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Essential Arizona beer tour: 12 Tucson breweries

In elegant taprooms and boisterous bars, Tucson brewers make beers, ales to savor.

Not so long ago in a cantina just down the street, patrons would have scoffed at traveling more than a mile or two for a cold beer. Every bar carried the finest brews available, everything from lagers to light lagers. Who could possibly want more?

When the 1970s (and early ’80s) finally went away, they took with them a taste for disco, ill-conceived mustaches and boring beer.

Today, people will go not just a few miles out of their way for a quality ale, but to another city entirely in search of craft beers meant to tantalize, even challenge, taste buds.

In the past few years, the thirst for locally brewed beer has exploded like a shaken can of India Pale Ale. Arizona brims with brewers producing stouts, ales and porters one precious vat at a time.

A decade ago, you’d need a few hours and a couple gallons of gas to hit every joint crafting its own brew in a particular city.

Now it takes careful planning, an overnight stay and a solid hangover remedy. And don’t forget the designated driver or ride-hailing app. There are no excuses for drinking and driving.

In the first of Explore Arizona’s series of Essential Arizona Beer Tours, we chose Tucson because rock-paper-scissors said so. Coming up: beer tours of Flagstaff, Lake Havasu City and more.

Ten Fifty Five Brewing

Welcome to a tempting taproom filled with character. Walk in and be embraced by the warm, cozy scent of malt with a hint of hops. The odor is intoxicating, but only in a metaphorical sense.

A little background: Ten Fifty-Five was started by a couple of guys who thought their beer was so good that complete strangers would not only like it but pay for it. Mission complete. Keep on eye on the website for news of a move. Owners are working on a Congress Street site, bringing the brewery into central Tucson. It’s expected to be ready sometime this spring.

Stats: Four beers on tap: pale ale, wheat, stout, double IPA.

Food: Not available.

Highlight: The dark, creamy Sugar Skull stout goes down as smoothly as a chocolate bar thanks to its unexpectedly light body. Even if you’re not a fan of stouts, odds are good you’ll like this.

Distance to next microbrewery: 200 feet to Nimbus Brewing Co.

Details: 3810 E. 44th St. 520-461-8073, 1055brewing.com.

Nimbus Brewing Co.

Like Ten Fifty-Five Brewing, Nimbus occupies an unlikely location in an industrial park. Great news for nearby workers, but visitors may need turn-by-turn directions from their smartphones.

A little background: Nimbus arrived in 1996, well before the market for craft beer took off. It has grown from modest taproom to one of the largest brewers in the state.

Stats: Six beers available: four ales (blonde, brown, red, pale), English pub beer, oatmeal stout.

Food: Burgers, wings, salads, sandwiches and Mexican; good variety to enhance what’s on tap.

Highlight: Old Monkey Shine, the English pub beer, has a sweet, malty finish and hides its 8.2 percent alcohol by volume. (Most beers are in the 5-6 percent range.) Drink slowly. And responsibly.

Distance to next brewery: Four miles to Barrio Brewing Co.

Details: 3850 N. 44th St. 520-745-9175, www.nimbusbeer.com.

Barrio Brewing Co.

This beer-centric restaurant is an odd blend of industrial (exposed pipes, metal finishes) and earthy (woods with warm orange and red tones), and it works extremely well. Action centers around the U-shaped bar, with tables scattered about.

A little background: Barrio’s beer roots go back to 1991 and Gentle Ben’s, one of Tucson’s first microbreweries. Barrio owner Dennis Arnold bought Ben’s in 1991, and it now serves Barrio beer.

Stats: Nine beers available: seven ales (blonde, amber, pale, IPA, white IPA, Scottish, raspberry), wheat, stout.

Food: Extensive menu features appetizers, salads, burgers, sandwiches and “South of the Brewery” fare. Plenty to keep taste buds busy.

Highlight: You could almost swear the Mocha Java Stout was first brewed at Starbucks before it was infused with beer. The coffee and chocolate notes are robust, perfect for sipping by a fire. Unless it’s, say, August. That’s when you’re even happier it’s a cold beer rather than a hot beverage.

Distance to next brewery: Less than a mile to Thunder Canyon Brewery.

Details: 800 E. 16th St. 520-791-2739, barriobrewing.com.

Thunder Canyon Brewery

Occupying one of the larger footprints on the beer tour, Thunder Canyon caters to families as well beer enthusiasts. While khaki-clad men and skirt-adorned women enjoy happy hour in the bar, families cluster around the dozens of tables in the open, airy restaurant.

A little background: One of the first three microbreweries in Tucson, its defining moment arrived in 2013 when Thunder Canyon opened its 8,000-square-foot restaurant downtown, a larger version of its flagship restaurant in Foothills Mall.

Stats: With 40 beers on tap, a dozen taps typically are reserved for Thunder Canyon beers, including four ales (amber, cream, strong and IPA), pilsner, wheat and porter. Seasonal brews are available.

Food: A good balance of bar food and family-friendly entrees. Finish it off with the deep-dish cookie, served hot with ice cream. It’s so good, you’ll actually forego a beer to maintain room.

Highlight: Ask your server about the cask-conditioned beer. Beers fermented and aged in casks tend to have milder carbonation and fuller flavor. Cask-conditioning is a treat for beer enthusiasts.

Distance to next brewery: 500 feet to Pueblo Vida Brewing Co.

Details: 220 E. Broadway Blvd. 520-396-3480, thundercanyonbrewery.com.

Pueblo Vida Brewing Co.

If a beer tour had halftime, this would be the perfect place to spend it. The unpretentious taproom is quiet and serene during off-peak hours, when it’s a pleasure to sit at the bar (capacity about 12) and chat with the bartender. Brewing equipment looms in the back, allowing a peek behind the brewing curtain.

A little background: Open less than two years, Pueblo Vida opened in a former clothing shop. It’s run by University of Arizona graduate Kyle Jefferson, who earned his brewing cred in Seattle.

Stats: Four beers on tap: wheat, IPA, stout and a rotating seasonal (an IPA, more often than not).

Food: None.

Highlight: Ask about an infusion. Each week brewers choose a beer on tap and add a special ingredient. It could be chile pepper, an apple or a cucumber. They take suggestions. As long as your ingredient can be consumed, it will be considered. Anyone suggesting cauliflower or broccoli deserves disapproving looks.

Distance to next brewery: Half-mile to Borderlands Brewing Co.

Details: 115 E. Broadway Blvd. 520-623-7168, pueblovidabrewing.com.

Borderlands Brewing Co.

Because it’s built inside a historical produce warehouse, you can drink in Borderland’s atmosphere as much as the beer. Even better, the earthy scents of hops and malt have vanquished any odor left over from previously stored vegetables.

A little background: Take a microbiologist, stir in a medical student, add a mutual interest in home brewing and bring to a boil. That’s the recipe behind Borderlands, founded in 2010 by Michael Mallozzi (the microbiologist) and Myles Stone.

Stats: Six beers available: four ales (amber, Scottish, brown and IPA), wheat, vanilla porter.

Food: None.

Highlight: It’s not just about the beer but helping the environment as well. The owners are committed to conserving water and electricity and use locally sourced ingredients.

Distance to next brewery: Three miles to Dragoon Brewing Co.

Details: 119 E. Toole Ave. 520-261-8773, borderlandsbrewing.com.

Dragoon Brewing Co.

Dragoon has found much success since opening in 2012. Its original two-tap, six-seat bar is a distant memory. Dragoon now operates in a space that dwarfs the original, with 11 beers on tap and a great view of stainless steel vats brewing up goodness in the next room.

A little background: Twenty years ago, founder Bruce Greene brewed his first batch in his kitchen. Hobby grew to passion and eventually to a business when Greene, his son Eric and beer fanatic Tristan White opened Dragoon in 2012.

Stats: Dragoon established itself as a strong player with its superb IPA (and its Stronghold Session wasn’t bad either). Now it brews as many as 30 beers a year, with stouts, porters and Belgian beers in the mix.

Food: None, but food trucks usually are on premises Wednesdays-Saturdays.

Highlight: While the IPA and session beers are exceptional, the beauty of dropping by is to see what seasonals are on tap. Best way to experience is by flight, allowing you to sample to your heart’s content.

Distance to next brewery: Four miles to Public Brewhouse.

Details: 1859 W. Grant Road. 520-329-3606, dragoonbrewing.com.

Public Brewhouse

Apologies for doubling back, but this is the perfect place to bring the tour to an end. The Brewhouse is a beer-centric gem tucked in an alley just off Fourth Avenue. Slip through the sliding tin door and join a crowd that appreciates a fine brew with no pretensions.

A little background: A toast to Kickstarter, where 277 backers pledged more than $37,000 to bring the nano-brewery to life. The modest but funky brick-built shed provides just the right environment for the brewhouse’s eclectic collection of beers. The taps change frequently, as noted by the many erase marks on the chalkboard menu.

Stats: Taps continually rotate based on brewers’ moods, but expect a pale ale, a stout and at least one brew you’ll want the bartender to explain, like the Pink Funk-N-Ade (sour ale with a fruity finish).

Food: None.

Highlight: Clearly there is no fear of experimentation, and small batches mean that even the fails (if there are any) don’t stay around for long. Public Brewhouse is like a box of hoppy chocolate: You never know what you’re going to get.

Distance to next brewery: It’s over. You did it. Now thank your designated driver and get some sleep.

Details: 209 N. Hoff Ave. 520-775-2337, publicbrewhouse.com.

4 more breweries to sample

Did you finish early? Are you sticking around another day? Here are four more bars and taprooms worth a visit.

Iron John’s: Welcome to a beer boutique. The small taproom reflects the mindset of brewers, who call this an “artisan” brewery. Like Public Brewhouse, Iron John’s brews in small batches. Enjoy a 1-ounce sample or a 14-ounce glass, with sizes in between. Fill a growler or take home a six-pack or case.

Details: 245 S. Plumer Ave. 520-775-1727, ironjohnsbrewing.com.

Reilly Pizza and Beer Garden: It doesn’t brew its own beer, but Reilly’s beer garden is a must-stop for enthusiasts. Head out the side door and across the patio to that glass-and-metal building. Inside are 40 taps dedicated to beers both local and from afar. The knowledgeable “beerista” will guide you on your journey.

Details: 101 E. Pennington St. 520-882-5550, reillypizza.com.

1912 Brewing: Named for the year Arizona earned statehood, the neighborhood taproom that opened last summer features eight beers on tap. Hang out on the couch and watch sports on three TVs. Better yet, have a beer and then take some home.

Details: 2045 N. Forbes Blvd., Suite 105. 520-256-4851, www.1912brewing.com.

Sentinel Peak Brewing Co.: The nanobrewery prides itself on its flagship beers (IPA, blonde, Vienna and dunkel), and its seasonals delight as well, such as the very spicy chili beer it recently brewed as a fundraiser for Firefighters vs. Autism.

Details: 4746 E. Grant Road. 520-777-9456, www.sentinelpeakbrewing.com.

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