Kelly Vaughn

In the beginning, there were wild, open spaces.
There was a dog named Daisy.
There was an idea.
And then there was beer. So much beer.

If the story of Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. could be condensed to about 25 words, those might be the words.  But most stories can’t be pared down that way, and this one is no exception — because the story at the heart of Arizona Wilderness is one of perseverance and friendship, of sustainability and community.

Chapter One: The West and Mistaken Identity

In 2002, Jonathan Buford made his way to Arizona from the Midwest, cruising Interstate 40 from Gallup, New Mexico, across the Painted Desert and then down Interstate 17 to the Valley of the Sun, making the entire journey in a 1988 Chevrolet hatchback. If you’ve never seen one, imagine the cars in Twins or Working Girl or Die Hard. Non-specific. Mostly reliable. 

“I think it’s important to understand what I mean when I say that the West called me,” Jon says. “I didn’t really point to Arizona my whole life and say, ‘That’s where I’ll end up.’ I was in Ohio when I was 18 and kind of battling the chaos of being a teen, in a place where you grew up, where everyone knows each other.”

Columbus wasn’t working out so well, so Jon ended up following a friend in need to the Grand Canyon State. When he saw the San Francisco Peaks under the dark veil of a monsoon storm, he realized Arizona was so much more than the desert wasteland many Midwesterners had described to him. Naturally, Jon called his mom. 

“I was kind of freaking out about the mountains,” he says. “I said, ‘Mom, this just isn’t what I thought it was going to be.’ ” And so, despite a plan to eventually move to California — he was born in Los Angeles but hadn’t lived there since he was 3 months old — Jon chose to call Arizona home. 

Since, he’s put himself to work exploring almost every inch of the state, and it was on one of his early trips into the wilderness that the idea of a brewery was born. 

“I was actually hiking Hellsgate, and I remember seeing the sign that designated the wilderness boundary. I knew that there would be a silence past that point, and that that was exactly what the land was intended to be,” Jon says. “I kind of took all of the ethics and ethos that I’d developed based on the values of wilderness and thought that I could find something to make them work on a unified front. Craft beer was the hottest topic in the world at the time, and I was getting into it like every other homebrewer was.” 

But Jon wanted to be an entrepreneur more than he wanted to be a brewer, which meant he needed to find one. A good one. And fast. Luckily, a lot of people in the craft beer community kept confusing Jon with another tall, long-haired, big-bearded brewer: Patrick Ware, who was working for SanTan Brewing Co. at the time. 

“This woman came up to me kind of upset and asked, ‘Where were you last night?’ ” Jon recalls. “I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Turns out, she had been looking for Pat. He kept having similar experiences with people looking for me.” 

Eventually, the two men met, and Jon convinced Pat — who was already five years deep into his passion for craft brewing, with dreams of opening his own space — to join him on a backpacking trip. It was 2012.

Chapter Two: Mileage

Venturing into the West Clear Creek Wilderness in the middle of summer is no small feat. Air temperatures below the Mogollon Rim can arch into the hundreds, and the hike itself is essentially a 600-foot vertical obstacle course that drops into a canyon. But once you’re down, deep down there in the belly of that canyon, the silence of wilderness takes over. And it’s there that Pat agreed to partner with Jon to create Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. 

“Poor guy,” Jon says. “It was something like 117 degrees in Phoenix, so we went up there, and we had shorts and shoes and beer. It was a long night, but it was an excellent, awesome introduction.” 

Jon has told me the story of Arizona Wilderness a few times now. This time, it’s in bright, fragmented memories as we sit across from each other at the brewery’s downtown Phoenix location. It’s midday on a Wednesday in early August, and Jon is sweating. He’s a couple of minutes late, but for good reason: He just cycled to the brewery from
Gilbert, a distance of more than 20 miles. 

“I’m training for a triathlon now,” he says. “I figure it’s just the next thing. I’ve never done one before.” 

Later, he posts to his Instagram account: “I love riding to [downtown Phoenix] from Gilbert. You get to see past the facade of comfort and into the real. Into the human side, and the elemental. How PHX truly comes together in its joints. Neighborhoods that, by initial impression, don’t seem to have it all together, yet have more of a loving vibe than the utopian areas with everything at your fingertips. You see some things and you learn to embrace it all. Your fellow human is around you speaking, though you may not be listening. Listen. A concrete jungle with life in between the cracks. Anyways, cycling through life is just a beautiful thing.” 

And Jon is no stranger to putting on miles. Since before the brewery’s inception — the Gilbert location opened in 2013 and was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign — Jon has spent as much time as he can in Arizona’s wilderness areas. He’s working on The Arizona Wilderness Book, a photographic celebration of the state’s 90 federally protected areas. At press time, he’d collected images from 86 of them. 

He’s been in good company. Pat goes along for many of the trips. So does Daisy “the Wonder Dog,” a 15-year-old schnauzer who’s logged more trail miles than a lot of humans. Jon and Pat’s longtime friend Joel Hazelton, a frequent Arizona Highways contributor (his photograph is on this month’s cover), is usually along for the journey, too.

“One of my favorite adventures with Jon and Daisy was quite scary at the time,” Joel remembers. “We backpacked into the Salt River Canyon Wilderness via Coon Creek. The hike from our campsite to our photography destination was confusing and sketchy — bordering on treacherous — and knowing that we would be returning to camp in the dark and without the luxury of modern GPS phone apps, I was very nervous for what was to come. Nevertheless, we pushed away any gut feelings and continued with the plan anyway.”

There’s a saying among people who frequently find themselves on trails and in the woods and on back roads where there’s very little cell service and plenty of opportunity for challenge: “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Although it originated with Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, it’s been adapted by thousands of recreational hikers, climbers, bikers, campers, more. And on this particular trip, the words rang loud and true for Jon, Joel and the wunderhund

“We were lost the second we stepped through the first tree,” Joel says. “We were crawling, climbing, breaking tree limbs and constantly getting slapped in the face by stiff tamarisk branches. It was pitch black in there, and all we could see was the web of branches right in front of us. After an hour and a half of this, we eventually emerged from the tamarisk back to the spot where we had started our return hike. We felt defeated and scared. Over the next couple hours, we hashed out multiple escape plans, continued to get lost, fell in the river multiple times, lost and then found Daisy, accepted that we would be staying the night away from the campsite and our overnight gear, and then finally gave one final, slow and calculated attempt. 

“Jon really came through on this final effort. He came up with a plan to use the occasional cottonwood trees as checkpoints, so we always had something to follow, even if the darkness and maze of tamarisk made us feel disoriented and overwhelmed. Through following the cottonwoods, and him continuously talking me down from my cliff of anxiety, we finally made it back to our campsite, almost four hours after we started our return trip.”

For some, that experience would be enough to discourage more backcountry adventures. For Jon, the opposite was true. The backcountry is the reason behind, well, everything.

Chapter Three: Read and React 

The year Arizona Wilderness’ Gilbert location opened, 2013, it won the website RateBeer’s “Best New Brewery in the World” award. There were 2,599 other breweries to choose from, but Arizona Wilderness was on top. A 2014 Esquire article celebrated the achievement, noting that just eight months prior, Jon had been an out-of-work window washer on the verge of bankruptcy. 

“He had been unemployed for nearly a year, and the brewery’s opening had been badly delayed,” Eric Benson wrote at the time. “The award changed all that. Suddenly Buford was fielding requests from famed brewmasters who wanted a taste of his ales, rebuffing investors who wanted him to scale up, and more than doubling the size of his staff in a month and a half.”

Jon, Pat and their team of carefully selected brewers, chefs, bartenders, servers and creatives were crushing it, and by 2015, they were working on an expansion from a seven-barrel brewery to a 15-barrel brewery. They entered competitions at festivals worldwide.

“We built an international name, especially around 2015 through 2018,” Jon says. “We had people flying from all over to see us, and we’d definitely passed up a few opportunities where we would have taken from equity partners. But it wasn’t just about the money. It was, you know, about the amount of electricity it would take to do that, the amount of water it would take to do that. We just weren’t quite ready for that. We hadn’t [fully developed] our conservation values yet — they just weren’t there — and that does turn to corruption, when you have that kind of mentality of ‘Hey, if we add more, we’ll make more.’ ” 

Instead, Jon and the people who work alongside him emphasized forging relationships with local farmers, growers and community partners, in what Jon calls a “read and react” approach. Among the relationships that grew from the concept was one with Ramona Farms, which is on Akimel O’odham land in Sacaton. The family-run operation specializes in growing tepary beans, a crop popular among Indigenous communities for being high in protein, low on the glycemic index and wholly nutritious. Plus, it thrives despite Arizona’s long-running drought. The beans, which come in black, brown and white varieties, appear in Arizona Wilderness’ vegetarian tacos, the Earth Bowl, the veggie burger and more. 

Sinagua Malt, located in Camp Verde, provides malted barley to Arizona Wilderness and a number of other regional breweries. The history and mission of the benefit corporation are worthy of pages all their own, but in a nutshell, Sinagua Malt works to mitigate declining water volume in the Verde River by working with farmers to grow malting barley, traditionally a winter crop, during the summer, thereby using far less water than summer crops such as melons, tomatoes and squash. 

And every beer that Arizona Wilderness brews features some locally grown or Arizona-inspired ingredient. For example, the Arizona Highways IPA, an India pale ale (see page 21), is imbued with foraged mesquite pods and raw Sonoran honey from Tempe-based Rango Honey.

It’s this spirit of community, conservation and sustainability that defines the work being done at Arizona Wilderness. The downtown Phoenix location opened on Roosevelt Row in 2019. Since, it’s become an Audubon-approved bird-friendly beer garden. On any given day, visitors might see sparrows and finches flitting about as they sip on beers such as Protect America’s Climbing, a hoppy lager brewed in partnership with the Access Fund; Monsoon Chocolate, a barrel-aged stout made with Tucson-based Monsoon Chocolate’s cacao nibs, chiltepin peppers, vanilla and Ceylon cinnamon bark; the flagship Refuge IPA, brewed with 100 percent Sinagua malt; or Don’t F--- It Up, a honey blonde ale that gets straight to the brewery’s wilderness conservation philosophy and efforts. 

Those efforts are amplified by the brewery’s commitment to reducing the waste it sends to the landfill. “[Phoenix] does not allow others to bid against Waste Management,” Jon says. “[So we partnered with] this place called Recycled City. They’ve come in a couple of times, and it turns out that they compost soil and raise farm ingredients on that, but you’re doing it yourself as a business owner — the garbage truck isn’t going to pull up and take it away. You’re going to have some smell issues, but we deal with them, and last year alone, we were able to take 284,000 pounds of landfill waste and divert it to compost.” 

Last year — in the middle of a global pandemic, when small businesses suffered. True to form, though, Arizona Wilderness pivoted. They offered takeout and delivery services. They kept brewing. They did everything they could to help their employees, who receive semiannual raises without those costs being passed along to the consumers. 

“We have moments where we just get to make decisions,” Jon says. “This is what happens when you don’t have crazy equity owners who really need profits. We’ve designed our life where we pay ourselves a fair salary. I’ve never taken a profit or a bonus. We just get to do this. It is the American dream, in my opinion, where we get to influence the community. We’re doing this simply because it can be done, and we want to do it.”

Chapter Four: Cheers

As I was working on this story the other night, I watched Val, a new documentary about actor Val Kilmer. It’s a stunning visual history of the man’s career, pulled in large part from the thousands of hours of video he shot himself over the course of it. Weird, sure, but I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the actor’s story and the story of Arizona Wilderness. 

“You see a tree and you observe a truth about the tree,” Kilmer narrates. “And you’re hit with it, the magic of the tree. It’s a spiritual thing, beyond the physical life form of the tree. So, then you write, and write about the form of the tree. Then you write about the life of the tree and the spirit of it until your own personality is gone from the words — when you’re gone from the poem, then it’s a poem. Part of you disappears so you can dance with the spirit of something else.” 

It happens so much in wilderness, doesn’t it? That a person can discover something they didn’t even know they were looking for? That they can take an idea and turn it into reality because the whole spirit of the idea in the first place was rooted in something simple and pure and lovely? Maybe the story of Arizona Wilderness is the story of magic and spirit and getting lost in the poem. 

It is a Saturday afternoon in early September. It’s hot. But the downtown Phoenix patio at Arizona Wilderness is bursting with people, their kids and their dogs. It’s the brewery’s eighth anniversary, and the community has come out to celebrate. 

My fiancé and I split the burger special, made with grass-fed Arizona beef and served on a bun from Noble Bread. We try the Dirty Hop Water: Operation Doomsday, a hazy double IPA that the brewers created in honor of hip-hop artist MF Doom, who died in October 2020. And as we’re getting ready to go, Jon and his wife, Katie, walk up, beaming. 

This celebration is a testament to perseverance, to the story of a little brewery that could — without interference from equity partners, without getting too big too fast. I think back to what Joel Hazelton told me earlier in the week: “Jon has a tendency to dive headfirst into adventures, even if the odds are against him. Sometimes his friends, including myself, lovingly poke fun at him for these situations. And, occasionally, we find ourselves in one of these situations with him. But I also know it’s this same unwavering vision and sheer grit that has found him so much success at his brewery. That, and his love for Arizona. 

“Jon takes an enormous amount of pride in this state, which is why he sources ingredients here, puts pictures of the landscape on the bottles and names beers after wilderness areas. We used to discuss these exact ideas years ago on backpacking trips, back when the brewery was just a dream and we were just a couple of guys and a schnauzer camped out in the Chiricahua Mountains, or the Santa Catalinas, or any of the other trips I remember so fondly. It’s been amazing watching Jon and the brewery grow, and I’m thrilled to see where they go next.”

Jon will go back into the wilderness soon, to photograph the few remaining shots he wants for his book. Pat and his team will continue to conceptualize and create beers that celebrate those open spaces. Inevitably, more landfill waste will be converted to compost this year than last year. More community partnerships will grow. And, always, Arizona’s 90 wilderness areas will be at the heart of the story. 

“Wilderness has no counterargument,” Jon says. “There’s nothing that can topple nature supremely reigning. Just recently, I was standing in the Harcuvar Mountains Wilderness and seeing this spine ridgeline and knowing that no one really stands there. Anyone who wants new experiences and plans out wanting new experiences can, at any moment, see nature in its purest form. It’s a shame that there’s not more. It’s a shame that the West has parcels that don’t connect anymore. But at the same time, you can’t change the past, [and] you can’t complain about it. You just take what you have and preserve it, and that inspiration of preservation is what I try to inspire in our business and our employees. It’s not just being inspired by wilderness, but remembering that every bit of that soil is alive — and understanding that you treat it like we would humanely treat other people.” 

A few weeks ago, as the air began to carry the sweet, crisp flavor of autumn, Arizona Highways added an unexpected item to its portfolio: beer. 

The Arizona Highways India Pale Ale, brewed in partnership with Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co., is more than just something to sip. It’s a brew with a cause. Five percent of proceeds from sales of this particular beer will benefit the Arizona Trail Association. 

Arizona Highways was part of my initial inspiration to get out into Arizona more,” says Arizona Wilderness co-founder Jon Buford. “The more I saw, the more I wanted to share my love for this state. In other words: Longtime fan, first-time caller.” 

In addition to celebrating Arizona Highways’ nearly 100-year run, the beer will feature many of the locally sourced ingredients the brewers at Arizona Wilderness use regularly in their recipes. “We brew with what’s available, with what works well together and, well, with what we like,” Jon says. “We had plenty of mesquite from a forage of employees’ yards, along the canals and from green spaces near their homes.”

The mesquite will be paired with honey from Rango Honey (see page 45), a Tempe-based brand that specializes in producing raw Sonoran honey. “Rango is an amazing company, and they have such beautiful honey,” Jon says. “It’ll round out the flavors and meld with the mesquite to come off similar to Honeycomb cereal.” 

Finally, hops from the Pacific Northwest will give the beer that true IPA ebullience. 

For more information about Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co., visit