Tucson-area beer market worth the risk

Customer sits at the bar inside Catalina Brewing Company, Marana, Ariz. (Photo by Nick Peppe/ Tombstone Epitaph)
A customer sits at the bar inside Catalina Brewing Company, Marana, Ariz. (Photo by Nick Peppe/ Tombstone Epitaph)

Middle school teachers, firefighters, college guidance counselors, microbiology researchers, medical students and marketing firm managers.

This list showcases a well-represented range of experience — the stuff of elementary school career days — all of which make up a group that shares one burning passion.

Beer.

From firefighters at Sentinel Peak Brewing Company in midtown to a paramedic from Public Brewhouse on South Fourth Avenue, this firing line of talent represents the people spearheading Tucson’s wildly growing brewing community.

More and more entrepreneurs are risking leaving their cushy day jobs behind to produce and distribute flavorful beer.

The New Guys

Catalina Brewing Company

Opened Feb. 21, 2016

“I saw the opportunity to be successful brewing and I said, ‘Ok, lets get rolling with this,’” said Hank Rowe, a partner at Catalina Brewing.

Rowe spent 23 years as a middle school teacher in the Amphitheater School District. He was a home brewer for more than a dozen years before starting Catalina.

Rowe “took a huge gamble” and stepped away from teaching just years shy of being able to retire to start his company with his managing partner Brian Vance.

“I had to leave teaching, it got to where I realized I could not do both at the same time,” Rowe said.

Rowe’s inspiration  into a business sprouted during a 2 a.m. tasting session of his now well embraced,“0200 IPA”, with Vance, after a “stupid long” bike ride.

For Vance, it was the best beer he ever tasted, said Rowe, who added, “Everybody loves free beer.”

The challenge for Rowe: Would people buy it?

Craft beer patrons gather inside the tap room at Catalina Brewing Company. (Photo by Nick Peppe/ Tombstone Epitaph)
Craft beer patrons gather inside the tap room at Catalina Brewing Company. (Photo by Nick Peppe/ Tombstone Epitaph)

Rowe said he found reassurance that his risk to produce craft beer would be profitable because of the sheer demand for good, flavorful beer in Tucson.

Catalina, the only brewery in Marana, has nine beers on draft called “hand-crafted bike fuel,” including a baked apple-cinnamon Scottish ale appropriately named “Teacher’s aid.”

“The craft beer industry is growing by leaps and bounds,” Rowe said. “We think Tucson can support another 20 breweries. So for us, there wasn’t much of a risk in that regard.”

In fact, Rowe said Catalina Brewing is prepared to increase its production of beer from a one-barrel system (about 31 gallons) to producing at a three-barrel capacity in the coming weeks.

Rowe said the time commitment has been the hardest transition. He brews from 7 a.m. to about 8 at night.

“Always follow whatever your passion is, and for me it’s brewing,” he said. “The reality is if you’re not doing something you love, then why are you doing it?”

The Seasoned Veterans

Borderlands Brewery

Opened summer 2011

“When we finally opened our doors, there was a line around the block. People were definitely ready for a new brewery,” said Michael Mallozzi, co-owner of Borderlands Brewery.

Borderlands is the byproduct of two college students who saw the potential for Tucson’s craft beer market early.

“There were only three breweries in town and they were all 10 years old, or older. We were thinking Tucson is ripe for another brewery to start,” Mallozzi said.

Flash-forward five years,and now there are 13 and counting.

Today, Borderlands remains one of the most successful breweries in town. Its success started with a calculated risk more than five years ago.

Mallozzi, who earned a Ph.D. in microbiology, was a full-time researcher at the University of Arizona and his business partner, Myles Stone, was a UA medical student who took a year off from school to start the business.

The biggest challenge remains the balancing act in managing time between their careers outside of Borderlands and brewing.

Stone is involved in a family medicine residency program in the Navajo Nation and Mallozzi, who tries to be at the brewery everyday, continues his research on clostridium difficile bacterium.

Mallozzi said they have assembled a team to make the brewery more self sustaining. Mallozzi and Stone brought in a beer ambassador for sales and outreach and also added a new general manager and brewer.

“Getting that team together has been important in allowing me to focus on bigger picture things and has given me peace of mind in knowing that everything is being taken care of,” Mallozzi said.

The Home base

Tap & Bottle

Opened June 2013

If you are a local brewer in town, there is a good chance you know Rebecca and Scott Safford.

“When we looked at opening this place four or five years ago we felt that Tucson was really about to boom,” said Rebecca Safford, co-owner of Tap & Bottle.

With over 20 different taps of beer and six different taps of wine — not to mention a whole bottle shop (featuring over 600 bottles of beer) — Tap & Bottle is Tucson’s go-to destination for a diverse rotation of local and national flavors.

Rebecca Sofford (left) talks on the phone at the register inside Tap & Bottle, Tucson, Ariz. (Photo by Nick Peppe/ Tombstone Epitaph)
Rebecca Safford (left) talks on the phone at the register inside Tap & Bottle, Tucson. (Photo by Nick Peppe/ Tombstone Epitaph)

“Tucson is just super thirsty for being able to try new things,” she said.

Before Tap & Bottle, Safford worked in education at the University of Arizona and was a career counselor and advisor at Pima Community College. Her husband and co-owner, Scott, was a manager at Trader Joe’s.

For the couple, the journey was another case of giving up a career to follow a passion.

“I regretted it a lot of the time and even told myself I can never go back to my old job. But we knew that we really wanted to do this and bring something to Tucson and the community and were ready to do whatever it took,” Rebecca said.

Rebecca and Scott have left their old careers behind.

“People here were an open book for us and were willing to help out in whatever way they could because it’s not easy,” she said.

Is beer a safe entrepreneurial risk?

 “A rising tide helps all ships. It’s a philosophy that the brewing community in Tucson holds close,” Rebecca Safford said.

Collaboration is the norm in Tucson brewing.

“One of the questions we had to answer when applying for a small business loan from the bank was, ‘what is your plan to deal with competition?’ That was the hardest question because we don’t have competition. It isn’t competition in this industry its collaboration,” Catalina Brewing’s Rowe said.

It’s not uncommon for brewers to share techniques and talk about better ways to move the industry forward.

Customer orders a drink form Bartender at Catalina Brewing Company. (Photo by Nick Peppe/ Tombstone Epitaph)
A customer orders a drink at Catalina Brewing Company. (Photo by Nick Peppe/ Tombstone Epitaph)

“The collaborative beer scene, especially in Tucson, is unique in that there is nothing cut-throat about it. It’s really a sponge ready to grow and if you can brew a product that people like then you can thrive in this market, ” Rowe said.

Borerlands’ Mallozzi said there area areas to be wary about.

“I think that in some ways microbrewing is less risky now because there are more people to get advice from and draw experience from, but there is also less room to make mistakes now because the standard of expectations are higher since there are more breweries,” Mallozzi said.

Nick Peppe is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at npeppe@email.arizona.edu. 

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