Cody Van Haren & Don Rubino of Public Brewhouse explain how they opened a brewery in the desert
Recent travels took us to the beautiful desert of Tucson, Arizona – where Coors is king, and the tacos are on point. Craft beer isn't a new concept here, but it's only really been in the last few years that it's starting to establish its foothold. With a handful of nano breweries, craft beer bars, and bottles shops peppering the downtown area, Southern Arizona is certainly a place to keep an eye on.
And one of those places to watch is Public Brewhouse, the newest brewery in town. In fact, they'd opened their doors only a couple months before our visit. Tucked down a dusty back alley, the space is easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for. Thankfully, as with anywhere, folks know where the beer flows – and they were quick to point us in the right direction.
We paid a visit to chat with brewer/co-owners Cody Van Haren & Don Rubino to discuss Public Brewhouse's early hurdles, running a business as a second job, prickly pear, and how the Arizona beer scene measures up overall.
So, what brought the three of you together to start a brewery?
Cody Van Haren: I knew our third partner, Mike (Gura), we used to work together as EMTs. We got hired at the same time working an ambulance together. We also lived close together and had similar interests – both being brewers.
Were you homebrewing or brewing at another brewery?
CVH: I was a homebrewer. All three of us come from a homebrewing background. That's really how we started this place. Mike's original idea—he was really into distilling—was to open a distillery. But the laws in Arizona are weird. You can't ferment and distill in the same building. You need two buildings, separate addresses. So he scrapped that and said we might as well open up a brewery.
Are a lot of your homebrew recipes in the taproom now?
Don Rubino: I do brew a few of them. The other two guys have more of a scientific background in brewing. Whereas I just sniff them...I taste the grain. I come from a culinary background, so I cook by scent. I brew the same way.
CVH: As far as styles, Don likes malty beers. Mike and I like Belgians and saisons. "Hoppy" is obviously very popular, so it's hard to say you don't like hops.
DR: I don't like hops.
CVH: But you do drink some of the happier beers and say they're not too bad...
You've been open now for a couple months. Are you trying to settle on a core lineup?
CVH: It is kind of a feeling-out process right now. We have a lot of beers that people really like – and some that people liked, but didn't move as fast. We're developing what we're going to be re-brewing and more seasonal stuff as well.
DR: We may have only brewed the same thing twice, maybe. Otherwise everything has been something different out of the 26 batches we're at now. There are so many varieties out there, it's kind of silly to say we are only going to make X, Y, and Z. It keeps people coming in to see what's new this week and people seem to like that.
CVH: It's hard to keep the same beer on tap. We can brew and it will produce four kegs. As long as those four kegs can survive, we'll have that beer. But they don't. We are trying to figure out which beers are flying off the shelf and which are just getting drank. For example, we had a saison, and a dark saison. It was the same base beer, really the same everything, except dark malts and Belgian candy sugar. Yet people said, "I am a dark saison guy or a light saison guy."
What bumps in the road have you experienced in your first couple months?
DR: Opening the doors! That was a hiccup. Inspection-wise, we were pretty 'on' and it was mostly just finishing up all the bullshit stuff. I work my day job as a contractor, and I was juggling other projects. It was difficult timing. Our biggest obstacle, though? Finishing the bar.
CVH: Finishing the bar. We also had to put in a hood. The health department was the biggest hiccup. They wanted a hood over our brewing equipment for condensation.
DR: We're an electric heating/brewing system, so we don't have a boiler. So we needed a steam dissipation area. It wasn't in our original scope, but they came back and told us we needed one. So we had to acquire one, install it, wire it, plumb it. It took 27 inspections to get our permit.
27 inspections! Wow. We love the building you're in. What's the history behind the space?
CVH: It's been many things. It was a wood shop, a foam factory, it was Whiskey Del Bac's starting ground.
DR: We liked the brick. I didn't meet Cody or Mike until after they found the space. I was going to start my own label, and these guys had already done a lot of the footwork. They needed a builder and I needed a liquor license, so it worked out perfectly.
I didn't like the first set of drawings that were done when I came aboard. It had the brewing equipment out in the bar, and I didn't want to do that. So we went back to the drawing board. The main structure was all here, there just wasn't a bar, bathrooms, walk-in cooler, electric... Well, there was electric, but we pulled it all out and put in new stuff.
You're tucked back off this alley here. Do you try to play that up being a "found" secret?
DR: We don't play up anything. We are trying to get more people through here. We definitely have the back alley feel, but we are close enough to 4th avenue that we get the people who are downtown that really want to find us. But you don't get most of the dipshits that are looking to go out on 4th Avenue to get all fucked up.
Seems like you have a good batch of neighbors though. We were at Ermanos bar before, and they were the ones who told us to come check you out.
CVH: They have been nothing but nice to us. Eric, one of the owners, comes from a brewing background. He brewed in Portland and Colorado, and he brewed here in Arizona over at Nimbus. He is always coming over to see what we are doing. He is a great resource to bounce questions off of. We seemed to have established a good relationship where our customers will start here then go over there, or vice versa.
Can we find your beer anywhere outside the taproom?
CVH: In the state of Arizona you're allowed to self distribute–which is awesome–but any keg that went out would be one fourth of our production for that particular beer. So we try to sell everything in house.
We noticed you have more than beer on the menu...
CVH: Yeah that's Don's other contribution, besides brewing and general contracting. He makes his own sodas. We have a ginger and sarsaparilla, and he just got the OK for kombucha.
Was that something you've played with before?
DR: No, not really. I have a friend who is an alcoholic and likes to go out, but can't drink beer. So I felt that we should offer things for people who don't drink. I am not a sugar head, so instead of getting a soda with tons of high-fructose corn syrup, we do all organic, non-GMO sugars. It is light and easy, people seem to like it. We do shows on Wednesdays where people bring there kids. It's amazing to me the amount of musicians we have here who don't drink alcohol.
Can you tell us about the Arizona craft beer scene?
CVH: I've only been to one of the Arizona Brewers Guild meetings. They do them every four months or something, but from how the entire meeting was structured — from sales and marketing to distribution — they really want you to use them as a source of information. There are a lot of breweries in Arizona that are part of the guild, so any information that you need, someone has been through it and would be willing to talk to you about it.
They also deal with a lot of legal issues and lobbying. There was an old state law that said you couldn't produce over a certain amount of barrels per year if you were a brewpub. There were two brewpubs recently that were coming up to that level, and they were basically going to have to shut down their restaurants if they wanted to continue to brew. You start asking questions like, "Why would you want to stunt growth?" So the guild was able to help get the law changed to raise the limit.
We noticed your guest taps. Are there specific breweries you're close to that you like to have on tap?
CVH: Just Arizona in general. We had a lot of Four Peaks on in the beginning when we were running out of our own beer. Huss Brewing up in Phoenix. Pueblo Vida and Dragoon from Tucson. Pueblo Vida were the coolest people to buy from. Eric would drive his little pickup truck down here with a keg in the back. He'd wheel it in, collect his payment, then he'd sit down for a beer and chat with you for a while.
DR: In all reality though, we want to only have our beer on tap. The guest taps came out of necessity. Variety is the spice of life I guess.
Where does Tucson rank in the Arizona beer scene?
CVH: It's growing. The guild actually had some interesting numbers on cities based on beer percentages. Denver is something crazy, and Portland is over 50% or something. In the state of Arizona it is something like less than 1% of beer is craft beer sales. The word is getting out though.
What is everyone drinking if they are not drinking craft beer?
DR: Coors Light and Coors Banquet.
CVH: Right up the road, The Buffet is the number one Coors buyer in Arizona. They sell that much Coors Light.
Where are you guys drinking if you are not drinking your own beer here?
DR: I go to my back porch. I have eight taps at home...
Eight? When was the last time you bought a beer?
DR: Every once and a while I'll swing by Total Wine and pick up a variety 6-pack. I'll get half-dozen of one style and brew something inspired from those.
CVH: It is kinda funny to find out that Don doesn't drink a whole lot of craft beer – he likes to brew beer.
DR: I do drink craft beer; I drink all my beer. I'm cheap. I've been brewing for seven years. When I first started I put in a four-tap kegerator at the house, but quickly out grew that and built an eight-tap. I do anywhere from five- to 20-gallon batches. I also have ciders on tap and two nitro lines.
Sounds like your brewery is bigger at home then it is here.
DR: Nah, it was a step up to move here. I don't go out much. I work a lot. And when I'm not working, I'm at home, brewing.
Cody, what about you, where are you drinking outside of Public?
CVH: Ermanos is great, I go over there frequently. Eric is a wealth of information, as I said before. I live pretty close to Tap & Bottle, it is just a bike ride away. They have a plethora of beers and an ever changing tap list.
Are there beers, or breweries, outside of Arizona that people from Arizona go after?
DR: Bell's, you see a lot of.
CVH: Bell's is distributed everywhere. We started getting Founders as well. We have New Mexico beers like Santa Fe Brewing. I have a buddy from Albuquerque that would bring me beers from La Cumbre, which is great. Oh, we also have Golden Road from LA, which is all good. I did just see they sold to InBev.
It's funny, when we started going through a distributor to buy kegs for guest taps, it was amazing what we could get, or what was offered to us. There were breweries in California that I had not even heard of. There were some from Washington, Oregon, and Nevada as well. As far as Arizona goes, you can get a lot of beer from a lot of different states.
In Chicago we're fortunate enough to be able to get beer from what seems like everywhere except the Southwest and Southeast.
DR: The last time I was in Chicago, I brought 35 gallons with me for a party. I thought everyone traveled that way!
What's the end goal for Public Brewhouse? Are you comfortable with this boutique setup?
CVH: It is kind of an uncomfortable position. Talk about working to keep beer on tap on a two-barrel system. It's a constant battle. Not saying that working on a 15-barrel system isn't. We are looking to expand next door on a 10-barrel system. That is the main goal currently.
Oh, and a patio. We have a patio coming.
Thanks to Cody and Don for sharing some beers and telling their startup story. If you find yourself in Tucson make sure to take a slight detour off of 4th Avenue – around the alley, or through Ermanos – and swing into Public Brewhouse.