Chris Wheeler, owner and head brewer at Prison Hill Brewing Co. in Yuma, Ariz., is an admitted “hard science guy.” In the early 90s he studied neurobiology and went on to found a bio-medical distribution company. But, while he was working in the real world, he continued to homebrew and even occasionally worked at a brewery in Tucson.
“I got a taste and I just couldn’t leave brewing alone,” Wheeler recalled.
The English and Belgian styles he came to appreciate were expensive, so he set out to create his own recipes. Eventually, he sold his company and moved back to Yuma—about as far south as a person can be in the U.S.—to be closer to family. He soon found that he had a lot of time on his hands without a business to run, so the fourth generation Yuma native turned to homebrewing and community service.
“A friend tapped me to help raise funds for the YMCA in Yuma, which was a success,” said Wheeler. “Through that work, I met a couple who were interested in starting a brewpub. I had capital from selling my business and knew the brewing end, so it all came together pretty quickly,” said Wheeler.
“Serving Time Since 2014”
Prison Hill Brewing (and pub) opened in 2014, with the motto “Serving Time Since 2014,” which is a play on the infamous territorial prison less than a mile away. Today, the old prison site where men and women were locked up for everything from murder to adultery to stage coach robbery is an Arizona state historical museum.
Prison Hill is the only brewery of any kind for almost 200 miles in the surrounding southwest desert. In a place where summer temps can blow through a hundred degrees for weeks, good, cold craft beer seemed an outstanding business plan. It was also good timing. City leaders where looking to revitalize historic downtown Yuma. They had actually penciled in a brewery in the mock-up design layout as part of their vision to grow the local economy.
“Being a native definitely helped, said Wheeler. “The city attorney was my college roommate and he introduced me to local bankers,” Wheeler recalled, giving a wave to a man with his young son passing the table. “That’s the local television station manager,” he explained.
Prison Hill offers a well-rounded menu that is defined by the pounds of turkeys, chicken, tri-tip and brisket they smoke every day. They also serve several guest beers to compliment their in-house creations, which rotate quickly.
Wheeler still recalls the night they opened with great sentiment.
“We were at capacity and serving beer as fast as I could work the tap handles,” he said. “I finally came out from behind the bar and raised a glass to the house with a toast. People three blocks away said they heard the great cheer that went up in celebration that Yuma finally had craft beer.”
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