How do you pack for the unknown? Start with underwear, of course. Then your brain starts imagining the adventure ahead, and before you know it, the rest just sorta falls into place.
Tomorrow morning, I fly out from Georgia to join an extraordinary group of people. Brewers from the North and South, young and old, legends and rising talents. It’s quite a diverse group of folks—including brewers from Firestone Walker, Jester King, Tired Hands, American Solera, Stillwater, and many more—who've decided they’re into the idea of camping around a mobile coolship in the mountains of Arizona while sharing ideas and contemplating the brewing industry.
I’m perhaps unsurprisingly stoked—and I have no idea what to expect. I’m trying to stay as open as possible so I can facilitate and absorb conversation and information. After all, it’s not every day you get to hang out with these kinds of people in the wilderness.
What’s the beer going to be like? See, now you’re asking the wrong question. But I’ve got the requisite flannel shirt, a camera, and some board shorts, so we’re about to find out where this journey is going, at least. Sometimes, you just gotta dive into the unknown.
"Do you have any Tropicalia in your bag?" a TSA agent asks me when he sees my t-shirt. He and I both know I can’t take that many ounces of liquid through a security checkpoint, but then again, maybe that’s what he was hoping for. “Next time!” I tell him, as his face lights up.
I'm boarding a plane for The Grand Canyon State, and already have been traveling about as long as I slept last night. But that agent is a nice reminder of one of my favorite things about brewing beer—the smiles. In just a few short hours I'll be having my first beer at Arizona Wilderness. I expect I'll be smiling then, too.
"That's an insane amount of hops. I mean, it's your anniversary, so I fully support it, I want to buy you those hops. But, yeah, that's an insane amount of hops." When Jean Broilet of Tired Hands is saying this to Drew Fox of 18th Street, you know it's serious.
I've landed at the mothership here in Gilbert, AZ and it’s all hospitality, chatter, and business as usual. This is Arizona Wilderness’ modus operandi—there’s just a few more people hanging out. The early arrivers are talking shop over pints of Pale Ale, and the rest of the horde should start showing up in a couple hours.
And then a hundred waffles showed up.
The proprietor of Welcome Chicken + Donuts in Phoenix doesn't usually make waffles (just donuts, obviously, as the name implies). But she made an exception this time, coming up with a special recipe just for today—and then cranking them out on the personal waffle maker of Arizona Wilderness owner Jonathan Buford. All that delicious cooked dough is about to go into a collaboration IPA with Tired Hands.
Adding waffles to an IPA takes practice and goofy photos. But jokes aside, listening to these guys talk about the idea of “Culinary IPAs” feels like big, weird potential. A lot of popular IPA sub-styles in recent years are consumer driven, which means they're often barely disguised marketing gimmicks designed to boost sales. By contrast, this is experimentation from a brewer's perspective. Put another way? Nobody's asking for waffles.
Jean from Tired Hands has been pushing this idea forward back home in Philly, where's he's been regularly adding fruits and sugars to a more traditional base to make Milkshake IPAs. It's the kind of thing that makes some people throw up their hands in frustration while others happily order a second pint. Either way, it'll be interesting to see if more breweries start doing culinary-inspired IPAs in the months to come.
In addition to myself, there are a few other people hanging around and capturing the events. A documentary crew just showed up from New York, and word is that most of the brewers have landed and are making their way here as well. The film guys asked me to think about questions to ask others.
"I don't think anyone has any clue what to expect," I say.
“You're right," one of the shooters replies. “Nobody knows what's going to happen, but it's pretty cool that everyone signed up for the unknown."
There's a feeling of restlessness from the crew that’s been here all day. We're waiting for the rest of the flock to circle up. New life and energy is pouring in one familiar face at a time, and the Arizona Wilderness boys have set us up for a nice little private party. Momentum is growing to help me overcome the jet lag and long day, but the night is looking easier by the second with each familiar hug and handshake.
"OK, let's taste the last spontaneous batch and get an idea of what we're working with."
"This is a project we did with..."
"So…what happened, dude?"
"If someone drops a bomb on this building, who gets all our hop contracts?”
We're pulling nails and talking about our brew day tomorrow. It’s all sarcasm and jokes—a gang of folks who feel like they've been hanging out forever. Tomorrow is gonna be great.
"I'm antsy," Brad Clark from Jackie O's says. "I'm ready to get on with this and get out there."
He’s not the only one who feels this way. It’s the morning of day two and the tone’s shifted a bit. There's carryover excitement from yesterday, but a certain element of urgency, too. Folks are ready to get in the woods and make some beer.
Colin McFadden of Tired Hands [pictured above] turned 30 today. The birthday boy is excited, much like the rest of us. New arrivals today include Jeffers Richardson from Firestone Walker, Brian Strumke from Stillwater, and Phil Wymore and Tim Doeschot from Perennial. We're in go-mode now. The vans are loaded.
Next stop: the wilderness.
Here's the idea: we're filling two wine barrels with wort, then putting those wine barrels in the back of a pickup truck topped with a coolship. The guys driving the truck are meeting the caravan at the camping spot. There, we'll pump out the barrels into the coolship, and let it chill down over night.
The kicker is that we need cold weather to chill, so we have to drive to elevation—the target now is somewhere around 7,000 feet. Right now, there's nothing but an ominous, black monsoon cloud looming over the mountains.
"I don't have the gear for this!" Jester King's Jeff Stuffings exclaims.
He's right, but we'll adapt.
Following a quick pit stop for ice cream, we head to an Almanac and Arizona Wilderness takeover at Hops on Birch in Flagstaff. But a funny thing happens on the way—the vans stops in front of a wine bar. We take a moment, all 25 of us, to enjoy some Blanc du Blanc and Rosé. It’s a nice lull, and we revel in it. Eventually we put on our work hats and have some beers at the pub next door.
We've made it to camp. It's raining, but spirits are high. Shelters for the coolship and the dinner area are all set.
"There's no right or wrong way to do this,” Jester King’s Garrett Crowell says. That’s pretty much the vibe right now.
Last night, while our coolship was exposing its wort to the wilderness, a group of us watched shooting stars. Others enjoyed the bon fire and guitar singalongs while bottles of beers were passed around. The rain left us with a beautiful evening.
Not long after dawn this morning, we gathered around the coolship and began pumping the wort into barrels. Firestone Walker’s Jeffers Richardson passed around a plate of bacon. Some of the more thoughtful members of our party—not me—brought coffee.
It didn't take much sunshine before we had another fire going and the camp was slowly brought back to life. I spent part of the morning on a long walk through the woods and then helped ask brewers questions for the documentary. Other Half’s Sam Richardson summed up the trip nicely:
“The amount of beer we all came here to make is pretty silly,” he said. “The collaborations are about spreading information and making our industry better. I don't want to leave."
"I want to do a project like that, but I'm not sure I have the tank for it."
"Oh, we use tanks like you have all the time, you can do that. We do have a problem with settling, though."
"You should try recirculating like we do for our dry hops. It could probably help there."
"Yeah, actually, that's a great idea—we'll try that."
This is the norm for the week—brewers helping brewers. "When people are happy they come up with good ideas. They're creative." I heard a lot of variations on that these last few days.
After a nap-filled three hour drive back to Arizona Wilderness, our crew quickly takes over the tasting room and we're all enjoying the last beers as we pump the wort from the barrels on the truck to barrels in the sour room where they will lay dormant for 1-2 years, slowly fermenting.
There are flights to catch and emails to write—very quickly we're back into the ways of the work week. What's next now that we've made beer?
"This is just the beginning," Jester King’s Averie Swanson assures me.
She's right. I don't believe anyone of us knows exactly what's next, but we're not done. If anything, I know I've got some new friends I need to send beer to next week, and a fresh set of eyes on the barrels at our brewery.
This story will update periodically throughout the trip. Follow us on Twitter or bookmark the page to keep up.