Brewing in the Desert with Mike Mallozzi & Borderlands Brewing Co.
While the desert may have its water issues, good craft beer is flowing from dozens of breweries–both new and old–across the Grand Canyon State. But due to antiquated state laws, very little ever leaves the Southwest or even crosses state lines. Thanks to new legislation in early 2015, brewers are now able to brew a lot more beer, and people are starting to take notice. Just last week, InBev added another brewery to its craft division The High End, with the purchase of one of the states largest breweries, Four Peaks.
On a recent trip to Arizona, we paid a visit to a Tucson brewery that has a notably loyal following. Co-founder Mike Mallozzi sat down with us, and gave us insight on his role as brewmaster of Borderlands Brewing Company. Opening in 2011, the brewery is a comparative elder statesmen when it comes to craft beer in the state. We discussed the Southwest's booming craft scene, local (and unique building) history, his time spent living in Chicago, and the challenges of brewing in a desert.
So, Mike – we heard you spent some time in Chicago before owning a brewery in Tucson...
Yea, it was pretty random. I got my PhD at Loyola University (Chicago). I was at the medical center campus in Maywood, but I lived in Wicker Park for about five years. I graduated in 2009, basically right in the middle of the economic disaster. So I was looking for jobs pretty much all over the West. I wanted to get back west–I'm originally from Colorado. I missed the sun and temperate climate. One of my professors was at the University of Arizona and had a position open, so that's how I ended up moving to Tucson.
As for beer, I ended up getting into it before I moved to Chicago when I went to undergrad at Colorado State. We would always get a pony keg of Fat Tire or something like that before switching to the more economical beers. So that was my first introduction to craft beer, which of course, I fell in love with.
College is a good time to experiment with beer of course–the good and the bad.
Exactly. As a junior and senior, I worked at the Budweiser plant in the quality assurance lab. They used to hire science majors for that. Unfortunately assuring the quality of Bud Light was not very satisfying. That's what kind of spurred me to go to grad school—looking for different opportunities in the sciences. I mean it paid pretty well, and we got free cases of beer each month, which is great when you're in college.
So from college in Colorado, you find yourself in Arizona...
When I moved to Tucson, I didn't really know anyone. One of my sister's high school friends happened to be getting her masters degree here. She'd just finished with the Peace Corps and was at U of A. So she knew a bunch of people from the Peace Corps and that is where I met my business partner–I met him playing kickball. Then we started homebrewing together...
That's usually how all great partnerships start, over kickball.
We found out we both liked craft beer, and started homebrewing, and that's how we hit it off. After our first batch we sort of joked we should open a brewery.
After the first batch? Bold move!
Pretty ambitious right? I mean, I'd homebrewed in college and stuff, but the two of us just got excited with this.
So how long was it from that first batch to when you opened Borderlands?
It was about two years. When we were homebrewing there were really only three breweries in Tucson. The metro area is about one million people, so that's a really low number of breweries for a city of that size. I was counting the other day, there are now about 12. So that's nine since 2011 when we opened.
Can you tell us more about this building where the brewery's housed? It's a beautiful space.
Our building is an 1800's-era produce warehouse. It's located right on the tracks, where they would load and unload the trains. It needed a lot of love when we moved in. It had to be brought back up to code, but a lot of the original structure is intact.
It's kind of an interesting story. My partner's great-great-great-uncle was actually the owner of the warehouse. He just happened to be looking up the building in the city records and found that.
There's definitely a lot of character here.
Yeah, character is one way to put it. People come down from Phoenix and always say they wish they had buildings with character like ours. In Phoenix they just knock buildings down and put up strip malls. They're starting to realize the value of that now, and you're starting to see some cool places around the downtown area that are keeping that flavor.
Historically speaking, was there a brewing scene in this part of Arizona?
Yeah there was. There is this guy named Ed Sipos. He wrote a great book, Brewing Arizona, about the history of brewing here. Luckily we were open just in time to get incorporated into it. There was a brewery in the 50's—made this beer called A-1. And by all accounts it was terrible, but people drank it because it had this local connection.
In the 1800s, there were microbreweries for all the miners that were an important part of their communities. That's amazing because there were no cooling systems back then so they were probably only brewing in the winter.
That leads me to the next question — given the conditions you've got in the desert, what are some of the challenges?
Well, one of the things we try to do here at Borderlands, is incorporate as many local ingredients as possible. Coming from Colorado, you can make a beer entirely out of local ingredients. Everything you need you can grow there. In Arizona, it's a little different. We can only get adjunct ingredients here.
The hard water is also an issue. But to that point some beers are better with hard water; lagers in particular. We are blessed that our water is really clean here in Tucson, compared to other areas of the state.
What are some of those local ingredients you use? We noticed prickly pear on almost every Tucson menu.
We've been using prickly pear–cactus fruit–in one of our wheat beers. We use pecans in our nut brown. Myself and a bunch of other brewers in town went over to a local distillery just last week that's starting a malting facility. Local farmers have started growing six-row barley just outside of Tucson. We are trying to get this whole idea of 'born and brewed right here in Tucson' going. It's very exciting.
Do you feel you have to beat other brewers to the punch to get those limited ingredients?
Oh yeah! You totally do. We're all fighting over how many bags of that local malt we can buy. We're still in the very early stages, and it's mostly to support the local farmers and other people trying to get this going.
What's growth been like for you in general? How many beers did you start out with versus what you have on tap now?
We have about five flagship beers that we brew into five 20-barrel tanks. So those tanks rotate through our flagships. We just got three 10-barrel tanks, so that is what we play around with and do seasonals with. We are working on an oatmeal coffee stout right now.
Your brewery seems large compared to most of the breweries we've seen in Southern Arizona.
Yeah, a lot of the new ones are more nano breweries right now. There are a couple big dogs too. It's a mixed bag. People are still trying to figure what their niche is since the brewing scene is growing by leaps and bounds.
As you've said, everyone is still trying to figure the 'craft' thing out here. Can you speak to the Arizona, or Southwest, beer scene as a whole?
Well, San Diego is one of the epicenters of this region...
Ok, good point, but let's not include Southern California. Do people from SoCal even consider themselves part of the Southwest?
People from California think that the West ends at the California border. They consider it the 'mid-West', which I find hilarious, having actually lived in the Midwest. Regardless, it's hugely influential in the Arizona scene because it's only a six hour drive away. It's interesting because there's this impulse to create those big West Coast IPA's out here–but also an impulse to not do that, because it's already being done.
New Mexico has a really nice brewing scene as well. They have some medal winners out there. I think the Southwest is really heating up, if you're looking for a pun. Arizona may be late to the game a little bit. But you also have states like Nevada that are just now starting to grow. It's exciting.
Would you say regionally, the Southwest is lagging then?
Well I think in terms of timing, we were right behind the Midwest. When I left Chicago in 2009, there were not a lot of new breweries opening. Then I went back to visit friends and was like "Whoa, what happened here!?" You used to be able to go to Goose Island–and that was fun, but that was it. Now it seems every other block has a brewery.
What other part of Arizona is having the same craft beer boom?
Flagstaff is a huge market, there are some pretty big players up there. You have Mother Road and Lumber Yard, and some new breweries that are doing a lot of interesting things. We actually just went up to Flagstaff a couple weeks ago for a sour festival. You got to try our Apricot Sour – a sour brewed with apricot rooibos. There were a lot of people at that fest that said that was the best beer there.
What's a brewery to watch out west not named 'Borderlands'?
I would say, Four Peaks and San Tan. They're a couple of the biggest, and will probably be leaving the state soon. Mother Road is already distributing to New Mexico. I really like what some of the nano breweries are doing because they're willing to take more risks.
One of the cool things we have right now is our festival called Real, Wild, & Woody. It's cask, barrel-aged, and differently fermented beer. There are a ton of people in the state that are doing interesting things with sours and barrel-aged beers. It's kind of like the wild wild west out here.
What's the biggest benefit of having the microbiology background that you've got?
It really came in handy for our sour program. When we were doing our fundraising, microbiology seemed only remotely related to running a business. But for a lot of our investors, it showed that you have the "stick-to-it-iveness" that it takes to accomplish something.
Do you think you would have attempted a sour program without that background?
I don't know. I do know that a lot of people are intimidated by it. That it would ruin their tanks and they would never be able to brew a standard beer again. I don't have that fear at all. Even if we do infect a tank, we will be able to get rid of it.
What's the number one beer in your portfolio right now?
Right now it's our vanilla porter, Noche Dulce. It was one of the first beers we ever made. The largest beer festival is the state is Strong Beer, in February. We literally had a line five tents long waiting to get that beer. We knew we hit the right cord with that one and are canning it right now. We also have our Citrana Sour, which will be the next beer we can.
If you're not drinking Borderlands beer, what are you drinking?
Well, I'm really into Scotch. There are some pretty good local whiskeys now. Occasionally customers will bring in mead which is kind of fun.
Going back to Chicago, what were your favorite hangouts when you lived there?
I lived in Wicker Park, so we would go to the Beachwood Inn. Wicker Park is so interesting because it was changing so rapidly when I was living there. I barely recognize the neighborhood when I go back. Some of those bars were really bad decision bars, like Danny's, which was open 'til four. And, Piece of course.
And...what is the one thing you miss from living in Chicago?
I definitely miss going to baseball games. We don't have baseball in Tucson. We used to have the Padres' AAA team, but they pulled out and all the spring training games moved to Phoenix.
Beer and baseball. Can't beat it.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
A big thank you to Mike for showing us around the brewery and taking the time to chat. Next time you're in the desert, make sure you swing by Borderlands Brewing Co. and grab a Citrana or two.