It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the boys from Arizona Wilderness Brewing like to stray from the beaten path. There are the obvious clues—like the scenic photos of cactus and sunsets on the walls; the signs pointing to different forest trailheads; even the owners’ social media-worthy beards seem to pay homage to inner mountain men.
But there is also the less obvious. The brewery sits behind a bagel store on the otherwise forgotten corner of Guadalupe and Arizona Roads in Gilbert. An intentional snub to the marketing adage of location, location, location? Perhaps. But in less than a year, Arizona Wilderness has made its mark on the state’s beer community, achieved international cult-beer fame, and solidified its spot in an every-growing East Valley food scene.
The brewery was always going to be named Wilderness. Founders Jonathan Buford and Brett Dettler and brewer Patrick Ware are all avid hikers and find connection with their adopted state through the outdoors. But in the progression of an opening that included a Kickstarter campaign, location delays and near bankruptcy, the name evolved to represent a commitment to local ingredients and community in a way only Arizona’s chef-driven restaurants have been doing.
The brewery is now known for creating small batch beers from locally-grown, produced and foraged ingredients. Some sound common, like honey, peaches and coffee. Others, not so much. Juniper berries, beets and Cabernet grapes have all found their way into the brews.
All of the recipes are developed in the wild during regular hiking, camping and backpacking trips.
“It’s not just ingredients we get from the wilderness. It’s inspiration,” says Buford.
Sometimes the trips are also foraging expeditions. Buford and Ware once came back with Juniper cones and put 30 ounces of the berries into what is now the Juniper Mesa Arizona Dark Ale. The pine and gin-like aroma, crispness and approachable 5.4 percent ABV have made the brew another winner with their customers.
As the brewery’s reputation for experimentation and local sourcing has grown, so has the interest from around the state.
“Our business is a lot more than just creating beer,” Buford says. “Farmers are noticing what we’re doing, and are excited to be part of it.”
Joe Johnston of Agritopia, for example, contributed one of the most unusual ingredients to date: 25 pounds of beets. Those became the Wet Beaver Wit, but not before staining the brewing area in a distinctive deep red.
“It looked like a massacre,” Buford laughs.
For Buford, Ware and Dettler, Arizona farms are more than just a stop on the shopping list. They are collaborative partners. They’ve worked with Sossaman Farms and Hayden Flour Mill for the grains essential to all brews and helped them bring back the only heritage grain in Arizona from near extinction.
They’ve also worked with Agritopia to grow hops for the first true “all Arizona” beer.
Funding for the brewery started on Kickstarter in 2012 and the social media network that sprung from the campaign has been integral to its success. Even before the doors opened, Buford stayed connected to friends, family and supporters through Facebook and an entertaining YouTube channel.
His ability to build a community around the brewery without ever selling a pint paid off in January when Arizona Wilderness was named the No. 1 “New Brewery in the World” by RateBeer.com. Up against 2,599 other breweries around the world that opened in 2013, the surprise win put Wilderness and Gilbert on an international map. The demand that followed was almost instant.
The brewery now gets beer-loving visitors from nearly every corner of the globe curious to see and taste what the buzz is about. Waits for tables during happy hour and weekends are now the norm. What hasn’t changed is the size of the brewery’s production system.
“We do what we can to keep up with demand,” says Dettler. They are committed to having two standards always available: the session ale Lil Gye Rye and the Refuge IPA. Other styles are in heavy rotation, usually changing every week. If you find something you like, it’s best to enjoy it while it lasts. Even growlers are a touchy subject.
“The growler thing is tough,” says Dettler, shaking his head. “We try to let people buy growlers, but some beers are limited. We have to make sure it doesn’t go out in five days.”
One of those “pub only” beers was a wild peach porter made in collaboration with Denmark’s Mikkeller Brewery, the “gypsy brewers” with a cult following. Mikkeller is actually a pair of homebrew-trained beer masters who partner with breweries around the world. The resulting beers are usually limited edition runs that push traditional boundaries of style and flavor.
The East Valley
Gilbert has influenced Arizona Wilderness as much as the brewery has shaped the emerging culinary scene for the city. Buford and Dettler originally envisioned a nanobrewery, but the scale shifted when they heard Gilbert was looking for its first microbrewery.
With Gilbert’s continued growth over the last eight years, restaurants and bars are recognizing the pent up interest for progressive, local options in their neighborhoods. With the city’s lead, it’s meant a spurt of eateries in downtown Gilbert that were once only found in Phoenix and Scottsdale.
“It’s nice that Gilbert is opening to the idea of having a night life,” says Ware. “And if they’re going to add a bar, they want it to have some core values. Not just to put alcohol in people’s mouths.”
On this ideal, the brewery and city were in tandem. But location was a different issue.
“It doesn’t have to all be in downtown Gilbert,” explains Buford. “There are a lot of people taking chances in the East Valley. I love that people are taking chances now. And if you don’t go downtown, you’re taking a chance.”
Dettler says for them, their location off the beaten path just fit. “There’s no foot traffic, but there’s parking, it’s affordable, and we’re on Arizona Avenue.”
Drawing on the successes of the past year, there was only one thing the Wilderness gang could do. Yup, you guessed it: expand.
Taking over the former bagel shop they shared the building with, the new bigger-and-better location includes a 15-barrel brewing system, grain room and wood barrel room. A “tap room” is also in the works, featuring a bar and a few tables, with glass windows looking into the brew room. Because there’s nothing better than drinking beer than watching it being made. A growler refill station is also planned.
Not only is the building being expanded, but so is the menu. Former sous chef, now executive chef Bridget Korkowski has upgraded the menu, which includes a slew of starters, handcrafted burgers with, let’s just say, unconventional ingredients (peanut butter and jalapeno jelly, anyone?) and “the other meats.”
And because customers spoke, Buford listened. There are now vegetarian-friendly items for the non-meat eating beer enthusiasts.
Arizona Wilderness Brewing
721 N. Arizona Ave., Gilbert
Photo copyright 2014 Mark Lipczynski