Brewing Arizona

October 19, 2013 |

A Century of Beer in the Grand Canyon State
by Ed Sipos
University of Arizona Press (2013), 360 pages

Ed Sipos knows his ales from stouts, lagers from pilsners, and Belgium whites from IPAs.

Sipos is also a member of the Brewery Collectibles Club of America – an organization dedicated to the support of the hobby of collecting brewing memorabilia. Think weird beer cans or bottles. Is the brand no longer sold? The labeling cool? Chances are that Ed Sipos knows something about the beer that went into the bottle or can.

And now Ed Sipos has done something no one else has done for Arizona – he’s written the brewing history of Arizona beers. In his forthcoming book, Sipos covers the states’ beguiling historic figures and their amazing ups and downs, their responses to the rising and falling economies – tied to politics – to tell the story of Arizona brewing all the way to the current state of brewing; from the pioneer beginnings, through Prohibition, the 40s, 50s and 60s, on through to the current state of brewing in Arizona, replete with microbreweries and craft beer successes and failures. Sipos’ meticulous and entertaining volume will convince you that beer and Arizona history are deeply intertwined.

Arizona likes beer. Tucson liked beer so much that Arizona’s first commercial brewery was established in Tucson in 1864. Alexander “Boss” Levin’s Pioneer Brewery persevered through water issues (from the Rillito River, now a usually dry wash smelling of bat guano), Indian attacks, and transportation issues (warm beer delivered to mine sites by mule train), until the arrival of the railroad – which brought in bottled beers that generally shut down the pioneer era local breweries.

Levin operated breweries and sold his beer at establishments in the heart of Tucson. His first brewery was located Downtown between Church and Stone Avenues on Camp Street (now Broadway Boulevard). Later, with his wife Zenobia, Levin opened retail establishment, Park Brewery, on the western end of Pennington Street that offered everything from ice to concerts. The building had a rock walled basement, which assisted in at least chilling the beer somewhat, as 1873 Tucson was decidedly pre-refrigeration. After the train’s arrival in 1880, business went downhill as lower priced transported beer became available, and the establishment closed in 1886.

The state’s most successful operation was the Arizona Brewing Company. The Phoenix-based operation churned suds during the 30s, 40s and 50s; its signature brand A-1was distributed throughout Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas, Nevada, southern Colorado and parts of California. Advertising by supporting a woman’s softball and men’s baseball team, they also promoted their product by getting in on the new communications medium, television, including “A-1 Sports Highlights,” on Phoenix station KPHO. Eventually purchased by the Carling Brewing Company, the brewery ended its run in 1985.

But as regional breweries were swallowed by big breweries over the decades, America was hankering for beers that had flavor! Interestingly, the bland nature of the big American brewery mainstream’s light lagers may be partially traced to World War II grain rationing, which meant that barley was hard to come by. The resulting use of corn and rice in brewing produced lighter lagers and, for many decades and even to this today, has influenced taste.

By the 70s, large breweries producing a fairly insipid product dominated the industry. The first sign of change was the home-brewing movement. Brewing ones’ own beer, left illegal after Prohibition was repealed, was made legal in October 1978 by President Jimmy Carter’s signature. Home-brewing in turn inspired micro-breweries and brew pubs in the 1980s to produce craft beers in-house.

Today, we may take Tucson’s abundantly available micro-brewed beers for granted. But the first operating Tucson microbrewery, Southwest Brewing Company, didn’t arrive until 1988 and was gone by 1990. Others have been as fleeting. Hats off to Gentle Ben’s – which has been brewing increasingly tasty products since 1991 on University Avenue, with a short stoppage to relocate the operation in the mid-nineties; and with its delightful expansion to Barrio Brewing on 16th Street in 2007. Nimbus Brewing Company has been continuously operating since 1997. Try their Dirty Guera, a delicious naughty blonde that can be found at select grocers and liquor stores.

Sipos dedicates over one hundred thirty five pages to the byzantine rise and fall of brewpubs and microbreweries all over the Arizona. What is most impressive is what motivates this creation, the continuously fermenting entrepreneurial desire to try and make a brew that tastes good and will sell.

Brewing Arizona – A Century of Beer in the Grand Canyon State releases on Oct. 17; the launch party and book signing is Nov. 2, 4 p.m.-6 p.m., at Barrio Brewing Company, 800 E. 16th St. Visit for more details.