The sunshiny summers in Flagstaff are all well and good, but the ghosts and ghouls of Masters of Brewtality prefer the dark, which is exactly why a gloomy monsoon day makes for the perfect excuse to hop into the MOB turbocharged hearse and cruise out for a taste of the unknown. Under a blackened sky, risking deer collisions, construction, wolves (not kidding) and biting rain, we hauled west to Williams to check out the brand spankin’ new Grand Canyon Brewing Company’s taproom and brewing facility. As much as we’re slaves to the suds, we’re also avowed to aesthetics and GCB’s taproom has it in bulk. Formerly a dairy farm then the Winchester Steakhouse, the gigantic 10,000-square-foot building is chock-full of that Wild, Wild West kitsch that’s impossible for anyone who grew up in the region to resist. The barstools are chunks of tree trunks, the table tops are repurposed natural planks and the exposed support beams, trim and entire gift shop is nothing but wood, wood and more wood. Its ceiling is jet black, with the protruding bolts giving the feel of a night sky, and the original indoor stream from the old restaurant still bubbles through the front of the barroom, inviting visitors to drop change in for wishes and impoverished beer journalists to steal those wishes. We kid, but the thought was there. The upper level, which would be perfect for private parties, features a cowboy-themed jail facade for the little ones to play in, as well as a second bar and a classy balcony overlooking everything. There’s pool, darts, frequent live music, shuffleboard and a patio offering a top-notch view of the surrounding hillsides. All in all, Grand Canyon Brewing Company is easily one of the most visually striking breweries in the state.
We caught up with Head Brewer Josh Ward for a walk through the brewery itself, their massive production line, newfound distillery and barrel aging program. Ward got his start at the iconic Hangar 24 Craft Brewery in Redlands, California, and worked his way up from the very bottom. He’s been head brewer at Grand Canyon for the last four years and has seen it grow from a 15-barrel operation behind a diner on Old Route 66 to this massive 40-barrel system that rivals the largest in the state, with a packing line that has been dramatically upgraded.
“We used to work the old system seven days a week just to keep up with demand and now we’re able to brew three or four days a week. Hopefully, that’ll grow, too,” says Ward. “Our old facility was really cramped for space. It was an employee, a pallet of glass and someone grabbing the glass by hand, putting on the label and then feeding it to the bottler. Now, we’ve got a machine to do all the bottle handling and we’re bottling constantly all day. We’ve almost doubled our capacity!”
The canner has also been upgraded, from a 25-year-old beast that formerly belonged to Oskar Blues to a brand new automated version in February.
The distillery is a thing of beauty as well. It’s made of glistening copper and manned by an amicable guy named Kris Bohm who makes some of the tastiest rum this side of the Caribbean. It’s sweet, dark and rich with complex flavors, and makes for an immaculate rum and coke with lime. In addition to corn whiskey, smooth gin and crisp vodka, they’re also putting out that classic Arizonan take on vodka with locally-harvested prickly pear additions. There is nothing quite like watching a storm move over the desert sky while sipping on a prickly pear vodka lemonade, lemme tell ya! There’s bourbon and single malt whiskey at play back there, too, and the barrels are all reused in their innovative on-site barrel aging program. Which brings us to Grand Canyon’s Shotgun Series! While every beer we sampled was exhilarating, these are for the connoisseur. Small batch, limited release and often only available at the taproom, offerings like their 10.8 percent ABV Belgian strong ale Lava Falls Quad and Maiden’s Gift, made by adding local honey and wildflowers to an Old English style Gruit, are sure to bring out the beer nerd in anyone.
Grand Canyon Brewing Company’s new taproom was one of our absolute favorite places we’ve hit so far. The staff is incredible, the atmosphere is as Western as you can get and each drink we had was a perfect interpretation of the classic, while still pushing the envelope on innovative flavors. Exactly what craft beer should be! And, fair warning, if you cruise through Bearizona afterwards, which we highly recommend, be sure your windows work. The timber wolves are exceedingly observant and will chase your car. Scratch that one off the bucket list!