The Phoenix metropolitan area is a sprawling patchwork of townships and suburbs covering some 15,000 square miles, and it can feel as endless as the seemingly barren desert that surrounds it. That wilderness is more than just sun-scorched sands and towering saguaro cacti, though; it displays a stunning diversity of natural beauties if you know where to look, and Jonathan Buford is a man driven to bring the wild spirit of Arizona into his brewery.
Buford and his partners Patrick Ware (brewmaster) and Brett Dettler (business manager) opened Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in Gilbert—an incorporated town between the center of the sprawl and the farmlands along its southeast border—in 2013. Even after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the team struggled to open the doors. They almost went bankrupt the month before opening, but the local beer lovers embraced the creative offerings of the first brewpub in Gilbert. Just a few months after opening, Arizona Wilderness was honored by RateBeer as the best new brewery in the world (topping a list that included fan-favorites Modern Times Brewing, Rhinegeist, and Trillium Brewing).
The award launched Arizona Wilderness into the beer-geek limelight, and intrepid Valley of the Sun beer lovers flocked to the brewpub to taste “the best.” The imaginative beers highlighting unique ingredients sourced from local farms and from the wilderness itself were lauded, but Buford says that the honor was a double-edged sword. “I don’t agree that we were the best,” he says. “We could not believe it, and we weren’t prepared for it.” The exposure meant huge expectations for the beers, and he says meeting those expectations was the biggest challenge. “If someone reads an article that calls us the best and they come into the pub and expect to get the best, that’s a really hard thing. But of course, I was honored by it, and our story really started there.”
An article in Esquire Magazine (“The World’s Best New Brewery is in a Strip Mall in Suburban Phoenix,” April 11, 2014) followed, and all the press and fan attention further compelled Buford to keep innovating. “Exciting beer brings in exciting people, and we get an eclectic group in the pub looking for the next thing we’re doing,” Buford says. Escapes into nature spur Ware and Buford on to create the next brew, and the duo uses hiking and backpacking excursions as brainstorming sessions for ways to integrate into their brewing ingredients foraged from the wild or grown by local farmers.
“We’ve done seventy or eighty beers that centered on foraged or local ingredients,” Buford says. Arizona Wilderness beers have included everything from the relatively staid (such as dates and lemongrass) to the rather obscure (smoked pine cones, Anderson wolfberry, and creosote flowers). Buford’s favorite ingredient is Sonoran white wheat—a grain grown in the desert of the Southwest from the days of the Spanish missionaries until more modern landrace barley varieties supplanted it in the twentieth century. A handful of small farms in Arizona began cultivating the heritage grain around 2013, and Arizona Wilderness was the first brewery to embrace the once abundant variety for their beers.
“It’s Arizona’s true grain, and we championed the project [to restore the crop]. We use it in all of our witbiers and all of our saisons for its beautiful unmalted wheat character.” He adds that the environmental costs from shipping standard American wheat, primarily that of the CO2 emissions, are much lower with the locally sourced white wheat (which also finds its way onto the brew pub’s menu in the Sonoran white wheat salad). Arizona-grown farro is also used in the brewery, and Buford says the protein-rich grain is particularly good for beers with a robust head.
Almost all of the beer made at Arizona Wilderness (between 2,500 and 3,000 barrels per year since the brewery upgraded to a 15-barrel brewhouse in 2015) is sold at the pub, and the partners have consciously eschewed more aggressive expansion and distribution. “We’ve always felt that need to champion the farmers and respect the seasons,” Buford says; so instead of expanding to meet demand for a core lineup of beers they “went all in” on their model of the ever-changing tap lineup driven by what in-season ingredients they could source. “Our beers are more esoteric, and we really don’t want [distributors and retailers] handling them. So we chose a [brew pub] model that allows us more control,” he says, noting that they’d rather go out of business than have to compromise on their vision. “Luckily people came in and said, ‘Cool! I get it. I’ll come back and always expect something different.’”
With no packaged beer and no outside draft accounts beyond the occasional tap takeover, the Arizona Wilderness team has turned to collaboration brews to help spread the word about their brewery. Buford and Ware have traveled across the world, brewing everywhere from popular American craft breweries such as Jester King, Bottle Logic, Other Half, and—most recently—Tired Hands to international breweries in half a dozen countries.
“Relationships are the spark of this whole fire that we’re part of,” Buford says. “It’s good to get back to basics and sit in a room to talk about beer with people who’ve been through the same things that you have. Normally if you see a company doing a lot of collaborations, it means that they’re really fun to drink with, and Patrick [Ware] and I are good at going out and making these plans [with other brewers] at 2 a.m.”
The projects are often reciprocal with the Arizona Wilderness team traveling to a brewery and then hosting those new friends at the brewpub in Gilbert for another brew. One such Arizona-based collaboration was Opinyonated Gratzer made with London’s Beaverton Brewery founded by Logan Plant (scion of rock legend Robert Plant). Buford and Ware took Plant and his family into the red rock buttes of Sedona, Arizona, to pick piñon pine cones, which they then smoked with mesquite wood and added to the mash for the smoky-tart wheat beer. “We like to treat these collaborations as a showcase of Arizona. It’s not just about the beer; it’s about showing [collaborators] who we are and what we are,” Buford says.
When collaborating with Other Half Brewing Company, they took local lemons and prickly pears to the Brooklyn, New York, brewery to make an IPA, and when the Other Half brewers visited Arizona, things got wild, literally. “We created a mobile coolship that loaded into the back of our truck,” Buford recalls. “We racked boiling wort into it, then drove two hours into the mountains. It worked so well! We had a full krausen two days later.” They plan to re-create the mobile coolship method all around the state of Arizona for future batches.
A deeper exploration of wild and mixed fermentations tops the brewery’s priority list. The year-old dedicated sour-aging room is filled with a few dozen wine barrels and a 20HL foeder, and the first batch of mixed-culture beers (including Roséwiesse—a sour wheat ale refermented with pink grapes from a local farm) are almost ready to release. These wild beers will supplement the steady stream of kettle-soured brews that are popular in the pub, such as Bear Wallow—a dry-hopped Berliner Wiesse. Buford is also excited to begin bottle conditioning.
The Gilbert brewpub has already expanded the brewhouse and added an on-site tasting room adjacent to the pub, and the company has grown from fourteen to more than seventy employees, but Buford and his partners are not interested in pushing production numbers much higher. Instead, they’re planning different outposts spread around the state, each with a different focus. First up is a craft cocktail bar called The Wilderness Room where the brand’s signature use of indigenous ingredients will meet spirits.
“We’re trying to be a company that’s not getting into mass production,” Buford says. “I’d rather build iconic brew pubs and other projects around the state and be known as a great Arizonan rather than simply be known as a great brewery.”