Metro Phoenix has a lot of craft beer bars. Craft beer bars tend to spotlight local brews. The Wandering Tortoise, a craft beer destination on Indian School Road, approaches beer a little differently. Owners Shay Gau and Justin Evans say no to Phoenix brewers. Not always. But often.
What kind of strategy is this?
Gau and Evans maintain a tightly curated menu. The menu evolves with the beer seasons, with the days of the week, even with the hours. Local isn't the driving philosophy here, though the owners pride themselves on carrying beers from nearby. Local is one consideration. The main driver is taste. How beer tastes determines which brews will be flowing cold out of cans and through the Tortoise's 22 taps
"Our only goal is the best beer we can get," Gau says.
Gau and Evans opened The Wandering Tortoise in December 2016. A painted hop cone gleams on the back wall, across the rectangular bar from a kaleidoscopic giant tortoise brushed near fridges stacked with serious brews to go. The milieu is loose, chill, with low kinetic energy during the day.
Before opening the Tortoise, the two owners had long experience in hospitality. Gau worked as a chef with LGO Hospitality. Evans was at The Whining Pig. The catalyst for the Tortoise was a shared desire to have a place to call their own, a place that would take narrow aim and shoot true at its target: beer.
"For us to focus on one thing and one thing only, that was what we wanted to do," Evans says. "We wanted to do one thing and do it well."
The Wandering Tortoise doesn't serve food. It only serves beer and a few related craft beverages, like mead, to-stay or to-go. (If you're hungry, you can bring in food from Nelson's Meat + Fish next door.)
The beer tends to be exceptional. Regular metro Phoenix breweries include Helton, 12 West, McFate, Wren House, Arizona Wilderness, and a few others. From greater Arizona, the list tends to include Pueblo Vida and Borderlands (both Tucson) and others. Nationally, the Tortoise tends to favor breweries like Modern Times (San Diego), Prairie Artisan Ales (Oklahoma), and Destihl (Chicago).
The Tortoise will often pluck a few kegs or cans that you won't really see elsewhere in the Valley. The bar just started carrying beer from Cigar City, a Tampa Bay brewery with something of a national following. When down in Miami to hang out and network with brewers — crucial to how the Tortoise manages to swing some of its rarer finds — Gau and Evans visited Cigar City in person.
In terms of style, the Tortoise doesn't have biases. The owners take an approach driven by that golden factor, taste, pouring whatever beers they sample and love. You'll see your usual dank New England IPAs, huge coffee stouts, and robust saisons. You'll see some libations on the wonky end, groovy sours like grisette and lambics.
Those sours will be overtaking the menu Saturday, when the Tortoise will host its first Sour Fest. More than 20 sour brews will be on tap. "It's kind of a March, April thing," Gau says of the strange, tangy, beautiful beer style. Doors open this Saturday at 11 a.m.
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To keep up with what Gau and Evans are pouring, follow the Wandering Tortoise on Instagram. The place blasts out updated pictures of its menu regularly. You'll be happy to follow along if you like beer.
The Wandering Tortoise. 2417 East Indian School Road; 602-441-3490.
Hours: Monday to Saturday noon to 2 a.m.; Sunday 11 to 2 a.m.