Arizona's first Black-owned brewery launches this week. Say hello to Kitsune Brewing

Tirion Morris
Arizona Republic

PHOENIX – Home brewer Tyler Smith first connected with north Phoenix's Simple Machine Brewing Company in June. He was hoping to persuade the brewery's owners to show their support for civil rights and racial equality.

After protests swept the country calling for police reform and increased civil rights, a nationwide effort began among brewers to raise money for civil rights organizations. Brewers across the country, including many in Arizona, created varieties of a beer called Black is Beautiful and donated proceeds to the NAACP, ACLU and other racial justice organizations.  

Wanting to work with a metro Phoenix brewery on the project, Smith reached out to Simple Machine owners Matt Wright and Marshall Norris to ask about brewing a Black is Beautiful beer. Together, they brewed an imperial black IPA that helped raise funds for Black Families and Child Services of Arizona, a Phoenix nonprofit. 

Now, a few months later, Smith has a permanent spot in the Simple Machine brew house. He hopes to open his own beer and ramen restaurant, but now, with two of his own tanks inside Simple Machine, he's launched Arizona's first Black-owned brewery, Kitsune Brewing Company.

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How Kitsune paired with Simple Machine

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Smith was working on opening his own brewery and ramen noodle restaurant in Cave Creek, Arizona. He had chosen the name and location, drawn up the plans and started an equipment order, Smith says. 

But when the business complex where Smith was set to lease space was sold, he put all those plans on pause. Next came the coronavirus pandemic., which slowed things further.

Tyler Smith and Marshall Norris sit for a portrait on Nov. 9, 2020, at Simple Machine Brewing Company in Phoenix. Smith is renting space inside the brewery to make his first beers for his new brewery, Kitsune Brewing Co.

This summer, while waiting to see what would happen with his original location, Smith brewed the Black is Beautiful beer at Simple Machine and became familiar with the team. He and head brewer Norris got along so well that they decided to collaborate on more beers. 

"After spending a week or two with them, I realized I didn't know as much as I thought I did," Smith says.

So, when Norris offered Smith the opportunity to brew his own beer out of Simple Machine, Smith decided to one-up the offer. Simple Machine has a large brew house that's designed for expansion. So, in an effort not to take up Norris' brewing space, Smith bought two tanks of his own and installed them at the brewery. 

Although putting his own building plans on hold was "distressing," Smith says finding space to brew at Simple Machine "was like a match made in heaven."

Brewing the Black is Beautiful beer really laid the groundwork for the partnership, Smith says. 

"When you work in a brewery for such long hours, you really have to click with a person. He's such a great teacher and I'm okay admitting when I don't know something," he says. "Marshall really took me under his wing."

How he decided to start Kitsume Brewing

Unlike some home brewers, opening his own brewery hasn't always been the plan for Smith. After growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona, Smith moved to Portland, Oregon, and worked in international retail labor for Nike for 10 years. During that time, he often flew to Asia on business. 

"I spent a lot of time in Japan and Korea and just fell in love with the culture, the people and the food," Smith says. 

Tyler Smith talks to Marshall Norris while sanitizing a fermenter on Nov. 9, 2020, at Simple Machine Brewing Company in Phoenix. Smith is renting space inside the brewery to make his first beers for his new brewery, Kitsune Brewing Co.

While traveling, Smith would often stop in small noodle shops and try different types of ramen, he says. At one restaurant, Smith chatted with the owner about small ceramic idols that decorated the space. One that looked like a fox with multiple tails, the owner explained, was called a Kitsune and in Japanese folklore, represents a protector of the community. 

Back home a few weeks later, when Smith went to get a tattoo, he found out his tattoo artist had just finished a large painting of a Kitsune.

"I was seeing it everywhere; it was like the universe was saying it was right," Smith says.

So with a name and logo ready to go, paired with his love of ramen noodles and craft beer, the idea for Kitsune Brewing Company was born. After moving back to his home state of Arizona, Smith launched the company and started looking for properties in April 2019. Now, despite a slight change in the plans, the brewery's first beer is set to be released.

Launching Arizona's first Black-owned brewery

Tyler Smith holds a beer on Nov. 9, 2020, at Simple Machine Brewing Company in Phoenix. Smith is renting space inside the brewery to make his first beers for his new brewery, Kitsune Brewing Co.

Kitsune Brewing Company, as far as Smith and the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild are aware, is the state's first Black-owned brewery. Smith hopes it will be the first of many.

"There's a slight stigma that Black people aren't really craft beer drinkers," Smith says. "So my goal is just to say, 'hey, we are out there and there's a new seat at the table.'"

Smith jumped on the opportunity to brew a beer with the Black is Beautiful project because of the recognition he was seeing within the craft beer community, he says. 

"Black is Beautiful showed the brewing community is thinking about me and it was the first time it was acknowledged," he says of himself and fellow Black brewers. "And when we want representation, sometimes we have to open our own spots."

So that's exactly what he set out to do. Smith hopes Kitsune Brewing Company will be a voice for diversity in brewing across the board, he says, supporting and promoting female and Latino brewers as well. 

"It's another cool step to hearing voices that aren't always heard," Smith says. "As the rise of craft beer grows, we're opening that door to show there is room for everybody."

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