The DTPHX taproom. Photo: Tim Wenger

To See How Phoenix Is Adapting to Climate Change, Start With a Pint of Beer

Phoenix Sustainability Food + Drink
by Tim Wenger Jul 3, 2024

For many travelers, sampling the local brew is a routine part of any trip. Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company, which operates restaurant/taproom locations in Phoenix and Gilbert, Arizona, helps visitors do so in an environmentally friendly manner, with beers that advocate for conservation causes and a mantra that speaks to the heart of the American West. Not only that, but the brewing company is part of a cohort of Phoenix-area businesses helping to make the city more resilient in the face of a changing climate, thinking beyond the golf links and pool resorts to turn Phoenix into a place people come to build a better future for both residents and visitors.

Jonathan Buford founded Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company in 2013 with co-founder and brewer Patrick Ware. His idea for the brewery came, appropriately, while on a backpacking trip in Arizona’s Chiricahua Wilderness. With a beer in hand, Buford proclaimed that he wanted to combine his passions for wilderness and craft beer and support local farmers and purveyors at the same time.

Reframing perceptions of Arizona through craft beer and collaborations

jon burford of arizona wilderness brewing company

Jon Buford. Photo courtesy Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company

Eco-forward elevator pitches like Buford’s are a dime a dozen nowadays. His, however, has bonafide chops. The brewery’s list of suppliers and partners comprises more than 40 Arizona businesses, from farms to bakeries to a local composter. Nearly every ingredient on the food menu is sourced locally. The meats are raised free of antibiotics and right up the road, and unlike on most pub menus, vegetarians have a lot to choose from.

“[The partnerships have] been organically happening without really trying,” Buford says. “We had a mantra to support local from the beginning, and we set our company up to pay attention to such things.”

Part of the inspiration came from reading Patagonia founder Yvon Choinard’s iconic autobiography, “Let My People Go Surfing,” in 2017. Learning how Patagonia worked to find sustainable materials and ethical factory conditions from which to source its gear and clothes, and in particular, how to see through false promises and hype, forced Buford to take a harder look at how his business operated.

This quickly led to a partnership with Sinagua Malt, founded by Verde River conservation champions Chip Norton and Kim Schonek, the latter of whom oversees efforts at The Nature Conservancy to protect the Verde.

“We were really just supporting farms until they came in and said, ‘We can start you on Sinagua Malt,’” Buford says.

For Buford and his team, the partnership was a no-brainer. The Sinagua Malt project encourages regional farmers to grow low-water-usage barley for local brewers when demand for water from the Verde River is highest, rather than growing summer crops like corn and alfalfa, which use significantly more water. The Nature Conservancy and Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. estimate the project has kept 425 million gallons of water in the river in under a decade. Today, all of the brewery’s beers use Sinagua Malt as a base – and one of its flagships, aptly named This Beer Saves Water, contains exclusively Sinagua Malt.

Another key partner is Recycled City, a first-in-the-city farm-to-compost program that food service businesses like Arizona Wilderness can implement to make their supply chain circular through composting.

The company’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. It recently won the title of “Best Sustainably-Minded Restaurant” in Arizona from Green Living Magazine. It’s beers have won numerous awards, including helping to gain the accolade of best new brewery from in 2014.

Each Arizona Wilderness beer champions a unique environmental cause

arizona wilderness regenerative desert wheat

Photo courtesy Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company

Arizona Wilderness brands its product as “wilderness-inspired beers.” Each serves a cause that protects said wilderness. Its Don’t F*ck It Up Blonde advocates for Leave No Trace practices. The Arizona Pinstripes IPA is the result of a partnership with River Outdoors to promote responsible overlanding. Earth to Beer IPA came from the brewery’s participation in a national campaign to make a more eco-friendly packaged beer.

“I’d like to break the mold of Arizona by saying that if you’re not bleeding, you’re not doing it right, akin to Edward Abbey. Arizona has the ability to be a place where not only do we have 90 designated wildernesses but we can be better stewards to the land.”

Putting all of this in place has become a job in itself, with the entire Arizona Wilderness staff playing a role in pushing the mission forward. Its efforts led Patagonia to reach out to Buford about participating in a cohort of breweries each producing a beer made with local ingredients and Organic Certified Kernza grain. Buford says he will never forget the day he got a call from Fletcher Choinard, Yvon’s son, about working together.

“When you hire the right people, all of a sudden the things you’re saying aren’t as complicated because they can help you understand it,” Buford says.

Working for a better future in Phoenix and around Arizona

phoenix, arizona

Photo: Kevin Ruck/Shutterstock

Seemingly endless suburban sprawl is an epidemic affecting most western US cities, Phoenix being a poster child. Land is plentiful and affordable, leading developers to build outward rather than upward. This has resulted in a population density roughly ⅛ that of New York City. Living here without a car has generally been thought of as undoable, and from an environmental standpoint, it’s casual fodder to condone a major city in the desert.

But Arizona Wilderness is among a growing cohort of local businesses casting doubt on traditional stereotypes about the region. Culdesac Tempe, a 700-unit apartment complex built adjacent to a light rail station not far from the Arizona State University campus, offers no parking for residents and instead provides discounted Lyft and Waymo rides, a transit pass, and free e-bikes. Those bikes come from Phoenix-based Lectric e-Bikes, a company on its own mission to change how people move around and that, in 2023, got more people into electric transport than all major automakers save Tesla.

“I get frustrated by the Arizona cliches, absolutely,” Buford says. “We aren’t a state that’s lacking anything, and that’s something we’re proving daily. We’re not lacking agriculturally, or in diversity. We’re not just the hot, arid, dry desert. Arizona is as precious as anything in the southwest and I think our underrepresentation is because Phoenix was a destination for a cheap, comfortable lifestyle, and so that’s what the ‘brand’ of Arizona became. Scottsdale, you know. Now, I don’t think it’s fair to brand Arizona anything other than a great place to explore, and for Phoenix, I’m hoping more people continue to move in that care more about Planet Earth and less about Planet Living Room.”

Re-approaching how commerce works in a rapidly growing metropolitan area is a task taller than the Chase Tower, and one without a clear finish line. The city is in the midst of a vast expansion of its single-line light rail system, though efficiently serving the entire 15,000-square-mile region may prove to be a pipe dream. Water is a consistent topic of conversation, with groundwater decreasing at the same time that future restrictions on what the state can pull from the Colorado River are all but guaranteed. Phoenix is fortunate to have entrepreneurs like Buford to develop benchmarks and harness the desert’s resources to chart a path forward using what it provides, and conserving what flows in through the Salt and Verde Rivers.

“We tried to rework a lot of things and found out that there’s no money,” Buford says. “It’s a start-and-stop situation. It’s never easy to say, ‘We’re doing great, we’re doing these things perfectly.’ It’s always, ‘We’re working on these things more.’ Composting is a great example, Sinagua is a great example. It’s always about what’s the best thing we can do now, and we’re getting better at finding that method over time.”

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