By Chris Gigley
With the final spring training in Tucson winding down this month, Barrio Brewing Co.‘s Dennis Arnold often notes a particular bar stool in his massive, 750-seat restaurant, Gentle Ben’s.
“We used to do a ton of business when the [Chicago] White Sox were here,” says Arnold, who separated the brewing operation from his restaurant in 2007. “[Former Sox star] Frank Thomas would park himself at that bar stool and hold court. Every March, it was always, ‘Which player will walk through the door next?'”
The White Sox skipped town last year, buying their way out of a lease at Tucson Electric Park (TEP) to relocated with the Los Angeles Dodgers to a gleaming new complex in Glendale, just west of Phoenix. This year, the Colorado Rockies are leaving venerable Hi Corbett Field and the Arizona Diamondbacks are bolting TEP for greener pastures in Scottsdale, putting all 14 teams in the Cactus League in greater Phoenix.
Tucson residents aren’t happy. Arnold grouses about the city’s decision to put TEP out among the industrial parks on the south side of town.
“What large stadium built anywhere in world didn’t attract one square foot of private business around it?” asks Arnold, rhetorically. “They could’ve put it downtown and revived the city center. It could’ve been fantastic if they put it in the right location.”
Nimbus Brewing Co. owner James Counts says customers at his brewpub, which is less than two miles from TEP, have told him they feel abandoned.
“We’ve heard from a lot from people,” says Counts. “Most of them tell us is that they feel baseball has turned its back on them.”
Tucson doesn’t even have a triple-A team anymore. The Pacific Coast League team that played at TEP for 10 years relocated to Reno, Nev., last year. But spring training is the one that really hurts. The Cactus League has had at least one team in Tucson since the mid-1940s, when Bill Veeck brought the Cleveland Indians to town. Veeck owned a ranch near Tucson at the time.
The Tribe played at Hi Corbett Field until 1992. The Rockies took their place in 1993, Colorado’s inaugural season, and the team has trained there ever since.
“No one wants to see spring training leave,” says Thunder Canyon Brewery owner and brewmaster Steve Tracy. “It’s a lot of fun and it’s good for business. We’ve always drawn people here who come to Tucson to follow their teams every spring.”
Counts, Tracy, and Arnold are giving travelers another good reason to come to Tucson. They’re forming the foundation for a craft brewing resurgence. As recently as the late 1990s, the city had as many as 10 craft brewers, most of whom Arnold characterizes as homebrewers who took advantage of all the investor dollars being thrown around then.
“They loved brewing beer, but they failed to recognize that they were in the bar and restaurant business,” says Arnold. No one was surprised that when the Internet bubble burst, so did Tucson’s craft brewing scene.
The remaining three are now reaping the benefits of a public that has finally gotten turned on to craft beers.
“Tucson is usually five to 10 years behind the rest of the world,” jokes Arnold. “Five years ago we couldn’t get anyone interested in an IPA, now it’s my No. 2 beer.”
Tracy is just as amazed at the newfound passion for IPAs, so much so that he now has two of his own always on tap, just in case he runs out of one.
“I remember back in 1998 when we opened, we couldn’t give our IPA away,” he says. “We brewed a batch and had it on tap and no one wanted to try it. It took us a while to do it again, but now it’s one of our flagships.”
Counts has seen the same thing happening at Nimbus, plus another trend that has just recently bubbled up.
“Everyone seems to be embracing the Belgian styles we’re coming out with,” he says.
The brewers aren’t limiting themselves to just IPAs and Belgians. All three say that the locals are always demanding something different, from Nimbus’ Old Monkey Shine, a malty English pub-style ale, to Barrio’s Moca Java Stout, which is loaded with coffee, lactose and cocoa. Tracy says he’s had tremendous success with fruit beers — Strawberry Lightning is on tap now — and he’s currently at work on an imperial porter.
Baseball may be leaving town, but Tucson’s craft brewing scene is reborn. And who knows? The beer is getting so good and so creative, big Frank Thomas may be compelled to return to his favorite bar stool for another pint.