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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.

Left Hand Brewing Wake Up Dead: Musings from the Afterlife

Left Hand Brewing’s Wake Up Dead Imperial Stout. 10.2% ABV, 45 IBUs.  Appearance: Pours the color of cola and offers a thick, tan head.  Smell: Sweet chocolate, hint of dark fruit, roast malt.  Taste: Bittersweet chocolate, some dark fruit, caramel, touch of coffee, light but present alcohol.  Mouthfeel: Thick but not syrupy. Could have used more body.
Overall: 4/5

 

Tonight, as I watched the season premier of “The Walking Dead” while drinking the majority of a bottle of Left Hand Brewing’s Wake Up Dead Russian Imperial Stout, I came to what I like to call a beerealization.  Having tasted dozens of stouts in recent months (yes, in the dead of summer), my taste buds and I have probed the depths of stouts of every caliber and quality, and we have a few words to share about the beloved beer that is the Russian Imperial Stout.  But before revealing it, and with fall and Stout-drinking weather upon us, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on and raise my glass to this black-as-tar high-gravity brew.

 

A Man Discovers Good Beer

The year was 1698 and Peter the Great was perched upon a barstool in a smoky London pub.  Taking a break from his Grand Embassy and out alone to escape the pressures of politics, he was busy pondering how to modernize his nation and bring it into line with Europe.  As he mulled over his fondness of Western fashion, legally-mandated beardlessness, and how cool it would be to have a city named after himself, he caught the eye of a patron across the bar.  The patron motioned to the bartender, who poured a glass of ale and slid it in front of Peter.  Lifting his glass to the air, the patron gave Peter a gentle nod and a wink.

“What is this peasant drink?” asked Peter, holding the glass to the light.  He remarked on the brew’s blackness and was hesitant to sip it, fearing it might be spoiled.  But looking through the dim light and haze of the room, he noted the jolly faces of the Englishmen around him as they slammed back pint after pint of the same black drink.

“Well, when in Rome…” he muttered, raising the glass to the patron and then to his mouth.  He tipped it back and let the cool, black ale wash into his mouth.

His taste buds were overwhelmed by malt roast, cocoa, hints of coffee, and something bitter he couldn’t quite identify.

“This stuff is great!”  He belched as he slammed the half-empty glass down on the bar.  “Just wait ’til the guys back at home get a taste of it.  I must have it for my courts!”  He drained what remained from his glass, slurped the tan foam from his mustache, and ordered another round for himself and his new friend.

 

The Porter Evolves

Much Peter’s his chagrin, and perhaps to the embarrassment of the British monarchy and early Porter brewers, the first shipments of Porter sent over to Russia either spoiled or froze on the long journey to the Imperial Court (history seems divided on which was the case, if either).  So in a nod to the brewing tactic we all know gave birth to the much-loved IPA a half-century later, brewers took their comparatively-tame Porter recipes and amped them up with more malt and hops to raise the alcohol content and increase the shelf life of their Russia-bound Porters.

After sitting in barrels for the long journey to Russia, the beer acquired a delightfully-smooth character from the wood in which it was shipped, and ultimately, the Russian Imperial Stout was born.  It was a deliciously robust beverage fit for a king that brought roasted and burnt flavors from the malting process straight to the consumer’s palate, smoothing out with a hints of toffee, chocolate, coffee, plums and dark fruit, and alcohol.

Russia and the world of beer would never be the same.  Upon opening St. Petersburg, Peter required banquet attendees to drink his British-made beer.  And years later, when Catherine the Great took rule, she embraced the Russian Imperial Stout as her beverage of choice, ordering barrel after barrel from England and often boasting how she could drink as much of the strong drink as any Englishman.

Or perhaps this is all just a colorful and inspiring story that is far more entertaining than the actual history of the Imperial Stout, and original Porter brewers made a stronger, sweeter, smoother, and more hearty beer not to keep it from freezing, but because people (including Russian tsars and empresses) liked how it tasted, plain and simple.

 

About that Beerealization

As I had been saying before I was interrupted by my twisted take on history, I do have a word or two to share about Imperial Stouts (Russian and American alike).  Love them as I and millions of beer drinks around the world do, I can’t help but feel that the best Imperial Stouts I get my hands on always taste the same.

I’m not saying that there aren’t any differences; to proclaim this would be blasphemy.  But boiled down, what separates one good Imperial Stout from another is often just a slight variation in the intensity of a certain number of predestined flavors.  But as long as they’re all there, the beer is a good one that can stand up against any other of its brethren.  You’ve got your chocolate, coffee, and espresso base, roasted and burnt malt, toffee, molasses, elements of dark fruit, generally-tame hop bitterness, and in most cases, ambiguous alcohol or bourbon of varying intensity.

These flavors all make for a fine beer and a style I love with all my heart, but in the end, unless there’s something special going on inside that stout, like in Great Divide’s Yeti Clan lineup, I can’t justify spending vast quantities of time, energy, and money to track down and drink an elusive Imperial Stout like I do when it comes to other high-gravity beers.

With that all considered, I tip my hat to Left Hand Brewing for making a great Russian Imperial Stout that has a bit of everything I’m looking for, including an extremely fair price tag.  Now if only these guys would start distributing a good Imperial IPA and something hoppier than 400 Pound Monkey in Arizona!

 

Curious to read what other beer drinkers think of Wake Up Dead?  Head over to BeerAdvocate to see how this beer stands up!