Ah, vacation. It had been far too long since I had gotten to hit the road and (re)visit some out-of-state places.
Arizona beckoned again, largely thanks to the World Baseball Classic taking place in Phoenix, and the Fleshgod Apocalypse/Obscura/Wolfheart stopping in Mesa. First, though, it was back to my old college town of Tucson for the first time since 2018.
I did take the time to meet up with some old friends at UA baseball game, but otherwise, this was a brewery-focused trip. Tucson has 17 active breweries (20 less than Albuquerque proper, and the cities are very close in population), and I had already been to 11 of those. I did manage to hit up the final six, as well as three other breweries that were able to maintain their status as some of my favorites down here.
It has been a tough run for breweries in Tucson, and Arizona in general. Quite a few more closed for good down here due to the effects from the pandemic lockdown, and also for other reasons. In some cases, breweries got overly ambitious, expanded too quickly, took on leases that they could not afford, and then imploded.
From Ten55 Brewing in Tucson to Desert Eagle Brewing in Mesa to Mother Bunch Brewing in Phoenix, quite a few notables are now lost to the annals of history. In a lot of ways, those that remain seem to fall either into a category of being relatively comfortable with where they’re at, or they’re clinging to life. Since I did not have the chance to talk to any owners or head brewers (it was the weekend, after all), it’s hard to fully gauge the overall status of the beer scene here.
Let’s just say that this is a state with more than three times New Mexico’s population, and yet it has fewer operational breweries (98 vs. 88, per the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild). Perhaps it is more expensive here (Phoenix is just California without the ocean at this point), and thus hard to start from the ground up. It can also be harder to keep going as inflation surges.
Either way, the Arizona craft beer scene is in transition, and it will be fascinating to see where it goes over the next five years.
Now, getting back to those Tucson breweries that I visited, well, since some folks have asked, here are their rankings for the city. Hey, I have to be Switzerland when it comes to breweries in New Mexico, but I can pick favorites in other states.
A note on the rankings, I’ve got these one through nine from this visit, and in parentheses after each ranking is my overall ranking for Tucson, one through 17. As always, this is just my opinion, and you can totally disagree with me. Mostly, I just want to encourage everyone to visit these breweries and make up your own minds. The beauty in beer is in its subjectivity, right?
Also, when I say Burque brewery that it will remind you of, it’s more about the physical space/vibe than comparable beer quality.
9. Corbett Brewing (16)
Location: 309 E. 7th St., which is basically two blocks west of 4th Avenue, the primary bar district for the UA (think Nob Hill, only with more alcohol)
Burque brewery it will remind you of: high ceilings, big windows, street parking only save for a paid lot nearby, and near lots of other alcohol-serving establishments — Boese Brothers, though BB has better beer
Analysis: Well, the bartender said they’re working on getting better, so there’s that. I tried the kolsch and Vienna lager, and the latter was slightly more palatable. There was no one else there in midday when I visited. There’s no food options, but at least there’s a pool table. It had the vibe of a college bar, but one that has not quite figured out who it’s catering toward. Other than the location right near a slew of bars and restaurants, you can probably skip it for now, and check back in a year or so to see if things have improved.
8. Catalina Brewing (15)
Location: 6918 N. Camino Martin, way out on the northwest side of town, off Ina Road (accessible from Interstate 10)
Burque brewery it will remind you of: it’s hard to find a directly comparable place, but it has a very neighborhood pub vibe, with multiple rooms (including a game room, a TV room, and the main taproom area), and a small, compact patio built out of the parking lot — a miniature Rio Bravo, though again, RB has better beer
Analysis: This place had a strange vibe, populated heavily by folks in their 50s and 60s, all apparently from nearby neighborhoods. That’s cool and all, but it was crowded, hot (I could not imagine being in there in summertime), and almost felt a bit disjointed, as if someone just pasted it together from several other bars and breweries. The food truck was way out back, so the staff had to walk through the brewery to get things for customers. The little fenced-in patio was nice, so of course it was full. The game room was spacious, but almost no one was in there playing the classic arcade games or shooting pool, and the small side room with the one TV was empty. It was loud, and not just because there were extra speakers blasting the lone classic rock guitarist in the corner. The staff was all over the place, seemingly more interested in talking to their regulars than actually getting people their beer. I had a pint of Steamy Nicks, a California common, that was dry and relatively flavorless. Nothing else on the menu, a mismash of light ales, fruited wheats, and a couple IPAs, was all that appealing. If you are going to drive all the way out to this part of town, which is basically Marana (think Tucson’s Rio Rancho), you are better off driving a little further south on Camino Martin to find Button Brew House.
7. BlackRock Brewers (12)
Location: 1664 S. Research Loop #200, way out on the east side of town in the midst of an industrial park
Burque brewery it will remind you of: an old-school strip mall-style brewery, with an audience from an isolated neighborhood — Lava Rock, minus the food
Analysis: The east side of Tucson, which is heavily residential, mixed between different economic zones, has scant few brewery options. In that regard, BlackRock has a sort of captive audience. It’s a bit hard to find on the looping road through this business park, but once you get there, the staff is friendly and welcoming. There are lots of beer choices, so I snagged a flight of four beers — Scottish ale, Irish red, Irish dry stout, schwarzbier — and while none was truly epic, they were clean, smooth, and pretty much to style (the red was the furthest from the excellent versions of that style that we get from Quarter Celtic, Canteen, et al). There were plenty of other styles on tap. It might help them to narrow their focus a bit, but then again, their captive audience might demand a lot of variety. Geographic isolation can be a good thing, too, but this is one of those places that after one visit, it might be hard to revisit on future trips. It’s a good 30-minute drive from most of the other breweries in town, so plan accordingly.
6. Iron John’s Brewing (11)
Location: 222 E. Congress St., in the heart of the now heavily gentrified downtown (there is a second location outside of downtown, albeit with very limited hours)
Burque brewery it will remind you of: a small, cozy spot tucked into the downtown row of storefronts — Red Door, though again, minus the food, and back patio
Analysis: I actually had company for this and one other spot (below) in the form of my friend Ty, who has been tied into (pun intended) the brewery/bar/restaurant scene in Tucson for quite some time now. Per Ty, the founder of the brewery is no longer with the company, and they have endured some struggles since moving out of an industrial park east of the UA campus. They jumped into the rapid gentrification of downtown, and it was not as beneficial as they had hoped. Ty warned me not to expect too much from the beers, but I thought the bock on tap was pretty decent. We then spotted in small print that there was a little barleywine left, so we each got 5-ounce pours of that beast, which was quite reminiscent of Second Street’s English-style version. The bar area itself was small but comfortable, with an almost upscale feel as opposed to the more blue collar vibe at other small Tucson breweries. You can easily walk to at least three other breweries nearby (Pueblo Vida, Thunder Canyon, Borderlands), plus lots of bars and restaurants, so that is an advantage when it comes to visiting.
5. Copper Mine Brewing (8)
Location: 3455 S. Palo Verde Rd #135, down on the south side of town, due east of Kino Memorial Stadium, the former spring training home of the Diamondbacks and White Sox
Burque brewery it will remind you of: an industrial/strip mall brewery, with a very blue collar vibe — Palmer Brewery
Analysis: Down on the south end of town, not far from I-10, this is a very unassuming little place from the outside. You could easily drive right past it, never knowing there was a brewery tucked into a little industrial strip mall. There’s a tiny patio area out front, and inside there were a few tables, and it seemed like they were at least partly renovating the joint. The small bar area was more pleasing from a visual aesthetic. Like a lot of other places, the beer styles were quite varied, including both red and black IPAs, styles you rarely see in New Mexico anymore. I snagged a black IPA, which was a roasty porter with only a slight piney hop bite. It was dry and tough and mean, so I enjoyed it, but I realize that style is not for everyone. After drinking a Campfire Stout (basically a s’mores stout, with a lot of sweetness up front that mellows out), it was time to hit the road, but I would go back and see what else they have to offer in the future. Their DIPA, which I sampled, was a throwback to piney hop-forward beers of yore. What is old is new again, at least in Tucson.
4. Harbottle Brewing (4)
Location: 3820 S. Palo Verde Rd #102, nestled in a strip mall at the corner of Palo Verde and Ajo Way
Burque brewery it will remind you of: a small place that makes the most of its strip mall locale and produces some top-notch beers despite its size — the original Bosque on San Mateo (RIP)
Analysis: There is a little heavy metal/punk rock vibe here, a sort of anti-authority, we are going to do what we want mentality. They keep the beer list pretty tight, with six on tap at most times, but the styles are varied and rotate frequently; a pickle beer, requested by Texas transplants, went on tap as I enjoyed a flight of the other five. Well, four out of five were quite good, with only the Muddy Udders chocolate stout coming off like a beer that needed another week or two in the fermenter (too thin, chocolate flavor tasted more like powder than liquid). The cold IPA, red IPA, and black IPA were all quite tasty, but it was the Old Pueblo Pilsner that ruled the roost. I snagged a four-pack of that bring back for the rest of the Crew to sample. If you are in a city where it regularly hovers around 105 or worse during the summer, you need to crush it on your lager game. I’m happy to report that Harbottle is doing just that.
3. Pueblo Vida Brewing (3)
Location: 115 E. Broadway Blvd, also in the heart of downtown
Burque brewery it will remind you of: a revamped old-style building with a hip (but not too hipster) vibe — Sidetrack (structure/vibe), Gravity Bound (beer styles)
Analysis: This was the last stop of a long Saturday, mainly so we could watch part of the UA-UCLA game (they declined to stay open late so we could watch the second half, so I safely walked back to my hotel). As per my 2018 visit, the beer was solid. They lean heavily into the hazy IPA/fruited sour trends, but hey, if it sells, no complaints. And, it sells, as the joint was packed when Ty and I arrived. I snagged a pint of porter, which was no frills and flavorful for only being around 5.3-percent ABV. There were a couple lagers and a West Coast IPA on the menu as well, but I was past my sampling point. I just wanted to nurse that porter and root on the Wildcats to victory (and yes, they won a close won to claim the Pac-12 tournament title again). Pueblo Vida is still one of the best in town, and I would think that most of the biggest beer geeks in Burque would be quite home here.
2. MotoSonora Brewing (2)
Location: 1015 S. Park Ave, in an industrial area south of downtown and the UA campus
Burque brewery it will remind you of: it’s almost a hybrid of Ex Novo (great patio), Sunday Service Motor Company (motorcycle theme), Marble (slick but comfy industrial interior), and La Cumbre (beer styles, though not as many lagers)
Analysis: After other Crew members and a few New Mexico brewery owners and brewers told me that I had to visit, I got the chance to stop in after the UA baseball game on Friday night. The crowd was winding down, with the spacious patio out back mostly empty despite it being a very comfortable evening, temperature wise (it was the sweet spot for visiting AZ on the calendar). I took up a bar stool and interacted with a few regulars and the friendly staff. I started out with the Twin Cam Pale Ale, which wasn’t advertised as hazy, but that turned out to be the case. It was still a more than adequate representation of the style. Like we have up here, there is actually a good aroma, which you don’t always find with hazy pales or IPAs outside New Mexico. They dry hopped it well, and overall it was a good starter. I then went with a small pour of Victory or Death IPA, their West Coast, which could hold its own in the Albuquerque market. It’s no Elevated or Exodus, but it gets the job done for those who prefer their IPAs to be clear. The 32 Valve Foreign Export Stout was a good closer to the night (I would stack this next to Malpais). The only thing I would like to see these guys do is more lagers, but maybe that will happen in the summer. Oh, and add a sign out front that says “more parking in the back,” because that tiny front lot might cause a lot of beer drinkers to drive on past if it’s full. It belies the overall size of this brewery with that back patio easily able to double the indoor capacity.
1. Dragoon Brewing (1)
Location: 1859 W. Grant Rd #111, an industrial area west of I-10, and take note, it’s not visible from the main road, so please make sure to utilize your GPS
Burque brewery it will remind you of: there isn’t really one that fits the structure of this place — nondescript warehouse exterior, no patio, massive interior — but there are elements of La Cumbre, Marble, Boxing Bear Firestone, and Bosque North here.
Analysis: Yeah, they’re still my favorite, but it’s gotten a lot closer, and not because they have dropped off at all. The biggest brewery in Tucson by barrel output, they were fairly quiet when I rolled in Sunday afternoon. By the time I left, a small crowd had flowed inside. The interior of this place is huge, dimly lit (which is kind nice, like your own personal beer cave), and welcoming despite the slick industrial chic look of it all. The beer list was varied, a mix of lagers, IPAs (clear and hazy), and a couple imperial stouts from their recent 10th anniversary. I started with a simple Sonoran Amber, which offered up more flavor and a better mouthfeel than just about any other amber I’ve had in a long time (I realize that as a style, it has mostly faded away, but still, it stood out). Though I yearned for a kolsch, those were only available in cans, so I’m bring some home. Apparently they sold out of the draft in record time, so that is promising. I later had a Dragoon IPA with dinner at Daisy Mae’s Steakhouse, and that remains the class of the WC IPAs in Tucson, though MotoSonora’s Victory or Death is closing in fast. Oh, and it will shock no one, but I did try the barrel-aged version of the 10th anniversary stout. It was decadent and delicious, but I didn’t want to leave my car behind and Lyft back to the hotel for a nap, so I limited myself to a 5-ounce pour. Dragoon continues to impress me and give me hope that a packaging-and-distribution craft brewery can truly succeed in a state where big beer rules over the sports facilities, bars, restaurants, and concert venues.
OK, and the rest, if you’re curious where I ranked them: 5. Button Brew House, 6. 1912 Brewing, 7. Borderlands Brewing (needs a revisit, but I ran out of time), 9. Barrio Brewing (the food is good, at least), 10. Crooked Tooth Brewing (extremely hipster), 13. Thunder Canyon Brewing (food is good here, too), 14. Firetruck Brewing (known as Sentinel Peak when I visited), 17. Dillinger Brewing
These rankings will be subject to change after future visits to Tucson. I am currently in the Phoenix area, so yeah, I’m checking out a few select places here. Wren House was awesome, I can already say that, and I’ll see what else is open before the metal show.
Back to New Mexico breweries later this week, I promise.
Keep supporting local, wherever you are!