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.
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.