Top: Jonathan Buford, of Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.; bottom: Patrick Ware, its brew master; right: Brett Dettler, its business manager.
The World's Best New Brewery is in a Strip Mall in Suburban Phoenix - How a window-washer who was home-brewing out of another man’s garage came to build one of the most creative and internationally respected breweries—mere months after barely avoiding bankruptcy. (BY ERIC BENSON).
The Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. is tucked into a strip mall southeast of Phoenix on a stretch of Route 87 whose other prominent landmarks include a Sonic drive-in burger joint, a transmission shop, and a vast and forbidding self-storage center. It’s a tiny, nondescript operation that doesn’t distribute its beer any farther than the taps in its pub and never has more than eight offerings available at a time. But the brewery, which opened last September, has a distinction that belies its surroundings and humble size: A few months ago, RateBeer.com, the authoritative and exhaustively comprehensive craft-beer site, named the ten best new breweries in the world (out of all 2,600 that opened in 2013). The Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. was ranked number 1.
Only eight months ago, the brewery’s heavily bearded 31-year-old mastermind Jonathan Buford was on the verge of bankruptcy and despair. He had been unemployed for nearly a year, and the brewery’s opening had been badly delayed. The award changed all that. Suddenly Buford was fielding requests from famed brew masters who wanted a taste of his ales, rebuffing investors who wanted him to scale up, and more than doubling the size of his staff in a month and a half. The afternoon I visited the brewery, a documentary filmmaker stopped by to tell Buford that slow-food godhead Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, was eager to talk to him about the brewery’s use of white Sonoran berries, a nearly extinct Arizona grain with a quinoa-like amino-acid punch. (“There’s quite a lineage,” Buford told me, “Geronimo was using it up in the Chiricahua Mountains.”)
Buford runs the brewery with two similarly minded and bearded partners—Brett Dettler (the business manager) and Patrick Ware (the brew master)—freeing him up to take on the roles of promoter, forager, and, above all, dreamer. As he and I walked among the fermenters and sacks of hops, he casually dropped that he’d obtained “the world’s finest cacao nibs” from a secret source in Oregon, proudly showed off the vintage Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels in which his barley wine aged, and touted the excellence of the pub’s duck-fat fries. (They are, indeed, excellent.) Earlier, sitting on the brewery’s patio and enjoying an English bitter under the late-morning Arizona sun, Buford was generous, boastful, and turbo-charged—craft brewing’s newest rock star.
ESQUIRE.COM: A strip mall in Gilbert, Arizona, is not where I think anyone would expect to find the best new brewery in the world. How did we end up here?
JONATHAN BUFORD: Four years ago, I was watching Sam Calagione [of Dogfish Head] on Brew Masters. I owned a window-cleaning business at the time. But watching the show, I got this spark—this complete moment of This is going to happen. And I turned to my wife and said, “I’m going to start a brewery within four years.” I just had this moment of truth. And she said, “OK, whatever, sure, Honey.” But she knows that I’m a dreamer, so at the same time she was like, Oh, crap!
And that was that?
I got John Palmer’s How to Brew, which is the bible, and I went on to dedicate my life for the next three years to expanding my palette and knowledge. While I was cleaning windows, I’d be listening to brewing podcasts, not even focusing on my job anymore. It was just an obsession. I’d go to the truck and write notes.
I met a guy in the beer aisle at Total Wine, which is like a BevMo!. We started talking, and instantly this bromance was formed over beer. I told him my intentions to start a brewery, and he was like, Well, name your beers, let’s go have some. I told him I hadn’t home-brewed yet. Turned out he lived two miles away, and he told me he had a home-brewery set up. A couple days later, I went to his house and brewed my first batch. The next six batches we brewed at his house, I really just memorized the process.
After perfecting those recipes, I went to my own garage. I took my wife’s 401(k) and bought a MoreBeer! Tippy-Dump system. That changed everything. I was making these recipes, and the first couple were good, but they could’ve been better. If I don’t like a beer, I say, Dump it; restart it. Some home-brewers they say, We’ll get it next time. For me, no, it’s, Tomorrow we brew. So then batches six, seven, eight came out, and people—friends, neighbors—started to go, You’re brewing some killer beer here.
The original business plan had us opening in November 2012. I sold my window-cleaning business that month. But we didn’t open until September 2013. We had a very long and strenuous and exhausting and somewhat life-changing-in-a-negative-way building process. Foreclosure and all that stuff looming. We were just taking money wherever we could get it, same for Brett and Patrick. We were all in—100 percent. If we’d been delayed another month, I would've been bankrupt. My wife and I would have filed bankruptcy, and she would have kicked my ass.
But instead you became the best new brewery in the world. How did you find out?
The great brewery award came January 29. That morning I wake up, and I’ve gotten an email from Mikkel [Borg Bjergso] from Mikkeller—he’s always considered top five brewers in the world. He emails me and says, Congratulations on the best new brewery in the world. I would like some of your beer. And I’m like, What the hell are you talking about? Why me? What’s going on? Fifteen minutes later, I get this email from Joe Tucker [executive director of RateBeer.com] saying, Congratulations, you’ve received our biggest honor, Best New Brewery in the World, there are 44,000 breweries in the world, 2,600 opened last year and you were considered the best to us. What do you do when you read that? The foreclosure and the bankruptcy were just six months ago! You’re just kind of dumbfounded. It was like the moment between 11:50 and 12:10 on New Years Eve when you’re with your favorite people, confetti is in the air, and you might as well die.
I was backpacking in the Chiricahua Wilderness, which is in the Coronado National Forest, in I would say 2008 or ‘09. At the time, I was just getting into craft beer pretty heavily, and I had a backpack full of thirty pounds of bottles and cans. I just had this amazing moment where I was like, Congress designated part of the land for us to not be able to touch. How amazing is that? OK. Well, what about beer? Beer’s the same way. We have to protect beer. Beer got smeared around and turned into this brand. But what if we protected beer again? That’s what craft beer is about.
Do you still go up there?
We write recipes in the wilderness areas! Patrick and I go, and we just have these natural moments where we’re sitting there watching the sunset reflect against this mountain and go, What if we did this to the beer? Sometimes we’ll have foraging moments. We were in the Juniper Mesa Wilderness, and we grabbed juniper berries and did a black IPA dry-hopped with juniper berries. But sometimes we just get an idea. We went out once to Aravaipa Creek. It’s a desert oasis. It has beautiful cottonwood trees and alder trees and walnut trees all lined up along this creek in the middle of the desert. It’s outrageous. The water is perfect every day of the year. You have these high cliffs around—there’s this feeling that’s almost mysterious. I was reading these Belgian monks talking about their abbey 200 years ago, and how their dubbel is forming. And you just draw inspiration from all of it. Our Aravaipa Abbey Ale, a Belgian dubbel, is fermenting right now. I didn’t take any ingredients from the creek, but it’s just kind of a serene idea. John Muir says that when a man goes to the mountains, he goes home. There’s something about the wilderness that’s inside me.
Sounds like writing a song.
It is. That’s how we treat it. That’s why it’s frustrating when people go, Oh, you only have four on draft, screw this place. It’s four world-class beers, and we’ll have eight on next week, and these beers mean the world to us. We take twelve hours to make them, two weeks to ferment them, and they’re gone in four days.
So are you brewing with a lot of ingredients like foraged juniper berries from the Arizona mountains?
We have our agricultural saison series. We just did the Saddle Mountain Saison. We took 100 pounds of locally grown tangelos and locally sourced cardamom, faro and unmalted wheat that was grown in Queen Creek, Arizona. For the Pappy Van Winkle barely wine we used 100 pounds of cabernet grapes from a winery in Sonoita, Arizona, and a local wheat that’s grown down the road. I think the best beer we’ve made might be Sycamore Canyon Saison. We used blood oranges and caraway seeds for that one. It’s just—it was just one of the moments where you taste it—blood oranges from the ground we’re standing on, the grains we used was from the earth we stand on.
And we have our wild series, which is made with wild yeast that I collected forty miles northwest of Flagstaff, Arizona way up 8,000, 9,000 feet under some oak trees. That was three years ago, and since then I’ve been keeping that yeast going. Now we have a tank dedicated to it. Funk Tank Four. That’s the one you won’t come out of. It’ll eat you alive. It’s a beautiful yeast.
Man, were you always so geeked out on beer?
Well, my father taught me what good beer was. He was a pastor, but he always sipped beer with dinners—Sierra Nevada or Arrogant Bastard or something. But growing up in Ohio, I still treated beer like a party beverage. Then one day, I was at a bar down the road, literally two miles from here, and they’d just gotten Sierra Nevada on. This is ten years ago: When you saw Sierra Nevada, that was a weird handle, you’d ask them questions. So I had that because it was cool, and I realized that I wanted to be more sophisticated than my idiot friends. So I’d sip it and say, “It’s so bitter, I love it!” At first, I didn’t love it, but I learned to love it. As the owner of Russian River Brewing Company, who is kind of a god in the brewing industry, says, we expanded our lupulin threshold.
Lupulin is the yellow powder that’s inside of hops. Some people would say there’s factual evidence that there’s sedative power, even psychedelic properties if you have enough of it—it’s the cousin of cannabis. I just think there’s a quality in hops. I don’t want to say an addiction, but it gives you a buzz you can’t reproduce. I’m getting calls from all over the world about our IPA, and I think that that has to do with it. It’s not just that craft beer is cool. Hops has this thing.
So what’s it been like since the award? Have the calls from around the world changed everything?
Well that first month we got nailed to say the least. We were having a lot of fun and then, boom!, it hit us. Every single staff member worked doubles five days in a row. Our overtime was fifteen grand. We had 17 employees before the award. Today we have 39. That’s six weeks later. We had a four-hour wait on Fridays. Four hours to get into our place! We had million-dollar men coming in this door left and right: I want to have a meeting with you boys! You just want to reach across the table and slap ‘em real fast and say, You’re not doing us a favor. We built this on our own.