President and CEO Michael Marquess says his brewery — now the third largest independent craft brewery in the state — expects to produce 29,000 barrels this year — and all for thirsty Arizonans.
“I’m so stereotypical it’s not even funny,” Marquess says when recounting his brewery’s origin story. “I’m almost a cliché, really. I started homebrewing on my stovetop in 1999. I got a degree in hotel management from NAU, but somehow, I got sidetracked and got stuck in real estate appraisal. The only thing that kept me sane was brewing my own beer.”
Marquess quickly became hooked on the process. “There are only four ingredients, and in two weeks I had something I could share with people,” he says. “It was kind of magical, so I loved it.”
When the real estate industry tanked during the Great Recession, Marquess and his then wife and co-founder, Alissa, decided to put that love to work. On a drive back from Colorado to Arizona in their ’82 VW van, they pledged to combine their passions for hospitality, beer, food, motoring history, and road trips together into Mother Road Brewing Company.
Now Arizona’s third-largest independent craft brewer, Mother Road opened its first location in downtown Flagstaff in 2011 and followed up with a second production facility in 2018. “It was necessary to take us from where we were to where we are now,” Marquess says. “We did about 4,500 barrels over at the original brewery that last year in 2017. It was insane trying to brew that much beer in such a small facility. We needed to expand just to meet market demand.”
The production facility, located on E. Butler Ave., is 12,500 square feet spread over three buildings and houses a 20-barrel system manufactured by Forgeworks out of Ridgway, Colorado, as well as fermenters and bright tanks from Pacific Brewery Systems out of Northern California. The brewery packages its beer on a switchback cartoner and also utilizes a SKA
“We’re leasing storage units at the back of the brewery,” Marquess says, “And then Central Arizona Supply has allowed us to lease the parking lot and warehouse space in the back for all the cans. So, it’s still pretty tight.”
Marquess and his team produced 19,385 barrels total in 2021, an increase of 45 percent over the previous year. They expect to hit about 25,000 barrels this year at the production brewery. “And then additionally, we’ve contracted with a partner,” he continues, “and I expect us to probably hit 4,000 more barrels with them.”
Demand for the brewery’s four main line beers has grown explosively throughout Arizona. Their classic, unfiltered IPA — Tower Station — has been ranked the number one independent craft beer selling in Arizona the last two years by Nielsen. Nielsen has also ranked Mother Road Brewing Company among the top 10 brand families in Arizona. “We’ve been fighting with SanTan Brewing, which is another independent Arizona brewer, for that top spot,” Marquess adds. “It’s something I’m very proud of, and I’m proud of our crew.”
The Mother Road taproom typically has 10 to 14 beers pouring at any given time. The original 15-barrel system serves as a tool for experimental brews. “We’ll run it at about a 10-barrel,” Marquess says. “If it fails, and it’s a complete flop, it goes down the drain and no one’s the wiser. Otherwise, it’s a lot of fun to experiment with our guests and get their feedback. We’ve learned that about 45 percent of our guests are regular locals, which is pretty impressive given that we have six million visitors a year come to Flagstaff.”
Challenges: “I’m probably going to sound like a broken record, but the supply chain is nonsense right now,” Marquess says. “There’s no nice way to put it. We’re having to carry so much more inventory, and it’s just miserable how much cash is tied up in that because we can’t trust anything from the manufacturer of our aluminum cans and ends to shipping. Even the FedEx man and the UPS man are using the pandemic, or weather, or something else as an excuse for why they are late.”
The war between Russia and Ukraine is having an impact on the brewery’s ability to secure the ingredients it needs to manufacture its beer. “Barley is going to be a nightmare this year,” Marquess continues. “Ukraine and Russia are some of the biggest growers of grain, barley, and wheat in the world. So, now the world is looking to the U.S. We can’t even get a contract this year, and I don’t know what the price of this year’s crop is going to be come autumn.”
Opportunities: Marquess says introducing new variants of the brewery’s Tower Station beer is a big opportunity. The company will be releasing a Grove version with blood orange and grapefruit as well as a Turbo version with mango for distribution throughout the state. A Sunday Drive lager is also slated for wider release.
“There’s just a lot of excitement right now for Mother Road and its beers,” Marquess says. “We just need to keep capitalizing on it and not tripping over our own two feet to keep things rolling the way they are going.”
He doesn’t foresee expanding distribution into neighboring states anytime soon. “We’re staying in the state of Arizona right now because it’s consuming everything we can manufacture and then some,” Marquess continues. “I see no reason to go outside and deal with the ‘Empire of California’ or some of the other states. But that will probably organically happen in the coming years as we build out our final brewhouse or acquire another brewery for capacity — both of which we’re working on right now.”
Needs: An upgrade to the brewery’s canning line is “the number one task right now,” Marquess says. “And then adding additional brewing crew that’s experienced. That’s a real tough one. Flagstaff, unfortunately, is a tough market. It’s expensive as all get out to live here. And we get into trouble with high-end brewers because they have trailing spouses a lot of the time. The trailing spouse may not be able to find a job here. We’ve had three killer candidates with trailing spouses who couldn’t find what they needed, so we didn’t get them. But the quality of life here is excellent, and it’s a great place for me to raise my three kids. I love living up here on the mountain. So, that’s why we’re continuing to manufacture in a difficult climate.”
Favorite Beers: “I’m always a sucker for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale,” Marquess says. “That was my first craft beer, and I somehow always go back to that every month or so. It’s just a classic. I’ve also been digging our Lowell Lager. We brewed that with the astronomers from Lowell Observatory for the I Heart Pluto festival. It’s a beautiful, bright, crisp little American lager. It’s just delicious. And I’m sad because I think the last four-pack is in my fridge.”