Copyright © 2019 American Chemical Society. Isobutene is a specialty chemical used in the production of fuel additives, polymers, and other high-value products. While normally produced by steam cracking of petroleum naphtha, there is increasing interest in identifying routes to synthesizing isobutene from biomass-derived compounds, such as ethanol and acetone. Recent work has shown that zinc-zirconium mixed oxides are effective and selective catalysts for producing isobutene from ethanol. However, the reaction pathway, the roles of acidic and basic sites, and the role of water in promoting stability and selectivity are not yet clearly defined. In this study, a series of zinc-zirconium mixed oxides with tunable acid-base properties were synthesized and characterized with XRD, Raman spectroscopy, BET, CO2-TPD, NH3-TPD, and IR DRIFTS of adsorbed pyridine in order to probe the roles of acid and base sites for each step in the ethanol-to-isobutene reaction pathway. The observed reaction kinetics, supported by modeling of these kinetics, suggest that the reaction of ethanol to isobutene proceeds via a five-step sequence. Ethanol first undergoes dehydrogenation to acetaldehyde, which is then oxidized to acetic acid. This product undergoes ketonization to produce acetone, which dimerizes to form diacetone alcohol. The latter product either decomposes directly to isobutene and acetic acid or produces these products by dehydration to mesityl oxide and subsequent hydrolysis. The acetic acid formed undergoes ketonization to produce additional acetone. The dispersion of zinc oxide on zirconia was found to produce a balance between Lewis acidic and basic sites that prevent the loss of ethanol via dehydration to ethylene and promote the cascade reactions of ethanol and acetone to isobutene. Water, while inhibiting both isobutene and mesityl oxide formation, improves isobutene selectivity by suppressing side reactions such as unimolecular dehydration, acetone decomposition, and deactivation due to coke formation.