More than 20 new breweries have popped up around metro Phoenix in the past three years, and the local roster of neighborhood tasting rooms and brewpubs only gets longer with each passing season.
We are living in what might be the golden age of craft beer in metro Phoenix, and it’s not hard to see why so many of us are crazy about craft beer. Locally produced craft beer offers the pleasure of serious connoisseurship — of geeking out over things like worts and noble hops and sour mashes. And there is a communality about drinking and talking about craft beer that rivals the bonding and impassioned debate that happens over sports.
At its best, craft beer also connects drinkers with the local terroir, which in turn helps to cultivate a healthy sort of regional pride. Unlike wine, beer is usually inexpensive enough so that even a cash-strapped, budding aficionado has the resources to develop into a pretty serious beer snob.
For serious craft beer aficionados in metro Phoenix, a pilgrimage to Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in Gilbert is pretty much compulsory. Back in 2014, the fledgling young brewery gained the world’s attention — and near-instant cult devotion — when it was ranked top new brewery in the world by RateBeer.com, the well-respected craft-beer website known for its exhaustive catalog of craft beer and brewery reviews.
Since then, the virtues of Arizona Wilderness have been well-documented: Its Refuge IPA is the stuff of local legend; founder Jonathan Buford and his team of master brewers have been known to dream up recipes using indigenous Arizona ingredients like foraged-in-the-wild juniper berries and White Sonoran wheat; and its beer-as-local-culture philosophy has helped fuel the development of homegrown “State 48” Arizona pride.
So, it goes without saying that you’ll come to Arizona Wilderness for the beer. But like the best neighborhood beer halls, Arizona Wilderness was also designed to be a hang-out spot. The first thing you’ll probably notice about Arizona Wilderness is its sprawling outdoor beer garden, which at night glows warmly from a distance with strings of twinkly white lights stretched across the patio, and the sound of indie rock wafting from the crystal-clear house speakers.
The beer garden is comfortable and pleasant, arrayed with smoothly sanded picnic tables, chairs carved roughly out of tree trunks, the whole space enclosed by a simple wood fence ingeniously rigged to hold stacked rows of wooden planters blooming with rosemary, basil, and other fresh herbs.
The overall effect is of feeling as if you’ve stumbled across a sort of tricked-out campground, or maybe a nature-lover’s man cave, complete with ornamental tap spigots fashioned out of real wood, and beer flights lovingly cradled inside long, smooth wooden logs.
There’s a small tasting room, where you can sample from the always-changing tap list, and there’s the adjacent brewpub, a dark, slightly noisy space that offers something closer to the ambiance of a conventional sports bar, complete with TVs over the bar.
The food is classic American brewpub fare, with an Arizona twist, the menu seemingly designed to tame the heartiest of appetites.
There are classic starters like pretzels and sliders, most of which are substantial enough to make a small, filling meal. Bavarian pretzel sticks are especially wonderful: big, soft, airy rolls polished with clarified butter, with large flakes of sea salt baked into the caramel-colored bread.
If you live for sliders, there are three kinds to choose from here: pork belly, green chile pork belly, and jalapeño meatloaf. The meaty fillings are squeezed into cushiony, mini-pretzel buns lacquered in butter, and all are pretty delicious. The green chile pork belly, in particular, is very good, the heaps of soft, spongy pork vaguely smoky and exceptionally juicy.
Chicken drumsticks confit are a slightly curious appetizer, but not a disappointing one. The wings are Frenched, which means the meat is cut away from the exposed end of the bone. The drumsticks bear a pleasingly crisp, shell-like exterior, nicely seasoned by a fragrant, dry house rub, and the chicken easily pulls apart in neat, thick hunks.
The brewpub’s specialty is handcrafted burgers, which tend to be enormous in scale, and frequently bundled with thick, chewy slices of bacon.
There is the After the Hike burger, its name evoking the kind of ravenous hunger that can only be satiated by vast amounts of salty, savory animal protein squeezed between two airy buns.
It comes with a medium-rare house brisket blend patty — fine but a little under-seasoned on a recent visit — topped with a melty bundle of delicious fried pork belly. On top of that, there are a couple of slices of thick-cut bacon, and on top of that there is a fried egg, plus all the usual layers of condiments, which balance precariously atop the pyramid of griddled meats. It’s a fine burger, a sort of salty, messy, cheesy muddle. Not surprisingly, though, something is bound to get lost in the mix, and in this case, it’s the flavor of the beef.
There is a decent Reuben burger, made sans corned beef, but nicely and subtly sauced up with juicy sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. And there is a wonderfully twisty and logic-defying peanut butter and jalapeño jelly burger, which at first glance sounds like an all-around bad idea. As it turns out, it’s a deliciously balanced, salty-sweet burger, alternating between rich notes of peanut butter and a zesty, slightly sweet jalapeño spread.
It’s worth upgrading your burger or sandwich with a side of the popular duck-fat fries — requesting them extra-crispy seems to yield the most flavor and best texture. The house-cut chips, which are very thick and lightly salted, are also very good.
In the rush to stuff your face with one of the brewpub’s hugely appetizing burgers, you may overlook the part of the menu labeled “Chicken and Pork.” This would be a mistake, because the chicken sandwiches at Arizona Wilderness really shine.
There is a very good red pepper chicken sandwich, and something called the chicken and jalapeño popper, which is sort of a decadent mash-up of chicken and chile and cheese. The sandwich features a thick, juicy chicken breast layered with slices of bacon and soft, roasted slivers of jalapeño, everything sluiced in a delicious scallion cream cheese. The whole thing drips with juice, oozes buttery cheese, and the smokiness of the roasted chiles adds another layer of deep, savory flavor.
If this all sounds like a little too much, there are also salads, including a very good Sonoran White Wheat salad dressed in a light lemon vinaigrette. It’s chock-full of finely chopped, peppery cucumbers and scatterings of the faintly nutty wheat berries. Have it with some chicken, or maybe slices of the homemade black bean burger, which is nicely brown and crunchy on the outside, and moist and meaty with mashed beans on the inside.
For dessert, there’s a house creation called the cannoli nacho, a creamy, lemony sweet-cream dip that’s served with fried wonton chips. On a recent visit, the wonton chips leaned to being a little stale, which dampened the enjoyment of the dish enough that it was left half-eaten and abandoned.
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But you won’t come to Arizona Wilderness for the dessert nachos, anyway. You’ll come to taste Arizona in a pint of beer, and for the promise of burgers stacked so thick, they should come with a finisher’s medal. That’s reason enough to raise a pint and celebrate.
Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.
721 North Arizona Avenue, Gilbert
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Chicken drumsticks confit $8.49
Green chili pulled pork sliders $7.99
After the Hike burger $14.99
Chicken and jalapeño popper $11.99