What puts a city on the map? For lovers of stouts, porters and IPAs, it’s a craft brewery. And until 2014, Yuma, despite a population approaching 100,000, didn’t have one. Luckily for the region’s beer connoisseurs, Chris Wheeler (pictured), who at the time was working in the medical industry, was ready for a craft change of his own.
“I enjoyed it, but I didn’t like the politics of health care,” the Yuma native says. “And I had always been a homebrewer and been in and around breweries.” Inspired by the time he’d spent at Nimbus Brewing Co. in Tucson, Wheeler fell in love with “the culture, the craft, the level of science behind it and the art of making beer.” And after he sold his biomedical distribution company and moved back to Yuma to be closer to family, Prison Hill Brewing Co. — a reference to nearby Yuma Territorial Prison, now a state park — was born.
The timing was right, because Yuma’s historic downtown, where Prison Hill now occupies one of several colorful storefronts, was beginning to recover from the economic downturn. “The location, the timing and the size [of the building] were all perfect,” Wheeler says, “and it was a novel idea that simply wasn’t around in Yuma.”
Most of Prison Hill’s beers and menu items pay homage to the facility that held Territorial Arizona’s criminals for decades. The Jailbait Blonde, by far the most popular pour, is an easy-drinking pale ale with orange highlights, while the Bierre de Jesus, an English-style bitter, honors Wheeler’s great-grandfather who did time in the prison. For those who prefer darker beers, there’s the Chango Malo (Spanish for “bad monkey,” Wheeler’s childhood nickname), a coconut milk stout, plus a rotating list of guest taps (or “conjugal visitors”) from other breweries.
The menu is an array of salads, sandwiches and burgers, including the What’s Your Poblano, Man? — a burger topped with roasted poblano peppers, pepper jack cheese and tortilla strips. But the runaway hit has been the fried avocado appetizer, which Wheeler and his staff discovered almost by accident when they were running low on ingredients. Strips of fresh avocado are beer-battered and deep-fried, then served with citrus wedges and chipotle ranch dressing. “It’s bizarre, but it’s solid,” Wheeler says.
Prison Hill has leaned heavily on takeout business during COVID-19, but Wheeler also used the slowdown to extensively remodel the restaurant and add more outdoor seating. Many Yuma residents have become regulars, and being near Interstate 8 has made Prison Hill a popular stop for travelers on their way to Phoenix or San Diego. And it’s still the only brewery in town — but maybe not for long. “[Our success] speaks to a demographic shift in population and spending habits,” Wheeler says. “And it’s become a really nice hub.”
278 S. Main Street