Thunder Canyon Brewery Downtown NOW OPEN

January 9, 2013 |

Steve Tracy is a straightforward, practical kind of guy. The day I meet him he’s wearing no-nonsense work clothes and is fully involved in the hubbub of work at Thunder Canyon Brewery’s new Downtown location (220 E. Broadway at Fifth Avenue.) He apologizes for keeping me waiting, but I’m impressed, not perturbed—Steve started Thunder Canyon Brewery over a decade ago, and it’s cool to see that he’s still fully involved on the ground in day-to-day operations. With plenty of work still to be completed before the brewpub opens on January 8th (ed: NOW OPEN!), Steve is good-natured about the fact that I’m interrupting his day to pepper him with questions.

Of course, the first thing I want to know is how Steve got interested in brewing beer—and how he managed to turn his passion into a career. Homebrewing is a widespread phenomenon today, but back when Steve opened the first Thunder Canyon brewpub, in 1997, it wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous a hobby, nor were microbrews as popular as they are these days.

“It was a big step,” Steve admits, speaking of the decision to leave his comfortable job as a mining engineer to open up his own business. But he explains that he couldn’t turn down the opportunity he’d been presented with: a mutual friend had introduced him to people in Tucson who were interested in working as partners to open up a brewpub. Steve loved brewing, loved the ambiance and interaction with customers offered by the brewpub environment, and, perhaps most importantly, was open to the idea of moving to Tucson—a city he’d visited in the past and found to be beautiful and welcoming.

“It was a quieter city fifteen years ago,” he explains, and the changes Tucson has undergone since Steve founded Thunder Canyon Brewery in 1997 are part of the reason that TCB is expanding downtown. “People downtown don’t tend to go up to the northern part of the city, and vice versa,” Steve told me, so it seemed like a smart idea to capitalize on the ongoing revitalization of Tucson’s downtown and Tucson’s growing appetite for good, local beer by opening up a new location. I asked Steve if he expected his customer base to be different downtown than it was on the north side. “Maybe a little bit,” he said. “More college students, of course. More industry folks. But really the brewpubs draw people from across the board—anyone from twenty-one-year-olds having their first drink to old folks out on a date. Craft beers aren’t an exclusive thing these days. When I was growing up, my parents drank generic light beers. Today, kids are growing up and their are parents drinking local microbrews.” Craft beer is the new normal—Thunder Canyon’s brewpub isn’t trying to fill a niche any more specific than “a place for anyone who likes to drink beer” (and from-scratch pub food—also a crowd-pleaser).

This doesn’t mean that TCB isn’t constantly innovating. “We’re always working on two or three new beers,” and “We always keep in mind what people are asking for,” says Steve. His current favorite TCB offering is the Cuppa Joe coffee porter, which is made with locally-roasted Cartel coffee, he says without hesitation. In general Steve prefers darker beers like stouts and porters—“I’m not so much a hoppy beer drinker,” he explains, though he adds that he appreciates all beers. Any guilty pleasures—a light beer or mainstream national beer? Steve looks slightly disgusted, and the answer is an adamant no. Well then, what are his favorite microbrews? He smiles and admits that he mostly drinks his own stuff. I get it—in addition to being delicious, drinking his own beer has to be the most economical option for Steve!

In terms of his future plans for TCB, Steve seems happy to stay relatively small and local. “In bigger [brewing] operations, sometimes—unfortunately—the accountants end up having more of a role in the brewing process than the brewmasters themselves,” says Steve. “If you’re small like us, you can make sure you’re using the best ingredients and never skimping on quality.” In Steve’s estimation, the biggest mistake a microbrewery can make is trying to get too big, too fast. “It’s easy to lose control,” he says.

Steve’s key to success? “Great people,” he says, such as his general manager and kitchen manager, who have both been working with Steve since he and his partners (who he subsequently bought out) opened the first TCB location over a decade ago. “Craft beer is about interactions. TCB is about more than just brewing beer and going home.” This is why, in Steve’s opinion, the brewpub is the ideal venue for sharing and showcasing craft beer. I look around the downtown Thunder Canyon brewpub—which, with its poured concrete floors and heavy wood tables, is inviting and warm even in its unfinished state. I agree that this looks like a fantastic place to interact with the people who make—and drink—great beer.