Gentle Ben’s located at 865 E University Blvd, Tucson, AZ 85719
Open Mon-Sat 11a-10p; Sun 12p-10p
Barrio located at 800 E 16th St, Tucson, AZ 85719
Open Mon-Weds 11a-10p; Thurs-Sat 11a-12a; Sun 11a-9p
Mining isn’t the only major industry in Arizona’s history. Ranching has also been a big part of the state’s economy for the past few hundred years. Today we’re back in Tucson. The town is located in Pima County which was home to a huge ranching boom in the late 1800s. It was such a big deal at the time that a law enforcement agency called the Arizona Rangers was created in 1901 primarily to deal with cattle thieves…and also to suppress striking Mexican miners but let’s not worry about that right now.
Since cowboys have such a long history in this state I decided to embrace the lifestyle during a visit to the two breweries in today’s post. Both Gentle Ben’s and Barrio have the same owners, just like the two places I wrote about in my first post from Flagstaff.
Because I’m usually a suit-and-tie kinda guy, I nearly maxed out my credit card buying all the supplies I didn’t have like a cowboy hat, a flannel shirt, cowboy boots, spurs, a revolver, a badge, a bolo tie with the little turquoise stone on it, chaps and a horse that I named Poontang Pie because it brought back good memories of 1999 – a much simpler time before I realized that my parents’ divorce was pretty much my fault. I strapped the gear on, straddled Poontang Pie and rode him down University Boulevard, the street in Tucson where Gentle Ben’s Brewing Company was located.
Tucson is home to the University of Arizona (colloquially known as The U of A) and University Boulevard leads right into the Main Gate entrance of the school. The boulevard has a bunch of restaurants and shops on it and it was pretty busy the day I went out there. I was lucky enough to find a parking spot right in front of Gentle Ben’s. I pulled Poontang Pie in, tied his reins to the parking meter and put in a few quarters.
Gentle Ben’s had two stories with extensive patio seating on both floors. As I was walking in I spotted a young, blond-haired boy on the downstairs patio. He couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6 years old, wearing one of those Monkey backpack leashes that was tied to a barstool. He was by himself and he looked like he was drinking a beer.
“Hey, kid,” he said to me.
“Howdy.” I’m pretty sure that’s what cowboys say. “What are you doin’ drinkin’, youngin’?”
“The name’s Crayden. My mommy’s from New Orleans. She wanted to name me Crayfish but the hospital wouldn’t let her because that was stupid. So she compromised. Mommy brings me to bars a lot. I hang out outside and scope out the hot waitress chickies. Sometimes people leave half a beer after they pay their tab and I swipe that shit. Beer is yummy.”
“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. How old are you?”
“I’m gonna be seven in this many,” he held up two fingers. “People let cute little blonde boys like me get away with a lot. Sometimes I walk up to hot college girls and just give them hugs. They don’t realize I’m doing it just to so I can squeeze their butts. They even giggle when I do it ‘cause it’s adorable.”
“Wow, how is someone your age already that creepy?”
“Whatever, dude. You wish you could get as much action as I do. Plus, if I get too drunk and pee myself people don’t think it’s weird because I’m a baby. You can’t say that can you?”
The toddler was right. I walked into Gentle Ben’s as I called Child Services. Apart from beer this place had several types of liquor and also served cocktails if you were so inclined. There was top 40 pop music playing from the speakers and enough of the young female servers were audibly singing along with the songs that it made me think they were encouraged to do so by their bosses, kind of like the Gentle Ben’s version of wearing pieces of flair. The bartendress came up to me.
“Hi there, cowboy,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Men like me don’t have names. You can call me The Classy Alcoholic if you have to call me somethin’. I roam the state with my trusty horse, Poontang Pie. We’re out looking for fortune without the fame. I’ve been on a mission to discover all the microbreweries Arizona has to offer. So what do you got on tap?”
Gentle Ben’s had 10 regular beers and one seasonal on tap. Flights here were served with only four samples at a time. There’s a pretty extensive food menu too that has standard appetizers and salads as well as tacos, quesadillas, burgers and sandwiches.
On the lightest side of the flight there was a beer called the Tucson Blonde. It was a great place for craft beer newbies to start as it had just the slightest hints of hops and malt to give it enough flavor to distinguish it from light macrobrews. The beer’s name has been pretty much changed to Barrio Blonde since Barrio Brewing Company started canning it and shipping out to other parts of the state. I understand the reasoning behind the name change but I have to say that it really diminishes the local pride of the original name. But other than that it’s a good beer in and of itself and it’s even better when introducing others to craft beers.
Speaking of things that craft beer beginners would enjoy, the flight also had a beer called TJ’s Raspberry Ale, which had just the right kick of raspberry flavor to amplify the taste without making it overly fruity. I imagine that even people who like strong, hoppy beers would find themselves enjoying this brew. It was a crowd pleaser for sure.
“It’s funny that you came in here just now,” the bartendress said to me. “There was a lady hanging out a little earlier who said there was probably going to be a nameless guy in a cowboy hat who came in looking for her.”
That was odd. I didn’t come here looking for anyone…but someone clearly expected me.
“Tell me, what did this lady look like?” I asked.
“She was about 6 feet tall but looked closer to 6’5″ with the crazy zebra-printed high heels she was wearing. Also she was wearing a zebra-printed dress. And zebra earrings now that I think about it. It was really too much animal.”
That sounded like Nikita, a woman I had briefly dated last year. She was always fond of her animal accessories. And they always matched. She wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, say, a leopard-print blouse and tiger-stripe-printed headband at the same time. All her shit had to be synchronized. Our relationship was fun, causal but ultimately brief. I wasn’t sure exactly why she decided to end things. I hadn’t thought of her in a while but I was instantly curious as to why she expected me to come around.
“Is this Zebra Lady still here?”
“No, you just missed her. She said she was going to our sister location, Barrio Brewing. It’s really close. It’s less than 10 minutes by car, maybe 20 minutes by horse. And they have the exact same beers on tap there that we have here.”
“Alright, then I know where I’m going next.”
“Wait, you don’t want to have some gelato before you go?”
“I don’t know what gelato is,” I said.
“‘Gelato’ is just the Italian word for ice cream. But we offer 16 different flavors and they’re all made from scratch right here.”
I looked at the gelato menu that really was pretty impressive.
“I can’t decide between the Caramel Mocha and the Turtle Cheesecake flavors…so I’ll take both, please.”
I thanked the lovely young bartendress and left a few Sacagawea dollars as tips. I always carry a shitload of those on me. I straddled Poontang Pie and rode him back out to University Boulevard right in front of Tucson’s light rail streetcar. The conductor looked super pissed that I was riding so slowly right in front of the streetcar but I had never ridden a horse before and I was too nervous to speed Poontang Pie up to a trot. Plus if I did that I would probably end up spilling the gelato that I was eating while riding.
The streets leading up to Barrio were in a warehouse district and for a second I thought I was heading into a trap. I put my hand on the butt of my revolver in case I ran into any trouble. This didn’t look like the side of town that would house a microbrewery. The area was pretty desolate and it fit perfectly with the whole cowboy mystique I was projecting right then. I’ve written several times that I love breweries that are off the beaten path and Barrio definitely fit that description. I eventually came up to a warehouse right next to the train tracks that had a row of cars parked in front of it.
I dismounted Poontang Pie and fed him a carrot or whatever horses eat.
The inside of Barrio was kind of dark, much different (and pretty much the polar opposite) from the bright, college-y atmosphere of Gentle Ben’s. This place seemed to have more families and a few working-class-looking folks as customers. It actually had kind of a saloon-y feel to it.
As promised, Barrio had the same 11 beers that were on tap at Gentle Ben’s but Barrio actually gave you all 11 in a single flight. They also had some liquor options and they offered what appeared to be the same menu as Gentle Ben’s, minus the gelato.
I decided to head to the bathroom before ordering beer. I swung open the door to the handicap stall because I always use the handicap stall because if I’m gonna use a public bathroom then I’m gonna need my privacy and I’m gonna need my space. I was surprised to find a tiny person hunched over, puking into the toilet. It was Crayden.
“Are you following me, kid?” he said to me.
“Okay, you seriously do just roam around breweries in Tucson, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do, and I’m pretty hammered right now. I like this place though. They also have a bunch of hot chickies working here and patronizing the place. Plenty of fine pieces of boobies for me to ogle and grope.”
I couldn’t believe this shitty, drunk kid was being such a drunken asshole. But I can’t say that if I could grope attractive young chicks while they thought it was adorable instead of creepy that I wouldn’t take advantage of that power. In a way I was jealous of this tiny person.
“Holy shit,” I said to Crayden. “You’re not real are you? You’re my Id. You’re the most basic, sexual desires that I have projected onto a tiny person who has the confidence that it takes to talk to women that I wish I had. But you’re also my insecurities laid bare. You’re what I see in myself when I feel like I haven’t lived up to my potential. Childish, crude, drunk. You’re who I want to be and who I’m afraid I’ll become and who I’m afraid I’ve always been. You’re my duality laid bare in tiny human form, aren’t you?”
Crayden didn’t say a word. He just got up off the toilet he was hunched over and walked up to me. He stood just a few inches away from me and punched me right in the scrotum.
“Does that feel real enough to you, asshole?” he taunted.
“Okay, fine, you’re real. Sorry,” I groaned as I laid on the floor, reeling from the pain of the punch. “I’ve just had one or two experiences before in which I’m pretty sure I met people that weren’t real. I thought that might be you too.”
I left the bathroom and went back to the bar, humiliated. I got my flight and tried the beers I didn’t get to at Gentle Ben’s.
Apart from the Tucson Blonde beer, Barrio also cans two other beers called the Rojo and the Blanco. If you live in Arizona and don’t know that those words mean red and white, respectively, then you’re probably racist. The Rojo is Barrio’s version of a Scottish Ale with minimal hops, higher malty flavor and the slightest hints of sweetness at the finish. The Blanco is a White IPA that has a strong citrus smell, a very light-looking color and a hoppy finish that lingers. Both of these beers (as well as the Barrio Blonde) should be sought out wherever locally-brewed, canned beers are sold.
The rest of the flight had something for pretty much every single one of your tastes. There was a Pale Ale and another IPA apart from the Blanco. There was a Porter and a Stout. And there was a very good Hefeweizen that had a sweet, citrusy finish.
After a couple of tastes I asked the bartender if he had seen a woman in here that was dressed like a zebra.
“Oh yeah, Nikita,” he said. “She’s a riot! She was telling us how she wanted to name her son Crayfish but the hospital wouldn’t let her. It was hilarious. She ended up having to give him some stupid name like-”
“Crayden? You’re telling me Nikita is Crayden’s mom?!? Where is she now?”
The bartender told me she was out on the patio. I left a little pouch of Sacagawea dollars on the bar and went outside. I saw Nikita in her full Zebra glory holding Crayden by his monkey backpack leash. Crayden looked fucking wasted.
“I knew you’d show up sooner or later,” Nikita said to me.
“Nikita…I haven’t thought about you in ages. How did you know I’d be here today?”
“Because we have a connection deeper than anything I could have with any other man. We’re inextricably linked, you and I.”
Nikita’s words brought all my memories flooding back. Those three months or so that I spent with her were amazing. We danced, we laughed, we fought, we cried, we smiled and we made the best of it. I say things were casual because I never expected anything from her and didn’t think she expected anything from me other than the occasional night together to connect on a human level in between our busy lives. I hadn’t realized until just now that, despite the non-committal nature of my relationship with Nikita, I actually missed her.
“You’re right, what we had was great,” I told her. “But I really don’t remember why you ended things.”
“I’m not surprised. You were always kind of short-sighted. I wanted something more serious and long-lasting. But I was always confused as to where you stood. You were sweet and caring but you could also be cold and distant. Sometimes I felt like you got too attached and other times I felt like you weren’t attached enough to me. I can’t even pin you down now. You used to wear suits and ties, right? Well now you’re in a cowboy outfit with a hat and boots and ass-less chaps. Who are you?”
“That’s a fair question. But why do I have to be just one kind of person? Maybe I’m the suit guy and the cowboy guy. Maybe I’m the sweet and caring guy while also being the cold and distant guy depending on my mood and level of drink.”
“That’s fine, but that’s not what I was looking for. I have a son to look after who needs a male role model in his life,” Nikita said as she tugged on Crayden’s monkey leash and dragged him away from the waitress he was trying to sexually harass.
“Nikita, I didn’t even know you had a kid. Like, through the entire three months we dated. I have no idea how you hid him away but I assume you just dumped him at some local bars while we were together.”
“Well I’m glad you’re here now because you should know that Crayden is your son.”
“Wait…what? That can’t be!”
“Yes it can. He’s yours. You are the one who-”
“No, seriously, that literally can’t be. We only dated for three months. Last year. This little drunk asshole is five years old.”
“Oh. Oh, shit, wait…how many years did you spend in prison?”
“None. I’ve spent none years in prison.”
“Ah shit, I got you confused with another guy. I’ve had sex with a lot of nameless guys in cowboy hats, sorry. You all tend to run together in my head.”
“Does that mean this guy’s not my daddy?” Crayden asked.
“No, kiddo,” I said to him. “I’m not the role model you’re looking for.”
“Okay, cool, then we should hang out. Do you want to go titty bar-hopping with me?”
“No. No, I don’t want to go fucking titty bar-hopping with you.”
“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun! We’ll only go to the gross ones, I promise!”
I decided I had had enough of this crazy day. I walked away from Barrio Brewing Company and hopped back on to Poontang Pie. The sun was setting behind the Tucson hills. I thought I would end this adventure reconnecting with a woman from my past but it turned out that she didn’t even know who I really was.
I rode Poontang Pie toward the sunset and took one last look behind my shoulder at Barrio Brewing Company. The brewery itself was awesome thanks to its wide variety of beers and I appreciated that it had a more diverse crowd than its college-aged counterpart, Gentle Ben’s. I decided that I would definitely return to Barrio in the future. But for now…I decided to go wherever Poontang Pie would take me.
3 thoughts on “Gentle Ben’s Brewing Co. & Barrio Brewing Co. – Tucson, AZ”
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