In 1996, craft beer wasn’t even a thing. Some people referred to this trendy beverage as “microbrew;” others weren’t sure exactly what to call it.
That year, though, Andy Ingram experienced the English beer culture while studying abroad and returned with a vision. The result was a modest brewery in Tempe, later known as Four Peaks. It changed the beer landscape in the nation’s 48th state.
“I was a 26-year-old moron doing what I loved to do,” Ingram joked.
He may have been flying by the seat of his pants back then, but Ingram and his partners made many great business decisions that would eventually turn this small, neighborhood brewery into a powerhouse.
Recently, Four Peaks celebrated its 20th anniversary with an all-day celebration that featured a performance by Blues Traveler, as well as throwback beers brewed during the past two decades. Revelers flocked to Four Peaks’ Wilson Road property, packing the taproom to capacity.
Naturally, there was a time not that long ago when Four Peaks wasn’t on every store shelf and in many Valley bars. The beer that Arizonans have adopted as their own had a very modest start, and like many breweries, trials and tribulations almost doomed the project before it got off the ground.
Ingram started as an assistant brewer at Coyote Springs Brewery in Phoenix under the tutelage of Clark Nelson. They shared their ideas and dreams of opening their own place. Around the same time, another group of more seasoned businessmen, led by Jim Scussel, were hatching a plan to open a brewery. The two parties crossed paths and eventually decided to work together.
The first major challenge came when they found an old dairy building on Eighth Street in Tempe, then a rundown part of the city. In a leap of faith, they signed a lease before they had secured the financing, determined to find a way to get it done. They quickly discovered they needed a “Plan B.”
“There was a lien on the property and the bank would not secure the loan,” Ingram explained.
Undeterred, Ingram and his group sold Grundy tanks, small, stainless steel tanks used for fermenting beer. At that time, fledgling breweries were aplenty, and these classic tanks were exactly what they needed.
With Grundy tank proceeds and financing from friends and family in hand, things were a go on Eighth Street.
There was also the issue of what to call this new venture. The original working name of Cactus Creek Brewing Company didn’t excite the partners. After discussing hundreds of monikers, they voted secretly on paper.
“Though no one had Four Peaks as their No. 1 choice, the name was the only one to appear on all the ballots,” Ingram recalled.
And with that a new brewery was born.
Though the business plan called for a full-service restaurant and bar, finances limited that idea to a production brewery. A few years later, an angel investor’s funding provided the green light to the bar and restaurant.
The ownership group was then set in stone: Ingram oversees the brewing operations and Scussel is the financial guy. Randy Schultz is the front-of-house manager while Arthur Craft is the master of the kitchen.
In a bit of serendipity, Ingram crossed paths with brewing industry rogue Dr. Paul Farnsworth, who was about to close Tucson’s River Road Brewing. Farnsworth wanted to see his house yeast live on. This was the type of English yeast Ingram was looking for, so he gladly accepted the gift that would later become the Four Peaks’ house yeast.
With the help of former Young’s Brewery veteran-turned-consultant, Barry John, recipes were devised for Impale Ale (the precursor to Eighth Street pale ale), Oatmeal Stout, Peach Ale and Leroy Brown Ale.
“Barry stressed the importance of balance in all beers, even the ones that are traditionally unbalanced such as IPAs or barley wines,” Ingram said.
They considered distributing their beer locally and approached a local Tempe watering hole known as Casey Moore’s.
“They said they’d give us a shot for a week,” Ingram explained. “If the beer sold, we’d get a chance to stay on. Thankfully our beer has been on at Casey Moore’s ever since.”
After establishing itself with beers distributed into the marketplace via bars and stores, the focus shifted toward turning the production facility into a full-blown brewpub. Headed by Arthur Craft, the Eighth Street brewpub quickly became the place to be and the place to be seen. The success of the Eighth Street restaurant spawned a second full-service restaurant in Scottsdale and later a third at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The Wilson Road production facility, necessitated by the ever-increasing demand for its beer statewide, appeared four years ago, equipped with a spacious tasting room.
Four Peaks was acquired in late 2015 by Anheuser-Busch InBev. Despite initial backlash within the brewing community, Four Peaks weathered the storm and remains strong, thanks to the original ownership group’s day-to-day operations. The owners saw their hard work pay off and now Four Peaks beers can be enjoyed beyond the borders of Arizona.
Trying to get a brewer to choose his favorite beer is a lot like asking him to pick a favorite child. Eventually, Ingram could single one out.
“My favorite beer is Eighth Street Pale Ale because it’s the most balanced,” Ingram said.
Though Ingram believed in himself and his brewery, he never expected to be where he is today.
“It’s been an amazing wild ride,” Ingram added.