Reinventing the Pour: A Love Letter to My Favorite Tucson Watering Holes

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by Lisa M. O’Neill

I cannot count the number of cups of coffee I have consumed at Exo Roast Co., a coffee shop just a few blocks from my home in Tucson. As a teacher and writer, I’ve spent hours at its small wooden tables–or long community ones–grading student essays or working on my own creative projects. I’ve found emotional and physical sustenance in grilled nopal tacos, café Americanos, and unexpected-but-just-in-time conversations with friends and strangers. As a singer-songwriter, I’ve hosted a country music event called “Old Pueblo Opry” and performed in the backroom bar, El Crisol, as a soloist and in collaboration with other musicians. I’ve done the same at Crooked Tooth Brewery, a Tucson microbrewery where I’ve long found not just craft beer, but a feeling of connection to the process of brewing and to the community where I live.

While COVID-19 takes away our routines and plans, our ability to stand close to each other and embrace, it has also cut off our connection to community spaces that can feel like second homes. So consider this a love letter, of sorts, to a few of my favorite Tucson watering holes. To me, they’ve always been places of possibility. And in hard times, they are showing that community doesn’t falter, even if it must change shape.

Remembering ritual

Back in 2018, on a dark January morning at four a.m., I joined half a dozen women around a campfire on the patio of Crooked Tooth Brewery. I was there to witness a rare astronomical event: a blue full moon and blood moon caused by a total lunar eclipse. And to mark the occasion, the brewery’s first full moon brew ceremony.

“The full moon brews are crafted to support our community in the cycles of each full moon by connecting to the astrology, season, and the needs of our community,” explained Julie Vernon, co-owner of the brewery. “We pick the style, and adjuncts such as herbs, fruit, and crystals to align with these elements.”

On a long wooden table lay large, smooth pieces of rose quartz and bowlfuls of herbs—rose and damiana—to be added to the brew. Vernon invited each woman to write an intention to throw into the fire. After she honored the four directions in ritual, we each took a bucket and began the brewing process. We watched the moon rise as the air filled with the sweet smell of yeast.

Artist Ray Younghans holds up a white papered, black inked moon calendar. Younghans has a fair skin tone, black shorts, a colorfuled striped shirt, snf blond hair pulled back.
The cycles of the moon are critical to Crooked Tooth Brewery’s craft beer brews and many of their local events. Photo courtesy of Crooked Tooth Brewery

The most recent Crooked Tooth full moon brew—their 26th—happened during quarantine, which meant it was markedly different. Only two people brewed and they stayed six feet apart. But, the intention-setting felt stronger than ever, Vernon said.

“The practice of ritual is profoundly grounding and healing, especially in this time,” Vernon said. “I’m so grateful for the practices we have cultivated over the past two years. When in ritual we release, we unwind, and we heal. Rituals can flow and change just as the moon does.”

The daily rituals and rhythms of Crooked Tooth had to radically change under the city’s stay-at-home orders. With permission to remain open for take-out, they created a system where customers could pick up crowlers, 32-ounce brews in aluminum cans, without setting foot in the space. In a stroke of good fortune, the brewery had invested in a machine for packaging crowlers just four months prior. Now, with business down 78 percent, those crowlers are their main source of income. 

But Crooked Tooth isn’t just a place for craft beer. It’s also a community center, of sorts. Almost every day, there’s an offering—trivia nights, yoga classes, concerts, art openings, and celebrations for their Full Moon Brew celebrations, which often pair with the changing of seasons. The brewery also collaborates with local artists and makers who teach workshops and sell their wares at events.

Kensy Apodeca, a “beertender” and the brewery’s social media and events director, said, “We rely on our tap room to keep us thriving and allow us to do what we do. Beer is the focus but that is only the tip of the iceberg of what Crooked Tooth is all about.”

A scheduled event for the Spring Equinox would have brought people together to celebrate the season with a new Pink Moon Brew and terrarium-making with Eco-Grow, a local resource for aquaponics, sustainable growing methods, and unusual and rare plants.

Since the event had to be cancelled, Crooked Tooth invited customers to pick up kits and build their own terrariums at home. “We all felt so ungrounded [in that moment] and thought it would be great for people to put hands in the earth, maybe they’ll root and root down,” Vernon said.

In lieu of a Spring Equinox ceremony on the patio, Vernon led a guided beer meditation on Zoom from her home, listing each ingredient of their new Pink Moon Brew—hops, barley, raspberry, mint, yeast—and inviting the eight participants to smell the brew closely before each sip.

The brewery also offers a monthly membership series of “Full Moon Ceremony boxes,” which package the newest full moon brew and a sampling of locally made items for cleansing, crafting, and self-care. Given their relationships with artists, Crooked Tooth also offers affordable kits for customers to make their own macramé plant hangers or bath bombs.

A Full Moon Ceremony box with tea, a bath bomb, and beer inside a basket.
Photo courtesy of Crooked Tooth Brewery

And they moved their Saturday Crooked Yoga class onto Zoom. “Yoga is something we want to continue to share because it allows the space for people to breathe, and connect and move and center and ground,” said Vernon, who trades off teaching with an employee, Hanna Naegle. Both are trained instructors.

The classes are free but attendees can tip instructors via Venmo if they choose. They’ve also moved their game and trivia nights to Zoom and hope to soon offer chats from brewers about each week’s new brew.

The brewery is also working to lend a hand to other local businesses, such as Wooden Tooth Records, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary.

“They are really struggling ’cause they’re not considered essential,” Apodeca said.

The collaborating businesses altered an original plan for an afterparty. Instead of three live bands, a special collaborative beer, and giveaways, the record company sold anniversary tote bags perfectly sized to carry a small selection of vinyl records also for sale. Beertenders sifted through the record selection, stopping when customers saw what they wanted.

Jake Sullivan, a person with long dark hair, light medium skin tone, black shirt and face mask, and maroon Crooked Tooth beanie poses with a Crooked Tooth beer can and Wooden Tooth record.
Crooked Tooth brewery is selling 32-ounce crowlers of their craft beer. Jake Sullivan, co-owner, helps Wooden Tooth Records celebrate its fifth anniversary.

Customers have also stepped up to show their support. Local musician Mike Kanne typically plays at Crooked Tooth twice a month. Now he’s playing live for free on the brewery’s Facebook page every Wednesday in front of homemade signs listing the brewery’s beer menu.

Fortunately, Vernon and her co-owner husband Ben, were approved for a Payroll Protection Loan and have deferred payments on an SBA loan already in effect for an expansion. They are grateful for their thirteen employees, ten of whom stayed on at reduced hours.

“We try to help each other out, morale wise,” Vernon said. “We do a weekly staff happy hour on zoom and that’s been fun and keeping everyone’s morale lifted. We’re taking it day to day, taking it moment to moment.”

Finding a New Routine

In early March, as cases of coronavirus in the United States grew, Doug Smith, co-owner of Exo Roast Co., was in Oaxaca, Mexico with students from his University of Arizona food anthropology class exploring Mexican food and identity. “We came back to a very changed world,” he said.

Just over a month later, the business is open only for to-go orders of food, pastries, coffee, and beans. Sales are down nearly seventy percent, Smith said, and they’ve had to furlough some of their bar staff for now.

For Smith, coffee and the coffee shop provide a special routine. “Coffee is an important ritual,” he said. “I probably would survive fine if I didn’t get my cup of coffee. But it’s so much of how I begin things. There’s something about the rhythm of one’s day that adds up to the rhythm of one’s existence,” he said.

And while those in-person cups of coffee aren’t possible right now, he said there’s been an uptick in online coffee bean sales and a steady stream of people showing up for to-go orders and bags of beans during the day. “It’s been gratifying and humbling to see how much people are showing up for us,” Smith said.

Manager Brittany Katter said there’s been a learning curve for navigating physical distancing during order pickup, but the exchanges have also invited a new kind of connection.

“Overall, there is a lot more space to hear how people are experiencing this,” she said. “Before COVID, it was easy to get into the grind of customer service and not understand that a coffee shop is a place where folks come to be seen and heard.”

Brittany Katter, a person with short dirty blonde hair, red and white cowgirl shirt, and white face mask gives a thumbs up while wearing blue latex gloves.
Brittany Katter, an employee at EXO says she’s been overwhelmed by the generosity and care from customers.

“My conversations with people have deepened,” Katter added. “And the level of care and generosity in those brief interactions make me feel very overwhelmed with gratitude with the clientele that we have. Some crises bring out the worst and the best in folks and our regulars are definitely the latter.” 

In the past few weeks, one of those regulars taped a poster-sized poem to the window and someone else left a rock with a painted heart on the doorstep. Another regular, picking up her coffee, teared up and expressed how much she missed the staff, Katter said. “Everyone wants to know if we’re okay and are happy we are there. It’s really touching and beautiful.” 

More than Morning Coffee

Behind the coffee shop, Exo’s owners run El Crisol, a mezcal bar and community concert hall or “Listening Room,” where local and touring musicians perform in an intimate setting often to sold-out, standing-room-only crowds. The space is also used for educational and cultural events benefitting local grassroots organizations and celebrating the culture and heritage of the borderlands region.

One of El Crisol’s most popular events has been Smith’s weekly mezcal tastings, which have drawn newcomers and regulars alike to learn about the production and distillation of mezcal, a spirit made from the many varieties of the agave plant.

But how do you do a community mescal tasting when the bar is closed? As with so many events these days, via Zoom.

Customers can participate in a virtual gathering with real mezcal by registering online then picking up a kit containing four different mezcals organized around a theme, from location to species to distillation technique.

Doug Smith, a man with fair skin, a flannel shirt, hat, and jeans, looks at the camera while sitting on his couch with a laptop open in front of him on a coffee table.
Exo/El Crisol co-owner Doug Smith is hosting his weekly mezcal tasting events online via Zoom. Photo by Amy Rude Smith

At first, Smith wasn’t sure how the experience would translate online. “It’s a different dynamic than organic discussion, which was so much a part of it—community building through mezcal and agave spirits. That is the heart and soul of the bar.”

But his first online tasting drew seventeen people, as many as he would typically get in person. And that has held, he said. “People were elated. This was something that they really missed.”

The tastings also serve to connect customers to the process of mezcal production, an important value for Smith, who has built relationships with small producers through his research and business. Those family-run businesses have been hit hard by the coronavirus, he said.

“There is a great distance between us,” he said of consumers and producers. “We can’t bridge that entirely. But I can tell customers about that world. That education helps humanize the entire endeavor.”

Possibilities for a New Future

Humanizing food and drinks is largely what both Exo/El Crisol and Crooked Tooth Brewery have always been about. As owners and staff adjust to a new reality, they’re also curious about how it might change the nature of not just the hospitality industry, but also hospitality itself. 

Lisa M. O’Neill's band plays on a stage with colorful mosaic windows are set against red brick. In the foreground are communial tables and concert-goers.
The author performing at El Crisol. Photo by Julius Schlosburg

“I think what [this moment] is doing is its opening up the heart of every being,” Vernon said. “Also this remembrance that supply and demand is limited and we don’t need to consume as much as we consume all of the time.”

In moments of crisis and disaster, Smith notes, people show up for one another and put aside differences for the greater good. Maybe this can become a way of relating during non-disaster times as well, he said.

“Why can’t we move to systems like that—like mutual aid—that take care of people better, that change the way we think about other people in our communities, working across all kinds of [difference]?” he said.

Katter said she’s already noticing a new kind of good will and says it’s easy to participate in that. “You can order online retail coffee,” she said. “And send advance payment or gift cards to bodyworkers, hairdressers, send a tip or buy a record from your favorite musician. Give to charity if you can afford it. Now is the time for generosity. There is enough if we share.”

Exo co-owner Amy Rude Smith said what she misses most is the joy of witnessing people working together. “There’s something deeply impacting to me about cumulatively, over the years, watching people do their good work,” she said. “To not see it anymore, to be in a vacuum away from it, I’ve noticed that gap.”

She also worries about the unknowns. “Bars can’t have as many people—not until the world is vaccinated. We will never be able to have nights where people pack in. I don’t know what it means from an economic level—we relied on the volume we have,” she said.

But she also wonders about new possibilities that might arise from this pause, from her own community. Might a new “ethnography” of this moment unfold, a new way to document and experience this time and space?

“Exo is a term,” she said. “It means exothermic, energy that moves outward. I’m thinking of the things that people are working on internally and how they move externally soon and what that will manifest as. I’m eager to share that.”

Lisa M. O’Neill is a Tucson-based writer, currently quarantining in her hometown New Orleans. She misses her local watering holes and, most of all, hugging her friends.

Cover photo: El Crisol’s Listening Room. Credit: Nieves Montaño

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