Thunder Canyon to move brewing operation downtown; adds barrel-aging, sour beer, and distilling

By Ty Young
September 27, 2016

One of Tucson’s first and longest running breweries will soon embark on its largest expansion of services to date.

Thunder Canyon Brewery, founded in 1997 at The Foothills Mall in northwest Tucson, will relocate brewing operations to its downtown location by the end of the year. Nearly all of the tenants of the mall have left, many of which have moved north to the Tucson Premium Outlets mall in Marana.

“It makes the most sense to move that brewery here,” said Steve Tracy, TCB owner and founder. “Downtown is where everybody wants to be.”

While rumors persist about The Foothills Mall’s potential sale -- no leases have been renewed going into the next year -- Tracy said the move downtown makes sense for the brewery and their expected expanded customer base.

The brewery will open a third location next year in Tucson International Airport, part of a consortium of local businesses taking a stake in the airport’s concessions contract. TCB will offer many of its rotating beer catalogue and much of its food menu at the new location, to be built in Concourse B.

The Foothills Mall location will continue for now, despite the transition of brewing operations. In fact, even if TCB moves its restaurant out of the mall, there is still a future in the Northwest area, Tracy said.

“It’s been a good spot for us at the mall,” he said. “We’ll always have a presence in the upper northwest side. It just might not be at The Foothills Mall.”

In the likely event that the brewery moves out of the mall, Tracy said he will find another location in the area. If and when that happens, the brewery will start a barrel-aging and sour beer program, adding a new dimension to the brewer’s continuously-evolving beer catalogue.

This will coincide with the TCB’s burgeoning distillery, currently located at the downtown location. TCB has finalized the federal permitting necessary to distribute its liquor to outside retailers. The brewery began its distilling program in 2015 after Arizona lawmakers approved the craft distilling license, opening the doors for independent distillers to sell directly to customers.

Barrels aging at Thunder Canyon Brewery (Credit: Thunder Canyon)
Barrels aging at Thunder Canyon Brewery (Credit: Thunder Canyon)

“I thought it would just be a hobby,” Tracy said. “Now, it’s a business. It’s the natural extension of the brewery.”

Once the brewing equipment is moved from The Foothills Mall -- which Tracy expects to take months -- the brewery and distillery will work side-by-side and in plain view of customers. He said this will add a new element to the popular downtown location.

Adding to the transitions and definite and potential of new locations, TCB will embark on yet another ambitious change -- canning its beer.

During the past decade, Tracy said he has thought about canning or bottling his beer, but it never made business sense. But now, as canning has become more popular and accepted by the craft beer community, the time has come to start delivering TCB beer in a new format.

Although there is no definite timetable, Tracy said the brewery will begin canning its popular Thunder Canyon Thunderhead IPA in the very near future. Tracy said he is looking at a number of options, including the growing community of breweries using mobile canning companies.

Ultimately, it comes down to putting the best product out to the public, he said.

“We’re trying to steer clear of mobile canning,” he said. “I’m concerned with sanitation and how they are handling that.”

Canning has become the industry norm, especially in Tucson. Dragoon Brewing and Borderlands Brewing began canning more than a year ago, allowing some of their beers to be shipped and sold throughout the state. Barrio Brewing, located downtown, has been canning its beers for years and is found in storefronts and bars throughout Arizona.

Like these other breweries, and more than a dozen others throughout the state, canning offers the most efficient way to reach the largest amount of drinkers. This was not lost on Tracy, especially with the move downtown.

Much like Ten-Fifty Five Brewing, which is working on financing a downtown brewing location, the easy access to the I-10 Freeway makes potential statewide distribution much easier, Tracy said. The new airport location will also increase national exposure for the brewery.

At the moment, however, TCB will continue to focus on the Tucson market as it builds it distillery and increases its presence throughout town.

“We have a lot ahead of us,” he said. “The airport is going to keep us plenty busy.”

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