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This Tiny Arizona Brewery Is Making the True Champagne of Beers

February 20, 2020

By Emily Krauser, February 20, 2020

Bisbee has been called the Paris of Arizona, so it’s appropriate that the shockingly clear beer Salut! only exists in this town because of the real Paris.

At first glance, Old Bisbee Brewing Company’s Salut! looks like a grown-up Smirnoff Ice. It’s nearly transparent, save for a hint of texture and whisper of cloudiness. Marketed on their menu to people who “don’t like beer,” it’s brewed with champagne yeast and extracts of peach and Bulgarian elderberry flower and described as tasting “a bit like Prosecco or sweet Champagne,” which is extremely accurate. It’s a refreshing, gluten-free summer drink that works year-round, especially in this Arizona mountain town that is often 10 to 15 degrees cooler than Tucson, 95 miles northwest. The brew makes no sense, is enjoyed by both beer novices and nerds, and it is delicious.

One of the great joys of owning Old Bisbee for Victor Winquist is sitting on the patio and noting who’s drinking Salut!. During the week, the taproom is filled with locals, but on weekends, tourists flock from all over Arizona and Mexico (the border is just 12 miles south of town). The diversity of people coming into the taproom, especially to drink Salut!, never ceases to amaze Winquist. “At the bar, everybody’s comfortable with everybody else, no matter what your persuasion, religion, or whatever. It’s heartwarming to me,” he says. “It was something I dreamed of creating, and it has really worked out that way—people really enjoy each other here.”

Winquist opened Old Bisbee in the Brewery Gulch neighborhood in 2010. Bisbee is eclectic, full of artists, musicians, and dreamers who revived the town after the Copper Queen Mine Company folded in the ‘80s, taking many residents with it. In the early 1900s, the liberal locale was one of the largest towns between St. Louis and San Francisco (though not the largest, as urban legends claim), with a peak population of 25,000. The former mining city is home to the (sometimes disputed) oldest ball field in the nation, as well as the first golf course and community library in Arizona, all three of which are still operating. Both the longest-running bar in the Copper State, St. Elmo’s Bar, and the smallest, the four-stool Room 4 Bar, call Bisbee home, and when “Electric” Dave Harlan started brewing in 1988, his now-closed Electric Brewing was the first small-batch brewery opened in Arizona since Prohibition. The town was once well-known for its red-light district and brothels and century-old buildings are supposedly filled with ghosts.

Though Winquist, 73, owned a home in town for 23 years and came from a wine background, it took a bit for locals to warm up to his dream of bringing a brewery back to Brewery Gulch for the first time since 1891. “It’s not an easy town to start something like this in [as residents] have tremendous loyalty. Electric Dave was still here, so it took a while for people to become comfortable, which I understand,” he says. “When Dave phased out, then people were grateful to have Old Bisbee here. Now, we’re in the old guard in town.”

Brandy Fischer

Just like the city it was born in, Salut! is delightfully odd and full of history. During all of the preparation for what would become Old Bisbee, Winquist kept remembering an Impressionist painting he saw in a café in Paris of a group of people cheersing with clear-looking beverages. The drink had been created out of desperation in the mid-19th century when the Great French Wine Blight caused an extreme shortage of vino and ungodly prices for what was available. Once the wine industry started to recover, they didn’t want this clear drink to be made anymore, and government sponsorship helped knock it off the market.

Though information on the drink’s ingredients were scarce, Winquist reverse-engineered it by going through old records at French breweries. “I was kind of like Sherlock Holmes trying to figure this out. I started to see a commonality in ingredients that you don’t normally see in those amounts,” he explains, noting he won’t give out a full ingredient list, which isn’t surprising as Old Bisbee is one of the only breweries making a legitimately clear beer rather than a wine hybrid or hard seltzer.

Salut! took off immediately when it was introduced seven years ago, becoming a top seller within months. When I was in the brewery, nearly every customer was drinking at least a taster size of it, yet I couldn’t find anyone outside of Arizona who had heard of it. Part of this is because despite the demand, Winquist wants to stay small and focuses heavily on making sure his staff, especially head brewer Sam Panther, doesn’t get overwhelmed. That’s no easy task when at roughly 2,000 barrels a year, Salut! makes up 15 percent of sales. “Maybe the next generation will do it, but not me,” Winquist says of expanding beyond Tucson and Phoenix. “I’m honored and happy, but I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. I wanted it to be a great joy for people to work here. We have very little turnover, and it brings out the capabilities in each individual.”

In this space he jokes was supposed to be his “swan song,” Winquist’s aim is to create the best beers with the best ingredients. “We don’t want all our beers to taste like IPAs, get caught in a certain niche, or try to have everybody like a certain type,” he says. “We give credit to the public, and I think Salut! has proven that there can be great diversity and success in many different types of beer.”

That appreciation is part of both Bisbee and Salut!’s charm. “Once accepted, I realized people individually are here because they want to explore life in a different way, and we personify that in our beers,” Winquist muses. “It really makes it fun, both to live and to produce these beers here.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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