By Wayne Schutsky
Gilbert’s Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. celebrated its 4th anniversary over Labor Day weekend with a full slate of events and special releases that highlight just how far the craft brewer has come since it opened.
Choosing Gilbert as the home for Arizona Wilderness was a risk for co-founders Jonathan Buford and Patrick Ware. While the town now hosts a fledgling beer scene, Wilderness was the first craft brewery to open.
“It was a point of pride when (Buford and Ware) opened Gilbert’s first craft brewery,” social media manager Chris Chappell said. “We still use that in our marketing language.”
In hindsight, it was a good decision.
“They were extremely receptive to a brewery,” Buford said via email. “They were just about to begin the downtown Gilbert project and we could feel the energy.”
Buford credited Gilbert Economic Development Director Dan Henderson for helping the would-be entrepreneurs realize their vision.
Since that time, Wilderness Brewing has repaid that favor in kind by becoming a destination for both local patrons and beer heads across the country alike.
The brewery has won several national awards including being named Top New Brewer in the World by RateBeer.com in 2014.
However, Wilderness is not just for beer aficionados. Part of its early success has been its ability to appeal to a wide audience – including the many families that call Gilbert home – thanks to a quality food menu and diverse beer list.
“We do that by having approachable beers and wild, interesting stuff,” brewer Chase Saraiva said.
He added “We have so many styles that we can generally find (something for everyone).”
While the on-tap menu at Wilderness now features 20 beers, that wasn’t always the case.
When they got started, Buford and Ware used a seven-barrel system. Now that production has grown, the brewery uses that smaller system for experimenting with funky new beers like a stout with mushrooms.
The brewery’s anniversary events included specialty keg tapping, new beer releases and live music by Chandler musician Jimmy Roca.
The array of specialty beers released during the celebration is indicative of Wilderness’ business model, which focuses on including locally-sourced and foraged ingredients in its beer.
Whether the brewers are sourcing 11,000 pounds of peaches from a farm in Cochise County or foraging for blackberries near Oak Creek, they are constantly looking for ways to incorporate Arizona-based fruits in their beers.
“Whether we’re going to farms or going out to the land, we are just trying to use as much Arizona agriculture and produce as possible,” Saraiva said.
Beers like Sour Bourbon Barrel Aged Picacho Pecan Pie Brown Ale and American Presidential Stout — which features peppers from Chandler’s Rhiba Farms and cacao nibs from Zak’s Chocolate in Scottsdale — exemplify this unique take on craft brewing.
The brewery’s founders came up with the new twist over four years ago after noticing that many new restaurants and breweries at the time were very similar to one another. Rather than abide by the typical model, Buford developed a brewery concept inspired by his passions — Arizona and the outdoors — and brewmaster Ware created beers to match.
“Visiting farms and agricultural regions of (Arizona) inspires me in a whole new way,” Buford said. “What better way to showcase the area’s diversity than with a showcase of its products?”
In the intervening four years, Buford and Ware have used their nature-based brews to educate customers about the bounty that the Arizona landscape has to offer and the history behind that landscape.
“We want to pay homage to the Native Americans who originally cultivated this land,” Buford said. “We want to pay respects to the decades of farmers who developed this land. We want Phoenix to respect its natural ability to sustain and not fall victim to a mundane nature.”
Over the past four years, Wilderness Brewing has largely stuck to that model, though other aspects of the business have changed.
“We aren’t just going day by day (anymore),” Buford said. “We’ve added a competent team with vast levels of experience. We hired a business advisor who helps guide us. It’s still fun and exciting but with less struggle.”