Brewing the Bitters of Tradition

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Ah, Arizona’s territorial days — an impossible combination of scarce water and lack of refrigeration (only ice blocks to cool a blazing desert). Yet in the late 1800s Tucson was an incubator for a traditional craft that required fertility, as well as refrigeration and lots of water.

The folk life and material culture surrounding the beer brewing craft have a long and interesting history in Tucson, as Ed Sipos will tell us. Past president of the A-1 Chapter of the Brewery Collectibles Club of America, Ed is author of “Brewing Arizona: A Century of Beer in the Grand Canyon State.”

Tucson Beer Drinkers
A group of beer drinkers in Tucson c.1900 (Buehmann’s Studio, Tucson).

Ed also is a grand storyteller about Tucson’s beginnings in brewing and bottling beers, recounting how these were delivered in kegs and bottles by wagon to our region’s military forts, mining camps and rowdy downtown salons. Ed was happy to share some regional beer lore with BorderLore this month:

Tucson Brew, a Chronology:

  • Brewing beer in Tucson dates back to 1864 when Alexander Levin opened the Pioneer Brewery. A number of other breweries followed with varying degrees of success and many saloons were closely tied to those breweries. Most brewers at the time catered to the military and miners who made up a large part of the population. Boredom was a big factor at times and drinking beer or other liquors was a way to help pass the time. It also made early Tucson a rough place to live.
  • By the 1890s, nearly all breweries in the territory closed due to increased competition from foreign beers being shipped in via the railroad. Local brewers found it cheaper to sell foreign brewed beer than to make and sell their own.
  • For the next 100 years, not a single brewery opened in Tucson. Then in 1988, the first microbrewery opened in the Old Pueblo called the Southwest Brewing Company.
  • Today, Tucson boasts approximately 12 craft breweries with more readying to open. Each brewery helps impart social aspects which bring people together through the common love of beer.

European influence on a desert beer heritage:

  • Most of Arizona’s early territorial brewers from the 1860s through the 1880s were of European descent with a large number descending from Germany and the state of Prussia.
  • Alexander Levin, who is well regarded as Arizona’s first brewer, was born in Prussia. He built his success in the brewing industry in Tucson. From the 1870s through 1880s, his Park Brewery became the social gathering place in Tucson by offering many amusements to the local citizens.
  • Other territorial Arizona brewers descended from European countries such as Switzerland, France, Austria, and elsewhere. They brought with them their brewing traditions.
Beer bottle
The bottle is from Alexander Levin’s Park Brewery in Tucson

Material culture of the region:

  • An avid collector of Arizona breweriana, Ed treasures a beer bottle given to him by a fellow bottle collector. At first glance, the bottle is somewhat of a mystery due to its less than displayable condition. From a historical standpoint however, it is significant. The label reads “St. Louis Lager Beer” and upon close inspection, “Park Brewery, Tucson.” To the best of Ed’s knowledge, it is the only known item of “material culture” dating back to Alexander Levin’s days as a brewer.
  • The name “St. Louis Lager Beer” reveals how strong an influence St. Louis brewers had as early as the 1880s across the nation. The name was commonly used by numerous brewers. Because of an abundance of natural ice and beneficial brewing conditions, metropolitan areas, such as St. Louis and Milwaukee, benefited greatly and became large brewing centers.
  • Today, “material culture” is still important and used by craft brewers to promote themselves via growlers, signs, key chains, bumper stickers, koozies, coasters, and other advertising media. Point of purchase advertising rose dramatically during the latter part of the 1880s as advancements in print technology improved and provided a new vehicle for businesses to promote themselves. Large St. Louis brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, Pabst and others put their stamp on whatever item they felt the consumer would see their name.

Current-day groups celebrating beer culture:

  • The Arizona Craft Brewers Guild promotes the craft brewing industry in Arizona by providing educational opportunities for brewers, distributors, and consumers. It also acts as an open forum among members and participates in local and national beer festivals. Furthermore, it informs members of legal and legislative issues that are relevant to the craft beer industry.
  • For home brewers in Tucson, there is the Tucson Homebrew Club which was founded in 1995. Similar to other homebrew clubs in the state such as the Arizona Society of Homebrewers in Mesa, and the Brewmeisters Anonymous in Phoenix, it is comprised of people with a passion for the craft and science of brewing beer. Similarly, each club periodically gathers to exchange recipes, ideas, and brewing experiences.
Barrio Brewing Co.
Exterior view of Barrio Brewing Co. in Tucson

Harvesting barley in our region:

  • Ed contacted Kurt Nolte at the Yuma County Cooperative Extension for information about malting barley. Kurt informed Ed that the malting barley is something that has been successfully grown in Yuma. For a short time, Anheuser-Busch contracted with Yuma farmers to grow barley before discontinuing the contract. The acreage of malting barley grown in Arizona however, is small in comparison to other more suitable regions.
  • Ed notes that the principal roadblock deterring Arizona brewers from using locally-grown malting barley at this time is access to a local maltster. Micro-malting is an area that is tied to the locavore movement in other areas, but Ed is unaware of any micro-maltsters in Arizona. Therefore, any malting barley harvested in this state needs to be shipped out of state for preparation, and then shipped back as malted barley at a greater expense to brewers.

Upcoming Events in Beer Folklife:

  • The Arizona Craft Brewers Guild hosts the 2014 Baja Oktoberfest on October 18 at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in Tucson.
  • For the collector, the A-1Chapter of the Brewery Collectibles Club of America (BCCA) meets together six times per year at various locations throughout the state. Its next buy/sell/trade show will be at the Phoenix Ale Brewery in Phoenix on October 4. More information can be found at and at
  • The A-1 Chapter will also be hosting the 2015 American Breweriana Association (ABA) Annual Meeting XXXIV in Mesa June 9-13, 2015. More information about the event and the ABA can be found at and

Ed says this is a wonderful time to enjoy a multitude of styles of craft beer, more than any other time period in history, in part due to the boom in new breweries. In gerst monath (the Anglo-Saxon name for September also signifying barley month), may we all enjoy the folklife behind the brew.


  • Ed’s website: links to all region breweries, as well as to resources about Arizona beer history.

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