Scouting Craft Beer at the Cactus League

Andrew Keatts, April 01, 2014

This is going to sound insufferable: as a San Diego resident, one reason I love traveling for craft beer is the chance to find bad ones.

Now that there are 80-some breweries in San Diego, you can find bad beers around town. But you have to actually seek them out. Those breweries don’t get tap or shelf space anywhere.

But going to places where you can order a local IPA and get something similar to your friend’s average homebrew is a reminder that brewing beer is hard damn work. That there’s a person or team of people making a product, and it’s possible for them to fail.

That also makes it all the more exciting when you try something great.

So I was excited for a recent weekend trip to Arizona to take in the Cactus League, and a local beer scene about which I’d heard good things.

We started Saturday morning at O.H.S.O. Eatery + nanoBrewery in Phoenix. 30 beers on tap, half from Arizona, and four made in house.

Before the trip I asked for recommendations on Twitter, and was told by a local who knows what he’s talking about to start with Dragoon IPA by Dragoon Brewery out of Tucson (5.06 BAR, 107 Style+).

Those ratings say its an above average beer, and an above average IPA, but they still struck me as too low. It would stand up to most of the best IPAs in IPA-crazy San Diego, and I’d drink it regularly if i could. Fruity (peach, and general tropical) hop flavors take the lead complemented by a clean, pale malt profile. It was the best beer I had all weekend and I wish I could have one right now.

I also had a session IPA from O.H.S.O. that was dominated with a haylike malt profile that made it taste more like an XPA than a typical session.

After a few pitching changes at Scottsdale Stadium, at the home Giants getting smoked by a Mariners split squad, we walked out to the bacchanalia in the outfield grass where hundreds hundreds of attractive young people were drinking beer and kind of-sort of watching baseball.

Now that people line up for hours to get seven-ounce tasters of one-off IPAs, people aren’t all that enthused with San Francisco craft lynchpin Anchor Brewing. But if you can’t get down on a California Lager (4.26 BAR, 111 Style+) in the outfield lawn on a Saturday afternoon watching baseball in the sun then you don’t like beer.

After the game we headed to Papago Brewing, which smart-baseball-and-beer-person Geoff Young told me I should not miss. It was a low-key dive bar -- with TVs and dart boards and all that good stuff -- plus an impressive beer list with six of its own offerings. It also had a takeout bottle selection as good as any high-end bottle shop I’ve seen.

I had two Papago beers: Papago Park Pale Ale and Otis, a milk stout. Neither stood out, particularly, but were on point within their style.

Four Peaks Brewery, where we ate dinner and watched San Diego State hoops win the Mountain West, is massive, a gigantic cash register paralleled in size and ambition only by Stone’s over-the-top San Diego spots. It had to be a 200-table restaurant, with a large front patio and gigantic bar that had people waiting an hour for a seat.

No complaints on the typical bar food, and the atmosphere was fine if a little much for me. The beers were good, well executed and would succeed in any market. Hop Knot IPA (5.53 BAR, 106 Style+) was the best I had; the worst, Short Hop (1.59 BAR, 99 Style+),  a session IPA, didn’t have nearly enough on the nose to make good on the style.

The next morning, I got a great cup of coffee at Sip (it’s also a craft beer bar, with a no-joke tap list), before driving out to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, a new stadium shared by the Diamondbacks and Rockies, to see the Dbacks play the Padres.

It was a much more family oriented vibe than Scottsdale Park the day before. But the park’s symmetry really appealed to my reptilian brain: Rockies stuff on the first base line and in right field, Dbacks stuff on the other side.

That was true down to a craft beer stall on each side of home plate, too. Since the Dbacks were the rightful home team, and because Colorado beers are well distributed, I went for the Arizona booth to see what they had.

I tried two from SanTan Brewing Co. out of Chandler. Devil’s Ale (3.19 BAR, 102 Style+) was a malty, classic American pale. Epicenter Amber (1.63 BAR, 101 Style+) reminded me of the sort of amber you get at a chain brewpub: just what it’s advertised as, but you can almost taste the brewer’s boredom.

So that’s it. Central Arizona doesn’t come really come up when people talk about great beer areas, but after drinking good and occasionally great beer there for two days I’ll happily sing its praises next time someone’s going that way.

Thanks to wiki commons user Roger Kidd for the header image.