Is Downtown Tucson Close To Peak Brewery Saturation?

Welcome to Arizona Beer Week folks. It’s a magical time when all of the state’s breweries take center stage as they offer up some of their best and most creative concoctions to tempt us during Lent and help many of us forget about Valentine’s Day.

This year, there will be more Arizona breweries, craft beer bars, and bottle shops taking part in the fun as the local scene continues to grow.

What beer lover could ever question anything about the most wonderful week of the year?

Well, I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I’m gonna pull a Lucy and snatch back that football just before you kick it. OK, not that bad, but I have a question.

It’s a fair question, one that has no definite answer. But, given all the movement of bars and breweries to the downtown and Fourth Avenue area, are the other parts of Tucson left underserved with craft beer?

By now you have probably heard that Ten Fifty-Five Brewing Company is eyeing an 11,000-square-foot facility in the southern downtown area. The new digs, once investment comes through, will more than quadruple their output and provide indoor and patio seating and options for food service.

While this is awesome news for Ten Fifty-Five and beer drinkers throughout Tucson and — eventually — the state, it represents the latest migration of a brewery or craft-beer concept to the downtown area.

Meanwhile, Catalina Brewing Company will open in Marana on February 20. While it is certainly a far drive from downtown, it is now only the second brewery in the Northwest Tucson area, joining Thunder Canyon Brewery at the Foothills Mall.

But what about that vast expanse of craft beer drinkers between those markets? In terms of local craft beer bars and bottle shops, Noble Hops is really the only one in the Northwest area.

Compare that with downtown, which already boasts four breweries — five when 1055 joins the area — as well as more than a dozen craft-beer-centric bars and restaurants. This is certainly what city and business leaders had in mind as it pushed forth the downtown revitalization movement years ago.

As more and more beer drinkers turn to craft beer — a term that will soon be replaced — and more locally brewed, owned, and operated businesses, will they continue to head downtown or fill out some of the vast, suburban land stretching north to Marana and east to Vail and Sabino Canyon?

Jeremy Hilderbrand, co-founder and head brewer of Sentinel Peak Brewing, said the downtown market will eventually hit a ceiling and people will look for other places near their homes — if they are available.

“Downtown is heading towards that saturation point,” he said. “There are plenty of areas where people are thirsty for great beer, but don’t want to drive far to get it.”

Along with Taylor Carter and Matt Gordon, Hilderbrand opened Sentinel Peak in mid-town Tucson. Now in its second year, the three have expanded operations and more than doubled output.

Gordon attributes that to the area they chose. Most of their patrons live within a couple miles and like the comfortable atmosphere, consistently good beer, and not-too-complex food items.

“People in the area were thirsty for good beer, but also a place to have fun,” he said. “They wanted it in their neighborhood too.”

That’s another variable in the question of underserved areas too. In Sentinel Peak’s case, they seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the community, almost an “if you brew it, they will come” kind of thing.

But how does that relate to those operating downtown?

Chris Squires, Ten Fifty-Five Brewing co-founder and co-owner, says people’s tastes differ between Tucson areas. This was one of the major reasons moving downtown made sense, he said.

“You want to first figure out what your brand is about and who will be drinking your beer,” he said. “We make cutting edge beer, and we think the downtown area has people with cutting edge tastes.”

Given the eclectic nature of the downtown scene, complete with dozens of hip bars and restaurants, Squires had always targeted the area since opening operations in an industrial area in southern Tucson.

While he pointed out there are plenty of areas for growth, downtown is not saturated with breweries.

“No way,” he said. “In fact, we need more down there. The demand for craft beer is expanding faster than the number of breweries in town.”

Both Squires and Hilderbrand said Tucson could use a double-digit number of breweries.

Brian McBride, owner of Arizona Beer House, said there is a definite need for more breweries in the area. The bottle shop showcases primarily local and state beers, with a large number of out-of-state craft breweries.

But like many in the area, he does not expect to see any east-side breweries anytime soon.

“The east side could definitely use more breweries and craft beer bars,” said McBride. “Unfortunately we won’t see any breweries on the east side unless the city of Tucson rethinks its current zoning restrictions on beer production.”

Ever wonder why breweries are often found in industrial areas? It’s not because of the amazing views of machine equipment and the sounds of delivery trucks.

In commercially-zoned buildings under 1,000 square feet, brewers are limited to 25 percent of the area for brewing operations. That is nearly impossible given the size of even the smallest of breweries.

So brewers must look for larger buildings in order to shed that restriction, which means an industrial area or one of the many large, vacant buildings near the downtown area.

“There’s not a lot of industrial zoning on the east side,” McBride said. “Which is why there is no brewing on the east side.”

So after all that, we’re left with a thirsty, growing population of craft beer drinkers looking for more places to drink and local brews to enjoy and a swath of land with few options.

The downtown area is thriving for sure. Moving a brewery to the area not only touches the many new restaurants and bars in the area, but also provides easier access to the one freeway in Tucson.

There will be more breweries opening in the downtown area in the near future, you can bet on it. Is this a good thing for the area? You bet.

But maybe it’s time for brewers, bottle shop owners, restaurateurs and bar owners to expand their horizons a little. And maybe a few changes to brewery zoning codes may be in order.

Afterall, this craft beer thing isn’t going away anytime soon.

Ty Young has worked in the Arizona Craft beer world for 15 years, including time at 1702, Old Chicago, Casa Film Bar among others. He's also a longtime local journalist reporting for the Tucson Citizen, The Arizona Republican and the Phoenix Business Journal.

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