(Every Thursday, MXSW reveals the story behind one of Arizona’s craft beers.)
This week’s subject: SanTan Devil’s Ale
Devil’s Ale is a West Coast pale ale (5.5% ABV) introduced by SanTan Brewing Company in Chandler in early 2009. Originally known as Sun Devil Ale, it’s SanTan’s No. 1 seller, outselling second-place SunSpot Gold by a 4-to-1 margin in the field.
How did Devil’s Ale get its start?
“Because of the hops shortage at the time (SanTan launched in 2007), I was making an IPA but everything else had no hops in it,” SanTan founder and brewmaster Anthony Canecchia says. “I just couldn’t get hops, so I struggled to make one IPA (HopShock) and keep that on. Then it turned into Big Red, which used even less hops.
“People kept saying, ‘You should make a pale ale.’ But I didn’t have the hops to make it, so people were actually taking the HopShock or the Big Red and mixing them with SunSpot (blonde ale). James (Swann, a SanTan manager and bartender at the time) was calling it the King James. I called it the Lord Swann.”
How did you solve the hops problem?
“(Eventually) I got three boxes of hops from Steve Parkes from the American Brewers Guild,” Canecchia says. “He showed some mercy on my poor soul. He got us some (English) Kent Goldings hops at cost, which I’m not a big fan of but hops were hops back in 2008.
“It was just a scary time. I used whatever I could get my hands on — Palisade, Glacier, Kent Goldings. But it also turned me on to a couple of hops I never would have used. I found Simcoe, and that became the base for Sun Devil.
Why name it for the ASU sports mascot?
“I went to the U of A, but I didn’t really like any of the people who went to the U of A,” Canecchia says, laughing. “When I was brewing down there, I had a pale ale that I named Sun Devil Ale.
“Some of my friends just wouldn’t drink it. They were like, ‘Wildcats, Wildcats!’ I was, like, ‘Great!’ I put a big Sun Devil sticker right on the bottles so they wouldn’t touch my beer.”
How has the beer changed since 2009?
“Well, it wasn’t the way it tastes now,” Canecchia says. “As I said, we were using (hops) I didn’t want to put in it, but it made a nice, mid-range hoppy beer. It was drinkable. There was hop character to it but not aggressive. It was very low on aroma because I couldn’t waste hops on aroma.
“The 2009 (version) lacked the beautiful, delicious smell of muscat-y Simcoe hops and a more balanced profile. (The current version) also is drier. We always want our beers in that Southwestern style of as dry, dry, dry as we can get them.”
ASU sued you over the name in 2010…
“I wasn’t going to fight Mr. Crow and the ASU empire,” Canecchia says. “They sent us a cease-and-desist letter, but it turned out very amicable. It’s hard to not see their point. We rebuffed because so many local businesses are named Sun Devil this or Sun Devil that.
“They just made the case, ‘We don’t care. We let them use (the name). We don’t want you to use it. We don’t want it associated with alcohol.’ Even though back in the ‘80s, after they won the Rose Bowl, there was a Sun Devil Beer.”
So everything worked out in the end?
“At the end of the day, we got some nice publicity out of it that really helped the pub,” Canecchia says. “They were really cool about it. They would have ground us into the turf if we tried to fight them, sure, but when we did the naming contest (to rename the beer) they showed a sense of humor.
“Terri Shaffer, their public relations director, was quoted in the Arizona Republic as saying, ‘They’re having a naming contest? That’s great. They can call it Sun Ale, they can call it Devil’s Ale – as long as they don’t call it Sun Devil Ale.’
“So we said, ‘Terry’s the winner of the contest!’ We called her up and she laughed. We showed up at her office with a keg (of Devil’s Ale, the contest’s grand prize) but she politely declined to take possession of it.”
Did you expect Devil’s Ale to be your bestseller?
“I planned on it to be a flagship beer because there were no other Arizona breweries that were putting their high-hop beers forward at the time with any intention of distributing statewide or putting dollars behind the brand,” Canecchia says.
“Devil’s Ale to me is a food beer. All our beers are food beers, but that one just goes so well with so many types of food, whether it’s savory or it’s sweet or it’s smoky. Chocolate even has been paired with it. To me it’s kinda the perfect beer.”
Where to find Devil’s Ale
You’ll find Devil’s Ale throughout Arizona, southern California, and Texas on draft and in 12-ounce cans.
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