Sweaters are being stripped off, sleeves are being rolled up, and hats are perched on heads as the sparkling winter sun permeates Mesa, AZ’s Riverview Park. Copper State Beer Festival is in full swing, and the weather is offering up its desert best for the 5,000 visitors the event has attracted. This is the third year the festival has taken place, drawing beer lovers from across Arizona and further afield to one of Phoenix’s hippest suburbs for an afternoon of imbibement. As Arizona’s craft beer scene blooms like a cactus flower, consumers are catching on, creating space for this frankly huge event featuring 72 breweries, plus a range of cideries, wineries, meaderies, distilleries, seltzer makers, bars and bottle shops. While the focus is firmly on beer, this is an event with something for everyone and an opportunity for local businesses to showcase their offerings alongside high-profile national names. There’s even a skating rink and axe throwing, which beats the heck out of the usual spin-the-wheel attractions beer festivals offer (FYI there was also spin-the-wheel).
Mesa is an attractive city choc-full of cool breweries and other hospitality businesses — easily enough to entertain a visitor for a day or two alone, but hosting Copper State is a feather in the cap for organizational partners Visit Mesa, who hope to utilize the event to bolster their national and regional visitor numbers. “The Beer Fest presented an ideal platform for us to experiment and innovate in the ever-changing landscape of event marketing,” says Visit Mesa Marketing Director Kate Yordi. To see the snaking queues lining the park as the gates opened, they are certainly succeeding.
Like most American beer festivals, Copper State is on the clock, with VIP entrance at 12 p.m. and general admission at 1 p.m., and a 5 p.m. finish. Trying to get through 72 breweries in that time makes for some heavy lifting, meaning drinkers must choose their poison carefully, particularly with extremely long lines for almost all beverage tents, with drinkers not-unreasonably determined to get their money’s worth. General admission went for $60, with a “plus” option at $65 and VIP at $75 — and considering the large crowds that extra $15 hour comes recommended.
One of the highlights of the festival was experiencing beer from some of the more remote Arizona breweries whom visitors to the Phoenix area may nit necessarily come across, including Verde Brewing, based out in the small town of Camp Verde, 90 minutes from downtown Phoenix, The Brewery at Tirrito Farm, an idyllic restaurant-brewery on a stunning farmstead in Wilcox AZ, 90 minutes to the east of Tucson, and Flagstaff AZ’S fantastic Dark Sky Brewing, who brewed a deliciously moreish blueberry-vanilla-choc American Stout, Night of the Witch, especially for the festival — rightly a popular choice.
It was also an excellent opportunity for new local breweries to make a name for themselves, including Phantom Fox, who only opened last November in downtown Mesa and Phoenix’s Greenwood who are just over a year old. Well-established local names such as Four Peaks and Simple Machine also put in an appearance, as did Huss, Pedal Haus and PHX Beer.
However, while Copper State is indeed a celebration of Arizona beverages, brand names from all over the US are present. From behemoths like California’s Stone Brewing to craft darlings like Florida’s Tripping Animals, Colorado favorites Oskar Blues to Oklahoma legends Prairie Artisan, with fruited sour empresarios Drekker coming all the way from North Dakota. With a mostly local crowd, these were the tents with the longest lines, with many tapping out before the festival ended. While the upside of this is funneling thirsty drinkers to lesser-known names, it did mean that some folks missed out on their first choices.
Many interesting local and national offerings were to be found at the bar and bottleshop tents – an unusual tactic for a beer festival but one that certainly paid off at Copper State. Cool spots like Chupacabra, The Joy Lush Club and The Casual Pint were on hand to offer up goodies from the likes of Avery, Beechwood, Lexington and Ommegang, showing off their own carefully-curated tap lists. The greater Phoenix area, including Mesa, is tripping over with fantastic, well-stocked craft beer bars, and it was very smart of Copper State to include them in the line-up.
Another festival highlight was the presence of the Beer Babes Family, who released their latest collaboration with nearby Bone Haus Brewing in Fountain Hills AZ the previous night and were pouring it as the festival’s welcome drink. The Beer Babes Family is a charitable organization in the USA and Canada who work on collaboration brews to raise money to fund an annual business grant for a woman in beer. It is also an online community fostering diversity and inclusion in the beer world. The organization was founded by Roxy Brossoit and Rachel Benkowski in 2021, and has launched 23 collaborations in that time. With a team of 50+ Beer Babe ambassadors, the organization is continually growing, with the goal of releasing 24 collaborations this year, kicking off with their Bone Haus Babe Brew Cream Ale. The Beer Babes Family were also the festival’s official charitable beneficiary.
Certified Cicerone, beer educator and events coordinator at Bone Haus, Benkowski says “When [festival organizer] Joe asked us if we’d like to provide the Welcome Beer for the fest, I knew I wanted to brew a style that would be a crowd pleaser — meaning I didn’t want something high on the perceived bitterness scale, nor something that was too dark and roasty. Cream Ale was one of the first styles that came to my mind; it is light, crisp, pleasing to the eye, and is generally a beer style most people have heard of, so it’s not off-putting in any way. It was as much of a hit as I anticipated. We had many, many people tell us it was their favorite beer at the fest.”
The festival was staffed by a mix of brewery employees and volunteers who worked hard to keep the beer flowing in the surprising January heat. For Amanda Bear Lecter, a volunteer who is also a Beer Babes ambassador, the drive from her native Oklahoma was more than worth it. “Volunteering at Copper State Beer festival was so fun for me! I love talking about beer with people and I was lucky that my volunteer assignment was to pour for Prairie Artisan Ales because, being from Oklahoma, I’m already very familiar with their beers. It was so fun to see people try those Oklahoma beers for the first time,” she says.
Whether you’re familiar with Arizona beer or want to discover this relatively untapped craft beer scene, Copper State offers a fun and varied day out, with the added opportunity to dip into other beverages, such as the outstanding Superstition Meadery or popular Arizona Distilling in between brews. There were also 23 food trucks to soak up the booze and a range of market vendors, games and DJs to keep non-drinkers busy. Copper State is definitely more of an event for everyone than a beer-nerdathon, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it offers an opportunity for people to become acquainted with craft beer in a social, festive setting with plenty of other options to both imbibe and support local. A few more booths to lower the line time would have been beneficial, and the addition of some live bands was definitely a missed trick, but overall Copper State is a festival that works well, achieves its goals and also supports an important and growing industry charity.