Random Thoughts on Re-Opening Arizona’s Beer Scene

It’s been just over two weeks since Arizona was given the “OK” to slowly re-open restaurants and bars following weeks of Coronavirus-induced shutdown. In those two weeks, I’ve done my best to help Arizona beer bars and breweries recover quickly. Here are a few truly random observations based on my drinking experiences from the past two weeks:

>There are some bad kegs out there. Shortly after things began to open up, I was served a “Kilt Lifter” that bore no resemblance to the Four Peaks Scottish Ale. It had clearly turned.

One of the key concerns for brewers, consumers, and distributors during the shutdown was how long this thing would last. Beer, of course, has a short shelf-life and after a few months of not circulating/distributing product, distributors were left wondering what to do with aging kegs–those left sitting in warehouses. You can’t keep kegs in the fridge forever. Beer will spoil. Four Peaks famously was willing to sell kegs direct to individuals in order to prevent the dumping of beer.

Now that things are starting to open, it is clear that at least a few kegs at the end of their life-span are still in circulation. Even Four Peaks, with AB’s massive resources, was not immune, as my sour Kilt Lifter demonstrated.

>Conversely, some kegs are absolutely fresh and delicious. I had a Weihenstephaner Oktoberfest from Edelweiss Biergarten in Phoenix that was fabulous during happy-hour on the second day of the re-open. [Yes, it is a bit early for Oktoberfest beer but I’m a sucker for a malty German lager.] Unfortunately, Edelweiss ended their happy-hour specials after experimenting with it for what felt like five minutes.

>Beer from dirty lines is truly bad. I was served a Pale Ale that had been placed on a dirty beer line. I might as well have been drinking pond water. Long tap closures will gunk up beer lines pretty quickly. Beer bars that know what they are are doing are attuned to this and have taken care to clean their lines after the long shutdown. I can’t say enough about how important it is to keep beer/tap lines clean. Science!

>There is quite bit of pent-up demand. Visits on consecutive nights to State 48 Lager House and Simple Machine Brewing show how people don’t only want to get out of the house, but they want beer. Visits to both places revealed distancing protocols in place certainly, but social distancing be damned–they were both crowded.

Simple Machine, 3pm:Thirty seconds after this photo was taken, a dozen more people walked in.

>This experience is going to claim a lot of breweries. Even before the pandemic, I thought Arizona’s beer scene was a bit over-crowded. Flagstaff and Tucson are both fairly balanced in terms of number of breweries for their respective cities, but Phoenix seemed a bit over-saturated. In the months before the virus hit, we started to see signs of consolidation and contraction: Mother Bunch, Mesquite River, and Sleepy Dog closed; Throne bought Dubina and Freak ‘n’; Desert Eagle closed their east Mesa location.

As the shutdown starts to thaw, we are continuing to see considerable changes in the Phoenix beer scene: Four Peaks has closed their Scottsdale taproom; Scottsdale Beer Company has been teetering on the edge of closing for a while (but they seem to be hanging on, being open only 12 hours a week); Lochiel Brewing (a great, virtually unknown Scottish brewery in east Mesa) has closed their taproom to convert their space to a bottling operation.

Say “goodbye” to Lochiel’s humble 10-seat bar (but “Hello!” to Jacobite in bottles)!

In a prior post, I noted that breweries who innovate and include canning/bottling as part of their operations will be better poised to survive. Time will tell which breweries and brewpubs make it through the summer. FWIW: The Facebook page for Scottsdale Beer Company is full of photos of cans/crowlers.