Welcome to Liquid Lowdown, a column exploring the strange, beautiful world of local drinks. Each entry will spotlight one craft liquid made right here in metro Phoenix (or just beyond). Lowdowns will feature mostly beer, but we’ll also take detours into other alcoholic beverages. Snap open a can or thrum the cork from a bottleneck. Cheers. Let's get weird.
Style: Barrel-aged blend
Name: Grand Cru
ABV: 11 percent
Maker: Tombstone Brewing Company
Lowdown: Unfortunately, small-town breweries in this state and others tend to be hit or miss, mostly miss. Tombstone Brewing Company might be Arizona’s most notable exception. The brewery has maintained a strong reputation on the beer scene. Until recently, you could only find limited Tombstone releases at bottle shops, craft beer bars, and the like, if outside the brewery at all.
That began to change this fall in a mid-pandemic shakeup.
In October, Tombstone co-owner Matt Brown bought Helio Basin Brewing Company at 3935 East Thomas Road. This not only increases the supply and variety of Tombstone brews in Phoenix, it gives head brewer Weedy Weidenthal and crew expanded production capacity — including the ability to make new beer styles.
Like many breweries, Tombstone has largely been known for its IPAs, at least in metro Phoenix. In their mash and fermentation tanks down south, the brewers turned out impressive versions of the style, including doubles, triples, and hazies. Though even the original Tombstone goes far beyond the IPA, its absorption of the new space unlocks new styles.
For one, the brew crew couldn’t do saisons in the old brewery. Now they can. In fact, it was the very first beer they made in Phoenix.
The second beer they made was a triple IPA. Later, they fermented a kolsch, shepherded along in the classic style of Cologne, Germany. For those used to savoring heady sips of Tombstone beers powered in spirit mostly by hops, you can now find IPAs at Tombstone North in spades, as well as a door opened to much more.
Today, though, we’re going to snap open a beer that began life in Tombstone. Grand Cru, recently released for the brewery’s fourth anniversary, has the firepower to rival even the town’s half-minute gunfight that has echoed through the ages.
Really? Yes, really. This beer unites nine different imperial stouts — “imperial” generally denoting a beer with an alcohol content at or north of 10 percent. Also mixed into the blend is Not Really a Barleywine, which, nicely, happens to be a barleywine, though one brewed in a darker, thicker style. The blend includes an 11th and final beer, a Russian imperial stout. Each beer in the potent dark mixture has been barrel-aged for 10 to 18 months.
This is a massive blend of strong aged beers, which seeks not the freshness of IPA but the complexity and unholy intensity.
The blend comes in a reflective, coppery can. It pours almost exactly like Coca-Cola — the low hissing and all — at least until a frothy head starts to gather as the liquid climbs up its glass. It is black and opaque, with no light escaping from one side to the other. And its flavor matches.
The head on this beer is even creamier than it looks. This is likely due partly to the body of the beer itself. When barrel-aging, the cracks between barrel staves, though tight, are not sealed totally shut. There is still an infinitesimal crack for air to steal in, meaning there is still evaporation. Over the course of a barrel-aging lasting many seasons, these tiny openings lead to greater evaporation, meaning a beer with more creaminess and body in the end.
And that’s just the texture. The flavor of Grand Cru is all over the place and yet, at the same time, pretty fixed. This is because, I think, the brewers have carefully blended so many beers into one. There is warm spicing, but it’s hard to pin an individual spice. There are dusky, roasty flavors somewhere between coffee and chocolate. There’s also a bit of vanilla, something of a tiny milky sweetness.
Still, at its heart, this isn’t a remotely sweet beer. It’s a heavyweight of a blended dark ale, one with nuance and intrigue. The beer has heat and warms you. It’s strong enough that you can feel it rolling through your head after a few sips.
A full can costs $15. You can get a smaller pour at the Tombstone brewpub at Thomas Road and 40th Street for a friendlier price. I recommend checking it or another limited release out if only to get a taste for what Tombstone can do, as well as a preview of where its locally available beers might go.