A white SUV slowly pulls over and parks in front of an unmarked and unremarkable house on a dead-end street in Queen Creek in the far southeast Valley.
The driver gets out of the vehicle with a glass growler in each hand and makes his way around back where one of three garage doors is open.
“Hey, Marty!” the man says. “I need beer.”
Welcome to Owls Orchard, Arizona’s smallest commercial brewery, which Marty Gerhart runs out of a fenced-off portion of his garage on his acre-plus county-island lot dotted with 47 tangelo trees.
It may be Gerhart’s home, but Gerhart is more than a home brewer. He’s had all the licenses and approved paperwork – county, state, and federal – of a commercial brewery since July 2012.
“The beginning of 2013 is when it really took off,” the 44-year-old Intel employee says of Owls Orchard. “By Christmas, I was selling quite a bit of beer.”
Of course, “quite a bit” is a relative term. Whereas Four Peaks Brewing in Tempe will produce nearly 2.5 million gallons of beer this year, Owls Orchard will put out less than 1,000.
“This is kinda like my pilot brewery,” Gerhart says. “Can I brew beers good enough to sell? I thought I could, but you don’t know until you do it.”
Bitten by the brewing bug
An Alaska native, Gerhart grew up in Delta Junction (2013 population: 948) about 100 miles south of Fairbanks. He joined the Navy at age 18.
He eventually landed a job in Torrance, Calif., where he frequented the Redondo Beach Brewery.
“That was really the first craft beer brewery I drank at,” he says.
He didn’t become interested in brewing his own beer until the next year – 1995 – thanks to his brother, who worked on an eight-man crew at a remote fish hatchery in Alaska.
“They had beer on-site, but the only reason was they had a home brewer there,” he says. “The state would fly in all their food, but they would not fly in alcohol. Yet they would fly in the dry ingredients.”
When Gerhart learned his brother was making beer, he decided to try it for himself.
“Pretty much the next day I went to Sun Devil Liquors and bought a home-brew starter kit,” he says.
Gerhart moved to Chandler, finding an apartment near now-defunct Copper Canyon Brewing, where he was a regular. He also spent a lot of time at long-gone brewpubs Bandersnatch and Coyote Springs.
In 2000, he moved to Portland, where he continued to brew “more and more” at home. By 2004, he found himself back in the Valley – this time in Queen Creek – and ready to try brewing professionally.
2 or 3 beers usually available
When Gerhart decided to launch his “pilot brewery,” he quickly found the process was long and expensive.
Then he learned about home-occupation permits, which allow a home owner to easily convert 20 percent of living square footage into a business.
The tradeoff? Unlike other commercial breweries, he’s not allowed to offer tastings, sell pints, or even put up a sign in front of his house. He’s only allowed to sell beer in growlers.
Still, it was the least expensive way, by far, to get his dream off the ground.
With an extensive work background in fluid systems and chemistry, building a 10-gallon brewing system with a pair of fermenters was a snap for Gerhart.
Finding customers wasn’t so easy.
“It’s all word of mouth and Facebook,” he says. “I don’t do any advertising.”
Owls Orchard sells filled 64-ounce growlers for $15 and does refills (of any growler) for $12. Two or three beers usually are available. One always is Desert Dweller Wheat.
“It’s a nice, easy-drinking beer that everyone can enjoy,” Gerhart says. “It’s really our flagship beer.”
And there’s always a seasonal – Pumpkin Rye in the fall, Gingerbread Porter in the winter, and Tangelo Ale in the spring.
“When I brew the tangelo, I always post on Facebook, ‘Hey, bring a bag. Fill a growler, fill a bag with tangelos,’’’ he says, nodding toward his small orchard.
‘I couldn’t be any happier’
Gerhart estimates the majority of his customers live within 10 miles of Owls Orchard, although he also draws the curious from Phoenix, the West Valley, and even out of state.
“Most people are surprised and very interested in how I got started,” he says. “A lot of people like to have me walk them through (the brewing process), just like if you went to a large microbrewery and took the tour.”
Owls Orchard’s biggest challenge, Gerhart says, is production volume.
“I’ve had several places offer to have my beer on tap, but I just don’t make the volume yet to be able to do that,” he says. “Part of it’s time, because I work a full-time job. A lot of taking the next step is to change my conservative ways and jump into the business.”
For now, though, the husband and father of two young children is thrilled with how things have gone so far.
“I couldn’t be any happier,” he says. “I’m successful at it and everything is going well. The next step is taking that leap of faith as far as being a bigger business.
“The ultimate goal is opening our own production brewery out here in Queen Creek.”
Owls Orchard Brewery, 20518 E. Orchard Lane, Queen Creek (map), typically is open noon-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Get updates on the brewery’s Facebook page. Info: 480-254-4070.
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