Visiting the Breweries of Flagstaff, Arizona’s Craft Beer Capital
With eight breweries, two of which have expanded into second locations in recent years, it’s not surprising Flagstaff’s been described as the Craft Beer Capital of Arizona. Better-known as a stopping point on Route 66, the Mother Road, the city has a population of about 70,000, and almost half of those are students. No wonder beer is booming in Northern Arizona.
Recently I took a trip with a group of writers to this region, stopping in on 10 different breweries to sample their wares. Thoughts on each of these establishments follow.
Beaver Street Brewery
11 S. Beaver St.
This was Flagstaff’s first brewpub when it opened in 1994 after founders Dick and Jean Wilson had read a magazine story about the growth in the industry. They invited their daughter and son-in law, Winnie and Evan Hanseth, to come back to their Flagstaff home and open the brewpub with them, selling a house to help finance it. Today Dick and Jean’s granddaughter Kelly Hanseth is now the owner/operator, having grown up working at Beaver Street through High School. Kelly’s also Vice President of the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild. A welcome sign at the door sets the tone: ‘Grab a menu and meet us in the bar.’ The brewpub’s grown into a full-service restaurant and bar, with a sophisticated look, while behind the scenes is the more makeshift look of a typical small brewery, still using that 1994 equipment.
Recommended: Their Red Rock Raspberry Fruit Ale should appeal even if you think you don’t like fruity beers, as the raspberry taste is really subtle. 4.4% abv.
Dark Sky Brewing Company
117 N. Beaver St.
Home to the Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff was the world’s first Dark Sky City, and this buzzy bar/restaurant/brewery made full use of the name when it opened in 2014. They work a lot with the Lowell, helping to put on fund-raising events. It’s probably the most crazily creative brewery in town, and in six years they’ve produced over 500 different recipes. In fact every Wednesday is ‘New Beer Release Day,’ and they’re not just talking one new beer either. They’re also one of the few breweries whose beers are available widely throughout Arizona, and their tasting flight is a joy to behold.
Recommended: The Buffalo Trace BA Flag 7 is aged for 12 months in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels and then brewed with cinnamon-roasted walnuts, vanilla, and maple syrup, and tastes as wild as it sounds. 10.5% abv.
Flagstaff Brewing Company
52 S. San Francisco St.
One of the smaller operations here, brewer Stu Howe runs a ‘from grain to glass’ operation crammed into a tiny brewing facility that’s dwarfed by the sizable bar and eating area. There are clearly a few regulars always bellied-up to the bar, and the whole atmosphere has a definite friends and neighbors feel. Opened in 1994, Howe likes to keep the operation as traditional as possible, and he puts the small scale to advantage by making lots of experimental brews so regular customers always have something new to try. The bar has an impressive whiskey collection too, and during Arizona Beer Week every February they put on beer and whiskey pairings.
Recommended: Their Weisspread Wheat is a perfect wheat beer, with touches of spice and tropical fruits and totally refreshing. 5.5% abv.
Grand Canyon Brewing Co.
1800 S. Milton Rd.
The new kid on the block, Grand Canyon Brewing and Distillery is based in Williams but opened their Flagstaff operation in August, 2019. Bureaucracy problems meant that they didn’t start brewing on-site till 2020, but Williams is only 30 miles west along Route 66 so beers and spirits have been brought in to fill the gap. The Flagstaff bar/restaurant is huge, bustling at night, and serves a typical bar menu of burgers, sandwiches, salads, flatbreads, and so on. The company does a lot of barrel-aging using bourbon and white wine barrels, and has seasonal brews as well as a core range.
Recommended: Horseshoe Bend is a pale ale with a much more complex flavor than most pale ales, including spice, citrus and toffee notes too. 5.8% abv.
Historic Barrel + Bottle House
110 San Francisco St.
Founded in 2013, Historic now has two locations in Flagstaff, and another operation in nearby Williams. This downtown bar and casual restaurant has an eclectic look, with a mix of wood-panel walls, brick walls, and walls painted in cooling colors. Paintings and posters leap out, and I bet they sell a lot of their t-shirts which say: Ask not what your country can brew for you, ask what you can brew for your country. There are 20 taps behind the bar, with a board describing all the brews. One day someone will run out of quirky beer names, but till then Historic lays claim to Historic Beaches Be Salty, Secret Agent Goat, and Flamingo Dreams.
Recommended: It has to be the mouthwatering Salt River, a light lager with salt and lime nodding to a margarita, which not surprisingly won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival. 4.8% abv.
Historic Brewing Company Taproom
4366 E. Huntington Dr.
Historic’s main brewing operation has now shifted a few miles east of downtown – yes, along Route 66, of course. Here the bar and tasting area sit between two wings of the brewery. There’s no kitchen so they bring in food trucks from time to time. The same beers are available here as at the downtown location, but as it was designed as a brewery it has more of the industrial look.
Recommended: Totally different from Salt River (see above), Piehole Porter is the brew that put them on the map and is still one of their flagship beers. It’s a heady mix of coffee, chocolate, cherry, and vanilla, and totally moreish. 5.5% abv.
5 S. San Francisco St.
Lumberyard opened in 2010 in an old lumberyard, and used the lumber from the building in their new and spacious bar, restaurant, and brewery, which has a lively sports bar feel to it. It was opened by the same people who had previously opened Beaver Street Brewery, Winnie and Evan Hanseth, and there’s some overlap in the operations — some of Beaver Street’s beers are actually brewed at Lumberyard. One of Lumberyard’s own staples is Hazy Angel, an IPA named for the Bright Angel hiking trail down into the Grand Canyon, which is a 90-minute drive from Flagstaff.
Recommended: Humphrey’s Hefe is a tasty hefeweizen with both sweet and spicy notes, and served with a slice of lemon to add your own citrus to the mix. 5.6% abv.
Mother Road Brewing Company Downtown
7 South Mikes Pike
Mother Road’s downtown brewery is on the original Route 66, before the road was rerouted to put in an overpass for the railway. The building used to be a laundry before the brewery opened in 2011, and it still has an industrial, grungy vibe, clearly popular with students, though it’s family-friendly too with books and board games to borrow. Since they expanded to a second and much larger brewery, this has been used for experimental brews, seasonal brews, and tastings. Like other Flagstaff breweries, sustainability and charity work is a big thing, with a share of profits from their Kölsch-Style Ale going to Arizona Game and Fish for wildlife conservation projects. They have cool retro can designs too.
Recommended: Try their Lost Highway Double Black IPA with coffee and orange zest flavors. 8% abv.
Mother Road Brewing Company Butler
1300 Butler Ave.
Opened in 2018, this is now Mother Road’s main brewery and it has a very different feel. Cool lampshades made by a local artist, every one different, hang over the bar which is more for the cocktail crowd, though there are still board games to keep the kids occupied. Their 20-barrel Forgeworks brewhouse is right off the bar and tasting area, and there’s a regular to-and-fro between brewers and imbibers, passing through the connecting doorway on which the company’s motto is painted: ‘finding joy in the adventure.’
Recommended: Tower Station IPA has tropical fruits, citrus and hops, all in great balance. 7.3% abv.
Wanderlust Brewing Company
1519 N. Main St.
Wanderlust is a little off-the-beaten-path, a couple of miles east of downtown in an industrial park with neighbors like AutoZone and the Tractor Supply Company. It’s probably the smallest of Flagstaff’s breweries, but step inside the factory building into the bar/brewery and despite the echoey industrial setting it has the charming appeal that you often get the more you get off that beaten path. Owner/brewer Nathan Friedman is a beer-geek, totally passionate about what he does, and his terrific logo of a hobo with a knapsack is down to his own past travels. They also do a neat t-shirt saying “Not all who wander are drunk.” He visited almost every state in the nation and several continents before settling in Flagstaff. In addition to running the brewery, he still has a day-job designing medical instruments. “I also design beer,” he says.
Recommended: 928 Local is their best-seller, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale which uses local yeast and a local honey. “There is only one place in the world that you can get a beer that tastes like that and it’s right here,” says Friedman. And that’s what craft brewing is all about. 8% abv.