If you cruise east from downtown Phoenix along Superstition Freeway, after a half hour or so, you’ll get to Gilbert, an unassuming town that’s part of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. Gilbert is where Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company makes their beer. It’s also where they almost went bankrupt right before the three-hour lines started forming out the door. And it’s also a place that serves up delicious hamburgers made from grass-fed, local beef, and 20 taps of what brewmaster and co-founder Patrick Ware calls “do-it-all brewery” beers. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Gilbert isn’t the heart and soul of the company. The name, the brand, the ethos—all that important stuff comes from the actual wilderness. Outdoor enthusiasts Ware and CEO and brewmaster Jonathan Buford would take long hikes in the woods of Arizona when they were starting their brewery in 2013. They still do, in fact, and it’s on those hikes that their conversations meander, often discussing beer, but also myriad other topics.
“The name was a connection to the true definition of what The Wilderness Act of 1964 represents,” Ware says. “‘An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’ When Jon walked into the wilderness and passed the park forest sign, the creative epiphany happened and the connection between craft beer and wilderness was born.”
Ware and I’s discussion begins with a 15Hz Brett IPA, a collaboration with a Phoenix bottle shop called The Wandering Tortoise. Hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Mosaic, it easily slinks between hoppy and light, earthy funk. And as it turns out, the beer pairs perfectly with disappearing into a barrel room and having a long talk about brewing, hype, and the future.
I understand you guys were nearly bankrupt just before opening in September 2013, and then the RateBeer thing happened in January 2014. Describe the whirlwind that was that five-month period.
It was very overwhelming because we weren’t really...we didn’t know exactly what RateBeer was at that time. It was foreign to me. I think Jon understood it a little bit, but we really didn’t know the implications. It was funny, we walked in one day, we were so new, still figuring everything out, brewing with dairy equipment. The infrastructure was super lackluster because we wired it all ourselves, cut holes in the roof, installed things upside down. The inspectors would come in and say, “Your subcontractors installed that upside down,” and we were like, “Those subcontractors, man!” [laughs] The mentality was that we would prevail.
Do what you gotta do.
Yeah, exactly, you just do it. We get an email from Mikkel [Borg Bjergsø, owner of Mikkeller] congratulating Jon on being the number one new brewery in the world. And Jon was like, “What does that mean?” We started to investigate and see some of the breweries that were involved and were then like, “This is incredible!” Not knowing the onslaught that would come after that, we went out and celebrated, got drunk, thinking, “This is cool!” Every single news station in the valley came that night. We were inebriated.
You were the talk of the town at that point.
We were! And then that snowballed. It was right around this time of year that rolled into [Major League Baseball] spring training, where everyone’s in town. We kinda fell into another publication, Esquire. Jon poured his soul out to the guy who was supposed to be doing some interview with one of the Giants pitchers, but the pitcher got injured and one of his contractual obligations was that he couldn’t do media if he was injured. The guy was kind of scrambling [for a story]. We thought it was going to be a small line, but it turned out to be this big article. But at that point, we were completely not ready. We just weren’t ready.
Talk more about what it’s like to go from almost not being able to open to suddenly being the number one new brewery on RateBeer.
We were not restaurateurs at that time. I would consider us in that conversation now. But at the time, we were brewers running a restaurant. The natural progression of the way this came about was, “Well, there’s a grill back there, I guess we should do burgers.” But we’re only going to do the best quality possible burgers, wings, duck fat fries, and some of these things we picked up along the way.
I’ve heard great things about the burgers.
Yeah, the burgers have evolved and become this incredible entity and this part of our business.
Is this something you had planned for?
No, initially we thought we’d be like Toronado. We figured people would come here to drink our beer and that’s gonna be that.
Seems like it’s good from a revenue standpoint.
Yeah, 100%, though we did not make a lot of money for a very long time. Being brewers, we didn’t know food costs. We just thought we’re going to use the best possible ingredients and prepare it in the best way possible. The opportunity costs associated with having a competent restaurant operator were missed for a long time. As we peeled back the layers of the onion and put the right people in the right places, and got business consulting, we realized we made the right move, but we found a happy medium. We figured out how to use local ingredients, how to use grass-fed beef and still manage to make some margin on it.
But, back to RateBeer. Three-hour line out the door, a lot of upset people. We had no management whatsoever, no way of filtering all these people through or making them happy. The beer was getting very challenging for me to do solely, the fermentation space was undersized for that kind of volume, at one point we went down to one or two beers on tap. And we don’t serve any other beer or wine. We were at a point where we were considering whether we might need to just shut down for a week or two just to get fermentation back. But we were still not in a financial situation to do that. That led to some of our wackier ideas, and our sour techniques that weren’t polished, the things we were doing…we put out a few beers that I wouldn’t consider great at all.
But a necessity at the time?
Necessity at the time. We were invited to Copenhagen Beer Celebration, and in my mind, there was absolutely no way we could do that. We were so integral to operation. I was brewing every drop of beer, I had one assistant. He was one of our bartenders and very new to the whole experience. But Jon pushed and pushed and it ended up being a great move.
What was the most immediate and important impact of being recognized by RateBeer?
We’re not ready. [laughs] That we’re not number one. We’re not. The way that rating works, we kind of blindly fell into it. Based on the algorithm—the breadth of style, which kind of says you’re a craft brewery—and then how highly are those rated and by which raters. With Jon’s creative notions and wacky things right out of the gate and my pretty-basic-but-pretty-solid professional brewing experience, we were capable of taking some pretty crazy ideas, putting them to paper, and making them work [as] nice, clean beers with the expressiveness of foraged and local ingredients. A lot of that didn’t exist here. Sour beer on day one. That didn’t exist for the most part in Arizona. I think a lot of the raters and the people who were paying attention to us were very excited.
Looking back at the 10 new breweries on that list, you guys were in good company that year. Trillium and Modern Times are two notables that stand out. How does that feel to occupy a similar space with those names?
I mean, looking back... Obviously, at that time I didn’t know, but looking back, it blows your mind. And again, I will fall back and say we’re not as good as those two breweries you mention. They are incredible brewers. But you also have to look at how brewers brew. You have very polished brewers that are super consistent and know how to grow a brand and then you have brewers like us that are off-the-cuff and kind of willing to do anything. We may not hit on one angle but really hit it on the other. We’re a do-it-all brewery. I don’t know the full spectrum of what both those two breweries do. I know their core that they’re really, really good at, but I don’t think anyone would look at us and say, “They’re this kind of brewery.” We’re a do-it-all brewery. We do spontaneous fermentation, we do longterm French oak projects, we do spirit barrel aging, in every kind of barrel—rum, tequila, port. We do foudre fermentation, we do stainless fermentation, we do kettle sours. Everything you can imagine in the beer spectrum, aside from super traditional beers, we kind of do it all.
Arizona Wilderness introduced a lot of people to brewing in your state. Does the promotion of Arizona beer at large factor into what you do and who you work with? Is provenance a thing?
I think we try to promote Arizona in general. There’s a lot of misinformation about what the actual culture of this state is, what’s available from a nature standpoint. We do associate ourselves with the mountains and the topography that’s available here. You want to bring the culture up as a whole. I believe we have a really incredible food scene, some really great local products, and breweries. The brewing scene is right on the cusp of...it’s stepping over the edge of the ‘90s where everyone makes the same five beers and they’re highly carbonated and dry because it’s hot in the desert. There’s a lot of breweries out there doing some cutting edge beers. It takes a bit of the focus off of us and I love that.
You guys were pretty much the first on the map
I’ll put it this way: Four Peaks are the godfathers of beer in the state. Without Four Peaks, none of us would exist. Everyone stems from that. The owner of San Tan brewed at Four Peaks, I brewed at San Tan, it all trickles out from that. But I think we’re the first to draw focus outside of the state, nationally and internationally.
As a Brooklyn resident, I was able to try City Slickers, your collaboration with Other Half Brewing. How did that project come about?
I have to go back to the RateBeer thing, just stepping into that realm with Copenhagen Beer Celebration, all of the best brewers are all together. Standing there, rubbing elbows, having beers, shooting the shit, having a good time together leads to those conversations. I think it’s intriguing for a brewer from Brooklyn to go “Arizona? Let’s make something from Arizona. What do they have in Arizona?”
And that was prickly pear, right? Did you do that consciously because you wanted that Arizona influence?
Yes, 100%. We try, if we can, to bring a component of Arizona together with a component of Georgia or wherever we may be brewing, and showcase the terroirs of both places or the cultural relevance of both places—that’s the important part. Not just the name or what the beer is. We do need to bring something local to it, and that’s just kind of how we brew. If we can incorporate that or create a story behind it. We’re doing this crazy project where we’re flying Jordan to use Dead Sea water to make a Gose—those kinds of projects are mind blowing. Who would have thought beer would connect people all over the world? It’s surreal to me, I can barely wrap my head around it every single day.
This is how our business consultant describes it: Jon’s the flame and I’m the fan behind it. These long backpacks that Jon and I would take, walking 15 miles, you’ve got a lot to talk about. So typically we’ll talk about beer or whatever, but one of the things that kept recurring in our mind was, how do we take spontaneous fermentation to the wilderness? My brain went, “Well, we could backpack out, ferment it in a jug and leave it out there, because you don’t want to take gallons and gallons out. Or maybe we could ferment things in different areas and then go back to them a year later and hope the animals didn’t pee on them.”
There’s a mountain range called the Superstition Mountains. There’s an abandoned apple orchard and some people who lived up in the Superstitions where the apples had gone wild. So I remember thinking about that, wondering what if we took the apples and mashed them up and created a spontaneous fermentation and left them there. So this idea of inoculating in wilderness areas was there, but how to accomplish that didn’t dawn on me until maybe I saw a mobile coolship or I started thinking about the biodiesel truck that we had, but somehow I came up with the idea to build a mobile coolship on a vehicle.
Such an outlandish but amazing idea.
Yeah and I was like, “Jon, this is awesome, we have to do it.” We have this awesome welder who’ll get stoned and make these crazy things in his garage. His name is Thaddeus. He’s just a really good dude. So I came to him with the idea, and he built it, and we put it on the back of a truck. It holds two french oak barrels.
The first time we used it was with Other Half. They came out and it was the first trial run of this coolship. We had our issues, like getting this thing to work, but basically the boiling hot wort went into the french oak barrels that were placed on the truck and then we drove up to the Mogollon Rim and these guys were blown away. You’re in the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world, a shear 1500-foot cliff with this cold air rushing over the top. I believe it was March, maybe, but it was cold. It was 28 and windy. So we knocked out of the coolship at 28, and it actually froze the top. When we woke up, we had to wait for it to thaw so we could pump it back out into the barrels.
The whole camp coolship thing came about because of Jon’s doing. Jon wanted to call everyone and get everyone to fly out—logistical nightmare. Even with my mind becoming more optimistic when stepping into some of these projects, it was a handful. I had just hired my head brewer and this was his second week. It was pretty insane. We had some hikers help us out scouting spots and setting some of the tents up. Even with that it rained a bunch. It was crazy.
Do you see the Arizona Wilderness brand expanding outside of Arizona?
We’re not interested in stepping into the distributor-driven three-tier game.
Do you distribute now at all?
We self distribute to four bars. I drive kegs around in my truck once in a while. I have been interested in looking into the direct-to-consumer movement. I think that people with specific interests in stuff as eclectic as what we’re doing should have access to it without us having to bend our model to what a grocery store would want. That’s something I’m looking at to expand our outreach.
People in New York should be able to say, “You know, I’ll take a case of their beer,” and have it show up at their doorstep. As that space opens up, I do think there’s room for us to grow a little bit for that really specific customer that wants to be part of what we’re doing. At the same time, Jon and I both fall into the realm that, if we end up doing another project, it’s going to have specific intentions that may not be exactly what we’re doing here. With us being so tied into [the wilderness] and needing that reprieve and needing the cool down of the sanctuary around us, I do see a project that will be out in the country somewhere.
Sounds like you’re already thinking about this.
One hundred percent. I can’t go to sleep without thinking about these kinds of things. And also putting agriculture in as part of our growth plan, having a small farmer be part of our business plan.
Beer is so much more than what's in the bottle for the men and women who make it and sell it. There are real livelihoods at stake, and they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the industry they serve. These are their forward-looking thoughts, and their critical thinking on what's happening now.See more Critical Drinking™ stories