Sentinel Peak/38 Specials brew team

When a challenge was thrown down to see who can brew the best beer on the Arizona pro-am circuit, it should come as no surprise that local firefighters were the first to answer the call.

 First responders, right? I guess it’s in their blood.

 I’ve since learned that firefighting and brewing have a lot in common, and this pro-am competition will be one of the highlights of the Baja Beer Festival on April 23 at Rillito Park.

 All told, the event will feature hundreds of craft beers, served by more than 50 breweries, along with local food vendors and live music. But it’s the festival’s pro-am competition that got me hooked, a contest which will pit teams of Arizona firefighters and professional brewers against one another for best collaborative beer.

 Local firefighter Brian Sturgeon has never walked away from a challenge, whether it’s responding to an emergency or preparing for a brewing competition. Sturgeon has spent the last six years honing his skills as a home brewer, and today, as part of his fire station’s amateur brew team called the 38 Specials, he speaks passionately about the bond that exists between these two communities.

 “Firefighting and brewing are both about team-building,” he said. “It’s about getting everybody together to reach for the same goal.”

 Sturgeon and his team were assigned to Tucson’s Sentinel Peak Brewing Company for this year’s pro-am, giving them the opportunity to brew collaboratively with professionals in a setting right for the job.

 “We learned so much from the guys at Sentinel Peak. They were super helpful, knowledgeable, and passionate,” he said.

 Jeremy Hilderbrand, Sentinel Peak’s owner and director of brewery operations – and, coincidentally, a firefighter himself – shares Sturgeon’s sentiments, reaffirming the natural connection that exists between firefighting and brewing.

 “These two groups are oriented around community, around love, friends, and family,” he said. “It really is about brotherhood.”

 Among the beers that this particular brotherhood brewed for the event are a Scotch ale, a malty, rich, and sweet amber-style ale, and an imperial porter, a big and roasty brew with hints of chocolate and coffee.

 While Sturgeon recounted the valuable lessons that his team learned from the Sentinel Peak crew, Hilderbrand was quick to point out what he personally took away from spending time with the 38 Specials.

 “These guys honestly helped me to remember where I came from,” he said, “and how those early days equipped me to become who I am today.”

 Allan Conger, president and head brewer at Tucson’s 1912 Brewing Company, is looking forward to the pro-am as well, and has partnered with firefighters from the Naughty Pines brewing team in pursuit of victory on April 23.

 “We’re brewers and they’re firefighters, and that means that we’re both part of the work hard-play hard crew,” he said. “Beer brings everyone together, and we had a lot of fun geeking out on beer with these guys in preparation for the event.”

 The 1912 and Naughty Pines collaborative beers include an imperial cucumber gose, a soured wheat beer with tropical tartness, and a nopalitos chile beer, a dry-hopped blonde ale made with local cactus pads and chiltepin chiles.

 Thirteen collaborative teams of Arizona firefighters and professional brewers will compete in the event, with a panel of celebrity and home brewer judges who will render what’s expected to be a difficult decision.

Tickets for the Baja Beer Festival are $30 each, with VIP packages available for $50, which can be purchased at BajaBeerFestival.com. All of the event proceeds will benefit the Northwest Firefighters Charities and the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild.

 Whether these firefighters choose to keep their day jobs or hang up their hoses to pursue careers in craft beer matters not. Either way, I assure you that we’ll be in good hands.

 Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at mrussell@russellpublic.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.

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