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BETWEEN THE COLORADO RIVER and downtown Yuma is the old Territorial Prison, its hilltop guard tower overlooking both the restored wetlands and a reinvigorated main drag. Less than a mile drive from that famous Wild West landmark is the Prison Hill Brewing Company, which when it opened in August became the only craft brewery for 165 miles in any direction.

The partners behind the gastropub and brewery embrace Yuma’s history, incorporating details like the iron bars on the Prison Hill logo, and the blending of cultures that comes from sitting at the convergence of Arizona, California, and Mexico. And in a scorching town where the thirsty have traditionally turned to the dominant mass-market brands, the curiosity and anticipation for a new, local brew ran high through the summer preparations.

“I think Yuma was thirsty for a brewery for a long time,” says Nathan Heida, one of Prison Hill’s three owners. “I don’t think beer culture has lines. It’s something that’s a mix. No matter where you are in the world, there’s a culture for it. Now we’re putting that culture smack dab in the middle of Yuma. It’s something for folks who are coming in from Mexico, from California, from Arizona, and for anyone who travels through.”

With its Guinness World Record as the sunniest city on Earth, Yuma thrives on those travelers, counting more than half a million visitors annually and nearly doubling in population during the winter months. Many are agricultural workers, part of a $3.2 billion industry. Others are military, stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma and Army Yuma Proving Ground. And then there are the outdoor enthusiasts, drawn by the Colorado River and the nearby sand dunes.

Across Interstate 8 from the Territorial Prison, founded in 1875 and now a state park, drivers entering downtown are welcomed with signs proclaiming Yuma as the “winter vegetable capital of the world” and “gateway to the Great Southwest.” Heida, Amy Biallas, and Chris Wheeler hope to add to that reputation a great brewery.

Heida and Biallas started transforming Yuma’s nightlife and beverage culture in November 2012 when they opened the Pint House, directly across South Main Street from Prison Hill Brewing. Like most Yumans, the couple visit San Diego regularly and wanted to establish something local similar to what they found on vacation less than three hours west.

“We needed a place to match San Diego with better beer variety,” Heida says. “Before the Pint House, the most adventurous thing you could get was maybe a Sam Adams or a Sierra Nevada tap.”

Biallas, who tended bar at the venerable Red’s Bird Cage for a decade, and Heida, a general contractor, took over a downtown storefront from a failing restaurant, performed a whirlwind renovation and opened nine days later.

“Everyone thought we were nuts, that Yuma was a town for just Bud Light and Coors Light and all that,” Biallas says. “There was really no craft-beer market in Yuma, so we just blew people’s minds. That first weekend, we blew through beer and had maybe six half-full kegs left. We’re up to 52 beers now. We’ve had so many cool new beers come in and we’re trying new stuff all the time, and it was just the next natural progression to open a brewery.”

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Wheeler, a fourth-generation Yuman who returned home in 2009 after a stint running a biomedical company in San Diego, was an old friend, a Bird Cage and Pint House regular with a homebrewing background.

While studying at the University of Arizona in 1992, Wheeler brewed his first batch of beer. He took a job at Nimbus Brewing Company in 1997, starting on the bottling line before a daytime bartending spot opened up.

“It was so slow during the day that if you’re not doing anything behind the bar, you walk back and hang out with the brewer. If somebody didn’t show up, you get dragged in the back and put on gloves and an apron and do the grunt work,” he says. “Over the course of about two years, I just worked my way up and got more and more responsibility and picked up all the little things over time.”

Wheeler left Nimbus for a job at U of A Liquors, but continued homebrewing, watching closely as the microwbrew industry began its years of explosive growth. The store’s selection expanded as the major Western craft brewers opened distribution to Arizona and Wheeler, along with his UA customers, began turning to more adventurous beers.

“When I first started brewing, I was a big fan of English ales. Sometime in the late ’90s [there was] that Pacific Northwest influence, but I didn’t buy into that heavily hopped style at first. I was a Harp lager and a Bass guy, and then got into my Belgian phase,” he says. “My palate didn’t change until probably 1999 or 2000. But when Stone [Brewing] hit the market, it changed everything. A couple Arrogant Bastards … changes your life.”

With business at the Pint House booming, Hieda and Biallas started thinking about the possibility of adding a brewery to the revitalizing downtown and, over beers, decided to join forces with Wheeler.

“It was a six-month ah-hah moment. It evolved [by] knowing each other and knowing what everybody’s interests were and seeing the success of the Pint House and knowing Yuma was ready for it,” Wheeler says.

The Prison Hill flagship beers reflect the changes Wheeler has incorporated into his style over the years, while being careful not to turn nonadventurous drinkers away. Jailbait Blonde, Lockdown Lager, Warden’s Wheat, Parolee Pale, and a special 3:10 Marzen are among the first offerings, while the brewery’s signature IPA—the Crimin’ Ale—is a special reflection on Yuma’s colorful history.

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Yuma High School—the city’s oldest—opened in 1909 and after a fire destroyed the original building, classes were moved to the recently closed prison. In a 1914 state championship football game, the surprised and sore losers from Phoenix railed against those Yuma criminals. The name stuck.

So when the brewery partners settled on Prison Hill, the bells went off. The name—which had a much better ring than Yuma Brewing Company—opened a raft of possibilities, from the Crimin’ Ale to design elements like the back patio entrance, modeled after the prison’s fortified gate, the Sally Port (also the convenient namesake of the Sally Porter).

“The name is a big deal to us. The details are big things. The three of us as partners are completely different people, but we’re all perfectionists in our own way and we all want really cool stuff, everything from the plates to the light fixtures to the way that the light reflects off doors,” Biallas says.

The demolition and build-out went quickly—and cheaply, with Heida as general contractor shaving about 40 percent off the renovation cost. Every wire, pipe, and gas line was upgraded or replaced. Dating to the 1920s, the building has housed a temporary library, a shoe store, and a thrift shop. Today, the light fixtures are made from empty liquor bottles, a granite bar top anchors the middle of the room, and sturdy, wooden tables round out the 180-person space.

“We wanted things to be a little industrial looking and we just ran with that theme,” Wheeler says. “There are a lot of rustic elements, exposed wood, bare concrete floors. It’s inviting without looking penal, but it certainly drew influence from the prison.”

The brewery began serving on Aug. 29, with a standing-room only grand opening crowd that drained eight kegs of the First Offense, a light pale ale crafted especially for the occasion.

“The first week was just nonstop. It’s the buzz of the town,” says Wheeler.

The menu features selections that draw on Yuma’s agricultural base, allowing for a heavy emphasis on fresh and local ingredients. Sauces incorporate the Prison Hill ales. Signature dishes include a burger called The Shank, a hand-pressed patty, stuffed with mozzarella cheese and bacon and served with beer-battered and deep-fried avocado and chipotle ranch; a smoked tri-tip steak sandwich with house-made salsa; Sprung Rolls, the Prison Hill version of spring rolls, made with locally grown produce; and a sampler plate of meats, all smoked over locally harvested mesquite and pecan wood.

In addition to its own stable of beers, Prison Hill plans to collaborate with guest brewers, ranging from locals who brew at home to visitors from larger Arizona and California breweries.

“San Diego beers tend to be really straightforward, really bold. Arizona beers I think tend to be a little more experimental, like watermelon and peach ales,” Wheeler says. “We’re going to pull influences from both. We’re trying to put our stamp on the styles as they are.”

Yuma Prison

Prison Hill opens in Yuma’s centennial year. And with its growing population—Yuma County is forecast to hit 225,000 next year—Yuma will no longer be the largest metro area in the state without a brewery.

With its current configuration, Prison Hill is capable of producing about 500 barrels a year. The owners hope to expand into local keg distribution, eventually branching to the Phoenix and Tucson markets.

“I’ll make some subtle changes and tweaks for the first year or so,” Wheeler says. “I’m not going to go crazy with production until I know what sells. We have to throw the proverbial beer noodle against the wall a few times.”

While working on renovation and applying for all necessary local, state, and federal licenses, the Prison Hill partners have made sure to do their homework, visiting about 30 breweries across Southern California and Arizona. They looked at systems, from fermenter setups to hops storage to beer-line configuration, conducted market research, and, of course, tasted and tasted.

“There’s a closeness in the brewing industry. Brewers don’t share recipes, but [they’re] very helpful in sharing information and tips. Every time I turn a corner, I’m taking things in. I don’t think I’ve ever come out of a place without learning something new,” Wheeler says.

“There might be a brewery that has a 10-person taproom and a huge production facility, but it’s going to have a similar feeling to a place with a huge taproom and just a five-barrel system,” Wheeler says. “It’s about making something that is pure and true to the form and drinkable. It’s about the love of the beer. That’s something that’s come across from every brewery, whether it’s the massive Stone plant or Four Peaks when it was tiny. And that’s the same goal we have.” 

Published November 1, 2014 in Edible Baja Arizona. 

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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