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Five people stand in a line, posing for a picture. The man on the far left and woman on far right both hold a can of beer.

Ambassador Event: Arizona’s Craft Beer Industry

Greater Phoenix craft beer industry thrives with brewer-distributor relationships

With more than 300 days of sunshine each year, Greater Phoenix offers a rare opportunity for craft beer brewers and consumers: year-round access to a patio seat and a pint of beer.

The Arizona craft scene has grown significantly since 2008. Innovations from brewers like Chandler-based SanTan Brewing, among the first to package its craft beer in cans instead of bottles, and the popularization of digital platforms like YouTube served as the foundation for a cultural shift that has led to the growth of Arizona’s craft beer scene.

Between 2011 and 2018, 58 breweries opened in Arizona. By the end of 2021, the state housed 94 brewers and 120 licensed breweries in 149 locations. The industry’s economic output of $1.2 billion in 2021 was in the upper half of the nation, according to the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild.

COVID-19 impacted the craft beer industry, but relationships between brewers and distributors helped companies adapt quickly to establish operations in a world that had moved remote. More breweries opened in 2020 than in 2019.

“Distributors and breweries don’t have good relationships everywhere; this is a little bit different,” said Crescent Crown Executive VP and General Manager Ian Yonushonis.

Local craft brewing leaders joined GPEC’s Ambassador Event in June to discuss the industry. The panel consisted of:

  • Rob Fullmer, Executive Director, Arizona Craft Brewers Guild
  • Christine McKean, Owner & Founder, Old Ellsworth Brewing Company
  • Adam Wojcik, Brewery Director, PHX Beer Co.; President, Board of Directors, Arizona Craft Brewers Guild
  • Ian Yonushonis, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Crescent Crown Distributing
  • Maureen Howell, Chief of Staff, Greater Phoenix Economic Council (Moderator)

Greater Phoenix Craft Brewing Scene

Old Ellsworth Brewing Company opened in 2017 after a decade of McKean and her co-owners brewing beer, sharing it with friends, and aspiring to open a brewery. Queen Creek, which has a high median wage, leads Arizona in beer consumption per capita and offered funding for a façade improvement program. It was the logical place to establish the company.

The brewery uses products from local companies such as Olive Mill and Grain R&D and early after establishing its Queen Creek presence began to host educational programs with the Arizona Farm Bureau. When the coronavirus struck, the company had to adjust.

“We were doing decent numbers with COVID with just to-go, but the biggest thing is you need to be able to change and pivot very quickly when the unexpected happens,” McKean said.

The same happened to PHX Beer Co., which had opened in November 2019, just months before the shutdown. It has a taproom of 12 beers and operates out of three locations in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The company was forced to shift from its initial plan almost immediately.

The companies expanded their online presences and implemented to-go systems. Wojcik said there was also a shift of a focus from in-house taps to placing the craft on shelves in stores.

“We made up our mind very quickly that we were not going to lay anybody off,” Wojcik said, “We redeployed them off-premises to kind of pick up the slack on all of the extra beer we were selling there.”

The relationship between brewers and suppliers is stronger in Arizona than many other places, Yonushonis said. Crescent Crown Distribution serves about 6,000 accounts and covers more than 12,000 square miles out of its two warehouses in Mesa and Surprise.

“Unlike the soda and chip companies and things that can pay to slot their product on shelves in grocery stores or pay to have their products on tap … We have to fight for every tap handle and every placement and every reset and every display in the stores,” Yonushonis said. “You become very passionate about that, and supplier partners want the most out of their distributors. … There’s a lot of back-and-forth with suppliers and their distributor network about what needs to be done and what their expectations are.”

Shopping Local

The best way to support the companies is to purchase directly from the brewery, which results in higher profits. Sharing experiences to social media and Yelp helps spread word about the company.

“Do things that are good for your neighborhood,” Fullmer said. “Take care of the small businesses around you, period, and it will filter down to us because we’re in that neighborhood. … We call ourselves third places. First place is your home, you have your family, you don’t have a lot of choice on that. Second place is your work. Third place is where you choose to go. We want to be where you choose to go.”

Meet the Panel

Rob Fullmer
Executive Director
Arizona Craft Brewers Guild

Christine McKean
Owner & Founder
Old Ellsworth Brewing Company

Adam Wojcik
Brewery Director, PHX Beer Co.
President, Board of Directors, Arizona Craft Brewers Guild

Ian Yonushonis
Executive Vice President and General Manager
Crescent Crown Distributing

Maureen Howell (Moderator)
Chief of Staff
Greater Phoenix Economic Council