Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bisbee Deferred: Barrio and Nimbus Brewing, Tucson, Arizona

I traveled to southeastern Arizona earlier this month for a work-related conference in Sierra Vista. Johnny Southside was kind enough to let me ride with him and our plan was to visit a couple breweries in Tucson before proceeding to Sierra Vista where we would check into the hotel, dump our bags, then make a dash in to Bisbee to hit some of the pubs there. My hope was to score a sample of some local beers, including products offered by Electric Dave in the Bisbee area.

What’s that old Yiddish saying? “Man plans and God laughs.” We didn’t get to Bisbee as we’d hoped due to equipment trouble. Still, it was a worthwhile trip, with nice stops at two places in Tucson. Here’s the dope:

Our first stop was at Barrio Brewing Company in a gritty industrial area of Tucson. The old warehouse building is enough to make you want to come inside for a closer look, but add fresh, local beer and the draw is just too strong to resist! The exterior of the building seems largely unchanged from the days when it housed the Tucson Warehouse and Transfer Company. The loading dock has been cleverly converted for use as a patio and you’ve got to climb some steps to enter the front door. The music and atmosphere at Barrios are top-notch and when we visited, early afternoon on a weekday, the place was not especially busy.

Once seated we were quickly greeted by a waitress and we had our orders placed in no time. I liked the fact that all the available microbrews were listed on a chalkboard along with their respective abv percentages – that’s always a nice bit of information to display for weary travelers who might be planning to have only a single beer for the road.

With my lunch I had a pint of their seasonal Copperhead Pale Ale, which weighs in at 5.7% abv. It was darker than most pales in my experience with a faintly sweet smell. The Copperhead Pale was a bit dry and grainy tasting and altogether a worthy beer and a nice companion to the plate of tacos that I had.

Next, I sampled a pint of Barrio’s Red Cat Amber (which gets its name from the fact that Tucson is home to the U of A Wildcats, I guess). The Red Cat Amber was darker than the Copperhead Pale (rightly so) and seemed more hoppy to me, though their website indicates otherwise. It also had a slightly thicker mouth feel and struck me as closer to an IPA than the Copperhead oddly enough. The Red Cat was sweet and not as dry as the Copperhead Pale Ale.

Southside and I settled the tab, thanked the nice waitress – who’ll be celebrating a birthday soon evidently – and we proceeded down the road to our next stop.

Nimbus Brewing Company sits in a similarly gritty part of Tucson and is located not too far from Barrios – though you wouldn’t know it from the drive because streets and traffic in Tucson are a bit of a nightmare. The thing that sets Nimbus’ location apart – I think - is its proximity to Davis Monthan Air Force Base. (That, and the giant hand protruding from the front of the building…holding, what else? A beer.) Johnny Southside and I took a couple of seats on the patio where we could watch the A-10 Warthogs coming in on approach just across the railroad tracks. We ordered up a dose of onion rings from a scruffy-faced bartender and I had a pint of Porter that didn’t appear to be on the printed menu. (Nimbus offers six beers packaged in bottles for sale but there are more beers available at the brewery.) The porter looked, smelled and tasted just like a porter should in my book; faintly sweet tasting with a hint of chocolate. I’d give it high marks and only regret that it isn’t one of the beers they offer for sale in bottles. I bought a t-shirt as a souvenir of the visit and in short order we were back on the road, never suspecting for a moment that we’d never actually get to Bisbee on this trip.

Ah well, it all worked out for the best. We survived the trip, survived the conference and managed to sample some new beers from Arizona brewers. I can’t say that I find reason to visit Tucson very often – maybe once every year or so – but I’m going to make a point of stopping at either Barrio Brewing Company or Nimbus Brewing Company (or both) the very next time I do get down that way. Perhaps we’ll even get to Bisbee next time!

(For the record, we did attempt to purchase some Electric Dave beer while in Sierra Vista but the nice lady at the liquor store said his shipments don't come in regularly. Too bad. Sorry Electric Dave.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Think Globally, Drink Locally and Don’t Steal Kegs!

(For those in need of a refresher: I've become especially interested supporting and tracking the progress of a local brewery that recently opened within a mile of Beer Rant HQ. My point in this is to follow through on what I think was a central message of the documentary film Beer Wars. If we want good, fresh locally produced beers, then we'd better damned well be willing to support such efforts when we see them. I figure Old World is worthy of our time and at least a bit of our money.)

I stopped by Old World Brewery today after work to sample some more of their product and happily got more than I’d bargained for. But first, let’s talk keg crisis, shall we folks?

You’ll remember a year or so back the net was abuzz with talk of a worldwide hop shortage. The kind folks at Boston Beer were helping out some of their smaller competitors in the craft beer industry and it was a wonderful time for all, I’m sure. Fact of the matter is, from what I’ve heard, the hop shortage was somewhat overblown but tell that to a guy who’s paying nearly $1,500 for a box of pelletized hops – to say nothing of the fellow who has to pay for whole buds - the real thing. Well now it seems there's a whole new shortage to contend with.

The crew at Old World Brewery still has their work clothes on and they’ve wrangled a distributor to begin making their beers available to a larger audience. That’s great, right? Well, sure, but what do you put that beer in? Short of a canning or bottling system, you’ve got to keg that delicious brew for shipping to the mass market. Problem is, there seems to be a shortage of kegs – “cooperage” to quote Old World principal Perry Parmely. I guess every crack addled ne’er do well in the greater Phoenix area is snagging unguarded kegs and cashing them in at the scrap yards for their value in stainless steel. (About 45 bucks according to Perry.) Remember the days when people stole kegs to make gas tanks for their hot rods? Remember when people stole milk crates to hold their long-playing record albums? Remember when people knew what “LSMFT” meant? Geez, I’m becoming a living relic!

So, we’ve hit upon yet another obstacle that a fledgling brewer must face. Sure, you’ve got the beer all brewed and gently aging in the tanks, but how the hell do you get it down the throats of your adoring public? Not something I’d ever thought about much. Glad I don’t make the stuff. Glad I just drink the stuff.

If you’ve got a local line on a reputable supply of kegs, won’t you please contact the crew at Old World Brewery and let them know you heard about their dilemma here at Beer Rant?

Which brings us to the “more than I’d bargained for” part of today’s discussion. I’ve now officially sampled every beer on the Old World Brewery list AND I’ve sampled some of what will soon be their Voyager IPA, which is at just over the two-week stage.

Today’s pints were:
Peg Leg Pale Ale
I’d asked for this during my first visit a week or so back, but they were out of it at the time. Seems this one must be their most popular product. I got lucky today and it’s telling that Perry remembered that I’d asked for this one originally because he specifically asked me if I wanted to try it (see if that ever happens at a big chain pub or brewery). This pale ale pours with a quick head and very little beading. The taste is both bitter hoppy and sweet, which must hint at some sort of careful balance that my uninitiated palate is incapable of picking up. It’s also vaguely nutty with low carbonation. Bottom line: Peg Leg Pale Ale is a good one and a decent example of the style.

I queried brewer Matt Mercer regarding Peg Leg’s hoppiness, stating that I figured it to be as hoppy as some IPA’s I’ve tried. That’s when Matt gave me some of the dope on the Voyager IPA he’s currently got in the works. He disappeared for a moment and returned with a short but stout sample glass of the pending Voyager IPA. I sampled it gratefully and found it still retains some sweetness that should diminish in a few more days as the sugars work off. It’s cloudy and has a significant bit of yeast sediment still, and while it’s not ready for primetime, it’s getting there. I’ll be curious to see if it is in fact hoppier than the Peg Leg Pale.

Nitro Blonde
Pours a nice orange-gold color with about a finger width of head initially. The taste is grainy –or of grain, but not necessarily corn. It’s hard to place. This one tastes like Bud and Miller wish they tasted like.

I finished my Nitro Blonde, wrapping up my chat with the Old World Brewery crew. Seems to me they’re pretty serious about this whole brewing thing. I don’t imagine it will be too long before they’ve broken into the Phoenix area bar market. I did notice that they still haven’t gotten that sign hung up on front of the building, though Patrick and Perry both assured me that the sign is in fact in the building and waiting for the “sign guy” to install it. So, don’t say I didn’t tell you that Old World Brewery might be a bit hard to find. Guess you’ll have to earn it.

Meantime, here's a picture of the growler I bought at Old World Brewery last week - reportedly the first growler to be sold on premises.

Next time: I plan to give some details of a recent trip through Tucson and a visit to Barrios and Nimbus. Standby!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Old World Brewery: Phoenix, Arizona

New Neighbor, Old World
Almost a month ago, I committed to visiting Old World Brewery before making another post here at Beer Rant. My purpose then was to follow through on what I think was one purpose of the documentary film Beer Wars: to promote local brewers. My vow, my promise, grew out of the fact that the night I attended the local screening of Beer Wars, I was almost completely disappointed by the reaction of the local brewing crowd. None of the folks I talked to at the local Rock Bottom Brewery or Yardhouse seemed to know anything about the event, despite the fact that both were located in the same complex as the theater that screened Beer Wars.

But as I stepped out of the theatre, largely satisfied with the film and dissatisfied with the poor local marketing, I was met by Patrick Fields, eagerly boosting his newly opened Old World Brewery. It seems that Mr. Fields and his upstart operation succeeded where the likes of Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch, Four Peaks and Papago had failed, and as I took the business card from his outstretched hand, Mr. Fields very kindly acknowledged that he remembered me from an earlier visit to his establishment (weeks before, when the first batch of beer had yet to be served). Here’s a link to my original post regarding Old World Brewery.

It’s taken too long but I did finally manage to pay a visit to Old World Brewery this past Saturday and again yesterday, when I purchased what I’ll claim is the first growler of beer to be sold from their fledgling north Phoenix operation. I have to say that, despite some initial apprehension following my first pre-brewing visit, I’m completely impressed with their product and ecstatic at the thought of having a microbrewery nearly within walking distance of Beer Rant HQ.

What have I sampled so far? The Dark Night Porter (of course), the Irish Red Ale and the Old World Wit. How’d they stack up?

Dark Night Porter
Dark as you’d expect with a robust beige head. Initially smells vaguely of sour coffee but not in an unpleasant way. Tastes distinctly of coffee, vaguely chocolaty and faintly smoky when sampled on tap. From the growler, not nearly as heady but the coffee taste is right there and, on the second day, perhaps a bit more smoky and decidedly flatter as one might expect.

Irish Red Ale
Smells of sweet tea and pours a dark red color – almost too dark to be a red but still light enough to pass with heavy lacing in the glass. Sweet grain taste with this red and a mildly dry finish, I think.

Old World Wit
Pours a deep orange color that is cloudy opaque and very eye-catching. I characterize this one as a Hoegaarden that I can actually palate. By this I mean that the coriander and spice tastes aren’t so extreme that the beer tastes completely like a breakfast sausage. Frequent visitors will know that I’m no fan of wits but this one isn’t bad and it may be the ideal gateway beer for folks trying to jump off the Blue Moon bandwagon. The Old World Brewery brewer Matt Mercer tells me that this first batch turned out a bit more orange than they’d expected but I’d say it makes for a nice floorshow in any event.

So far, in four visits to Old World Brewery, I’ve met each of the principle players at least once; not something that’s likely to happen in the Coors tasting room. I have it on good authority- from someone who dared to briefly block his view at a Colorado Avalanche game - that Pete Coors is a real horse’s ass anyway. The fellows at Old World Brewery are not, as far as I can tell, horse’s asses.

Which brings this little story full circle, I hope. It would seem to me that the guys at Old World Brewery managed to see an opportunity that others missed when Beer Wars hit the screen for a single night last month. Maybe it was small potatoes and too insignificant for the likes of Gordon Biersch, Rock Bottom and so forth. What I do know is that someone at Old World Brewery thought enough to meet the beer drinking public the night Beer Wars was screened and, if I remember the crux of the film, that’s what it is all about.
If you live in the greater Phoenix area, find your way to Old World Brewery at 201 West Lone Cactus Drive, just south of the Deer Valley Airport. But look carefully; when I was there yesterday, they still hadn’t put up their sign, which was scheduled to be delivered today. Old World Brewery is working to earn your support.

Here’s their product list, so far:
Nitro Blonde, 4.2 abv
Old World Wit, 4.8 abv
Peg Leg Pale Ale, 5.2 abv
Irish Red Ale, 5.5 abv
Dark Night Porter, 5.8 abv

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