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Brewery Profiles: Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company in Gilbert

It’s 8 a.m. at Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company in Gilbert and the day's already started for brewmaster and co-founder Patrick Ware and head brewer Chris Rodgers. Today they're brewing Rincon Red, an ode to founder Jonathan Buford’s neighbor Bob. As the story goes, Bob was part of what inspired Buford back when he was home brewing and not really sure what direction he wanted to go next. Buford credits Bob for being the first to ask, “Ever thought maybe you’re just meant to start a brewery?”

The beer is an American red ale made “just the way Bob likes it,” Buford says. “He’s not a big IPA guy. He just likes a nice red ale, and that’s what we’ve made for him.”

It turns out, this is just one example of the way the the men behind the brewery take inspiration from everything and everyone around them. 

How did the idea to open a brewery start? 

Before opening Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company, Buford owned a window-washing company and had been home brewing for a while. Ware was a shift brewer at a local brewery, and their third partner Brett Dettler (he's the brewery's business manager), owned Trophies restaurant in Queen Creek. One night, as Buford sat watching Brew Masters, he started to make a connection between beer and art. Buford, who's also an avid landscape photographer, began cultivating the idea that beer deserved the same respect as a wilderness area and the idea of beer being untouched and pure resonated with him as he went full speed towards opening his own brewery. All he needed was the backing. So he began a Kickstarter campaign.

“We definitely went through struggles,” Ware says of the initial startup. From Ware sleeping on Buford’s couch to Buford almost losing his home, the group had their doubts if the brewery would ever come to fruition. Finally, through donations, pledges and help from friends and family, it looked like AZWBC was going to open — then at the last minute, one of the pledges backed out and took half their backing with him. With plans moving forward and construction and city fees needing to be paid, Buford, Ware, and Dettler began begging and pleading and again, friends and family stepped forward.

“Without the help of our friends and family, this place wouldn’t exists,” says Ware. “On our first day, we even had to borrow money to put in the registers so we could give people change – we didn’t even have that.”

The original brew pub is celebrating its two-year anniversary this month. 

How is the Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company putting its stamp on Arizona?

Hiking and backpacking are major inspirations for the men of AZWBC and its definitely expressed in all that they do. Outside, you’ll find the beer garden lined with wooden fencing like that seen in wilderness areas. Inside, you’ll find signage in the style of wilderness areas, televisions showcasing some of Buford’s landscape photography, tap handles reminiscent of various tree limbs, and, of course, the ever-present mass of beards.

As far as production goes, “We want to be as Arizona-centric as possible,” Ware says. “There is not malt in Arizona, otherwise, we’d go all local.” As mentioned earlier, Buford believes that beer deserves the same respect as a wilderness area. Therefore, cultivating local ingredients and being true to what Arizona represents seasonally or otherwise has become the overlaying theme throughout AZWBC’s business.

“Arizona has its own style,” Ware says. “We’re trying to feed what Arizona is – 100 degrees every day of the summer.” For this reason, all specialty beers incorporate local ingredients. They also have a hop farm in Agritopia in Gilbert. Local beef has been added to the food menu, with local pork soon to follow.

“We want to look in the mirror and know who we are,” Buford says about the importance of knowing where your ingredients come from and being a part of the small local movement. 

What can we expect in the future?

As for the future, Buford is excited about what he refers to as the third brewery, AZWBC being the first and the conjoined tasting room being the second. The new location, which we told you about earlier this week, will be called The Wilderness Room and will be located in downtown Gilbert (313 North Gilbert Road) on the top floor of a three-story building. It's expected to open in June 2016 and will specialize in craft cocktails and Arizona-based wines.

As for the beer, AZWBC produced 105 beers last year alone, and the brewery wants to continue showcasing new specialty/seasonal brews and open the community up to an adventurous brewing approach by continually experimenting and keeping the creativity alive.

"What beers are on rotation and when will be determined by what is available locally at the time,” Ware says. 

Most experimental beer to date?

Opinyonated Gratzer
Style: Gratzer/Gose/Lichtenhainer
This brew was a collaborative creation with musician Robert Plant’s son Logan. The idea for the beer stemmed from a trip to Northern Arizona where pine cones from a Pinyon Pine, a tree that's native to the area, were gathered and later smoked before being added to the mashing process. The taste profile was quite unique representing a smoky, sour, hoppy, and piney approach.

Among the beer-centric cliental, the beer was a hit — but according to Yelp, it wasn't well received. 

Most inspired beer to date?

Senne Weisse
Style: Sour/Wild Ale
This was a brew that Ware was especially interested in producing. They used wild yeast strains from Senne Valley in Belgium to create a sort of Farmhouse-style beer and take the art of brewing back to its roots. It represented uniquely layered flavors from the yeast. In Belgium, this type of brew is known as a Koelschip, which is traditional type of fermentation vessel.

Are there any plans for packaging and distribution?

Ware says the current location isn't built for mass production, and the idea of mass production would be incredibly challenging due to the experimental nature of AZWBC's brewing and company culture. The idea of staying small and artisan is something the owners want to protect, and they worry mass production would take away from the integrity of the product  and the local movement that's at the heart of what AZWBC represents.

So, while you won’t find AZWBC varietals in bottles or cans at your local grocer or liquor store, we do recommend venturing in to the brewery for a taste of Arizona beer done AZWBC-style.

Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company
721 N. Arizona Avenue
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Sara Palmer is a local improviser, writer, teacher, and storyteller. You can commonly find her exploring the surrounding wilderness areas of Phoenix.
Contact: Sara Palmer