Founder John Peasley eyes expanding distribution within Arizona as a source of growth for his successful brewery and distillery.
“I got out of the military in 2006 and bought a little gift shop,” says the retired Navy veteran of his return to his favorite childhood vacation town of Williams, Arizona. “I slept on the floor at night, and during the day, I’d clean up and sell curios.”
A short time later, Peasley purchased Cruisers Route 66 Café, which was located next door to the gift shop, as his first restaurant venture in the burgeoning tourist town.
“A million people a year probably come through Williams,” Peasley says. “It’s the gateway to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. There are other attractions here as well, like Bearizona, which is a 160-acre wildlife bear park, and Canyon Coasters, which is a theme park.”
Recognizing that the town of roughly 3,000 residents was in dire need of a brewery, Peasley launched Grand Canyon Brewing Company behind his café in 2007. “We were in that location until 2013 when we bought a building with four-and-a-half acres about four blocks down the road,” he adds. “That’s what really started the growth and production side of [the brewery].”
The Williams location — which serves as the company’s headquarters and production facility — is 45,000 square feet and features a 9,000-square-foot restaurant with a full-service kitchen alongside a 10,000-square-foot production area with a 40-barrel brewhouse and a 17,500-square-foot warehouse.
It’s also home to Grand Canyon’s 7,000-square-foot distillery, in which Peasley and his team began producing spirits in 2017. “We have Arizona’s only rickhouse,” Peasley says. “We have five rows of 55-gallon barrels of whiskey and bourbon aging inside it. And we have four brand-new 1,000-gallon pot stills.”
Why add distilling operations to an already successful brewery and restaurant model? “You can cross-utilize and also get better efficiencies,” Peasley responds. “If I get a bad beer, I used to have to put it down the drain. If [pallets of] beer came back expired, it just went down the drain. Now, we’re able to run it through the still and extract the alcohol to make hand sanitizer, beer schnaps, beer whisky, or vodka.”
Grand Canyon’s portfolio of spirits
includes Premium Vodka, Orange Blossom Vodka, and Prickly Pear Vodka along with Grand Canyon Rum, Grand Canyon Gin, and four varieties of whiskey and bourbon. Additionally, the company offers ready-to-drink canned cocktails ranging from vodka sodas to gin and tonics.
“We started by producing white spirits, which is the fastest way to put spirits into bottles, bottles into hands, and liquid into lips,” Peasley says. “Then we used every penny of profit we were making [from that] to produce whiskey or bourbon and put it into barrels to play the waiting game. Our oldest barrel is now up to six years. Our youngest we put out at two years. That’s to help make some money until we can get into that sweet spot of eight to 12 years.”
Grand Canyon Brewing and Distillery also produces seven year-round beers along with a variety of seasonals and limited releases. Best sellers include Prickly Pear Wheat Ale and Prickly Pear IPA.
“We really hit some homeruns last year on the production side,” Peasley says. “Prickly Pear Wheat uses prickly pear in the brewing process. It has this beautiful hue to it and tastes very exotic. It’s not every day that you get to taste a cactus, much less a cactus in a beer. It just screams Arizona. That and our Prickly Pear IPA are our two fastest-growing brands.”
Peasley says that “R&D is a huge part of what we do,” and notes that the company’s Page and Flagstaff locations are focused on research and development. “A lot of my guys started in garages making five-gallon batches,” he continues. “They’d lose their passion just pushing buttons in a big production brewery. So, every one of our locations has some sort of brewhouse in it to give the brewers a chance to rotate into our smaller facilities and have fun. I don’t care if these guys dump 30 birthday cakes in and make a beer that’s crazy on a small-batch system. If we pour it down the drain, it didn’t cost us a whole lot.”
Grand Canyon’s Page location is 10,000 square feet with a 15-barrel brewhouse and a full-service kitchen. The Flagstaff location has a five-barrel brewhouse and a scratch kitchen. Peasley says that across the three locations, the brewery produced 10,000 barrels in 2022 and is on track to do as much as 14,000 barrels this year.
“We added six new 120-barrel tanks this year,” he continues. “That was huge for the production side. Five were fermenters and one was a bright tank. We also added a Comac Kegger Filler. It’s a keg washer and filler. Previously, we could only do 18 kegs and hour on the cleaning side. Then it would go to the brewery to get filled by hand. It was a very tedious, long process. With the new system, we can produce 75 kegs an hour filled. It’s going to make us three to four times more efficient just on the kegging side of the facility.”
Challenges: Peasley says the company’s biggest challenge is “either sourcing products because of the break in the chain or employees.” He notes, however, that Grand Canyon Brewing Company has put a lot of effort into creating a business where employees feel like family.
“We’re one of the few breweries that offer 401(k) with a match and free medical,” Peasley explains. “We throw some of the best Christmas parties I think anybody has ever seen, where we give away $20,000 to $30,000 in stuff. I’ve had the same pay now for over 15 years, and all I plan on doing is continuing to snowball the growth. People want to be a part of something that is growing and exciting.”
Opportunities: Peasley says continued growth of the brewery and distillery’s distribution within Arizona is a substantial opportunity. The company currently utilizes four distributors within the Coors network: Crescent Crown, Legacy, Canyon, and Finley.
“I think our biggest growth is going to be in the metropolitan areas of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, and Glendale,” he continues. “The next-biggest opportunity is the continued growth of restaurants with microbreweries in them inside and around the Grand Canyon. That could include Las Vegas, Sedona, Prescott, all those fun spots.”
Needs: Peasley says he just needs the government to stay out of his way. “[The shutdown] is still on my mind, even though it was three years ago,” he adds. “There’s a fear of government overreach to do what they did and then see the outcome three years later. Walmart, Home Depot, and companies like that were allowed to stay open, but mom-and-pop pizzerias, breweries, and retail shops had to close. Some of them didn’t survive.”