through the crowded roads (Tucson may now have worse traffic than ABQ, which is staggering in and of itself), I made it to Button, which just opened in September. However, it did not taste like a six-month-old brewery.
My six-beer flight consisted of Volstead Pilsner, Sunshine Pale Ale, #InaIsOpen (Red IPA), Button IPA, All Souls Stout, and Throwin’ Stones (Scotch Wee Heavy). The Stones was my favorite, with just that right mix of smoky/peaty up front and sweet on the back end, without either being too overpowering. The pilsner, brewed in the pre-Prohibition style, was refreshing as can be. The three hop-forward beers were all good, though none on the level of what we get up here in New Mexico. The two IPAs were more middle-of-the-road by our standards, but they were also clean, with no discernible flaws.
The long drive back downtown (no freeway access sucks) was followed by a dinner brew at Thunder Canyon. Back when the brewery opened, it was located up in the Foothills Mall, not far from Button. Years ago, TC moved downtown to Broadway, right near where Pueblo Vida now sits across the road. More recently, all of the TC brewing operations were relocated to the larger downtown space, with a distillery also being installed. It is the first brewstillery in Southern Arizona. I stuck with the beer, however, grabbing a Rillito Red to go with a pub burger. Described as a Scottish ale, it simply tasted like a sweet, malty, yet light red ale. TC seems to be sticking with the more sessionable flavors, and with a large mix of more casual craft fans in attendance, it definitely seems to be working.
Leaving the car behind, I hopped in a Lyft and headed out to Dragoon Brewing, located off Grant Road, just west of I-10. The brewery has been re-worked since my last visit, now occupying a much larger share of the industrial building it has always inhabited. The taproom now is at least three times the size of the one I first visited years ago. There were nine beers (usually 10) on tap, but the one that stood out to me was Comb the Desert. To confirm that it was a Spaceballs reference, all I had to do was look to the beer description on the giant chalkboard menu: “WE AIN’T FOUND SHIT!” I gotta say, Mel Brooks would have approved of this malty, chewy little schwarzbier. It hit all the right notes and did not cause me to fall off my barstool.
The friendly staff, upon finding out the purpose of my visit, then presented me with 5-ounce pours of their last two anniversary beers, The Cuatro and The Cinco, a pair of decadent imperial stouts. The Cuatro has long stood on its own, a swirl of dark chocolate roast with coffee hints. This batch of The Cinco was barrel aged, leaving it creamy and boozy, the kind of BA imperial that any stout lover would, well, love. Unfortunately, 10 p.m. came around too fast, and the brewery shut down for the night.
One area where Tucson clearly still has a ways to catch up to ABQ is in terms of its brewery hours. Outside of the brewpubs, most places did not open until between 2 and 4 p.m., while then closing anywhere from 9 to 11 p.m. The crowds were good at most places, but not on the level of what we see here. Be mindful if planning a trip to Tucson that you will have a shorter window in which to drink if you intend to visit multiple breweries.
Now, I did find one brewery open until 11, and it was within walking distance of my hotel, so I hopped in a Lyft and arrived at Crooked Tooth. Located on Sixth Street, it is just around the corner from both Tap & Bottle, and the main Tucson bar district on Fourth Avenue (for reference, all numbered avenues run north-south, while all numbered streets run east-west, which is basically the opposite of ABQ). I gotta say, Crooked Tooth may have even out beer-geeked Pueblo Vida. The entire beer menu was either hazy IPAs/pale ales, or sours. There had also just been an Office trivia night, so it was clearly a peak Millennial hangout. Well, this old guy figured when in Rome, order the biggest beer on the menu and watch the Romans flee in terror. Obscured by Dankness (8.3% ABV), a hazy DIPA, was the choice, and it pretty much lived up to its name. It was big, dank, and yet bright and chewy.
My final day of drinking in Tucson proved to be a long one. After chowing down at the Bisbee Breakfast Club on Broadway (you can probably guess where the original restaurant is from), I followed the Dragoon staff’s advice and visited Harbottle, another new brewery. Located on the far southeast side of town at Ajo Way and Palo Verde, Harbottle is an upscale strip mall brewery. It reminded me of a young Bosque, sans food, with a cool staff who all seemed to know Antal Maurer really well. I started with a pint of Easy Going, a delicious kolsch that perfectly fits the desert, just sweet and smooth. In retrospect, I should have asked if they had crowlers. The staff then gave me a short pour of Nigel Tufnel, their English bitter on nitro, which was a nice, light, bready beer that would easily find a fit in a brewery like Sidetrack or Second Street. Finally, the brewer brought me a sample of a new English old ale that was set to go on tap after I departed. Dear lord, it was one big, boozy beast, the kind that makes you want to throw on some melodic death metal and tell the tales of battles of yore.
After lunch at Bisonwitches on Fourth Avenue, I made it up to 1912 Brewing, which I had intended to visit the night before as it sits not far from Dragoon. Unfortunately, it closed an hour before Dragoon did, so be mindful if you ever put it on your beer list. The good news is that it should be on your beer list. Following the recommendation of the Harbottle staff, I snagged a pint of the Mescalero Stout. This is an old-school stout, just thick and roasty, with some dark chocolate/mocha/toffee hints, but there is little sweetness. After that, I wanted a nap.
Instead, I went to an Arizona baseball game at Hi Corbett, which used to be where the Colorado Rockies had spring training, and before them, the Cleveland Indians, as immortalized in the movie Major League. Luckily, the Wildcats did not need hats for bats, and they won 5-4 over Washington State. I skipped the more expensive craft beer prices to give my liver a timeout, but hey, they had local craft on tap, so kudos to the old alma mater.
With another Tony Calder recommendation on my mind, I organized a mini-reunion of Daily Wildcat alumni at Ermanos, a craft beer bar located smack dab in the middle of college bars and trendy shops on Fourth Avenue. They had GoldenEye on the TV and a full menu of excellent beers from the state and region. I grabbed another 1912 offering, Irish Sobriety, a red ale with whiskey blended into it. I barely tasted any whiskey, just a solid Irish red, though not quite on the level of that Mescalero Stout, much less an ABQ Irish red like the one at Canteen. After enjoying a few non-AZ beers (I was sticking with malty offerings, and the only other malty beer on tap there was the kolsch from Harbottle), we headed into the chaos of downtown proper a few blocks over for last call. My buddy Ty, a former journalist who seems to have managed every bar in Tucson at some point (or at least knows someone on the staff of every bar), guided us to Elliot’s on Congress. Once the bartender changed the keg, I capped my trip with a Rojo from Barrio Brewing, a lighter red ale that fits that brewery’s sessionable brewpub motif.
If I had to rank the breweries I visited on this trip, they would go in this order:
- Pueblo Vida
- Button Brew House
- Crooked Tooth
- Thunder Canyon
Let me just say that the gap from No. 1 to No. 4 is much shorter than the gap from No. 6 to No. 7. Hey, no city’s brew scene is perfect. Hopefully the other breweries can find their footing and start to catch up, or else they will be left behind. The end of Nimbus, once the largest brewery in town, should be all the warning the rest need.
I also have to commend Tap & Bottle and Ermanos as two excellent craft beer bars, with the bottle/can selection at the former among the best around. I brought quite a few AZ brews back to share with the Crew. Perhaps at some point I can wrangle enough people together for a tasting and let you all know what they think.
The next time you are looking for a beercation destination that is within driving distance of ABQ, I can say that Tucson should be high on your list. It is also still a fair amount cheaper than Denver and Phoenix, if you are looking for something different, with plenty of variety. Or, if you just want to indulge in the haze, the juice bombs are everywhere.
Now it is back to enjoying all the beers our ABQ scene has to offer. Hopefully you all did not drink up all the Helles Lager at La Cumbre or Cake Bandit at Bow & Arrow while I was gone.