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Beer and the Mythos of Place

When my family moved from Denver to Tucson almost eight years ago, it became apparent that something significant was missing: locally brewed beer. While there were dozens of brewpubs and microbreweries in the Denver metropolitan area, there were only…

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When my family moved from Denver to Tucson almost eight years ago, it became apparent that something significant was missing: locally brewed beer. While there were dozens of brewpubs and microbreweries in the Denver metropolitan area, there were only a handful in Tucson. Until recently, with the addition of Barrio Brewing Company in an industrial area near downtown, my fair Sonoran city’s craft-brewing residence had dwindled to a mere three. I would have guessed otherwise — that given the rich multicultural heritage of the city, Tucson would consequently be home to a rich mix of microbreweries. I would have likewise guessed that the Sonoran desert region would be the prime place for a distinct mythos of beer-making, given the abundance of desert fruit, if not barley and hops.

Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver.
The Wynkoop Brewing Company, Denver’s first — and the impetus for redevelopment of Denver’s successful Lower Downtown (LoDo). Photo courtesy Wynkoop Brewing Company.

But there is no creation myth for beer here — nor in the stories of any major culture. And there is no single individual credited with crafting the first brew, even though Plato noted, “He was a great man who invented beer.” If anything, he was a she. Before modern times, women were primarily responsible for cooking and brewing both, often serving as religious brewmasters. In the Cerro Baúl colony that predated the Inca of southern Peru, a brewery incorporating giant ceramic vats was recently excavated. A series of intricate shawl pins found onsite leads to a singular conclusion: “The brewers were not only women, but elite women,” says Donna Nash, adjunct curator at Chicago’s renowned Field Museum.

Drinking vessels from Cerro Baul.
Ornate beer-drinking vessels, circa 1000 A.D., found at the Cerro Baúl colony of Peru. Photos courtesy Michael Moseley.

In our neighborhood of Civano, craft-brewed beers are as much a part of celebrations as good food. When we carol — something we’ve yet to do this season, I’m remiss to say — most of the fathers stand in back, small coolers in hand, and share the latest batch of winter lager. The brew may improve our singing or chase away the shyness, but there’s more to it than that. Following trick-or-treating, we gather most often in the front room of a house, where we compare costume stories and sort our children’s caches as we drink pumpkin ale. At dinner parties and neighborhood potlucks, we share hand-crafted beer because lagers and ales support experiences as authentic as their flavors, as authentic as the places in which they are brewed.

So I am both surprised and unsurprised to learn that anthropologist and brewing historian Alan Eames credits beer with the creation of urban-rural society. “Beer was the driving force that led nomadic mankind into village life,” he says. “It was this appetite for beermaking material that led to crop cultivation, permanent settlement, and agriculture.”

Barrio Brewing Company.
Tucson’s new Barrio Brewing Company, seen here prior to opening. Photo courtesy Barrio Brewing Company.

In Tucson, beer is not driving the creation of a more unified community or stronger urban fabric, but I suspect it could be. With the addition of the Barrio Brewing Company and plans for a mixed-use brewpub downtown, we may find that we can create our own, renewed mythos – legends told years and generations from now about how local (beer) craftsmanship led to civic pride, civic pride resulted in community success.

I’ll take a pint of that.

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