Craft Beer in the Old Pueblo: The Borderlands Experience

It was a hot and sweaty afternoon in summer 2011 when I first began my relationship with Borderlands Brewing Co. As I stared at the stainless steel brewing equipment and absorbed the thunderous rattle of a passing train, I had my doubts about how we were going to move four freshly-delivered six-barrel fermentation tanks, a boil kettle, and a mash tun through the short doorways of the rustic building destined to become Borderlands’ brewhouse.

Thanks to volunteer manual labor (my homebrew companion and me being two of those lucky few), the Borderlands crew had multiple able-bodied and geometrically-competent individuals to get the job done. The forklift helped, too. With Myles Stone and Mike Mallozzi, the original founders of Borderlands, taking turns at the helm of the forklift, we began the arduous process of disassembling, lifting, tilting, and rotating thousands of pounds of bulky brewing equipment to find the perfect approach angle to get through the building’s 7-foot doorways.

Much to our chagrin, the fermentation tanks were all 8 feet tall. But with a delicate balance of tact, brute force, and patience, we achieved the seemingly-impossible and eventually found ourselves seated on the bare wooden floors of the soon-to-be taproom and brewhouse, triumphantly staring at glimmering stainless steel.

With Great Power Comes Great Beer
Flash forward to spring 2013. Borderlands’ brewing capacity has expanded from six to twenty barrels thanks (in part) to the resounding success of the taproom, leaving brewmaster Blake Collins with room to experiment with one-off brews that his original brewing capacity never allowed. Crowd pleasers like the Santa Rita Amber and Prickly Pear Wheat, as well as the new Picacho Pale Ale, are being enjoyed four nights a week at the taproom as well as at bars and restaurants all around Tucson and Phoenix. The lauded Noche Dulce Vanilla Porter took Best Specialty Beer at the first-annual “Born and Brewed” Tucson Beer Cup at Hotel Congress. Single-batch brews like the 2013 Anniversary Agua Bendita Wheat Wine found the love and affection of high-gravity beer lovers and new beercomers alike, the La Morena Nut Brown was so popular the taproom kegs were dry within weeks of its release, and hopheads are getting their kicks again with the highly-sessionable Ol’ Loco IPA. Needless to say, the beer is flowing and business is looking good at Borderlands Brewing Company.

As with any brewery in this golden age of barley, water, yeast, and hops, innovation isn’t stopping for a breath at Borderlands, either. On the heels of the release of a one-of-a-kind southwest-inspired Horchata Wit, Collins is working on creating a line of other “aqua fresca” beers, including a Hibiscus Saison and a Tamarind Sour. Also planned for the near future are a Honey Kolsch, a Gose (unfiltered German-style wheat sour brewed with salt), a Berliner Weisse brewed with White Sonora Wheat, and a number of other yet-to-be-disclosed experimental brews.

Sustainable Brewing
One of the bedrock principles at Borderlands is that beer should be brewed sustainably, leading them to deploy water-saving features as a desert brewery and use local ingredients in their beer. Tucsonans are surely familiar with the prickly pear cactus fruit—grown by Arizona Cactus Ranch—that plays a central role in Borderlands’ ruby-pink wheat beer, but that isn’t their only brew containing regional ingredients.

The Agua Bendita Wheat Wine and upcoming Hibiscus Saison are brewed with tea from Tucson’s very own Maya Tea Company, the La Morena Nut Brown gets its nutty and roasted flavor from pecans grown by The Green Valley Pecan Company, and the Honey Kolsch and Noche Dulce Vanilla Porter are brewed with local honey and authentic Mexican vanilla, respectively. Word has it that hops grown by Arizona Hops and Vines in nearby Sonoita may eventually even find their way into Borderlands’ beer.

The Local Watering Hole
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of Borderlands Brewing Co. extends beyond the beer they make and the ingredients they use. Walk into the downtown Tucson taproom and you are greeted by the rustic smell of wood furniture and cereal-like aroma of fermenting beer. You’ll find no walls or windows separating the taproom from the space “where all the magic happens.” Depending on when you drop in, you might catch live music, an art showing, game night, or one of Tucson’s many gourmet food trucks.

Coupled with Borderlands’ prime location between 4th Avenue and downtown Tucson, this eclectic mix of happenings has coalesced to make Borderlands more than a just a brewery, but a community center. Whether it’s Tucson’s elected officials meeting for a campaign kickoff, local business owners meeting to talk shop and plan collaborations, or a flock of medical school students celebrating their residency matchings, there’s always someone meeting at Borderlands to do more than just drink locally-brewed, handmade beer.

The Path Ahead Is Paved with Beer
As a young beer lover enjoying every minute of life in the exploding craft beer world, I am proud to live in a time and place where I can watch a business like Borderlands grow through each phase of its life. Go back in time just a few years, and breweries like Borderlands, Dragoon Brewing Company, and newcomer Ten Fifty-Five Brewing were but twinkles in the eyes of their founders.

I invite you to step back from your pint for just one moment and see the vital role Borderlands and its brethren are playing in spreading the good word about beer and the entrepreneurial spirit. Breweries have always had a part in building communities and bridging divides, but today, they also prove that pursuing a passion and finding success as a small business are not exclusive of one another.

With businesses such as these occupying more and more of Tucson’s empty buildings and warehouses each year, I see an even brighter path ahead for culture, entertainment, and cuisine in the Old Pueblo.

And from where I’m standing, that path is paved with beer.

Beer Review: Stone Enjoy By 02.15.13 IPA

Now that that every drop of Stone’s Enjoy By 02.15.13 IPA is officially dried up, the right time has finally come to post my (some would say “scathing”) review of this hoppiest of Stone India Pale Ales.  While a handful of rebels have surely hoarded bottles of this brew in sheer defiance of Stone’s decree, the 02.15.13 IPA should be gone from shelves and off taps at every retail establishment grazed by this beer’s hoppy presence.  If you got your hands on it, your opinions of the beer should be firm, but if you didn’t live in the right place to get it, read on to find out what you missed from this now-extinct IPA.  

Stone Enjoy By 02.15.13 IPA
The Highlights

  • Landmark advancement of what an IPA can be
  • A true onslaught of hops
  • Comes up shy on malt
  • Complexity falls short of expectations
  • Annihilates taste buds
  • Leaves the most diehard hophead with adrenal fatigue

It’s not every day I get to try a new IPA from Stone Brewing Co.  Okay, I actually can’t think of another brewery that puts out IPAs more often than Stone, but as a dyed-in-the-wool hophead and reformed Stone fanboy,  I was salivating as soon as I caught wind of the Stone Enjoy By IPA series.  Stone’s social-media centric marketing strategy with this brew was fun from a consumer perspective, and since I’ve just barely gotten into the swing of using Twitter in these last few months (for this site), I was cheering for #EnjoyBy #AZ as soon as the 02.15.13 IPA was announced.

As Stone would surely see fit, their beer played a hefty role in my 2012 beer explorations.  I had the pleasure of visiting the Stone World Bistro & Gardens for the first time while on my SoCal beer tour, where I knocked back a great many pints of their Double Dry-Hopped IPA, and of course, I made a land grab for as many bottles of Sixteenth Anniversary IPA and Tenth Anniversary Ruination as I could when they hit the Arizona market.

Needless to say, my expectations for the Enjoy By 02.15.13 IPA were pretty high.

Which is why for the life of me I can’t figure out why I’m not head-over-heels in love with this beer.  All the ingredients are there, and the flavors for a kick-ass brew are all in place, but I need something to bring it together for me.  Sadly, that thing is missing.

Let’s break it down.

Name: Enjoy By 02.15.13 IPA
Brewery: Stone Brewing Co.
Hails From: Escondido, CA
Style: Imperial India Pale Ale
ABV: 9.4%
IBU: 88
Tasting Notes: Hop resin, dankness, garlic, green onion, tropical fruit, subtle alcohol
Beer Advocate Score: 97/98

How It Looks
Not enough appreciation is given to bottle art these days, and I have to say, Stone has this nailed!  Their screen printing approach is a pleasure to the eyes and empowers my fingers every time I grasp I bottle of their delicious nectar.  The Enjoy By 02.15.13 IPA is closer to a traditional “label” than their other brews in that it has lots of large words on it and less art, and the back of the bottle doesn’t bear an arrogant description of biblical proportions.  The green color choice appeals to the “I’m way too ******* hoppy for you. You should put me back before you do something stupid” angle Stone loves to portray.

The beer itself?  Amazingly clear without so much as a speck of yeast floating about at the bottom.  Tipping the bottle’s contents into the glass, I was greeted by a deep gold liquid of deceptive clarity (9.4%, what now!?), a creamy white medium head, and enough carbonation to keep things lively.

Give It a Whiff, Man!
As one would expect, the hops take center stage in the aroma with a very dank smell, pronounced onion and garlic playing a big role, and tons of hop resin.  This beer screams “back up, I’m hoppy as hell,” and once I got past that far-out herbal smell, some tropical fruit found its way into my nostrils.  Toward the bottom of the glass, I got a fairly strong solvent-like whiff, though not to the point of being unpleasant.  I would appreciate a touch of malty sweetness to round this out and keep my nose hairs from straight up, but I suppose that was half the fun.

Get to the Good Part, Dammit!
If you’re looking for a sweet IPA, this is not the beer for you!  It’s almost off-putting to taste such a dry IPA in the wintertime, when I’m almost dying for the boozy, warming sweetness of a hazy Imperial IPA.  There’s really no malt backbone to round the Enjoy By 02.15.13 IPA out, and this is where it comes up short.  Spicy hops cut straight through without a semblance of sweetness and hit me square in the face, giving me just a fraction of a moment to experience a subtle citric-sweetness and hint of tropical fruit before a pronounced bitterness washes over my tongue and lingers until the next sip.  The best way I can describe the hop characteristics is if God took one part grapefruit and two parts onion, added a dash of pine needle, fused them into some sort of weird hybrid evergreen-bulb-fruit, and then man gave it a name, I’d have a good word to describe the taste of what this beer’s hop profile reminds me of.  My taste buds are confused.

The Last Sip
In the end, I have to admit that I was somewhat let down by the Enjoy By 02.15.13. While there was nothing inherently wrong with this beer, I expected something truly great from the guys I consider to be the masters of the American IPA.  I actually struggled to finish off the 22oz bottle myself, even after stretching it out over nearly two hours, and I wasn’t saddened when I reflected on the fact that I had given away two out of the three bottles I had picked up. The beer in itself felt like a landmark for the evolution of IPAs, but as an example of the Imperial IPA segment, it fell shy of what my taste buds were craving.

That said, if you’re a serious IPA lover, this is definitely a beer you should have tried or should regret not having had a chance to try.  Almost sobering, its hop profile left me with a greater understanding of the fact that yes, an IPA can go over the line into that ridiculous, over-the-top hop territory every IPA lover boasts to be a fan of.  But at the end of the day, when I’m looking for a good strong IPA to help me ease into my evening, this is one beer that would never do the trick for me, even if it was still available.  With local resources of the Enjoy By 02.15.13 all dried up, I have to admit that I’m almost comforted knowing that no more palates shall be wrecked by Stone’s hoppy monster.

Fortunately, I can still pray that one day, probably sooner than not, Stone will deliver another godly Imperial IPA to its loyal subjects, and the definition of what an IPA can and should be shall be forever changed.  For now, I will just summon my memories of the amazing Tenth Anniversary Ruination to comfort my taste buds and tide me over until Stone’s next jaw-dropping India Pale Ale hits the market.

Beer Review: 8 Wired Brewing Co. Super Conductor Double IPA

“Bone Dry and Ultra Hoppy”
8 Wired Brewing Co.

8 Wired Brewing Co. Super Conductor Double IPA

How It Looks
At a glance, this looks like your garden-variety double IPA, with an amber orange hue and a relatively tame off-white head (though a more vigorous pour may have yielded better results). It’s mildly hazy, holds its carbonation, and the thin head does a good job of sticking to the glass.

Give it a whiff, though, and you know something else is going on. Not too much of that sweet imperial malt aroma; instead you get a nose full of resinous pine and an herbal hop smell something like chive or green onion.  Just a hint of honey is hiding in there too. (more…)

Mini-Review: Dogfish Head Robert Johnson’s Hellhound On My Ale Imperial IPA

Boy that’s a mouthful!

And much like it’s name, Dogfish Head’s Robert Johnson’s Hellhound On My Ale Imperial IPA is a big beer. Loaded with citrusy hops hitting every edge of the spectrum, from orange to grapefruit to tangerine to lemon (and oh how the zesty lemon comes through!), this beer will have you second-guessing its 10% alcohol content until it hits room temperature. The Hellhound On My Ale Imperial IPA is brewed with 100% Centennial Hops that bring a boat load of citrus with enough bitterness to the table to satisfy any hophead. Don’t pour it too cold or you’ll find yourself drinking through entirely too quickly! (more…)