SOME MIGHT ASSUME Tucson's premier microbrewery would feature a taproom mirroring the upscale ambiance of the other contemporary brewpubs that have recently popped up around town. But Nimbus Brewing Company remains first and foremost a microbrewery, a concern whose primary focus is bottling local beer for statewide distribution. Not surprisingly, such an enterprise requires a large, industrial space outfitted with heavy machinery and equipment. In other words, a warehouse. And that's just what you'll find at Nimbus Brewing's headquarters, housed on 44th Street near Palo Verde, down by the railroad tracks.
The taproom was added as an afterthought, says owner Nimbus Couzin.
"People would stop by wanting samples and end up sitting here all day," he recalls. "Eventually, we decided to open the taproom to give them somewhere to go, and the whole idea has just gradually expanded from there."
By cordoning off an area and furnishing it with Salvation Army Furniture and a couple of pool tables, Couzin provided his customers a place to sip samples more comfortably. And given the facility's cavernous space, Nimbus was a logical live music venue, with the loading dock a convenient way to haul musical equipment in and out. Next came a small kitchen serving cold sandwiches, and more recently, pizza.
The space is clean and friendly, the beer is plentiful, the music is a treat, and the atmosphere is laid-back. Welcome to Nimbus Brewing's taproom.
Live music isn't the taproom's only form of entertainment. Since it shares space with the brewing and bottling plant, those coming on a Wednesday might be lucky enough to catch the bottling machine in action. It's a touch loud, but the sight is mesmerizing and a little thrilling. It recalls those schoolday field trips to the local bread factory.
In just three years, Nimbus has become a major player among microbreweries. Couzin, a dedicated home brewer from Portland, Ore., had seen the microbrew craze take off in the Northwest in the 1980s. He abandoned his studies in physics at Purdue University in order to make a career out of his hobby.
Searching for a place out West that afforded a variety of opportunities for recreation, Couzin hit upon Tucson as the ideal spot to launch his venture. As it turned out, both Couzin and the community have benefited from the association.
Focusing primarily on the local market, Nimbus has grown from a semi-obscure brew sold in only a few specialty stores to a top-selling beer available at over 300 locations, including several chain supermarkets, Trader Joe's, and some of the finest restaurants in town. Nimbus has secured a return engagement at Tucson Electric Park during spring training this year, where many a frostbit Midwesterner will undoubtedly warm up to the Nimbus Kino Red.
According to Couzin, the exponential growth in his business is not the product of savvy marketing, but the fruit of word of mouth advertising. Evidently, Nimbus is on people's tongues in more ways than one.
But to return to the Nimbus taproom, it's not the place for intimate conversation and romantic ambiance. And although food has thoughtfully been added to the offerings, it's not the focus of the operation. However, given that, the Nimbus taproom is a fine place to spend an afternoon, listening to tunes and drinking icy pints of microbrewed beer.
The beer selections currently include Palo Verde Pale Ale, Nut Brown Ale, Oatmeal Stout, Rillito Red and a Belgian White Ale. Only the first two brews are presently bottled in convenient six-packs, although plans are underway to offer the Stout off the premises as well.
The selections provide a full spectrum of tastes, from ethereally light (the Belgian White) to thick, dark and swarthy (the Oatmeal Stout). Those accustomed to drinking commercial light brands should be prepared to be taken aback a bit by a Nimbus brew. Nimbus beer is far more potent than the popular name brands, both in terms of alcohol content and full-bodied flavor. It's beer that settles on the tongue and makes itself at home. It's customary for a slightly bitter aftertaste to linger between sips and a synthesis of yeast and grain to assert itself boldly on the palate. This beer is not for the fainthearted.
The Nimbus taproom draws folks in with an affordable Happy Hour every weekday afternoon. Between 2 and 7 p.m. daily, pints cost a mere two bucks, down from $2.50. Regardless of when you come, Nimbus beer is a great value.
The sandwiches continue the trend. The regular ($3) and super size ($5), served with chips, feature whole wheat buns generously stuffed with turkey, sliced ham, roast beef, tuna salad and fresh vegetables. Since the beer is a little weightier than average, I was able to consume only half of a roast beef sandwich, reserving the remainder for another meal.
The pizza's ultra-thin crust is just slightly more substantial than lavosh. A selection of standard toppings are available, and they're lavishly layered; a toothsome sauce and melted cheese provide the finishing touches. Best of all, moderately large slices are available. Specials include a slice and a pint for $3.75, and two slices and a pint for $5. There aren't many places in town that can rival Nimbus for value. My companion and I ate two meals, sampled a pint of each of the five featured beers, and the tab still fell under $15.
The Nimbus taproom hosts live music every Wednesday through Saturday, with Fridays reserved for bluegrass and early Saturday evenings dedicated to bagpipe music. A member of the Seven Pipers Society strolls about the room playing Highlander tunes at regular intervals while patrons look on in open-mouthed admiration.
Everything about the Nimbus taproom seems to work, even the location, which has the uninitiated convinced they've made a wrong turn. (Take Dodge Boulevard east from Palo Verde and persevere until you glimpse the green beer sign in the window.) For good microbrewed beer and a quick, inexpensive bite, there's no doubt about it -- you've come to the right place.
Nimbus Brewing Company Taproom. 3850 E. 44th St. 745-9175. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to midnight Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, noon to 1 a.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Microbrewed beer. Menu items: $3-$15.95.