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A Brief History of Tucson Beer

(photos courtesy BrewingArizona.com)

“Let people have good beer, and let them have it in the right way, in the home and in nice surroundings, and you’ll hear a lot less about depression and despair.”

-Col. Jacob Ruppert, President, United States Brewer’s Association,

January 1933, just 4 months before the ending of Prohibition.

Tucson officially became part of The United States in 1864. Eleven years later, Alexander Levin founded Pioneer Brewery, which marked the beginning of craft brewing in Arizona. But the beer brewed at Pioneer, as well as that made at most other locations in the latter half of the 19th century, was vastly different than the beer brewed in the post-prohibition era, and there is little doubt that it tasted almost nothing like the craft beer we enjoy today. In addition to a lack of access to refrigeration and pasteurization, there was also little-to-no understanding of bacterial interaction in the brewing process at that time, meaning that batches tended to be inconsistent and, in some cases, barely palatable. Several craft breweries opened throughout Arizona in the late 1800’s, however all of them would eventually face great turmoil when Arizona became a dry state. One of the most well-known and successful breweries in the state was the Arizona Brewing Company (ABC). They sold their first beer in 1904 only to shutdown ten years later when Prohibition was enacted.

The Prohibition Repeal of 1933 marked a new beginning for brewing in Arizona. After a nearly two-decade hiatus, ABC was the first brewery to be recognized commercially in the post-prohibition era. In the 1940’s and 50’s the company peaked with its flagship brand, A-1, which became the best selling beer in the state. Of the eight brewing companies that attempted to re-open after the repeal, only ABC proved successful. And while their efforts paved the way for future craft breweries in the state, constant changes in ownership, legal woes, and a scarcity of resources lead the company to close its doors in 1964.

But there was still beer to make in Arizona, and other breweries stepped in to fill the gap left by ABC. It was in 1986 that newlyweds Tauna and Dennis Arnold began to develop their own unique attitude toward craft brewing. They moved to San Diego that year to pursue the dream of opening a local craft brewery, however elected officials in San Diego maintained the position that breweries would never be welcome within the city limits. The Arnold’s subsequently returned to their hometown of Tucson, Arizona, and in so doing picked up the torch passed by ABC decades before.

They purchased Dirtbag’s West in 1991—a restaurant and bar near the University of Arizona campus that originally bore the name Gentle Ben’s when it opened twenty years before. Not only did the Arnolds reinstate the original name, but they also lengthened it, officially adding ‘Brewing Company’ to the end of the moniker. Self-taught brewer Dennis Arnold brewed his very first batch of Tucson Blonde that year and, today, that recipe has been brewed longer than any other in the history of the state of Arizona. In Brewing Arizona: A Century of Beer in the Grand Canyon State, Author Ed Sipos compares Dennis Arnold to Alexander Levin, calling him “one of the most adept businessmen to establish a brewery in the Old Pueblo.”

Before long, expansion of the Arnold’s brewing company became inevitable and so they purchased a warehouse near downtown Tucson which they called Barrio Brewing Co. By September of 2010, all beer-making activities for Gentle Ben’s had been moved to the Barrio location, which developed into the 2,500-barrel capacity facility you know today. Now Barrio brews upwards of a dozen craft beers, including a handful of seasonal brews, and they’ve been joined by about a dozen other local breweries in the local craft beer community, with about another dozen looking to start producing in the near future.

For a more complete history of Arizona Brewing, check out Sipos' book, Brewing Arizona: A Century of Beer in the Grand Canyon State.

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